NSW Labor Council fails to split peace movement



SYDNEY — A concerted campaign by the NSW Labor Council has not yet succeeded in splitting the peace movement in Sydney. The campaign, which was applauded by the pro-war Murdoch press, shifted into high gear in the lead-up to the April 2 student protest, as the Labor Council demanded that the Walk Against the War Coalition (WAW) meeting on March 31 condemn the March 26 Books Not Bombs student protest.

A Labor Council press release fuelled media speculation about a split in the peace movement and possible expulsions at this meeting, so it was not surprising that 120 people turned up. Activists from local peace groups and the refugees' rights and solidarity movements attended to support the students, as did Keysar Trad from the Lebanese Muslim Association. An extraordinary number of union delegates, who don't normally come to WAW meetings, attended.

After a failed attempt to stop students from reporting on March 26, Simon Butler from Books Not Bombs and Rashmi Kumar from Students Against War (SAW) were finally allowed to speak. Describing the heavy-handed police behaviour at the March 26 protest, they asked for support for the April 2 protest. In contrast, Tim Chapman from the NSW National Union of Students criticised the other two organisations for shirking their “duty of care” on March 26.

Butler, Kumer, and later Tara Povey from SAW, urged unity in the anti-war movement. They argued that they learned a number of lessons from March 26 — including organising a better marshalling team and developing more of a program. They were working flat out, they explained, to make sure that the April 2 protest was peaceful. They also reported on support from parents, unionists, community workers, legal workers and others to act as “peace monitors”.

A motion condemning the students was moved by Phil Davey, an organiser for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who is currently seconded as a full-time worker for WAW. His motion was designed to isolate Books Not Bombs, other student anti-war organisations and the left of the peace movement. It blamed Books not Bombs for a “serious failure of its duty of care” on March 26 and called on Books Not Bombs to cancel the April 2 student protest.

The motion was seconded by the CFMEU’s Dave McElrea, who said his union would leave the WAW Coalition if the motion wasn't passed.

An alternative motion calling for support for the students' right to protest, moved by WAW co-convener Nick Everett, a member of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), was supported by local peace group activists and many others concerned about the threat to freedom of speech and assembly. After much debate, the CFMEU motion was passed 55 to 45, with two of the three WAW conveners voting against it.

Several motions supporting the students, while cautioning the organisers on tactics were not put to the meeting. One was moved by Greens MLC-elect Sylvia Hale, who also explained that her party opposed removing any organisation from the WAW Coalition. Pointing to the extreme right-wing media provocation, she said, “Now is not the time to go weak at the knees”.

“There's no-one in this room who doesn't regret the way [March 26] was played up in the media”, she argued, adding that while students have to learn from the protest it was the WAW's responsibility to support the whole peace movement.

The Greens' motion called on the WAW Coalition to “strongly encourage the organisers of the proposed April 2 rally to make a clear public statement that they are committed to a peaceful and orderly rally and will ensure that sufficient marshals, police liaison and medical support are provided; call for the organisers of the proposed April 2 rally to consider passive forms of protest (e.g. die-in) instead of a march, in order to offset expected police tactics; and promote through the coalition sponsoring organisation the April 2 rally organisers' call for more volunteer marshals and other support to ensure that the protest is conducted peacefully.”

Phil Bradley from the NSW Teachers Federation spoke to a separate motion, which was also never put, that argued for “continued unity”. He said that he “did not condone the violence perpetrated by small groups of students”, but that the WAW should “support students who have taken an anti-war stance”. He said that the union supported “the rights of students to protest peacefully” and called on WAW to “urge the police to issue a permit for the April 2 student rally and for its organisers to comply with all conditions thereon”.

In summing up the arguments for the CFMEU motion, which blamed the DSP and Resistance for “manipulating students”, Amanda Tattersall from the NSW Labor Council apparently missed the irony of appealing for all WAW affiliates to work together.

Everett said that he agreed with all motions supporting the students' right to protest and suggestions for a peaceful protest, but added that he strongly deplored the CFMEU motion which “put three organisations on trial”. He appealed to WAW to encourage, not disenfranchise, the upcoming generation of youth leaders.

The CFMEU motion came in response to a March 27 NSW Labor Council resolution which condemned “those organisations responsible for the violence” at the March 26 Books Not Bombs protest.

Incredibly, the Labor Council motion did not mention the police violence on March 26, not even the detention of students for three to four hours on the street. The motion convicted the student protest organisers of “violence” without a shred of evidence.

Labor Council secretary John Robertson's campaign in the media, echoed by the NSW Premier Bob Carr, to try to scare people away from supporting the students was only partially successful, however. Up to 1500 people came out to support the April 2 protest — including students, veteran peace movement activists, parents, grannies, “aunties for peace” and community activists.

[Pip Hinman is an activist in the Walk Against the War Coalition and a member of the DSP national executive.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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