Anzac Day and Protest Culture in Australian History

As usual, the run up to Anzac Day is filled with debate over the importance of the Anzac ‘legend’ (or ‘myth’) is to Australian culture and history and how (of if) the events of 1915 in Gallipoli should be remembered. The purpose of this post is to highlight that Anzac Day has also served as a lightning rod for protest against war since the 1930s and that the reverence shown to Anzac Day in recent years (particularly since John Howard’s Prime Ministership) has not always been the case.


The Anzac myth and the ‘sacrifice’ of Australian soldiers for the greater British Empire was alive and well during the inter-war period. In the lead up to the Second World War, those involved in anti-fascism and the peace movement in Australia highlighted that the First World War was an imperialist war and that those who were pushing for war in the 1930s were also imperialists (the Soviet Union was viewed as the driver of peace in this period). Communist Party of Australia member, Len Fox, produced this pamphlet in 1936 for the Victorian Council Against War and Fascism (a CPA front organisation). Regarding Anzac Day, Fox called those who gathered around the Cenotaph as ‘militarists’ who ‘use the traditions to bring about a repetition of these blunders’. Digital versions of Fox’s pamphlet can be found at NLA website or the Reason in Revolt website.


The Reason in Revolt website has also produced an issue of Communist Review from 1939 which contains an article with a similar argument to Fox’s. The article, by Communist historian James Rawling, concludes with a robust criticism of Anzac Day:

Anzac day commemorates one of the foulest crimes that has ever been committed against the working class of this country. And yet, so powerful are the agencies of capitalist propaganda that thousands still surround the day with dreams of glory and accolades of honour. But there is one atom of satisfaction and one ground for hope amid all the celebrations and the jingoes’ rant. And that is that Anzac Day has so captured the imagination of the masses, the people of Australia so highly estimate the deeds done and the sacrifice made at Anzac, that this very day must be seized upon and covered with all the camouflage of noble sacrifice and worthwhile suffering. Far more suffering and slaughter occurred at Ypres, but that can be forgotten – Anzac Day cannot. And, once the masses of Australia understand fully the horror of that crime at Anzac, the obscenity of the offering to God Capital, then their indignation will be so much greater for all the bombast and talk of glory that surround its celebrations.

With the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Anzac Day became, once again, the focal point of protest in Australia against war and imperialist aggression. But it was in the early 1980s that protest against Anzac Day reached a new height, with the feminist organisation Women Against Rape (WAR) conducting protests across Australia on  April 25th.

A protestor is arrested by the police at Anzac Day demo in Canberra 1981.
A protestor is arrested by the police at Anzac Day demo in Canberra 1981  (courtesy of ACT Public Library Photo Collection).

The history and significance of these protests against rape and violence against women during war by the Women Against Rape organisation and their challenge to the myths surrounding Anzac Day have been discussed elsewhere by Catriona Elder and Amy Way. This article from ANU student paper, Woroni, states that these protests had began in Canberra in the mid-1970s and had grown gradually in size until 1980, when protestors clashed with police, leading to a number of arrests.

From 'Woroni' (1981)
From ‘Woroni’ (1981)

This confrontation escalated in at the 1981 Anzac Day in Canberra and in the aftermath, Federal Parliament debated (in the days before the ACT had self-government) whether legislation should be put in place to curb protest in the ACT and to protect the ‘sanctity’ of Anzac Day. This 1985 paper by Robin Handley shows that these protests were an important episode in the history of public order policing in Australia and caused significant problems for the Fraser Government, who were unwilling to use the existing Public Order (Protections of Persons and Property) Act 1971. As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, the result of this was that the Fraser Government brought in the Public Assemblies Ordinance 1982 (ACT), which is the only piece of legislation that has recognised the right of Australians to peacefully protest – although it was repealed by the Hawke Government the following year.

From feminist zine 'Treason' (1985)
From feminist zine ‘Treason’ (1985)

Feminist activists, such as those who produced the zine Treason in Melbourne during the mid-1980s, continued to protest against Anzac Day during the 1980s and also cited considerable intimidation by the police. The website Reason in Revolt has scanned two issues of Treason which describe the events of Anzac Day protest marches in 1983 and 1985.

Protest at Anzac day may have subsided in recent years, but these episodes from the history of Australian protest show that Anzac Day has been, and will continue to be, contested by many outside of mainstream politics.


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