The 50,000-strong Canberra rally


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The significance of last month’s rally in Canberra has been drowned in moral effluvia by the media and politicians. Peter Reith [Industrial Relations Minister] dismissed the rally as a ‘stunt’, but in reality he was terrified that 50,000 people travelled to the hitherto sacrosanct ‘capital hill’ to show their disgust with his government.

Rallies like this can show the enormous potential strength of workers. They are a force capable of sweeping aside this rotten government of liars and thieves. Although the rally took place outside federal parliament, for one day the centre of gravity of politics was shifted to the workers themselves. WeÊneed to make that a permanent arrangement. There can be no doubt that the August 19 rally was a significant and inspiring event. Up to 50,000 people travelled from the length and breadth of the continent to vent their anger. They did so at considerable personal cost and inconvenience, and regardless of the fact that the ACTU had not called a general strike for the day.

I arrived in Canberra early in the morning just as a radial march was setting off towards parliament house. It turned out to be a contingent of around 1000 workers, mostly from the Ford plant at Broadmeadows in Melbourne, but with others from places such as ACI Spotswood and even Melbourne University.

It was icy cold, for the thermometer had dropped to below minus three degrees during the night and there was a frigid wind blowing off Lake Burley Griffin. But, cold as it was, nothing could freeze the enthusiasm and determination of these workers who had travelled through the night to be there.


There were Turks and Greeks side by side. There were Anglo-Australians and Italians. There were Spaniards and Latin Americans and Filipinos and no small number of Vietnamese; it was a veritable cross section of the multi-ethnic Australian working class. There were young and old, men and women and when I saw them flinging their defiance at those rotten bastards up the road I must confess that tears of pride sprang into my eyes. I felt the truth of the battle cry, ‘the workers, united, will never be defeated!’ Regardless of gender, race, age or ethnic origin, trade or calling, we were united in our desire to maintain our living standards, our basic rights, our dignity — and a future for our children.

‘WHAT DO WE WANT?’ demanded a big shop steward with an army greatcoat and a shock of frizzy hair; he didn’t need a megaphone. ‘HOWARD’S HEAD!’ was the thunderous reply. ‘WHEN DO WE WANT IT?’ demanded the big worker. ‘NOW!’ we chorused. ‘HOW DO WE FEEL?’ he asked. ‘PISSED OFF!’ was the angry retort.


Cars, buses and trucks tooted as we crossed into the parliamentary precinct. It got colder, but there was hot food waiting in the windswept car park that acted as an assembly point. Soon thousands upon thousands of others were pouring in. Thus it was throughout a long day. With fists clenched, banners on high and flags fluttering, we converged on the national parliament.

Over there was the big red banner of the Wagga Wagga Trades and Labour Council. There were steelworkers from Newcastle and Port Kembla, nurses from Brisbane, clerks from Innisfail and public servants from the Blue Mountains. There were storemen and packers from Parramatta, shop assistants from Albury, seafarers and wharfies, black coal miners from Queensland and hard rock miners from Tasmania. There were even contingents from far-off Perth.

Yes, even Bill Kelty [ACTU Secretary] had an inkling of the significance of that vast human sea. Sure, there have been bigger turn-outs in individual cities, but this was a national demonstration, with the participants travelling huge distances to get there.


Meanwhile, much has been made of the storming of parliament house by a section of the crowd. What the moralists in the bourgeois press and parliament don’t say is that it all began when SWAT squad police bashed a young aboriginal and tried to prevent marchers from joining the main rally. They were ‘seen off’ as a result and people thought, well, why don’t we keep going and get into that bloody parliament? The ‘violence’ happened before parliament was stormed.

I certainly don’t intend to add my voice to the screams of moral outrage coming from the likes of Howard and Kennett. These hypocrites profess to hate violence, but do you ever hear them condemn the police when they baton down pickets at places like ACI or Richmond? Not bloody likely — they order them to do it!

Instead of wringing their hands and threatening to expel people from the movement, the ACTU should put the blame where it belongs — on this vicious bunch of liars who sit on the treasury benches and legislate away our rights and conditions.


Johnny Howard’s gang have broken just about every positive pre-election promise. Their budget is sheer bloody-minded brutality against the poor, the workers and even the middle class, and will destroy the lives of countless battlers. It will consign millions to poverty and despair — not least the indigenous peoples who have been treated with a racism and arrogance that is a disgrace to so-called civilised society. All the talk of a ‘mandate’ is so much hot air.

Small wonder that people are incandescent with rage. The budget and the IR Bill add up to an enormous assault on the working people. The idea is to drive us back to the conditions of the Great Depression, or even back to those of the 1890s.

People are also angry and frustrated at forever fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The ACTU’s campaign has been at best half-hearted. They tell people to put their faith in the opposition parties in the Senate, but they can’t be listening to what even they say, because the ALP says the IR Bill will become law this year.


The ACTU strategy is fundamentally flawed. In reality there will be no ‘saviour from on high to deliver us’, no last minute reprieve because the cavalry won’t come charging over the parliamentary hill to our rescue.

The constant message I got from people at the rally was that, yes, all this was fine and wonderful, but there should have been a general strike on the day. And yes, we need to keep up an industrial campaign until we either block the bill, or bring down the government. The ACTU leaders should take notice of what the workers are saying and not pin everything on ‘respectable public opinion’ as manufactured in the bosses’ media. Do they honestly think that workers can get a fair deal from the big business media? From Conrad Black, ‘Goanna’ Packer and Rupert Murdoch?

The message, dear Jennie George and Bill Kelty, is that we demand to take the government on — and on our terms. You spend a lot of time pontificating. Listen for change. Listen to those Ford workers; ‘How do we feel?’ they were asked. ‘Pissed off’ was their reply. Too bloody right we are, and not just with the government.

By a Militant reporter

Originally published in the September 1996 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.

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