In the Shadow of Gethsemane
Remember, Remember, Part 2
by David Atwell
Bob Hawke had become the spokesman for the protesters and had the charisma and charm which made Fraser appear everything but the legitimate Prime Minister. Needless to say, it was a challenge which Fraser could not tolerate…
Conclusion to: Remember, Remember Part 1…
The dramatic events on 11th November 1975, that being the sacking of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, was dwarfed within minutes by the assassination of the said dismissed Australian Prime Minister. Even though it has never been proven, one way or the other, that Whitlam’s death was deliberately planned, it did ensure that The Upheaval got under way with serious intention. People who had promoted peace, only days, weeks, and months before, took to the streets around Australia seeking vengeance. Although not everyone in Australia joined the anti Fraser/Kerr demonstrations and riots, there were enough of them to warrant actions which went beyond sending in the police to control them. It would mean instead military action against the same people who the military were supposed to protect.
Things, as far as Fraser was concerned, had not gone as planned in November 1975. Not only had the protesters gained the initiative, almost from the beginning of The Upheaval, but had also shown great organisational skills in producing a coordinated national campaign centred around the trade union leader one Bob Hawke. Furthermore, Hawke soon showed his leadership skills in being able to portray Fraser as a great villain worthy of overthrowing in some People’s Revolution. Fraser, thus under great strain, was prepared to use the military which had its own motivations in dictating its actions over the next several days. It goes without saying, sadly, that these motivations were far from honourable. In fact, it would be fair to say, the military despised the protesters far greater than how the protesters felt about Fraser. Consequently, Australia was about to endure a great tragedy.
It was the evening of the 17th November 1975 when Fraser finally ordered the army into action. Barely a week had passed since the assassination of Gough Whitlam and it appeared it was only a matter of time before the interim caretaker government of Fraser was to be toppled in a nation wide revolution. The military senior commanders, however, had other thoughts, and once the order to intervene was finally given, immediately put their plans into motion. Thus, overnight, the army left their numerous barracks, either in or near the major cities, around the nation and deployed accordingly. Even in Hobart and Perth, where protesters were few, the army moved onto the streets to secure these cities.
For the other major cities, though, the army would have to make a major effort to reassert government authority upon the streets, as they were bound to be challenged by the tens of thousands of protesters. In fact, if one added together the protesters in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Newcastle, as well as Canberra, the overall number reached just under half a million people. Having said that, much of this number could have hardly be considered combatants, as many were women and children, but that did not seem to matter to the army as tanks, APCs, and artillery units, were moved into positions along with numerous infantry units.
Although it would be fair to say that what happened on 18th November 1975 was never what Fraser actually intended, in the aftermath he never prosecuted any military personnel either for what took place on that dreadful day. At dawn the military commanders gave the final go ahead to their respective subordinate field commanders to attack. The protesters never really had a chance. Without warning the army units advanced upon the barricades, and other rushed fortifications, as if conducting a military exercise. Tanks often led the way, followed by the infantry riding in the APCs. Soon the 105 mm guns of the Centurion and newly acquired Leopard tanks erupted in fire. Barricades and their protester defenders were blown away. In six cities, the protesters were forced back or overrun, although some cities got it worse than others.
The worst location was, in many respects, Adelaide by virtue of the horrible events which took place in that now sad city. The protesters here, although showing no signs of violence prior to the military intervention, were still initially attacked in the same manner as elsewhere. But regardless that they offered no violence, the tanks and rifles of the Australian military cut down hundreds before the most murderous event took place in Australian history. Upon breaking into the centre of the city, thousands of protesters sat down in front of the armoured vehicles in a form of peaceful protest at Victoria Square. That mattered little though, to the tank and other armoured crews, who simply drove over them, crushing hundreds of bodies in the process.
