The rise and undermining of anti-nuclear political action

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Picture

The rise and undermining of anti-nuclear political action

By Greg Adamson

Anti-nuclear forces in the Pacific region suffered two significant onslaughts in 1985. In April in Australia, an unholy alliance united to attack the young Nuclear Disarmament Party. In New Zealand, which was already in dispute with the US over nuclear ship visits, French secret service agents blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in July, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. The Rainbow Warrior had been engaged in a battle against French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

These two blows reflected the anti-nuclear movement's significant influence by the mid-1980s. Both the Rainbow Warrior and the Nuclear Disarmament Party were responses to the rapid plunge of international politics towards nuclear disaster. Drawing mass popular support, they had also made rich and powerful enemies.

NDP demands

The Nuclear Disarmament Party was formed in June 1984, around the demands of the Palm Sunday rallies, which earlier that year had been attended by 300,000 people. These were:

Picture1. To close all foreign military bases in Australia.

2. To prohibit the stationing in Australia, or the passage through Australian waters or airspace, of any nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered warships.

3. To terminate immediately all mining and export of uranium, and to repudiate all commitments by previous governments to the mining, processing or export of uranium.

After its formation in Canberra, founder Michael Denborough travelled to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Hobart, Alice Springs and Adelaide to initiate NDP branches. The last of these was formed only two weeks before the December 1984 federal elections.

Formation of the NDP occurred as heightened concern about the nuclear threat coincided with a right-wing militarist shift by the Australian Labor Party national leadership under Bob Hawke.

This sentiment was expressed at an August 9 meeting in Sydney, when 3500 people heard speakers from a range of anti-nuclear organisations, including famous author Patrick White speaking on behalf of the NDP, of which he was a member. The meeting passed a resolution of unanimous support for the New Zealand government for declaring the country nuclear free, and called on the Australian government to do likewise.

PictureBy October, NDP branches were forming across the country, in regional centres such as Newcastle and Wollongong as well as in the capital cities. High-profile members included former ALP senator Jean Melzer in Victoria and Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett. Midnight Oil had featured at several anti-nuclear concerts throughout the year, including a February "Stop the Drop" anti-bases and anti-uranium concert in Adelaide attended by 8000 people.

The Australian Democrats were in panic. One Democrat senator on national television described the NDP's appearance as "effrontery". The Democrats, who had no involvement in social movements but claimed to represent them in parliament, had hoped to renew their parliamentary representation through disillusionment with the ALP over nuclear issues.

The Democrats were less that clear in their own approach. In a survey of parties dated October 17 and circulated by the Democrats themselves, on support for the ANZUS treaty they answered: "Yes. Non-nuclear." This ignored the fact that the ANZUS treaty was nuclear, as shown when New Zealand refused to accept US warship visits and was shown the door.

ALP multilateralism

Labor left figures desperately appealed to their supporters not to leave the party, even though the NDP was presenting a realistic and practical alternative to Hawke's support for the US nuclear war plans. The ALP sent Bill Hayden on an international trip for nuclear disarmament.

"We have embarked", he told Australian media on his return in November, "on a series of activities designed to bring [a nuclear test ban] treaty into life — at the United Nations, in Geneva, and in major capitals such as Washington and Moscow".

On November 22 Hawke told the Sydney Morning Herald that he "was prepared to act as a go-between in arms control talks between the US and the Soviets", even if they hadn't asked him.

This multilateral position, calling for all governments to disarm, without taking any steps, can be used as a cover for an increase in arms. Unilateralism, on the other hand, demands that one's own government disarm, independently of what any other country does.

The beauty of multilateralism for the Labor government was that it could issue empty statements and then pretend that the reason it was continuing with its own nuclear weapons support was because other countries weren't disarming.

This is why the unilateralist anti-nuclear movement in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s was so important, because it explained that no-one could win a nuclear war and campaigned for unilateral disarmament by Britain. Similarly, the power of the NDP's campaign was that it fought to end an Australian role in nuclear war preparations and the nuclear fuel cycle.

