The rise of the mass anti-nuclear movement

Issue 

Picture

The rise of the mass anti-nuclear movement

By Greg Adamson

In the early 1980s, a new anti-nuclear peace movement arose in Australia. Building on the mass protests against the mining and exporting of uranium in the late '70s, over the next half decade the new movement drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

The movement closely followed international events. The election of arch-conservative US President Ronald Reagan gave the green light for new militaristic programs, including the Strategic Defence Initiative ("Star Wars"). Another development was the upgrading of nuclear-armed missiles across Europe.

The US government made it clear it was seriously considering engaging in a first strike against the Soviet Union, involving "limited" nuclear weapons based in Europe. Millions of Europeans marched against this project, generating a strong anti-war sentiment.

The first sign that this sentiment was echoed in Australia was a People for Nuclear Disarmament meeting of more than 1000 people in Melbourne on October 21, 1981, around the theme "Act for survival: stop the nuclear arms race". The movement gained national prominence in April 1982, when Palm Sunday marches around the country drew 100,000 people.

From the beginning, the movement had to deal with a debate over the issue of "unilateralism" versus "multilateralism". According to the former, Australia should unilaterally renounce any association with nuclear war preparations. These included uranium mining and export, US military bases, visits by US nuclear-armed or -powered warships and nuclear-armed planes, and ongoing development of a nuclear capacity at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney.

Unilateralism had been the goal of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s and early '60s. The mass European campaigns of the 1980s for removal of US nuclear missiles, and New Zealanders' stand against nuclear ship visits in the mid-1980s, were unilateralist.

Multilateralism, on the other hand, called on nuclear powers to negotiate as a prelude to nuclear disarmament. Unilateral disarmament was opposed, and demands such as "Disarm East and West" were advocated. This position removed any requirement for the Australian government to take steps beyond encouraging international negotiations.

Debate in the movement

In general, multilateralism was advocated by supporters of the Labor Party. It removed the requirement for the government to take any measures against the ANZUS nuclear alliance, while applauding the government for condemning nuclear war in international forums.

A related question was the role of the Soviet Union in the "arms race". Some supporters of unilateralism pointed out that the US led every major development in the nuclear arms race, including the atomic bomb, the intercontinental bomber, the hydrogen bomb, the nuclear submarine, the submarine-launched ballistic missile, the neutron bomb and cruise missiles.

The first Palm Sunday demonstrations in 1982 officially had a predominantly multilateralist character. They did not demand the closing of US bases, an identified link in US nuclear war preparations. However, many who joined the demonstrations had no such qualms: banners opposing US military bases in Australia and other specific demands were carried alongside the official, less specific "Stop the nuclear arms race" banners.

The issue came to a head at a meeting of the Nuclear Disarmament Coordinating Committee in Sydney on September 27 to plan for the 1983 Palm Sunday rally. While a wide range of organisations had been invited to the meeting, its predominantly Labor Party leaders prevented groups with a unilateralist perspective, including the Socialist Workers Party (now the Democratic Socialist Party), the Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean, and the pro-Soviet Young Socialist League, from affiliating.

At the time, the Labor Party was preparing to dump its anti-uranium mining position in preparation for winning the 1983 federal election.

A similar debate was taking place in Melbourne. The People for Nuclear Disarmament general meeting in October decided to focus on US bases in Australia, uranium mining and nuclear activity in the Pacific at the 1983 Palm Sunday rally. In November, this was amended to make "Disarmament Now, East and West" the main demand.

Internationally, the movement was beginning to have an impact. December 1982 was the third anniversary of the NATO decision to deploy 464 ground-launched cruise missiles and 108 Pershing II missiles in Europe. To mark the anniversary, 30,000 women formed a human chain around the Greenham Common air base in England.

The 1983 Palm Sunday turnout was more than 150,000, including 60,000 in Sydney, 70,000 in Melbourne, 15,000 in Perth and 10,000 in Adelaide. Attendance was boosted by concern at Reagan's announced plan to ignore the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union and proceed with Star Wars.

