Days of Rage: The Public Order Act 1971 in practice

On 13 May, 1971, the McMahon Government passed the Public Order (Persons and Property) Act (Cth) into law. As I have written here, the Act was a ‘law and order’ response to the cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with many Liberal and Country Party members concerned about the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements that were growing at the time. That previous post outlined the history of the Act and its wider context (and this post looked at how the Act was used to dissuade protests from occurring at foreign embassies/consulates), but the post below looks at the first uses of the Act in the week following its enactment. The post is complemented by some digitised documents from the National Archives of Australia, relating to the campaign against the South African Springboks tour of Australia in 1971

ASIO report on anti-Apartheid protest in May 1971

ASIO report on anti-Apartheid protest in May 1971

The Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act came into effect on May 13, 1971. On May 19 and 21, two demonstrations took place. May 19 was an anti-apartheid demonstration to take place outside the South African embassy and the May 21 demonstration ended up being a march against the Vietnam War, euphemistically known as the ‘Day of Rage’. The first demonstration saw approximately 1,000 students march from the Australian National University to the South African Embassy, in what the authorities described as ‘an unauthorised procession’.[1] An anonymous report on the day’s proceedings pointed to the fact that the marchers, which occupied some of Canberra’s busiest streets in the city centre, ‘defied the provisions of the Traffic Ordinance’ as the organisers did not seek written permission ‘to organise a procession of this kind upon a public street.’[2] The writer of the report complained:

The participants showed no regard for the convenience of motorists and did not respond to appeals by police to proceed in an orderly fashion. The conduct of the participants and the language used indicated a continued defiance of authority.[3]

Once at the South African Embassy, which partly looks onto State Circle, a busy roadway in the Parliamentary Zone, a ‘sit-in’ (or what the anonymous report writer described as a ‘sit down’) took place on the road for around 15 minutes (10 minutes according to the Commonwealth Police),[4] while ‘a large body of those involved moved along the perimeter fence and congregated at the main entrance to the South African Embassy.’[5] According to a report by a Commonwealth Police Force Inspector, around 500 demonstrators stood outside the Embassy and members of the local ACT Police (not yet an amalgamated force under the Australian Federal Police) took up positions in the grounds of the Embassy and those of Casey House next door, which housed several offices for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.[6] The anonymous report cited ‘frequently used’ expressions, such as ‘we came here to smash it, let’s smash it’, as evidence that ‘left no doubt that the intention of the group was to storm the embassy [sic] and commit damage’, and in colourful terms, said that the ‘situation was so tense that extreme tolerance was necessary in order that the resources of the police could be maintained to meet any extreme development.’[7] According the CPF representative, the ‘stated intention’ of the protestors was ‘taking the flag from the pole and to break as many windows as possible.’[8]

As demonstrators started to enter the grounds of the Embassy, they were arrested, along with others who refused to move after the police started to clear the road. According to the Canberra Times, 24 people were arrested,[9] while the anonymous report stated that nineteen were apprehended within the grounds of the Embassy and charged under Section 20(1) of the Public Order Act and amongst those ‘moved on’ on State Circle, ‘a number of persons were arrested and twelve charges under the general law were preferred’, including assaulting the police, hindering the police, resisting arrest, offensive behaviour, use of indecent language and insulting words, and malicious damage.[10] In his report to the CPF Commissioner, Inspector Waring commended the ACT police, who ‘as a whole displayed great restrain and in the face of the abuse hurled at them during the demonstration.’[11] The Canberra Times quoted Chris Swinbank, a leader of the anti-apartheid group at ANU, who said, ‘I’ve seen police a lot rougher than they were here. In NSW they kick first, then ask them to move on.’[12]

The newspaper also compared the scenes outside the South African Embassy with a demonstration outside the Soviet Embassy, where 15 people demonstrated against the treatment of Soviet Jews. The article said:

The demonstration lasted about 30 minutes. Some wearing convict garments marched from the St John Priory Headquarters in Canberra Avenue.

Afterwards the police thanked the participants for their orderly behaviour.[13]

Canberra Times on the first use of the Public Order Act

Canberra Times on the first use of the Public Order Act

In its report on the South African Embassy protest, the Canberra Times warned that further demonstrations were planned for the following day but added, ‘the objectives have not been decided’.[14] Students and potential protestors gathered at ANU on Friday 21 May, 1971, which coincided with Aquarius Festival of University Arts, which saw a large number of people congregate and according to the newspaper, argue ‘about the purposes and objectives of their protest for an hour’.[15] The newspaper further reported, ‘[n]o conclusion was reached although some students believed it was primarily an anti-Vietnam War, anti-conscription protest.’[16] The report to the CPF Commissioner gave the impression that the march was much more organised and reproduced the text of a flyer allegedly distributed the day before:

DAY OF RAGE!

A planned meeting will be held on the Library Lawn at 11 a.m., tomorrow, Friday. The mass march will leave shortly afterwards.

Wear protective gear. Bring crash helmets.

SMASH IMPERIALISM!

POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

THE STREETS BELONG TO US.[17]

The report stated that ‘[o]ther information gathered prior to the demonstration appeared to lend itself towards violence’ and that several Commonwealth Government buildings, as well as the South Vietnamese Embassy, were to be targeted.[18] According to the report, there was a belief that ‘[s]hould the police [have] intervene[d] in the actions of the demonstrators then violence would ensue.’[19]

Approximately 800 demonstrators set off from ANU towards the city centre (Civic), where a ‘sit-in’ was temporarily held on Alinga Street near Garema Place. The previously mentioned anonymous report says that this action was designed to obstruct the street and 46 arrests were made under Section 9 of the Public Order Act ‘which provides a penalty for any persons who, while taking part in an assembly, engages in unreasonable obstruction.’[20] As the demonstration the moved into the Parliamentary Zone, nine were arrested under the same section of the Act outside the Treasury Building and another three outside (now Old) Parliament House.[21]

The major confrontation between demonstrators and the police occurred outside the ACT Police headquarters on London Circuit between the Parliamentary Zone and the city centre, with around 700 demonstrators assembling at this point.[22] The Canberra Times reported that a police inspector announced into a megaphone, ‘I am asking you to move off. You are creating an obstruction. Please move away’,[23] with the police able to use the Public Order Act in the crowd did not disperse. Inspector Waring’s report to the Commissioner described that upon hearing this pronouncement, a ‘number of speakers were heard amid the crowd defying the order and ‘[l]oud chants of “We can’t hear you” followed the order to disperse.’[24] After fifteen minutes and two further warnings, the police moved into the crowd and there was a feeling amongst those assembled that this was a chance to ‘test the provisions of the Act’.[25] In the end, 190 demonstrators were arrested (and 187 charges laid), which was according to the Canberra Times ‘more than twice the number arrested at any previous demonstration’, with ‘two-thirds… charged with obstruction, and about one-third with failing to disperse, all under the new Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act.’[26]

Canberra Times article on the 'Day of Rage'

Canberra Times article on the ‘Day of Rage’

In assessing the use of the Act to disperse the demonstrators, the author of the anonymous report wrote that the new legislation ‘was not only considered appropriate, but it was doubtful whether any alternative legislation would have met this situation.’[27] The CPF report did not mention the effectiveness of the legislation, but declared that ‘[t]hroughout the day the A.C.T. Police was in control of the situation’.[28] In an internal CPF memo, written in July 1971, as the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Australia was mobilising against the Springboks playing in Australia, the Commonwealth Police stated that it was believed that the Act had ‘had a sobering effect on demonstrators in the A.C.T.’ and claimed that ‘[m]ore than one local identity has voiced his concern over the thought of being prosecuted under this legislation.’[29] It seems that the authorities used the Public Order Act against the two demonstrations in late May to demonstrate the powers that could be wielded under the Act and to make protestors wary of the police – possibly seeking to establish the message that any form of unruliness from a demonstration would be met with considerable force by the police with the powers to arrest most disobedient demonstrators. As Roger A. Brown wrote, the ‘apparent policy of A.C.T,. police has been to provide close escort, or a major show of force, for large demonstrations’, but warned that the fear of arrest ‘often tends to make the crowd remain compact, and likely to react violently to any attempts to break it up.’[30]

ASIO p2

In July, the Act was used again when 1,000 protestors demonstrated against the Springboks playing at Manuka Oval. However after this, the Act was reluctantly used by the authorities, probably due to the lack of convictions that resulted from these initial waves of arrest (see the figures mentioned in Parliament here and here). By the time of the Whitlam Government, its use was almost non-existent.

If you are in Adelaide, I will presenting a paper on this topic at the Flinders University History Seminar Series on Friday May 23. More details can be found here.

———————————————————————————–

[1] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971: Application at Canberra for demonstrations held on Wednesday, 19th Mat 1971, and Friday, 21st May, 1971’, p. 1, A432 1970/5108 Part 4, NAA

[2] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 1

[3] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 1

[4] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, report to Commissioner of Commonwealth Police Force, 26 May, 1971, p. 1, A432 1970/5108 Part 6, NAA

[5] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 1

[6] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 1

[7] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, pp. 1-2

[8] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 1

[9] ‘Students, Police in Violent Clash’, Canberra Times, 22 May, 1971

[10] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 2

[11] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 1

[12] ‘More Protests Planned’, Canberra Times, 20 May, 1971

[13] ‘More Protests Planned’, Canberra Times, 20 May, 1971

[14] ‘More Protests Planned’, Canberra Times, 20 May, 1971

[15] ‘Students, Police in Violent Clash’, Canberra Times, 22 May, 1971

[16] ‘Students, Police in Violent Clash’, Canberra Times, 22 May, 1971

[17] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 2

[18] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 2

[19] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 1

[20] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 3

[21] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 3

[22] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 3

[23] ‘Students, Police in Violent Clash’, Canberra Times, 22 May, 1971

[24] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 3

[25] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 4

[26] ‘Students, Police in Violent Clash’, Canberra Times, 22 May, 1971

[27] ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971’, p. 4

[28] Inspector D.C. Waring, ‘Demonstration held in Canberra, A.C.T. on 19 and 21 May 1971’, p. 4

[29] CPF memo, 15 July, 1971, A6122 2116, NAA

[30] Roger A. Brown, ‘“And Hast Thou Slain the Jabberwock?”: The Law Relating to Demonstrations in the ACT’, Federal Law Review, 6, 1974-75, pp. 143-144

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