The NDP drew its support from across the political spectrum, including members and supporters of all political parties. As expected, its anti-nuclear positions drew a hostile response from leaders of both the traditional conservative parties and the Labor Party.

Among smaller parties, the response was mixed. The Democrats saw their own ground slipping away. The Greens, who were then just beginning to develop in Australia, mainly adopted a disinterested approach. The largest party of the Australian left, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), maintained its traditional allegiance to the Labor Party. The CPA's paper Tribune called for a vote for Labor, although many CPA members supported the NDP. Most smaller left parties and groups called for a Labor vote.

Socialist support for NDP

Alone among the left parties, the Socialist Workers Party (now the Democratic Socialist Party), along with the allied youth organisation Resistance, supported the Nuclear Disarmament Party. This support was open and up front.

Direct Action, newspaper of the SWP and Resistance, announced in its November 21 issue that its entire staff had joined the NDP. In many cities, the efforts of SWP and Resistance members in building, publicising and supporting the new party gave the NDP the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of previously uncommitted people. Some of these SWP members also joined the NDP, while others didn't.

At the time, this was not an issue. The NDP was open to everyone supporting its aims, and actively encouraged members of other political parties to join in supporting this issue, which cut across many traditional political allegiances. SWP members within the NDP, such as one of the Queensland Senate candidates, were open about their SWP membership.

Picture
The SWP took a position of support for the NDP after the July 1984 ALP federal conference. While the SWP was later to be accused of attempting to impose its socialist views on the NDP, SWP leader Jim Percy described the party's approach in an October 1984 report, sold publicly as The ALP, The Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Elections:

"We think it would be a big mistake for the NDP to rapidly take positions on other issues. It would cut it off from growing, from winning more forces. It could divide and destroy it ... That doesn't mean we're against a discussion in the NDP on other issues. That will inevitably begin to happen. But this should be a lengthy discussion, without rushing into votes on what the NDP's position should be on questions other than nuclear disarmament. If such votes are taken, we think it should be after a full and democratic discussion, so that there's as broad an agreement as possible."

The Nuclear Disarmament Party attacked the Hawke government for agreeing to take part in Star Wars-related MX missile trials off the coast of Tasmania, forcing Hawke to back down on February 5, 1985.

It was also attractive to thousands of people who had previous experiences with the undemocratic habits of the Labor Party. Labor leaders since the 1983 victory had broken policy after policy, on uranium mining, on military ties and on a host of other issues. Among the thousands who joined the NDP, a large number wanted to be certain that individual prominent leaders wouldn't hijack policy once in office. This hope for democratic functioning was embodied in the rules of the new party.

The NDP also attracted the support of many famous people. Some of these, such as Patrick White, made their involvement a wholehearted support of the party. Others were more directly involved. Peter Garrett joined to stand as a NSW Senate candidate.

Mass support

By early 1985 the NDP's impact was being felt. In the elections, 642,435 people had cast their primary vote for the NDP, and thousands of members had joined in just a few months. It had won one Senate seat, and nearly won a second. Labor's MX plans had been reversed, as the ALP struggled to win back lost support. A party with no political debts to any established party had emerged.

Media attacks on the party continued unabated. The March 1985 turnout of 300,000 on Palm Sunday, including 170,000 in Sydney, gave notice that the issue was continuing to grow.

By April 1985, the NDP was preparing for a national conference in Melbourne. The NDP had to work out a practical way to approach a wide range of issues, now that it had a parliamentary seat. It also needed to develop an ongoing structure and decision-making process, as well as a policy on how to direct the work of parliamentarians.

The party included a hugely diverse membership. Strong support was gained from the working-class industrial cities of Newcastle and Wollongong to the wealthy Sydney eastern suburbs. Hundreds of experienced and sceptical older political activists rubbed shoulders with enthusiastic and optimistic teenagers.

