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Case studies

The case studies included in this section show the diversity of activism and its importance and capacity to create social change. Further Case Studies will be added to this section over time. They will provide a historical account, a body of knowledge and context for activists and a record of the many ways in which activism is relevant to the issues of our time.

The Gunns 20

The case

In December 2004, Tasmanian timber and forestry giant, Gunns Ltd launched legal proceedings in the Victorian Supreme Court against 3 environmental organisations and 17 individuals arising out of the campaign to protect Tasmania’s old growth forests. The 216 page writ claimed $6.3m damages for a “corporate campaign” of alleged unlawful lobbying of Gunns’ banks, Japanese customers and others, and also from a series of forest protests and a general conspiracy against the company.

It was a high profile case as the defendants included Senator Bob Brown, the Greens Tasmanian leader, Peg Putt, and one of Australia’s largest environment organisations, The Wilderness Society. Concerns were immediately expressed about the implications for free speech and the right to protest. The concerns were heightened when, just of a few days after the writ was issued, Gunns announced its intention to build the largest pulp mill in the southern hemisphere in the north of Tasmania. It may have just been a coincidence of timing, but some viewed the writ as a pre-emptive strike against pulp mill opponents Whatever the truth, the fear of litigation was always in the background of the pulp mill campaign, but the mill itself was also tainted from the beginning.

For the next 5 years the Gunns 20 case played out in two parallel streams – one legal and one activist, but always against a background of the broader pulp mill and forests campaign.

The Legal Story

When the case began, the defendants scrambled to get legal advice and representation – some paid, others sought pro bono support. Given its high profile, there was in fact no shortage of lawyers prepared to act, and in the end 6 legal teams were assembled to represent different combinations of defendants. When the court first heard the defendants’ application to strike out the unwieldy statement of claim, Gunns were probably surprised by the wall of silk the motley activists had assembled.

Before the hearing of the application to strike out the statement of claim, Gunns lodged a second, longer statement of claim purporting to give more details of the vaguely alleged conspiracy and the planning of the actions complained of, but to no avail. With some harsh comments, Justice Bongiorno threw out the statement of claim as it did not state a case clearly against the defendants. Gunns returned with a third statement of claim, including increased claims for damages, but it too was struck out.

After two years and much pointless expenditure, Gunns sacked its legal team and appointed Australia’s largest legal firm Clayton Utz, and there was a new approach to the pleading. Three defendants were dropped from the case (including the Greens MPs), the one claim against Frank Nicklason was made into a separate defamation case, and all the pleadings about the campaign in relation to Japanese customers, the banks and the Banksia awards were dropped. The fourth version of the statement of claim was allowed to proceed based just on the claims around particular forest protests – still big, but a much clearer and more manageable case.

Over the next two years, there were a variety of legal moves which saw discreet claims settled and/or agreements to drop more defendants from the case, before a protracted battle begun over discovery of documents. Given that Gunns claimed that The Wilderness Society was behind all the forest protests, it sought evidence in the organisation’s documents. The Wilderness Society had always said that they had been involved in only of the actions, had settled most of that, and resisted handing over membership records, minutes of meetings and planning documents which were not relevant. Gunns sought court orders for more documents, lost, appealed and lost again – leaving them with little evidence of involvement of the only defendant who could realistically pay any damages. In March 2009, mediation saw The Wilderness Society walk away from the case with a payment of $350,000 for its costs – recouping the money it had paid in strategic settlements along the way and claiming a huge win.

With The Wilderness Society and its five officers gone from the case, the original $6.3m grand conspiracy case had become a small case against largely impecunious defendants. In January 2010, they too were dropped with a payment of $155,000. With the case against Frank Nicklason also settling, after 5 years the Gunns 20 case ended.

The Activist Story

As noted above, the Gunns 20 case was never only or simply a legal case. It had political dimensions and raised key issues about the right to protest. When the defendants were sued, there were protests about the case, and a support organisation, GVMO (Gunns v Marr & Others) was established to raise funds and assist in legal research and defence coordination. While legally the defendants could not call on Gunns to drop the case, they could and did use the case to highlight the clearfelling of Tasmania’s old growth forests. Public meetings were held around the country, and in a statement that they would not be intimidated, delivered a birthday cake to Gunns’ head office on the first anniversary of the writ. And most importantly, the campaign against the pulp mill grew and grew.

With the case focussing attention on the Tasmanian forests, and with the international networks of The Wilderness Society and Greenpeace (who were not sued but had done two of the protest actions in the case) activated, environment groups in Europe, Japan, and the United States started raising issues about what was happening and about the environmental certification of Gunns woodchips. The issues were raised in the UK parliament, with the European timber certification bodies and directly with Gunns’ Japanese customers. Given that the largest amount of damages claimed in the case was for the “Japanese customers campaign”, it was ironic that the case itself led to more pressure on those companies to stop buying woodchips from native forests.

