Issue 13, December 2010 | Alexis Vassiley


“Until the government sees fit to repeal the National Service Act and release all political prisoners, this paper will continue to actively support, aid and abet all acts of resistance to the obscenity of the draft. We urge our readers to become actively involved in seeking the release of non-compliers in gaols all over the country, and do all they can, individually and collectively, to bring about an end to this infamous piece of legislation. We urge you to join with us and SMASH THE DRAFT.” - The Staff of Pelican, 1971.[1]

“The Guild was frequently in the news that year – the student unrest and agitation [that] had swept the American and European campuses in the sixties reached Perth in 1968/69 and there was tremendous public interest in student affairs. University authorities were also sensitive to their handling of student matters, not wanting to be the subject of the violent sit-ins and other demonstrations which had so plagued other universities around the world, and sister institutions like Monash in the eastern states. There was also a genuine belief in the value of student participation at all levels of university life.” – Sue Boyd, Guild President, 1969.[2]

Everyone has an opinion on the sixties. Narratives of the sixties now typically revolve around sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. However, this is far too simplistic an account of an era when the world was, if not turned upside down, then at least shaken to its core.[3] Even ‘sex, drugs, rock-n-roll’ were greatly politicised.[4] Where social revolt is acknowledged, it is often stated to have bypassed Australia, remaining confined to the United States and Western Europe.[5] Finally, when some grudging acknowledgment is given that ‘it’ happened in Australia too, attention is confined to the Eastern States campuses. Students at UWA never openly collected money for the National Liberation Front, or blockaded University Council meetings in their thousands, as, for example, did their Monash counterparts.[6] Indeed, UWA was considered a conservative campus in the eyes of the radicals of the time.[7] Yet in three years two Pelican editors were charged with obscenity and the third fined for resisting the draft, while a Guild office bearer and other UWA students went underground and openly defied the National Services Act. UWA students were involved in large and important campaigns against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, for Aboriginal rights and women’s liberation. Something was in the air. This flowering of activism on campus can only be explained in the context of the wider upsurge in political struggle that took place in the 1960s. Just as Australia was not immune from the impact of overseas radicalism, neither could UWA remain unaffected by the wider Australian movement.

The late 1960s upsurge did not emerge from nowhere. In hindsight, we can see some of the changes of the post-war years as laying the basis for the radicalisation and activism of the sixties. The 1950 and early 1960s were a time of stifling conservatism and Cold War conformity in Australia and much of the Western world. (UWA students wore gowns to Law lectures until 1969!) The post-war years saw an unprecedented economic boom in the West. While economic security can breed complacency, and an acceptance of the established political systems, it can also lead to rising expectations and confidence amongst the working-class.[8] This also holds true for students. Graham Hastings, who has written a history of the Australian student movement from the 1920's to 2000's,[9] author and socialist Mick Armstong, writing about Australia, and historian Ronald Fraser, writing about the US and Western Europe, all cite youth culture, the economic boom, and opposition to the Cold War ‘stasis’ as important factors leading up to the sixties revolt.[10] Prolonged full employment and economic stability combined with a repressive sexual and political atmosphere. Teenagers emerged for the first time and had a degree of financial independence, but were prevented from expressing themselves socially or politically. As Armstrong writes “By the mid-sixties a sizeable proportion of young people, both workers and students, found…constantly repeated platitudes about the sanctity of the family and the Communist threat ‘boring.’”[11]

There was also a massive expansion in higher education. In Australia, university enrolments rose from around 30 000 in 1950 to over 100 000 in 1968.[12] Greater numbers of skilled workers were required, new universities opened and the ‘mass university’ (what some would call a degree factory) was born. While UWA is an old and beautiful campus where notions of physical alienation may seem irrelevant, it is still important to understand the effect of the rise in university numbers on broader radicalisation. At university, there was a contradiction between the lofty ideals of “seeking wisdom,” to quote UWA’s motto, and the reality of universities “whose governing councils were dominated by the directors of top multinational and Australian companies, and whose research departments were aiding the grubby war in Vietnam.”[13] (The level of discipline and repressiveness were high. More broadly the first ‘New Left’ was born in Britain in 1956 - a group of intellectuals who had left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary (The Communist Party of Australia or CPA also lost members at this time).[14] The twin imperialisms of Washington and Moscow were being rejected. Historian John Docker cites the campaign for nuclear disarmament as significant in these earlier years of activism.[15] In Australia and the United States, students came to see themselves as a moral force who could stir the conscience of society around questions such as racism and civil rights. The famous Port Huron statement of the American Students for a Democratic Society epitomised this sentiment.