To forge a single political party from this range required patient, careful building of trust around practical and effective campaigns against the nuclear menace. However, the party's opponents were anything but willing to give the NDP the breathing space it needed. This external pressure was successful in causing a central core of high-profile leaders to doubt the possibility of building the NDP.

The Melbourne conference was not delegated, but was open to any member. This shouldn't have been a problem because the conference was only making recommendations to the national membership, not binding decisions.

There were three highly contentious issues. Firstly, Peter Garrett and Senator-elect Jo Vallentine were firmly set on shifting the party's policy from unilateralism to multilateralism. This took the form of attempting to equate Soviet and US responsibility for the nuclear arms race. This would not necessarily have caused major problems for the party as long as it maintained its focus on opposing Australian involvement in US nuclear war preparations and the nuclear fuel cycle. Nevertheless, it was an inaccurate and unnecessary concession to the US war machine.

The second issue was that of proscription, of forcing those members of other parties who had joined the NDP to cease membership of any other party. This was set for discussion under proposals for a national constitution. The third question was that of ratification of conference decisions.

National conference walkout

One proposal was to send the conference decisions to a postal ballot of members. An alternative was that meetings of members should have the ultimate say. The subsequent media interference in the NDP's affairs was one measure of the danger of a broad new party relying on postal voting, without giving members the opportunity to meet and discuss the issues.

The postal ballot proposal was defeated on a division by 101 votes to 78. At this point Vallentine and Garrett, along with about one-fifth of the conference participants, staged an apparently spontaneous walkout.

In her 1995 book Half-Life, former Senate candidate Gillian Fisher describes the events as one who walked out. A week before the Melbourne conference, she had learned that there would be a walkout if the postal ballot proposal was rejected. She describes how staff in the Sydney office appeared to have been aware of plans to split two weeks earlier than that. An alternative venue had been booked prior to the walkout.

Vallentine issued a letter on April 30 giving two reasons for leaving. First was "the takeover bid of the SWP"; second was her disagreement with decision-making processes of the national executive. She then stated that her primary commitment was to "multilateral disarmament", in contrast to the NDP platform on which she had been elected. This was particularly troubling for many NDP members who had experienced similar policy shifts by ALP leaders disregarding their members.

Most of those who walked out thought they were going to set up another party. This never eventuated.

The leaders of the group went to the media, blaming the Socialist Workers Party. NDP member and former Liberal minister Ted StJohn had been running a campaign against socialists for several weeks. In an April paper favouring proscription, he expressed the view that the problem wasn't a predominance of socialists, but the very existence of left-wing views: "Communists have been and still are the bane of the peace movement, which they have attempted to use for their own purposes, and this remains so even though they are now only a small minority amongst us".

StJohn also proposed a national constitution under which NDP parliamentarians could "vote according to his/her conscience" on any question, including nuclear disarmament.

The Melbourne Age editorial of April 30 ignored the program on which the NDP fought the election to claim: "the party formed to promote general disarmament would inevitably have warped under the influence of the SWP to become an anti-American, unilateral disarmament party".

The April 30 West Australian read: "Senator-elect Jo Vallentine and other NDP leaders did the right thing by walking out of the party's inaugural conference in Melbourne. If the party is to maintain faith with the thousands of Australians who voted for it last year, it has to put as much distance as possible between itself and the Socialist Workers' Party."

After systematically attacking the NDP previously, the Canberra Times commented: "The party suffered a bitter split at the weekend as a group that had infiltrated it set about imposing its brand of left-wing politics on members".

Red-baiting on the left

Unfortunately, Tribune, the paper of the Communist, echoed this view in its May 1 issue: "The NDP was launched as a broad electoral coalition around a single set of issues. It will only remain an effective mass force if it can be re-established as such, free from the interventions of the SWP or anyone else seeking to use it 'for higher ends'."

None of these papers (including Tribune) had supported the Nuclear Disarmament Party during the 1984 elections.

