By Stephen Robson, Anthony Benbow and Leon Harrison
PERTH — Backed by Perth's daily West Australian, the Lawrence government has launched a concerted campaign to marginalise opposition to the controversial development of the old Swan Brewery site. In fact, opposition to the development is widespread, as even the press have been forced to admit.
The a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock got wide applause when they indicated their support for the brewery protest at their August 27 concert.
Police broke through protesters' picket lines on August 26, a week after the state Industrial Commission ordered unions to lift work bans. Aboriginal protesters and their supporters had mobilised in force after the Industrial Commission ruling. The area includes an Aboriginal sacred site.
On the afternoon of August 25, police erected barricades at the brewery car park, and early next morning more than 60 police mobilised at the site. Serious injuries were threatened when a convoy of paddy wagons attempted to drive into the picketers. Several arrests and other police harassment followed.
Violence had been predicted by the West Australian the day prior to the police action, and the day after the clash it claimed that protesters had incited the clashes. But clearly the picket was peaceful, and the violence came entirely from the police.
With this assistance, the developer, Multiplex, succeeded in getting some workers into the area. But while work has begun on the proposed restaurant
and theatre complex, Multiplex still faces a lot of opposition.
Ironically, looking for a populist base to disguise its unpalatable agenda, the Liberal-National opposition has indicated its opposition to the development and has called for the site to be turned into parkland. The Liberals moved a censure motion against heritage minister Jim McGinty over the brewery deal.
Prominent in opposition to the development has been the WA branch of the Construction, Mining and Energy Workers Union (CMEU). But the union has been forced to modify its stand under duress from the Industrial Commission.
A combined mass meeting of the CMEU and the Amalgamated Electrical, Electronic, Foundry and Engineering Union voted narrowly on August 24 to comply with the August 19 Industrial Commission order to end work bans at the brewery site.
The commission's directive went well beyond the brewery development to outlaw industrial action at any other Multiplex site. A ban on union officials attending the site even outside working hours was included. Deregistration was threatened if the bans were maintained.
Fears were expressed at the meeting that the unions could suffer similar consequences to the Airline Pilots Federation. Finally, after a division, the vote was carried 278 to 243.
An earlier mass meeting on July 8 had defeated a motion to lift work bans by 280 votes to about 20.
There has also been a concerted attempt to discredit Aboriginal opponents of the development. But long-time opponents of the brewery-site plans, Robert Bropho and Clarrie Isaacs, have enormous support and respect for the stand they have taken.
On August 26, the federal Labor member for the seat of Kalgoorlie, Graeme Campbell, bussed a group of Aborigines to the brewery site from as far afield as Mullewa, Wiluna and Albany. They turned up shortly before police began to assist construction workers to break the picket line. Costs for the transportation, food and accommodation were estimated at more than $10,000.
Campbell put his foot in it when he admitted publicly what was widely suspected — that Multiplex had helped fund the whole episode.
Not surprisingly, none of the companies funding the stunt were keen to talk. Multiplex boss John Roberts is reportedly overseas and no-one else would comment. A large WA mining company had also donated funds on condition that it remained a secret.
Aboriginal affairs minister Judyth Watson quickly ducked for cover in state parliament, denying knowledge of the stunt.
Sheila Suttner, a former resident of South Africa and a prominent opponent of apartheid, labelled the attempt to divide Aboriginal activists the "Buthelezi option".
"How horrifying to see that the same tactics that have been used in the land of my birth are being used in my adopted land to dispossess the indigenous people who asked for nothing for themselves, other than the protection of a sacred site and the preservation of their cultural heritage", she told Green Left Weekly.