Canberra, August 19: how the tap came off in their hands

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Canberra, August 19: how the tap came off in their hands

By Peter Boyle

The August 19 rallies called by the ACTU were meant to be a controlled demonstration of union and community support for the ALP's plan to amend the Howard government's Workplace Relations Bill in the Senate. The top union bureaucrats meant this as a mass lobbying exercise aimed primarily at the Democrat senators, whose support was considered critical to this modest immediate agenda.

"What we wanted to do was to point out to the Democrats and the other members of the Senate that it was important to defeat aspects of the legislation which were going to affect workers and their families", NSW Labour Council secretary Peter Sams explained on Radio 2BL on August 22.

It was an objective that clearly failed to inspire a good majority of the 25,000 people who gathered outside Parliament, especially on the eve of the Coalition government's first budget. All the bluster and the cowardly — and blatantly dishonest — finger-pointing of the ACTU leaders in the days after August 19 cannot erase the fact, captured by hundreds of cameras, that the majority of protesters were more interested in expressing their own anger about the Howard government than listening to the timid speeches on the official platform.

They converged on the entrance to Parliament House, shouting, "The workers united will never be defeated!", "Liberals out!" and "This is our house, let us in!". They lined the hill above Parliament House several deep and climbed onto the roof of the so-called "temple of democracy" to festoon it with union banners, the Aboriginal flag, the Eureka flag and the red flag of militant workers.

It was an inspiring sight for most people who were there, but ACTU president Jennie George was in tears over the "violence". It was also an inspiration for many more, around Australia and abroad, who watched it on TV — at least to those not taken in by the hype about "un-Australian violence", "bloodstained marble floors" and "trampled democracy".

Before the rally, the union tops probably felt confident of their plans. After all, they had turned the tap of protest on and off before in Victoria, when the Kennett Coalition government first came into office in 1991. Then a series of controlled but essentially token protests were used to dissipate mass anger at Kennett's job cuts, school closures and service cuts. Frustrated and eventually demoralised workers were told to vote for the ALP in the next elections.

The ACTU preparations for the August 19 "Cavalcade to Canberra" betrayed their intentions. Calls from union militants for strike action on the day to enable more workers to attend were fended off. Transport to Canberra was poorly organised apart from some exceptional efforts by a few unions. But if this was meant to keep the protest a token show of force, it backfired. Workers, students, Aborigines and community activists turned August 19 into a demonstration of their own.

ALP leader Kim Beazley conceded that there were two demonstrations on the day, but he lies about their respective sizes.

"One was 15,000 people from mainstream Australia who listened quietly and calmly to a group of speakers from the Catholic Church, the Uniting Church, all sides of politics bar the Liberals. There's a group of 500 who moved off and attacked Parliament with such lamentable consequences", Beazley was quoted in the August 20 Daily Telegraph.

When Beazley was speaking on the official platform he was clearly addressing a minority of the crowd, as this correspondent and many others can testify.

Minority radical elements?

The Australian Federal Police have also blamed a small radical minority for hijacking the rally. In particular, former members of the old Builders Labourers Federation (deregistered under the ALP government for bucking the ALP-ACTU Accord), now members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the socialist youth organisation Resistance and "militant Aboriginal groups" were named as the culprits.

Several union leaders have picked up this slander. The September 3 Bulletin reports that Stan Sharkey, national secretary of the CFMEU, blames members of Resistance for manipulating a violent situation. It's not the first time Sharkey has slandered socialists: old Stalinist habits die hard. But he is also insulting many militant members of his own union who were well represented in the front ranks of the protest, acting freely and in their own interests.

The police have begun to arrest CFMEU members who were at the rally. Will Sharkey and other CFMEU leaders defend their own members? Or will they follow Peter Sams' call for militant unionists like these to be "identified and rooted out of the union movement"?

Wendy Caird, joint national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, was also quoted in the Bulletin article as blaming Resistance and similar groups with a "habit of trying to hijack demonstrations". But much of the mass frustration at the Canberra rally was caused by Caird's leadership of the CPSU, which has blocked efforts to respond to Howard's 30,000 public sector job cuts with a serious industrial campaign. The CPSU leaders even opposed calls for a one-day public service strike on August 19.

Wendy Robertson, a spokesperson for Resistance interviewed by the Bulletin, denies the accusations.

"This was an unplanned expression of anger against Howard's attacks by thousands of workers, Aborigines and students. We had about 100 members there, and many of us joined the large numbers who converged on Parliament House. We know that getting into Parliament House wouldn't have stopped the Liberals, but like the rest of the demonstrators we wanted to make the point, strongly, that we rejected Howard's systematic violence against the community.

"Resistance is a political organisation that fights for the interests of young people and all the oppressed and exploited. We weren't seeking confrontation or violence, but the police violently denied us entry to what was supposed to be our house. Many more protesters were hurt by police than the much reported police casualties. They had shields, helmets and batons, and they used them."

A few union officials have had the courage to speak the truth. NSW South Coast Labour Council secretary Paul Matters told the Bulletin that the siege was an expression of the level of anger in the community, which was underestimated by governments and unions. Matters, who was involved in the latest action and a 1982 siege of Parliament House by steelworkers from Wollongong, predicted more confrontation.

Doug Cameron, the secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, was quoted in the August 20 Australian saying that more anger would be inevitable if the government continued to lie to the people and introduced the budget cuts.

20-year setback?

Peter Sams, a Labor right-winger, says that the August 19 incident "set the union movement back 20 years", but his assessment is disputed from the left. John Percy, the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party, told Green Left Weekly that the opposite was the case.

"It was the disastrous and traitorous course that Sams, Bill Kelty and other union leaders set for the union movement, especially over the previous 13 years of Labor government, that set the movement back 20 years or more. The August 19 breakout by thousands of workers from this straitjacket was part of the fight to stop the retreat.

"Sure it was only a symbolic break from the ALP straitjacket, but it's one that has inspired many militants to continue with the hard but necessary struggle to rid the union movement of ALP domination.

"The movement has to do this to stop the Howard offensive against our rights and living standards because it is after all only a deepening of the attacks begun under the previous ALP government. The ALP sold 'sacrifice for profits' to the unions; they introduced enterprise bargaining, privatised the Commonwealth Bank, cut back thousands of jobs and reduced welfare and other public services."

But will the mass media's narrow focus on the "violence" of August 19 put off many workers from joining future protests and discredit the militants?

"Undoubtedly, some workers will fall for the media's hypocritical and distorted presentation of the incident, but perhaps not as many as some might believe", says Percy. "The Morgan poll commissioned by the Bulletin found 79% believe public demonstrations should be allowed even if there is a risk of violence, and only a minority blamed so-called 'fringe radical elements' for what violence there was on August 19.

"The more sobering polls are the ones that show that most Australians believe that while the budget will hurt, they hope it would be good for the economy. This is sad but understandable, because the ALP and most union leaders have been forcing this idea on workers for over a decade. No wonder the polls show that 60% don't believe that an ALP government would have presented a better budget."

Percy said that winning a majority of workers "to the idea that we don't have to sacrifice our social rights so that the corporate rich can make even bigger profits, is going to take hard work. We'll start by winning a growing minority and then help organise that minority to win over the majority. That's the socialist project today.

"August 19 signalled to us and other militants that we have many potential allies out there, and the ALP and the labour bureaucrats have got bigger problems than they imagined".