Later the New Left, radicalised by the Vietnam War, embraced more revolutionary positions. In the late sixties and early seventies, Australian university campuses like Monash, La Trobe and Sydney University saw militant occupations of university buildings, student general meetings with numbers in their thousands, and protests around a range of issues both on and off-campus.[16] Student activists faced disciplinary charges from university administrations and some were even jailed. In contrast, at UWA there were no occupations of university buildings and on-campus forums and general meetings (rather than protests) had hundreds of attendees not thousands.

Was there a New Left at UWA? Interested parties offer varying responses to this question. Hastings states that there was a Students for A Democratic Society at UWA.[17] However, according to former draft resister and UWA student Bill Thomas there wasn’t. Certainly if such a grouping did exist it wasn’t prominent in the Pelican for the years 1969-1971. Thomas asserts that there was a New Left at UWA, but it wasn’t organised. In the Pelican’s for this period one finds articles on behalf of the ‘Revolutionary Caucus.’ There are also articles gushing in their support of China, symptomatic of Maoists. Interestingly, in 1969 a lot of the New Left articles in Pelican were taken from interstate or overseas, suggesting an interest in New Left ideas but not an organic New Left. 1970 shows an increase in 'home-grown' articles, and a further increase in 1971. Also in Pelican there are references to and reviews of New Left classics such as The Dialectics of Liberation, and key New Left themes and issues, such as the mass university, the role of students, racism and Vietnam were taken up. Clearly, then there was a New Left of sorts at UWA and UWA activists were also influenced by the wider New Left and its ideas.

The issues that concerned students at UWA were largely the same as those confronted by their colleagues at other Australian campuses. These included: Vietnam, anti-apartheid activism, Censorship, and Aboriginal rights. [18] In addition, there were local issues such as the short and successful campaign to have an underpass built across Stirling Highway.

Vietnam was central to the sixties radicalisation in Australia and the United States. Mick Armstrong writes:

Vietnam was not simply an issue that students mobilised around. It was much, much more. It was the cause which galvanised a generation of radicals. The war was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the world. Vietnam symbolised the irrationality and inhumanity of capitalism. The war led to a profound questioning of society…[19]

UWA was no exception. The conscription of 20-year old males by ballot for National Service, in place from November 1964, increased and deepened hostility towards the Vietnam War. In Australia, a majority of the population initially supported the war. Anti-war activity initially took place in a hostile environment and by small groups of people. According to 1965 Guild President Steve Errington, the Guild didn’t comment when conscription was introduced, despite it directly affecting a large number of university students who would have been aged 20.[20] By 1970 (radicalisation post Tet offensive in 68?) at the latest this reality had changed. Pelican took up the issue with gusto. Editions seven and thirteen of 1970 both had Vietnam Moratorium covers. Forums were held on the Great Court (Oak Lawn) on the topic of Vietnam with Guild arranged speakers. In March 1971, a Special General meeting of the Guild, attended by 120 people, ratified motions from the previous months Australian Union of Students (AUS) national council including supporting the Moratorium campaign, supporting those who didn’t comply with the National Service Act, and “realising that it is in direct contravention of section 7(A) of the Crimes Act…urge[d] and encourage[d] all 20 year-olds not to comply with the National Service Act…”[21]

The Student Guild provided support for conscientious objectors and to a lesser extent draft resisters. At the beginning of 1971 the Guild set up a “Committee of Conscience” that provided advice to conscientious objectors, non-compliers and draft resisters.[22] Every issue of Pelican in that year carried an advertisement inviting students to some into the Guild reception for advice on these matters. It also provided auspices and meeting rooms for the Draft Resistance movement.[23] The Draft resistance movement in WA was focussed around the university. A number of UWA students were draft resisters.[24]

There was a distinction between registering as a conscientious objector and resisting the draft. Conscientious objection complied with the law and conceding the government's “right to pass immoral legislation.”[25] Draft resistance on the other hand was a mass activity, not an individual one, and was a tool to try to end the war.[26] The aim of the resisters was to render the system unworkable.

