Professor Verity Burgmann and Dr Sean Scalmer

Protest movements—sustained expressions of collective disapproval or dissent—emerged as regular episodes in European public life during the 18th century.1 The student of Australian history can discern their presence from the very foundations of European settlement: Aboriginal resistance, convict rebellion, trade union organisation. Although protest has been a persistent feature of Australian history, its activity and significance have often been overlooked. This exhibition records the vibrancy and the import of Australian protest movements since the 1960s. It gives special attention to the place of the University of Melbourne and its students in these turbulent and fascinating events.

The conditions that incited the protests of the 1960s are well known. Post-war Australia was more prosperous than that of earlier years, but beset nonetheless by serious social divisions. Poverty was persistent, if mostly unrecognised. The Australian government pledged commitment to war in Vietnam and conscripted young men for service. Education was extended, but the experience of mass education was often profoundly alienating. In the mid-1960s only 60 per cent of tertiary students graduated; in 1970, 1,000 of the University of Melbourne’s 14,000 students were living below the poverty line. The university’s resources were insufficient, and the reportedly ‘deplorable’ conditions of the Baillieu Library inspired a protest meeting and a night-time demonstration as early as April 1964.2

Opposition to racism inspired the first serious student activism of these years. South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre of 1961 elicited protest, fundraising and a city procession (all mostly ignored by the local press).3University of Melbourne students established a new organisation, Student Action, later that year; its members opposed the racially discriminatory policies of both major political parties at the federal election that soon followed. When Prime Minister Robert Menzies spoke at Kew City Hall, 500 students heckled, sang specially composed songs, and pelted dignitaries with leaflets; two were ejected. Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell received similar treatment, with students disrupting his meetings and attacking his views.4

Outside of elections, Student Action campaigned against the deportation of a Chinese student and in defence of a Scottish man judged too dark to be admitted to Australia (a student placard warned, ‘Mind that Tan—They Might Deport You’). The organisation also pioneered Australian involvement in the anti-apartheid sports boycott. In a speech described in the University of Melbourne student newspaper Farrago as being ‘as stark as the echo of the rifles in Sharpeville’, law lecturer and activist Julian Phillips explained to a University of Melbourne meeting in 1963 why he would not be attending cricket matches involving the visiting South African side. The meeting passed a motion ‘opposing the political aspects of the South African tour’. In 1965 University of Melbourne students also demonstrated at the airport against the arrival of the Springboks rugby team, presaging the hugely significant mobilisations against the same touring team in 1971 that would effectively end formal Australian contact with South African sport of any kind. The racism and discrimination suffered by Aboriginal Australians would also begin to receive increasing attention in these years.5

These protests opposing racism and other social ills were more theatrical and disruptive than any in recent memory. In 1965 women’s liberationists chained themselves to a bar at a hotel in Brisbane to protest against the exclusion of women from public bars and in 1969 used the same method in the Commonwealth Offices in Melbourne, to protest against the repeated failure of the Arbitration Commission to award equal pay for equal work. Monash University students responded to the decision in the mid-1960s to award Premier Henry Bolte an honorary doctorate by staging a ceremony in honour of a pig in the University Council Chambers; in March 1967, to express ‘dismay and disgust’ at the hanging of Ronald Ryan, University of Melbourne students planned a student trial of Bolte for ‘a crime against humanity’, which was prevented by the vice-chancellor.6

Actions of these kinds helped to launch a new era of independent social protest. From the mid-1960s this was centred on opposition to the Vietnam War. University of Melbourne student activist Michael Hamel-Green recalls the impact on him of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam who burnt themselves to death in 1963: ‘It caused me to read about Vietnam and opened my eyes to what was happening there’. After Prime Minister Harold Holt announced on 3 March 1966 an increase in troops for Vietnam, including 500 conscripts, University of Melbourne students staged a sit-down protest at the Moomba Parade. In October, under the leadership of a new anti-war Students Representative Council, they marched down Swanston Street, protesting against conscription. In early February 1968 they assisted in the establishment of Melbourne’s Draft Resistance Movement, which pledged to ‘wreck’, not simply ‘oppose’, conscription. On 30 September 1971 more than a hundred police stormed the barricaded Union House, looking for four draft resisters who had been offered sanctuary by students who had announced they would be operating a pirate radio station from the university. The raid caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, but the four were not among the 200 occupiers, having escaped to Adelaide where they were offered sanctuary at both Adelaide and Flinders universities.7

Many Australians were inspired by the cause of peace and opposed to the compulsion to bear arms, and the growing popularity and momentum of these campaigns stimulated much broader activism. Though the worker–student alliance of radical dreams remained largely elusive, there was often cooperation and mutual respect. In May 1969 University of Melbourne students rallied in defence of Tramways Union official Clarrie O’Shea, who had been gaoled under the penal powers of the Arbitration Court. O’Shea reminisced that workers and studen2)ts came closer together during this struggle. ‘I have greatly admired the revolt of students’, he explained, ‘their daring, their resource’.8

Members of the university collaborated with trade unions in other ways. In late 1970 a Builders Labourers Federation ban on the building of a warehouse on disused railway land in Carlton—land that was subsequently given back to the people of Carlton as the Hardy-Gallagher Park—became the crowning achievement of the Carlton Association. Formed in the late 1960s to protect Carlton from inappropriate commercial and industrial development, this prototype resident action group benefitted from the expertise of University of Melbourne staff in matters legal and architectural.9This successful example of resident activism in alliance with building workers spread to Sydney, where the spectacularly successful green bans movement saved many important environmental and heritage sites from destruction in the name of development.10 Students expressed environmental concern by participating in the green bans movement, joining or founding new groups such as Friends of the Earth, or experimenting in alternative lifestyles on the far north coast of New South Wales following the Aquarius Arts Festival in 1971.

