THIRTY YEARS ago on September 4 1977, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen launched one of the most serious attacks on civil liberties in Australian history by declaring political street marches "a thing of the past". The day of the political street march is over", he announced. "Don't bother applying for a permit. You won't get one. That's government policy now."
There was no debate in parliament, let alone wider society before the ban was announced.
Joh's decree was endorsed by his cabinet two days later and wasn't presented to State Parliament until two weeks later.
Petersen had been premier since 1968, leading a National Party dominated coalition with the Liberal Party. A weak Labor opposition was hampered by a gerrymandered electoral system that favoured the Nationals in rural areas.
His immediate goal was to polarise society over law-and-order policies before the state election, due in November 1977.
Police had already violently raided a hippie commune at Cedar Bay in late 1976, supposedly to look for drugs.
The ban was part of a pattern of mounting attacks on working class living standards and organisation, at both the state level and at the federal level under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
There was pressure from the right to wind back the social reforms won during the 1970s, including free tertiary education, improved working conditions and higher living standards.
In the longer term, Petersen wanted to crush the campaign against uranium mining in Queensland, in the interests of his mining industry backers.
The Mary Kathleen mine in Queensland's central west had just resumed mining yellowcake.Joh was determined to get uranium exported through Queensland Ports.
In August, anti-uranium groups had held small pickets at wharves during the shipment of uranium. One picket of 200 people was violently assaulted by police.
Role of the
The first protests against the ban on street marches started at the University of Queensland (UQ) and Griffith University, with forums of 400 and 200 students respectively.
The police were there to greet the first march of about 200 people that left UQ. They brutally attacked the protesters, arresting many.
UQ lecturer Dan O'Neill called out at police at the height of one melee: "You've done something important for Queensland tonight. You've radicalised a whole new generation of students." He was right.
From then on regular marches were organised, beginning with rallies in King George Square in Brisbane.
The civil liberties movement produced a political ferment unprecedented since the Vietnam War days.
One socialist recalled: "The small Brisbane left suddenly found itself in organising meetings of hundreds which went on until the middle of the night, and it was able to mobilise thousands of people � all in the course of a few weeks."
Protest rallies and proposals for marches to defy the law took place with relatively small numbers in September and early October 1977.A rally and protest march the day before the state election, which Petersen had provocatively called on the second anniversary of Whitlam's sacking, led to 197 arrests.
Far from being mainly students or professionals, most arrestees listed their occupations as blue-collar.
The election meant a 12 per cent swing towards Labor in metropolitan Brisbane and an overall 17 per cent swing against the Coalition. But Queensland's gerrymander saw that Petersen was duly returned as premier.
In the organising meetings of the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee there were raging arguments over how to build the campaign.
The moderate position was to concentrate on the right to march as a single issue, while favouring more cautious tactics such as letter writing, finding sympathetic Liberals and fewer rallies, preferably not defying the ban on marching and staying off the streets.
Most Labor party members, union officials, the Communist Party and even the Democratic Socialist Party (then the Socialist Workers Party), supported variants of this approach.
The fledgling International Socialists (IS) argued for mass civil disobedience through defying the ban on marching.
As IS members involved in the campaign put it, by "pursuing a militant course-marching and if necessary getting arrested-the issue could become a focal point for anti-government sympathies."
Debates on whether to organise illegal marches preceded every rally until March 1978, with the resistance to marching steadily losing ground.
Proposals not to march were continually voted down at civil liberties meetings and at the rallies themselves.
This reflected a rapid process of radicalisation in favour of defying the law, even though the Labor Left and Communist Party opposed marching for some time into the campaign.
As one participant said: "It astonished everyone (especially us, the IS) that the IS and a few independents consistently won the votes to march."
The IS also emphasised that the ban was particularly targeted at attacking the "democratic rights of those groups which most needed the streets to express solidarity and protest: women, blacks and�the organisations of the working class."