The authorities’ strategy for dealing with draft resisters was one of selective prosecution. If they sent no-one to jail, then the law would be a dead-letter and it would be highly embarrassing to the government. Yet if they prosecuted everyone (and there were thousands of draft resisters) they risked wider social upheaval. Only a small number of draft resisters were sentenced to the 2 years jail provided for in the act; according to Thomas the authorities had a policy of one draft resister in jail in every state.[27] The draft resisters would publicise the absurdity of the situation. For example, there was a protest where draft resisters ‘confessed’ and demanded to be arrested (and by and large the police refused!).[28] The 1971 Pelican editor Derek Schapper, who was responsible for provocative covers of Pelican (such as one entitled “Smash the Draft”)[29] was a resister and student radical who was arrested for non-compliance with the draft.[30] Bill Thomas, who was the Guild’s 1970 Public Affairs Officer, went to jail for a week and then underground for a year to avoid National Service. At the end of 1971, Thomas and Wayne Henderson sat their end-of year exams in Winthrop Hall, despite being underground. Two undercover police officers were waiting for them at the entrance, but the students were tipped off by another student radical, David Parker (later WA's Deputy Premier), and escaped from a door near the organ, jumped down from a roof, and got away.[31]

Student activists were also involved in anti-racist campaigns. At this time Aborigines were not allowed into a number of Perth nightclubs. Bill Thomas recalls organising boycotts of these venues in protest.[32] A highly original and effective protest action was carried out by the 1969 Aboriginal Affairs officer, Charles Poynton, and others. As Sue Boyd remembers, a local building merchant had gained permission to mine and sell a red and white stone that was sacred to the local Aboriginal community. The community lost a court appeal that would have resulting in the mining permit being withdrawn. The Guild then successfully applied for a permit to mine sand, limestone and gravel and proceeded to peg out their ‘claim’ over the Kings Park war memorial. After the ensuing controversy, the builder’s mining permit was revoked.[33] Students at UWA played a role in the Perth leg of the national demonstrations against the touring (all-white) South African rugby team in 1971.[34] The tour was heavily disrupted, and no South African team came back until after the fall of apartheid.[35]

The issue of censorship was taken up at UWA. It is hard to overstate the how stifling the times were in this regard, even in the late sixties and early seventies. For example, the government had banned “The Marijuana Papers,” a pro-cannabis tract edited by David Solomon.[36] One contemporary issue of the Pelican graphically ridiculed the censorship laws and standards by juxtaposing a number of horrific images of war with one of a couple making love and inviting readers to guess which picture was banned.[37] Both the 1969 and 1970 editors tackled the issue with gusto and were rewarded with charges for their efforts. The September 7 issue of Pelican in 1969 was a censorship special issue with a banned poster of a local production of Othello on its cover.[38] Inside was a lengthy review of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had also been banned, complete with explicit passages.[39] This issue resulted in the Guild and the editor, Alistair MacKinlay, being successfully charged with “making an obscene publication.[40] The Guild also held a week-long series of lunch-time seminars on censorship.[41] A year later, 1970 editor David Roe decided to mark the anniversary of the offending edition by laying out Pelican in Victorian style, as the court decision was apparently based on an 1868 precedent.[42] Roe who Bill Thomas describes as being “obsessed with censorship,”[43] was fined $100 over a “Porn-brokers article,” with no conviction recorded.[44]

Student activism during this period also resulted in the underpass across Stirling Highway being built. On March 29, 1969, hundreds of UWA students staged a sit-in of Stirling Highway during peak-hour to force the authorities to build a safe crossing across the highway after a number of students had been killed and injured by oncoming traffic.[45] One student was arrested and a subsequent student general meeting voted to pay his legal fees (his charges were eventually dropped).[46] The protest was successful and the underpass was finally opened 18 months later.[47]