Red-baiting is not a response to something inherently antagonistic about socialism. It is simply a 20th century modification of an age-old system of scapegoating.

After the NDP split, SWP membership became a basis for accusation, as was agreement with the SWP on some position or support for the rights of SWP members within the NDP. SWP members were dehumanised, their views discounted, their motives suspect. Anyone with a grudge against the SWP was accepted as a credible witness.

Some CPA leaders lent "left" credibility to the campaign, attacking the SWP for, among other things, building a highly successful solidarity movement in support of the Nicaraguan revolution.

The largest part in the campaign was played by the Labor Party. Labor leaders understood the risks which they undertook in dumping so much of the party platform in so short a time. The party risked losing not just a large part of its membership, but key sections of its support. Red-baiting was a cheap and effective means for a party which had already disposed of its own heritage of socialist terminology.

The Labor Party's arsenal of dirty tricks had already been shown. On the evening of the federal elections, 30 police had invaded the Adelaide NDP election night party and arrested 12 people who had attended a Roxby Downs protest earlier in the week. This protest had been in opposition to the Labor state government granting a water licence to the mine's management company. In the following months the ALP nationally expelled members who had supported the NDP during the elections.

Looking to the future

After the dust had settled, some things were the same and some were irrevocably changed.

Support for the NDP continued to remain strong for quite some time. A Morgan Gallup poll published in the July 23 Bulletin showed NDP support remained strong at 5%, compared to 7.2% at the time of the 1984 elections; this included 7% in NSW, 5% in Victoria and 4% in South Australia.

The NDP continued to campaign and contest elections. In the following federal elections in 1987, preferences allowed it to win the NSW Senate seat which had eluded it in 1984.

The Peace and Nuclear Disarmament Action (Panda) group formed after the walkout by Vallentine, Garrett and Melzer split at its national meeting on October 19-20, convincingly answering the question of who was responsible for the April NDP split. Garrett participated in the founding discussions of the Rainbow Alliance in August 1986 but had moved on well before that group's demise in 1998.

The splitters were media darlings for a brief moment. But the applause for their red-baiting didn't convert to media support for their subsequent anti-nuclear activities.

In the face of aggressive US nuclear plans, Jo Vallentine returned to an essentially unilateralist disarmament position, later becoming a senator for the WA Greens. Peter Garrett resumed his career as a rock star, speaking out on nuclear issues and the environment, but avoiding any organisations where he had to be responsible to an active membership base.

For the rest of the 1980s the Socialist Workers Party sought left regroupment with several splinters of the original Communist Party of Australia, but was unable to draw any of them back into active socialist politics. (The CPA itself finally perished. The Communist Party of today has no connection to the CPA of that time.) In 1990 the Democratic Socialist Party, as it was now called, achieved a regroupment of sorts by replacing its party newspaper, Direct Action, with support for a broad non-party paper, Green Left Weekly. Today the DSP is the largest and most influential left party in Australia.

Keeping up Labor's attacks, the Victorian ALP state secretary organised forged NDP how-to-vote cards in the Nunawading by-election later in 1985. As police investigated the case, the culprits blamed the SWP.

The Nuclear Disarmament Party continues to this day. Michael Denborough argues convincingly that the threat of nuclear annihilation has not eased, and Australia's involvement in US war plans and the nuclear fuel cycle is as great as ever.

The suspicion created by the walkout and red-baiting campaign is still felt in the left movement nearly a decade and a half later. The rebuilding of a mass anti-nuclear movement will require an understanding that the nuclear warmongers and uranium mining industry and their friends will cheat, lie, sabotage, bribe, intimidate and try to sow dissent among anti-nuclear campaigners. Assuming anything less would be naive, as we fight to end their power to destroy the world.

[This is the conclusion of a series on the history of the anti-nuclear movement. Greg Adamson has been active in the movement since the 1970s and is the author of We All Live on Three Mile Island: the case against nuclear power (Pathfinder Press, 1981). He is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]