Melbourne suffered a similar fate, to that of Adelaide, save for the criminal killing of unarmed protesters by driving armoured vehicles over them. But because of the wide avenues, typical of Melbourne, it was next to impossible for any armed resistance to be effective against tanks and the like. In fact the efforts of the ground forces were made easier in Melbourne thanks to ten helicopter gunships, which made numerous sweeps across the city, opening fire at anything that moved. Needless to say, even though no army personnel suffered from friendly fire, everyone else, regardless whether they be protester or not, were shot at by the gunships. Thus, thanks to this storm of war raining down upon them, within two hours the protesters in Melbourne had been crushed with much bloodshed. Canberra was a similar story, against having no real means to offer a good defence, although the death count was much lower as protesters were fewer in number whilst the local army commander there was rather prudent in the application of violence.
For Sydney, Newcastle, and Brisbane, however, it turned out to be a much different story, although in the end it hardly mattered. Here the protesters, even in the face of tanks and armour, put up one hell of a fight thanks mostly, especially in the case of Sydney, by having narrow streets which were difficult, for even armour, to fight their way through. Although the protesters in Brisbane were finally overcome by Midday, those people in Newcastle managed to hold on until dusk until surrendering. Having said that, it is not as if the army attacking Newcastle had it easy. Having a limited number of tanks, they had to resort to APCs instead, which limited their firepower to either heavy machine guns or 20mm cannons. Yet the main reason why the protesters in Newcastle surrendered was the deadly threat posed by RAAF strike aircraft, based at the nearby Williamstown air force base, which had already conducted one low pass over their proud city signalling their deadly message of intent.
In Sydney, though, fighting continued well into the night. Just as the armour and infantry found the going tough, so too the supporting helicopter gunships discovered that, not only were their targets almost impossible to engage, but they inturn attracted a lot of ground fire as well. Consequently, when one was actually shot down over The Rocks district, gunship operations were suspended. As a result the local military commander decided to resort to more drastic tactics. Hence it was not until heavy artillery was used for several hours, on many landmarks in the centre of Sydney were tanks and infantry could not succeed in driving out the defenders, were the protesters finally defeated. Needless to say, unlike most of the other cities involved in the fighting, Sydney came out of it the worst destruction wise, with many office towers, government buildings, not to mention many historical locations and icons, especially in The Rocks district, either severely damaged or totally destroyed.
Yet, as far as Fraser and company were concerned, the threats to national security, and any chance of a long and bloody revolution, were now over. Having said that, it was bloody enough. The cream of Australia’s university students, not to mention many in the industrial work force, had been either wounded, crippled, or killed. Similarly there was the fact that thousands of others were now prisoners charged with sedition. All this for the loss of some 250 soldiers killed, with another 600 further wounded, whilst the casualties amongst the protesters was simply staggering. In Adelaide alone, thanks to the military losing all sense of reason, some 1 800 people were killed - many being women and children thanks to the bloody tank massacre at Victoria Square. Similar casualty numbers were reported in Brisbane. Melbourne suffered around 2 200 deaths, whilst Newcastle suffered over 2 500 deaths. Finally, in this terrible butcher’s bill, Sydney suffered a staggering 7 800 deaths. Needless to say the injured lists were much higher everywhere.
If the surviving protesters, or even their families, friends, and supporters, thought that the worst was over they were sadly mistaken. Even before the first of the wounded were being taken to hospitals, places which could hardly cope with the casualty numbers, or before the first fire fighting crews could deal with the countless burning buildings in several of the cities, the various polices forces, as instructed by ASIO, began rounding people up in their homes. Likewise the same took place in the hospitals where, after getting medical treatment, the authorities began arresting hundreds of people and dragged them off to police stations or army barracks regardless of the complaints of medical personnel.
Yet these arrests did not just stop in the immediate aftermath of The Upheaval. In those few days, only known protest ringleaders, university student body leaders, unionist leaders, and Labor Party members, were arrested and taken away. The most prominent one being Bob Hawke who, although he had managed to escape the carnage of the military crackdown, was only to be arrested in Melbourne the next day whilst in hiding in the Docklands area. Still, thanks to hundreds of interrogations, which were far from pretty, in fact torture was common place, hundreds of others, mostly innocent for all intents and purposes, were also rounded up and thrown into police cells for interrogation.