The personal was highly political at this time. From 1970 a Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP)struggled for acceptance of same-sex desire. From 1972 campuses produced the more radical phenomenon of gay liberation. The Gay Liberation Front at the University of Melbourne explained:

Gay Liberation is a freedom movement … Gay Liberation also has a perspective for revolution based on the UNITY OF ALL OPPRESSED PEOPLE. There can be no freedom for gays in a society which enslaves others through male supremacy, racism and economic exploitation (capitalism).11

When a public march in Sydney in 1978 was violently set upon by police, lesbians and gay men defiantly marched again.

In 1981 their repeated claiming of the city’s streets was moved to summertime, and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, as it would become known, became a major public event. In these and other actions, previously private issues were advanced as matters of political argument and collective mobilisation. Activists changed the culture of public life and pressured state and national governments to consider wider reforms.12

Women’s liberationists continued in the 1970s to use unconventional tactics such as street theatre and demonstrations to campaign for equal pay; equality of opportunity; assistance with child care; birth control and legal abortion; and against male violence and sexism. They challenged the official commemoration of Australian military service on Anzac Day with competing protests that drew attention to the use of rape in war. University of Melbourne students also helped establish feminist magazines such as Vashti’s Voice and important organisations such as the Rape Crisis Action Group. The more conventional Women’s Electoral Lobby, in which University of Melbourne staff and students figured prominently, became a nationally significant organisation from 1972.13

How should these campaigns be understood? An influential sociological tradition draws a sharp division between the ‘new’ social movements that emerged in the 1960s and the older radicalism of the working class. The newer mobilisations were supposedly dominated by the young and educated, largely indifferent to material questions and organised in loose and decentralised forms. But such a sharply defined opposition between ‘new’ and ‘old’ is overdrawn. Apparently new movements for gender equality, environmental protection and racial justice had deep, if forgotten, roots. As we have seen, labour activists were often important in these campaigns, and labour was never a completely materialistic or bureaucratised movement. And the subsequent fate of the ‘new’ movements has also established unexpected continuity with the earlier campaigns: they would become increasingly ordered and respectable with the passage of years.

But the form and meaning of the sixties remain highly contested and the exhibition Protest! Archives from the University of Melbourne offers a rich and local perspective on these and other enduring historical questions. The exhibition highlights the university’s presence in the broader ferment of the 1960s. It recaptures the energy and passion of committed activists. And it charts the specific place of the University of Melbourne in the development of protest campaigns: a place of critical reflection and debate; a host of radical ferment; a target of protest; and an institution changed and often enhanced by the energy and dynamism of its most passionate and contentious members. If the richness and significance of protest movements have often been unappreciated, then the collections of the University of Melbourne Archives constitute a sharp and arresting reminder. Like the movements that it records, this exhibition serves to provoke and to enrich the community of the university and the broader city of which it is a part.


  1. For the most detailed historical treatment, see: C. Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers, 2004.
  2. L. Russell, ‘Today the Students, Tomorrow the Workers! Radical Student Politics and the Australian Labour Movement 1960-1972’, PhD thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 1998, pp. 85, 46.
  3. Russell, 'Today the students', pp. 70, 75-6.
  4. C. A. Rootes, ‘The Development of Radical Student Movements and the Sequelae’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 3:2, 1988, p. 173; R. Allen, ‘Student Action’, Dissent, 2:1, March 1962, p. 18; Russell, ‘Today the Students’, pp. 75-6.
  5. a
  6. Russell, ‘Today the Students’, pp. 77, 87-8; P. O’Donnell and L. Simons (eds), Australians Against Racism. Testimonies from the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Australia, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1995, p. 77.
  7. Russell, 'Today the students', p. 123.
  8. G. Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Home Front, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992, p. 8; P. Mendes, The New Left, the Jews and the Vietnam War 1965-72, Melbourne: Lazare Press, 1993, p. 29; M. Hamel-Green, ‘The resisters. A history of the anti-conscription movement 1964-1972’ in P. King (ed), Australia’s Vietnam: Australia in the Second Indo-China War, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983, pp. 113; Russell, pp. 116, 139, 188.
  9. C. O’Shea, Worker’s Power vs Penal Power!!, Coburg: Challenge Press, 1969.
  10. M. Moodie, ‘Black Ban, Green Park', unpublished essay, 2007, pp. 5-6.
  11. M. Burgmann and V. Burgmann, Green bans, red union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1998.
  12. ‘Gay Liberation Front’, Broadsheet, n.d. [1972], 2pp.
  13. S. Scalmer, Dissent Events: Protest, the media and the political gimmick in Australia, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002, pp.92-5.
  14. V. Burgmann, Power and Protest, Movements for Change in Australian Society, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, pp. 77-137.