Invasion of the Australian parliament, 1996

An article produced from eye-witness accounts of the invasion of the Australian Parliament on 19th August, 1996. From Subversion #20 (1996)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 3, 2010

On Monday 19th August, a demonstration in Canberra, Australia, turned into an occupation of that country's Parliament building. The demonstartion was called by the ACTU, the official union organisation. Their response was predictable and once again showed how thoroughly union organisations have been incorporated into capitalism's system of social control.

The following article comprises a series of accounts from eye-witnesses who participated in the eventsx of the day, plus a couple of background pieces from other sources in Australia. All these accounts were obtained off the Internet.

As with all eye-witness accounts, what people saw varied and this is reflected in their descriptions. We have made no effort to 'tidy up' what they have to say.

"The ACTU called a demonstration against the Government's industrial relations for Monday 19 August. Parts of the budget were announced over the previous week including massive cuts for higher education (5% cut over three years, no supplementation for wage increases and expectation of increased student intakes), the ABC and ATSIC (truly sickening level of cuts which will amount to 30% in many areas). The Monday 19 demo was broadened by the ACTU into a protest against these cuts too.

Overall it seems that about 25000 people turned up. By far the largest demo I've seen in Canberra in the 17 years I've been here."

"Big demos happened in most capital cities emcompassing workers, students, indigenous people, and have become generally anti-government demos, even though the unions (that initially called them) hoped to concentrate on proposed labour laws that would end collective bargaining and collective national contracts known as awards. There have been a considerable surge in struggles in the past few months, with a steady stream of big rallies of workers and students over sectoral issues, strikes and some factory/workplace occupations, and recently rioting by indigenous people in rural areas.

All of these actions have been limited to the general (bureaucratic, conservative) structures of the unions (which are affiliated with the previously-governing Labour party, and which are facing something of a crisis), and of the "peak organization" of the student, Aboriginal, social sectors. Today, c. 15,000 people rallied in Canberra (the national capital) and marched on Parliament House. In the early afternoon, we started getting radio reports of attempts to storm and occupy the Parliament building by hundreds/thousands of people, and protesters (mainly workers and students I believe) spent about two hours in a part of the building and then in a battle with police (with riot gear) in the main foyer of the parliament building."

"Other protests occurred in Brisbane (5000), Perth (5000), Adelaide (10,000), and Darwin (500). In Darwin, protestors also occupied the Parliament building apparently for a while. In Victoria, we had a general stopwork a couple of weeks ago of about 30 - 40,000 people."

"Actually there were industrial actions in all the major cities yesterday to protest not only budget cuts but the proposed Workplace Relations Bill which as currently written would gut the power of the industrial commissions and push workers toward having to negotiate individually with some employers. Here in Brisbane about 10,000 people demonstrated peacefully and marched through the streets. Coal miners went on a 24 strike nationwide."

"The rally was 25,000 strong despite it not being an official strike day, and about 10% of this tried to get into the Parliament. Police blocked the way and things turned nasty. Battering rams were used by Construction workers to bash in the glass doors and people streamed into the building over the tops of one another. There were several injuries to both protesters and police and 50 or so arrests. The media of course called the action thuggery, the Labor Party and top union officials distanced themselves from the action and will probably use it as an excuse not to call any more strikes or demos and the repressive legislation will get through the senate."

"An Aboriginal group apparently got around or through the police barricades and went up to the front entrance. They were closely followed by groups of workers, especially CFMEU members. Then other people including other unionists and some students joined them. They tried to get into the building and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Eventually a relatively small number got in. Up to 2000 people may have been involved in the demonstration at the entrance to the building, the bulk of them unionists. I arrived after it had begun and got up to near the entrance of the building but it was very difficult to know what was happening in the front line. It was totally unorganised.

The ACTU started the speeches across the road where most of the crowd was. Some attempts were made by individual union officials to get people away from the entrance, but without much success."

"4 people were arrested, 2 for assault, 2 for trespass - NOT 45 as some media claimed. 45 people may have been detained without arrest (i.e. illegally), but virtually all were released withouth being charged. I was detained with both the protestors who were eventually charged with assault. One told me he had not done anything and was randomly grabbed, the other had his nose broken by cop after decking a copper for punching a girl in the face - he wasn't sorry. 2 (dodgy) assault charges from a rally of 50,000 - that's NOT violent. Despite union leadership and media claims to the contrary, there was NO distinction between the 'official' rally and the 'riot' - the crowd spread from the stage all the way up to the doors. It was virtually impossible to get up to the doors because of the huge number (10,000?) of people who wanted to get in to the building. The crush at the doors was one of the most intense feelings I have experienced at a demo."

"This rally tried to do what every anti-Kennett rally should have done and didn't- confront power directly. The mood was united and festive- I was an anglo guy in a suit and I had Koori's, construction workers, and every kind of person around me in a spirit of solidarity and unity. There was a lot of talking, joking, discussing, and mutual support. It was clear what our aim was.

"I was in the gift shop when it was being 'looted'. The aim, as far as I could see, was not to loot the gift shop but gain access to the house. The damage was a by-product of the melee that ensued with the police, and of people's frustrations; it was not the central focus of those involved.

"Lastly I would like to say that I did think there was two rallies. ACTU and trade union officials were continually coming up to the doors and urging people, through megaphones, to return to the 'real' rally. They were treated with laughter, with people saying "enough speeches-we want action". I have my own opinion of where the real rally was.

"After the experience of attending three anti-Kennett rallies, I must say this one possessed an enthusiasm and energy that I have not seen before. If 150 000 people had been there, who knows what might have occurred."