Needless to say this thus began a vicious cycle, wherein hundreds would be arrested on suspicion of treason and sedition, then interrogated and tortured, which would reveal new suspects, real or imagined, and then more arrests would hence take place. All in all, after a few months of this activity, well over 5 000 people ended up being arrested, held for long periods of time without trail, tortured, tried and found guilty, and then finally thrown into prison. Similarly all those people, some 50 000, who were caught in some fashion within the battle zones in Adelaide, Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra, all faced one type of charge or another. Although not all ended up going to prison for sedition, and/or other crimes, at least half ended up facing some prison time of various lengths of one year through to 35 years for the most extreme cases.
Whilst all this was taking place, it goes without saying that the political structure of Australia was smashed. Governments, almost everywhere, were in chaos. This was absolutely more so the case in Sydney, for the New South Wales government, than anywhere else, which had its capital city in smoking ruins, several thousand people dead, and even more so in prison. Sydney’s economy, and that of the state, if not indeed the nation, had been destroyed. People, from out of fear, stayed literally at home, not knowing what fate awaited them if they ventured out, ensuring little work, if any, got done, whilst in many cases workers either did not have an office or factory to go to anyway thanks to the destruction caused by the fighting. Even the large naval base, located not far from the centre of Sydney, had to be closed down so that repairs could be made due to battle damage.
Consequently, few were surprised when Fraser pushed back the required Federal elections to February. This date, however, due to various circumstances all related one way or another to The Upheaval, was pushed further back to May, even though many Constitutional experts argued that, in doing so, Fraser and the "caretaker government" was acting illegally. Needless to say, these experts were completely ignored, whilst Fraser declared that far more important things needed to be attended to, due to the resent events, before the Federal elections could be held.
Although Fraser may never had actually intended it to happen, as a result of the police and ASIO investigations into treason and sedition, inevitably a lot of Labor Party members were also soon caught up into the police web and were soon facing prison terms. Whitlam may have escaped such things, by virtue of being assassinated, but other senior Labor members did not. Soon Bill Hayden, Jim Cairns, and just about everyone else who mattered, were in prison cells having been found guilty of sedition and facing ten years or so in a cell. It goes without saying, hence, that when the Federal election finally came around, the Labor Party was decimated, as candidates, about all creditable ones, were few and far between.
Yet such recriminations, let alone the reorganising of the Australian political landscape, did not end there. Even before the Federal elections took place in May 1976, the union movement’s leadership had been likewise decimated. No union leader got off from facing a prison cell. Considering the huge turnout and support, which all the unions offered and organised for The Upheaval, they were the first ones hit in the government’s counterattacks in the aftermath. Thus, within days, union leaders had either been killed, during the fighting itself, or were arrested. Consequently, when the election took place, there was no union leadership to offer much grassroots support for the Labor Party’s election campaigns.
Worse things were, though, just around the corner after the May election. With a huge so-called mandate, from the Australian electorate, which saw close to 75% of the House of Representatives made up of Coalition Members, whilst a clear majority of seven Senators was also enjoyed by the Coalition in the Upper House, the new Fraser government passed through whatever legislation it wanted. Not only were most of Whitlam’s reforms overturned, but political party membership would be limited in the future, as would union activity. This ensured that unionists could not be a member of the Labor Party, nor any other political party for that matter, nor could unions donate money to any political party either. This clearly would hit the Labor Party’s campaign budgets making it, thus, even harder to try to get elected back into government in the future. Meanwhile unions themselves could no longer call strikes and all other union business had to be conducted by secret ballot. And finally the Communist Party, and any political party considered to be Communist in nature, would be banned. Similarly anyone suspected of being a Communist, could be charged with sedition, and thrown in prison.
It comes as no surprise, then, that any serious challenge to the Fraser government was unheard of and anyone, including journals, had to be very careful what they said, wherever that may be, otherwise they may be arrested and face a prison sentence of several years.
Of course Malcolm Fraser never saw anything wrong with such a crackdown on his political opponents at first. Rather he blamed them for such strict government legislation instead. Given the events of The Upheaval, Fraser believed this was completely necessary as "Full Democracy", which was viewed to be practiced by the Whitlam Government (even though it was far from having done so), had almost resulted in the destruction of Australia. Hence the term "Guided Democracy" became the government’s popular catchphrase, when dealing with the media and its critics, although there were not many of them left in Australia any more.