The case, plus the unfolding pulp mill saga of political interference in planning processes and Gunns appearing to write its own laws and approval conditions, meant that Gunns effectively lost its social licence. Protests grew across the country, and without that social licence and with the loss of a compliant government, Gunns found getting finance for the mill impossible. The company’s fortunes tumbled. From a share price of over $4 when the Gunns 20 case began, Gunns share were worth around 50c by the end of the case. Its old guard management left, and the new management set about re-shaping the company and re-building its social licence. This ushered in a promising period of talks between the government, industry and environmentalists aimed at ending the long running forestry disputes in Tasmania.

The End

At the time of writing (April 2012) it is still not clear whether the forestry deals hammered out over the last few years will last, and whether Gunns will eventually build its re-modelled pulp mill, but the Gunns 20 case stands as a great lesson in the importance of a company’s social licence and the dangers of suing political opponents.

However, while ultimately victorious, the Gunns 20 case was not without cost for the defendants. The Wilderness Society spent over $1m in legal costs and used a lot of staff and activist energy which could have gone to other environmental campaigns. The Huon Valley Environment Centre continued to campaign and be a hub for organising protests in the forests in the south of Tasmania. The individual defendants got on with their lives: some left Tasmania or retired from environmental activism – either burnt by the case, or just because other things came up – while others became more hard-nosed activists. Most tragically, the 13th defendant, Ben Morrow died of cancer just weeks after the case against him was dropped.

The legal legacy of the case is hard to tell, but it did spawn a campaign for so-called “anti-SLAPP” (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) legislation to protect the right of public participation and protest. Some of the edge was taken off the campaign by the passing of new defamation laws in all states in 2005, and by the then moves towards a national bill of rights. However, in 2008, after a campaign by The Wilderness Society and on the initiative of the Greens, the ACT parliament passed a watered-down, but symbolically significant Protection of Public Participation Act.

The Gunns 20 were:

Alex Marr

Geoff Law

Russell Hanson

Leanne Minshull

Heidi Douglas

The Wilderness Society Inc

Adam Burling

Louise Morris

Simon Brown

Senator Bob Brown

Peg Putt, MP

Helen Gee

Ben Morrow

Louise Geraghty

Neil Funnell

Brian Dimmick

The Huon Valley Environment Centre

Peter Pullinger

Dr Frank Nicklason

Doctors for Native Forests Inc

By Greg Ogle.

For a fuller history of the case, see Greg Ogle, Gagged: The Gunns 20 and other law suits, (Envirobook, 2009).

Women for Peace: No weapons no war

What makes a peace activist?

What makes a 58 year-old, well-behaved woman, who had never stepped forward in public, take red paint and write, 'The Killing has Started!' on statues outside the USA Consulate in Melbourne? What does it take for a woman who had described herself as daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, friend, neighbour, now call herself a peace activist?

The answer: the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, and the saturation bombing of Afghanistan by 8 October 2001 even though not a single hijacker was Afghan. The injustice of a collective punishment of the Afghan people and of Iraq by the USA and its Coalition shook me. My old certainties made no sense anymore. I see wars as male, white and black males in power domination; the women and children don't exist. We had enough wars in the 20th-century. I cannot deal with the injustice of another century of wars and suffering.

A friend asked, 'Why are you so upset?' They (Afghans and Iraqis) are not your people. 'Who are my people?' I asked her in anguish.

Another friend asked why I had only reacted now and never before with all the other wars. I have no answer for this.

Forming Women for Peace: No Weapons No Wars

On Sunday, 1 September 2002, I addressed the capacity crowd in the Melbourne Town Hall and asked Dr Germaine Greer to lead a women's peace movement against all wars. (She was here for the Writers Festival). The media and a lot of women spoke to me that night and in the following weeks.

Women for Peace (WFP) was formed within the month. The group was inaugurated by October 2002, flyers, banners and badges made, we bought a megaphone, portable tables, and began distributing information in the Bourke Street Mall. We affiliated with the Victorian Peace Network, attended meetings, and participated in demonstrations and peace actions. WFP wanted strong peace actions with street theatre, and visual displays. We wanted to question and challenge the war ethos in our society, and the pathology of indifference.

Knowledge and experience of peace activism

Most of the women in the group had little or no experience and none had participated actively in the anti-war movement. We did not know where to go for information; there was no mentoring from more experienced people.

We had no skills in networking, publicity, recruiting, or training volunteers. No one from the more established groups stepped forward to offer advice, support or training, or told us where we could go for information. We knew of no organisation or individual who would assist us in the establishment phase of the group. A lot of women joined and supported the group as the anti-war sentiment was very strong towards the end of 2002 and in 2003. Membership fees, donations and the sale of badges helped fund the group.