As the US nuclear war threat grew, the movement's demands became clearer. On July 2-3, 1983, a meeting in Canberra of 52 organisations set the demands for the 1984 Palm Sunday rallies. These were: opposition to US bases in Australia, bans on US warships and planes, an end to uranium mining and exports, and for a nuclear-free zone in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The meeting rejected a call by the Sydney-based Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament for the "internationalisation" of the US bases. As the meeting was proceeding, a demonstration of 10,000 took place in Perth against visiting US war ships.

Labor government

Recently elected Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke had stated that ANZUS pact commitments to US bases, port facilities for US ships and facilities for B-52 bombers in northern Australia would be maintained. This view was reinforced by the cabinet's adoption in August 1983 of "The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy". The document, leaked to the National Times several months later, gave unqualified support for US war policies and their Cold War ideological underpinnings.

Hiroshima Day that month, which mobilised 26,000 demonstrators across Australia, demanded an end to uranium mining and US bases, and the diversion of military spending to jobs programs.

As Hawke's government moved to the right on the issues of uranium and US war ties, opposition began to grow within the ALP. In January 1984, 270 delegates to the national Labor Women conference criticised US military bases and the export of uranium to France. Hawke presented his keynote address facing a banner stating "Labor Women say NO to uranium mining".

Palm Sunday in 1984 was the largest national protest action in Australian history: 150,000 in Sydney, 100,000 in Melbourne, 25,000 in Perth, 10,000 in Brisbane and Adelaide, 5000 in Canberra and Hobart, and protests in many regional centres.

The government responded by releasing a series of "independent" studies. In late May, the Australian Science and Technology Council released a report on uranium exports which advanced the silly but still argued position that exporting uranium allows Australia to use its influence to discourage nuclear weapons proliferation.

The following week, Hawke reported that the US military bases "cannot be used to make war on any other country", because "There are no combat personnel there or combat equipment there, no military stores or workshops, no plant or machinery or laboratories for research, development, production or maintenance of any weapons or combat systems of any type".

Of course none of these things would be at the US bases; their role is to form part of a worldwide spy network and to convey orders for general and nuclear warfare.

Foreign minister Bill Hayden joined in the "newspeak" effort in mid-June. While France exploded nuclear devices in the Pacific on June 12 and 16, and Hayden issued a condemnation of these, he also said that Australia should fulfill its existing uranium contracts with France.

The Labor leaders' preparations culminated in the ALP national conference decision to drop the no uranium mining policy in favour of continuing mining at three mines. Opposition at a number of ALP state conferences beforehand prevented the removal of all limits on uranium exports. Throughout the debate, 1000 anti-uranium protesters occupied the lobbies of the conference site.

For the mining industry, the ALP's open support for three mines, including the huge Roxby Downs mine in SA, was a major victory, guaranteeing continued Australian participation in the nuclear fuel cycle.

As Australian Labor was confirming its commitment to the nuclear fuel cycle and the ANZUS treaty, in New Zealand a Labour government was elected on a platform that included barring nuclear warships.

Nuclear Disarmament Party

This conflict in the second half of 1984 between the mass opposition to uranium mining and nuclear war and the Hawke government plans to export uranium and actively participate in US nuclear war preparations led to the strongest challenge yet to the Liberal-Labor duopoly, which had dominated Australian politics since World War II — the formation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party.

On June 17, 1984, at the initiative of Canberra doctor Michael Denborough, a meeting of 70 people voted to form the NDP. Its goals were drawn from the demands of the Palm Sunday marches: no foreign nuclear bases, no nuclear weapons in Australian territory and a halt to the mining and export of uranium.

It faced a daunting task and opposition from nearly every existing political party in Australia, but it captured the imagination of millions of Australians in the few months between its formation and the December 1984 federal election.

[This is the seventh in 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.]