It was not, though, as if Fraser did not have to answer to critics for his actions since mid-November 1975. As just mentioned, he did have them, but they were mostly from overseas. At first numerous nations, especially India, China, Britain, and even the United States, expressed concern after the assassination of Whitlam even if many blamed the United States for triggering off the whole mess in the first place. But in the aftermath of The Upheaval, there was an avalanche of criticism from around the world: especially from the United Nations. At first Fraser tried to be as diplomatic as possible, but soon that changed. When the Australian media then started to pick up on some of these reports, Fraser reacted quietly behind the scenes by calling the Australian media barons about silencing such reports. Within 24 hours of such a conversation, media self-censoring had begun, although the occasional article still snuck through in order to provide a so-called balanced reporting approach.
After the May 1976 election, however, things hardly started to slowly change. In fact it was the opposite. Even the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was known back then) was the exception in silencing the criticism of Fraser at first, after The Upheaval its management and editorial staff were either fired or arrested. This ensured that the ABC was in utter chaos, come trying to conduct its business, but by the May Federal election it was back up to speed. What it did not do, though, was remain independent, but pretty much towed the line and reported whatever the Fraser Caretaker government wanted. Then, after the May elections, the ABC became a government department and was used as a propaganda machine thereafter.
In many respects, just like the ABC became a mere shell of its former self, the same could be said for the rest of Australia as well. Although on the immediate surface, everything looked fine, by Christmas 1976, just below the surface it was anything but a free and open country. ASIO and the police were, now more than ever before, on the prowl for communists, their supporters, and their sympathisers. Whether it be a union member, or just someone critical in the streets or pubs, there was a good chance that that person would be taken notice of and then possibly disappear into the night, whilst their family members would be told of the arrest the next day or two.
Yet that was not the worst of it. Due to the already run down global economy of the period, not to mention Australia’s economy had already been hit hard in 1975 prior to The Upheaval, all meant to say that the Australian economy from early 1976 onwards was in tatters. Not only had several thousand tradesmen and university students been killed, but a further 25 000 where in prison. Given the fact that Australia needed every trained and skilled person that it could get, especially at this moment in time, meant to say things simply were not done. Factories could not produce items. Produce from farms were suffering delays in getting their foodstuffs to markets. Offices were deprived of junior staff and business activity was drastically reduced. Everything which could, thus, go wrong to ensure a depression, happened all at once to guarantee one. And, needless to say, by late 1978, Australia’s financial reserves had hit rock bottom.
Still all was not completely lost for Australians. Thankfully a resources boom, of sorts, stopped total economic disaster. Some trading partners, however, were lost, due to The Upheaval, but other doors had opened. Japan soon became a vital customer of coal, iron, bauxite, cooper, and nickel, just to name a few such items, whilst new farm produce markets were found in the likes of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It was somewhat ironic, though, given these two nations became major trading partners, as it was a scandal over a large money loan, involving such nations, that Fraser used to bring on the Dismissal Crisis in the first place, which lead to everything else which had unfolded.
Having said the above, the standard of living for most Australians had clearly dropped by the beginning of 1981. Unemployment in the cities had gone beyond 10%. Savings for most people were none existent. Prices on everything had drastically risen. Inflation was at record levels. And although the other cities, which had faced fighting during The Upheaval had recovered, Sydney was still in the middle of a rebuilding program which was still years away from completion. And all the while, even though many Australians suspected it, it was a different story elsewhere in the world. Few people now trusted the ABC, whilst most people believed that all the other media outlets were no better. Yet, considering this was in the days prior to satellite or cable television in Australia, no one really had any idea what the outside world thought about these issues and Australia: unless Australians travelled overseas. Only then did they get the true picture. And, as the years went by, as more and more Australians were prepared to travel just, if for no other reason but spend some time in better places, slowly, but surely, some Australians began to think that "Uncle Mal" was not being all that benevolent with his Guided Democracy…
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