So hot was the climate of the sixties that even a Guild President (Russell Perry) who described himself as being more interested by the service-provision side of the Guild rather than in its political/ representative role[48] could write a letter to the Senate about corporate responsibility and morality, condemning the war and the use of napalm.[49] UWA activists were influenced by the actions of students on the more radical campuses across Australia and the world. In turn, Guild representatives and students at the Crawley campus were influenced by the radicals. For those who proclaim student apathy to be an eternal truth, and UWA to be an irredeemably conservative campus, the activism of 1969-1971 can be pointed to as an antidote. If UWA was a ‘backwater’ compared to other Australian campuses, neither did the sixties completely pass it by. This paper has argued that the upsurge at UWA can only be explained in the broader context of the sixties internationally and nationally, and has provided a brief snapshot of some of the activities that went on from 1969-1971. A significant number of student radicals existed at UWA, and with support from the Guild and the wider student body, made a small but important contribution to the campaigns and movements of the time. The actions of the Guild and of Pelican - pushing the boundaries with regard to censorship and social mores, and in standing on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden - are a proud part of the history of this campus. Despite the gains of the sixties, the challenges of war, racism and poverty remain. Students and concerned citizens could do worse than look to those years for lessons and inspiration.


Alexis Vassiley is a Law/Arts graduate from The University of Western Australia, where he is currently completing Honours in History. A member of Socialist Alternative, Alexis has been a student activist since 2003.

[1] Pelican (newspaper of the UWA Student Guild), Vol 41, No 10, August 30th, 1971.

[2] Quinlivan, Julie (ed), Student Days: The University of Western Australia Student Guild – A Collection of Memoirs, The University of Western Australia Guild of Undergraduates, Perth, 1988, p113.

[3] See Harman, Chris, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (2nd ed), Bookmarks, London, 1998

[4] I would argue that even sex, drugs and rock-and-roll have a highly political side to them and warrant serious discussion. Pelican did carry articles on all of these issues (including the “Pot Issue” of Pelican with a recipe for hash cookies on the cover! – Vol 41, No 3, 1970 but unfortunately this falls outside the scope of this essay. The contradictions of the time with regard to sexism are also extremely interesting – for instance in the Pelican’s of this period we find both information about contraception and a topless model. Miss University was only abolished in 1971.

[5] As well as missing out Australia, this narrative leaves out the combative Japanese Zengakuren student movement , the Mexican students who stood up to their authoritarian government, and the struggles of students and workers in innumerable other countries worldwide.

[6] ‘Mild in the Streets,’ The Age, April 25th, 2005

[7] Interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008. Thomas was a student radical at UWA at the time who was also involved in the national student movement. See also Armstrong Mick, 1,2,3 What Are We Fighting For: The Australian Student Movement from its origins to the 1970’s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001, p71 (Armstrong was active at La Trobe University around this time, and the national student movement),

[8] Armstrong, p 52. I define the working-class as anyone who has to earn a wage and work in order to survive, and has little control over their labour. As such, the working-class makes up a majority of the population in the industrialised economies. Not only the existence of the working-class, but their ability to impact politics and bring about change were graphically demonstrated by the events of May 1968 in France, where 10 million workers went on strike. In Australia, 1969 saw a general strike free the left-wing union official Clarie O'Shea from jail, and defeated the Menzies Liberal government's anti-union penal powers. While this essay is on student activism at UWA, and thus does not deal directly with the working-class, it is the case that increased working-class struggle in the sixties and seventies was a key part of the broader radicalisation in society, and as such impacted student radicalism. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss this.

[9] Hastings, Graham, It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism, Flinders University Students’ Association, Adelaide, 2002. Hastings has also been a long-time left activist.

[10] See Hastings pp 8-12, Armstrong pp 51-53 and Fraser, Ronald (ed), 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, pp2-4.

[11] Armstrong, p53.

