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Declassified: Union House and the Vietnam War

Words by Simon Farley

If you think Australia’s political climate is polarised now, well frankly, you don’t know shit. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, social divisions in this country ran deeper than most of us young’uns could ever imagine. Inequality and injustice were rife, and the general populace was finally getting mad about it. The focal point for this rage was of course the Vietnam War. Why? Probably because it was a horrifyingly pointless conflict that had precisely fuck all to do with Australia, besides the fact that every Prime Minister from Curtin to Whitlam wanted to suck Uncle Sam’s dick. Figuratively speaking, of course. The fact that people were being dragged into this terrible thing against their will (thanks, conscription!) only added injury to insult.

Being the lefty paradise it was (and to a lesser extent still is), the University of Melbourne was at the forefront of the movement against Australia’s involvement in the War. This was particularly the case with conscription. It dragged so many bright young men into Vietnam’s vicious maw, spitting many of them out as barely recognisable husks of humanity. Either that, or they just straight-up died. By 1970, Vietnam was the longest military conflict Australia had ever fought, and popular sentiment against it was reaching a vociferous peak. Protests and other acts of resistance ranging from the theatrical to the militant were commonplace. Following similar protests in the US, a series of ‘moratorium’ rallies were held throughout Australia in 1970 and ‘71.  At Melbourne’s first, on 8 May 1970, some 100,000 people peacefully occupied the CBD, many of them students.

It was amid this climate that Union House was briefly transformed into a sanctuary for draft resisters—an ad hoc fortress where activists could broadcast their subversive messages through a pirate radio station.

On 27 September 1971, four draft resisters and their supporters established Resistance Radio on the third level of Union House, where the George Paton Gallery stands today. For the next two days, they played what’s been described as a “cat-and-mouse game” with the Postmaster General, who was in charge of telecommunications. To defend the fugitives and their illicit broadcasts, hundreds of students occupied Union House, constructing elaborate barricades from chairs, tables and Young Liberals. The Melbourne University Resistance Commune, as they dubbed themselves, were an ideologically diverse lot, but they co-operated in a way that would make a grown Socialist Alternative member weep.

But this microcosmic liberal utopia was not to last. At 5 am that Thursday, some 150 police officers stormed the University. Thanks to an elaborate warning system consisting of flares and foghorns, those within Union House were warned of the attack well in advance. These alarms also summoned reinforcements from the colleges, in what I imagine looked a lot like that Helm’s Deep bit in Lord of the Rings where everyone’s about to die but then Gandalf comes in with the Riders of Rohan and it’s all like BAM SHING WHACK and they kill all the orcs. Surprisingly, however, it was a largely non-violent affair—the members of the Commune simply linked arms and sang “Power to the People” while the police went about their business.

It took twenty minutes for them to break into the building and then work their way up through the barricades to the third floor, by which point the draft resisters had long since disappeared. They fled to Adelaide, where both Adelaide and Flinders universities offered them asylum. The Fuzz cleared the building of students and proceeded to spend the next four hours destroying Union property, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage, because apparently in the ‘70s the police force was primarily made up of cranky toddlers.

So, what did we learn?

It may have been short-lived, but as a student of the same university as those brave, crazy lefties, I can’t help but feel inspired. Power and privilege are still pooled in a relatively small segment of society, and increasingly that segment of society is throwing its weight around—making that power felt, that privilege obvious. I’m not saying we need to form the Melbourne University Resistance Commune 2: Commune Harder, but as role models go, you could find worse. I’ll put it this way: in 1971, people felt like they were being pushed around, and they didn’t just cop it—they made themselves heard. They resisted. And by the end of the next year, conscription was abolished, all conscientious objectors had been released from prison, and there were no more Australian troops fighting in Vietnam.