The ban was part of an attempt by the ruling class to safeguard the power of big business and the rich, such as the mining companies.
This meant arguing for "the central importance of the working class to the campaign".
The civil liberties campaign was won to this approach, with over 100 job and union meetings addressed by civil liberties speakers in six months. This was designed to win official union support.
While the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) and the Labor Party deplored Petersen's repression from the beginning, it was not until over a year after the ban was introduced that events obliged them to give even token support to the illegal marches.
At first, the unions made no attempt to link union rights with civil liberties. They actively discouraged any suggestion of a street march by the unions.However that changed on October 22 1977, the date of a major anti-uranium rally.
The issue had aroused considerable interest among union members and the leadership of the left-wing maritime unions.
Uranium mining was a national issue and one that the unions had chosen to fight Prime Minister Fraser. The October rally had official Brisbane TLC support.
When the 5000-strong rally attempted to march, all hell broke loose.
One account recorded that, "In a military-style operation, hundreds of police massed in position. As the marchers pressed forward and chanting grew stronger, police called on them to disband.
"The chant grew stronger: 'What do we want? The right to march. When do wantit? Now!'
"Dozens of people ran towards Queen St and senior police acted, 'Get in and arrest them.' And they did."
A massive 418 people were arrested, including the left-wing Labor senator George Georges.
The huge arrest tally had a sensational impact on many unionised workers.
A 600-strong mass meeting of the maritime unions demanded another union-supported march in December.
That month's march in Brisbane with 4500 people saw 383 arrested, 70 per cent of whom were blue collar unionists. Illegal marches were held in Rockhampton, Mackay and Collinsville.
The next year, George Georges coalesced a Labor Left around him. He initiated a broader Civil Liberties Campaign Group (CLCG). The usual turn up to these organising meetings was 200 people.
The CLCG wanted to march on state parliament to present a petition to demand democratic rights
Petersen countered that they would "no more get to state parliament than fly backwards to the moon."
More mass protests and arrests in 1979 saw a confidential National Party report recommend an end to the ban. The writing was on the wall.
The only question for Petersen now was how to manoeuvre a retreat without admitting he had been defeated.
Lessons for today
The law had been framed by the government so that a police superintendent could issue a permit for a protest march. If a permit was refused, the only option was an appeal to the police commissioner.
That was useless as Petersen's police commissioner, the corrupt Terry Lewis, was a handpicked political appointment. However, the law meant the ban could appear as a "police/traffic control" issue.
Police refused a permit for a Hiroshima Day march in August 1979. However within days, a permit was granted for a march on Nagasaki Day.
It was the first police-authorised protest march since September 1977.
Petersen's attempt to ban street marches in Queensland had failed.
A militant movement that had run for almost two years had won.
The arguments for defying the law and looking to the power of organised workers had been instrumental in that historic victory.
The campaign holds valuable lessons in the face of escalating attacks on the right to protest and dissent.
Just as activists 30 years ago defied the ban on street marches, we need to stand up to the attempts to intimidate people out of joining political protests today, even if it means breaking the law in acts of mass civil disobedience.
And instead of appealing to respectable citizens like members of parliament or the judiciary we need to mobilise the widest possible numbers on the streets to assert our right to protest.
In particular we need to mobilise the power of organised workers, who by going on strike have the capacity to bring production to a halt and deny business their profits.
That way we can end the crackdown on dissent and the right to demonstrate just as students, workers and the left did thirty years ago.
But also crucial to the success of the civil liberties campaign 30 years ago was its ability to link different issues together, such as uranium mining.
Like then, we should not see civil liberties as a single issue, especially since today's attacks tend to be justified in the name of the War on Terror-whether this means locking up suspects without trial, detaining and deporting asylum seekers or obstructing our right to protest.
This war is waged for ideological reasons-to divide and weaken opposition to neo-liberal policies and their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So, most importantly, we need to connect the fight to protect our rights with a political campaign against these wars and the criminals that wage them.