[12] Hastings, Graham, It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism, Flinders University Students’ Association, Adelaide, 2002, p9.

[13] Armstrong, pp13-14.

[14] Hastings p26.

[15] See Docker, John, in Head, B. and Walter J (ed.s), Intellectual Movements and Australian Society, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p294.

[16]See for example, Hastings, Graham, It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism, Flinders University Students’ Association, Adelaide, 2002 and Armstrong Mick, 1,2,3 What Are We Fighting For: The Australian Student Movement from its origins to the 1970’s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001 for a sense both of the depth of the student radicalisation in Australia and for some specific examples of it.

[17] Hastings p 27.

[18] Armstrong lists student control, censorship, apartheid, capital punishment, Aboriginal rights, and women’s liberation as key issues for the activists of the time, with Vietnam being central. See Armstrong Mick, 1,2,3 What Are We Fighting For: The Australian Student Movement from its origins to the 1970’s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001, p 50. Capital punishment was an issue at UWA in the early to mid-1960’s, but this is outside the scope of this essay.

[19] Armstrong Mick, 1,2,3 What Are We Fighting For: The Australian Student Movement from its origins to the 1970’s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001, p 53.

[20] Quinlivan, Julie (ed), Student Days:The University of Western Australia Student Guild – A Collection of Memoirs, The University of Western Australia Guild of Undergraduates, Perth, 1988, p 104.

[21] UWA Student Guild archives, Volume 43. “Overall Guild,’ December 1970 to June 1971.

[22] UWA Student Guild Archives, “Guild Reports – Aug 1971 to Aug 1972,” p69, from the report of 1971 Guild President Russell Perry.

[23] Interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008.

[24] Laufer, B., ‘All who do not resist participation are guilty: draft resistance in Western Australia between 1970 and 1972,’ Honours Thesis, 2006, The University of Western Australia

[25] According to draft resister Wayne Henderson. See Henderson, Wayne, “I will go to goal(sic) rather than comply with the act.” Vol 42, 3, 08/04/1971, p13. Ironically Henderson himself eventually became a conscientious objector when the strain of living underground proved too much: Laufer, p35.

[26] Interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008.

[27] Ibid. WA’s jailed draft resister was Gary Cook.

[28] Pelican, 30/08/1971.

[29] Vol 42, No 8, 1971.

[30] See Pelican Vol 42, No 10, 1971.

[31] Laufer, p 40. Also my own interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008.

[32] Interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008.

[33] Quinlivan, Julie (ed), Student Days:The University of Western Australia Student Guild – A Collection of Memoirs, The University of Western Australia Guild of Undergraduates, Perth, 1988, p114. See also Pelican, Vol 40, No 5, April 30, 1969, p2.

[34] UWA Student Guild Archives, “Guild Reports – Aug 1971 to Aug 1972,” p69, from the report of 1971 Guild President Russell Perry

[35] See Hastings

[36] See Pelican, Vol 43, No 3, 25/03/1970, p4.

[37] Pelican, Vol 42, No 3, 08/04/1971, p17.

[38] As attested by 1969 Guild President Sue Boyd in Quinlivan, Julie (ed), Student Days: The University of Western Australia Student Guild – A Collection of Memoirs, The University of Western Australia Guild of Undergraduates, Perth, 1988, p114. This issue is unfortunately missing from the collection of Pelican’s held in the Scholar’s Centre of the UWA library.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Pelican, Vol 41, No 12, 1970, p3.

[43] Interview with Bill Thomas, 28/04/2008.

[44] Pelican, Vol 42, No 3, 1971.

[45] According to Pelican Vol 40, No 4, 1969, p4 the number of students sitting down was 400, whereas Sue Boyd, writing some 20 years later, puts the number at ‘several thousand (Student Days, p114). The Pelican article states that 2 students were killed and 7 injured over 2 years, whereas Boyd simply states that the protest took place “after a Vietnamese fellow student was killed.”

[46] Pelican Vol 40, No 4, 1969, p4.

[47] Pelican Vol 41, No 12, 1970, p3.

[48] P87, Guild reports. See above.

[49] Ibid, p71.