Women chained at the US Consulate

On Monday, 10 February 03, at 9.20am, Reta Kaur and another woman chained themselves to a statue outside the USA Consulate on St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Two other women provided support by calling the media and attending to us. This was a nonviolent peace action by four women, ages 20s to 60s, using 2 chains, and an empty, gift-wrapped 5-litre petrol container, flowers, and a small bottle of red fluid symbolising blood.

Aim of the peace action

To draw attention to the threatened war on Iraq To deliver a letter to Mr Bush through the Consular General, pleading with Mr Bush to take the oil and spare the blood.

Peace action outcomes

The police came in large numbers, 12 to 14 men, no women, although only women were involved in the peace action. They threatened to cut the chains and remove us from the premises, the walkway entrance to the building. When they realised that we were harmless and posed no threat, we were allowed us to stay until 12 noon.

The presence of male police carrying guns was immediately frightening. Their large numbers created a threatening presence. The absence of policewomen caused me concern: Would male police physically search us?

The media came in large numbers, radio, TV, print. They did not know how many women were involved. When they saw just 2 women, they were disappointed.

I, Reta Kaur was made invisible by the police and the media. They gravitated to the younger, Anglo, blonde woman who was chained, and to the other two white women. The assumption being that in the presence of white women, a black woman can only be subservient, and cannot possibly be the leader and spokeswoman. Only when the other women said that Reta was the spokeswoman did the police and media make eye contact with me. My traditional dress and veil further reduced my authority in Western eyes, and they were doubtful whether I even spoke English.

A woman observed and commented that the police and media had treated me in a racist and disrespectful way.

A journalist said to the other woman: You don't look like a typical protester, your hair is washed, your clothes are clean. She received unwanted attention from some male journalists.

At 12 noon, the police came in large numbers again and supervised our leaving the Consulate. A police presence had remained all the time in the street and in the building. Only one TV station devoted a few seconds to the peace action in the evening broadcast.

Peace vigil at the US Consulate

The idea for a peace vigil outside the USA Consulate at St Kilda Road came during a public meeting at the Brunswick Town Hall on 4 March 03. Women for Peace and Moreland Peace Group started the vigil as the invasion of Iraq appeared imminent. We were there every day for 30 days, from 8am to 6pm, from 6 March to 17 April 03. There were only 20-30 people at the peak of the protest. From 28 April 03 we were there on Mondays, and had our last vigil on 22 March 04, marking one year of the invasion.

Aim: To be present, to bear witness, to hold the USA accountable for the crimes against humanity, our evolving, graphic clothesline told the story about the savagery of the invasions and the lies. We kept faith.

Features of the vigil

The vigil was characterised by the following features:

We stood on busy St. Kilda Road with placards saying, Hoot for Peace, War is not the Answer, No War for Oil, etc. We had a lot of support from passing traffic.

Over the months we added a clothesline of bloodied clothes, media headline placards, flags of USA, Australia and UK, a large picture of George Bush next to Amrozi, the Bali bomber, pictures of the carnage in Iraq, etc. It was a visual and a powerful display and attracted a lot of attention and often formed the footage of TV news stories. We also had special vigils on 4 July - American Independence Day, Hiroshima Day, 11 September, and the first anniversary of the invasion. Street theatre was also a feature of the vigil. I wore the American flag upside down with a child's bloodied dress. This became my personal symbol against the US led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the crimes against humanity.

Reta Kaur arrested

On Thursday, 20 March 03, when the bombing started, in a moment of terrible grief and betrayal, I wrote: The Killing has Started! in red paint on the two statues outside the Consulate. I have been charged with criminal damage of $9080. It was a spontaneous act arising from the horrific moment when a passer-by said to me, They've started bombing.

Police and legal issues associated with the vigil and my arrest

As a new and inexperienced group consisting mainly of women, we felt that we had no reason to fear the police or the Diplomatic Protection Unit as we were entirely peaceful. We were exercising our democratic right of peaceful protest, and the police had no right to take any action against us. Knowledge about the law and police powers was minimal among us. But we felt safe from the police on St Kilda Road, although there was often abuse from pro-war passers-by.

The police were often called by the Consulate to check on us. The police told us so. They came daily, sometimes twice a day. They asked our names, addresses, and date of birth. Only I told them my name, the nominated spokeswoman, as I was at the vigil almost every day. I gave the police no other information. The other men and women also refused to give the police any information.

Most of the police were impartial and polite but occasionally some police made snide, political comments. Once, when a car full of louts yelled abuse at us, the police laughed. We were watchful of the police, polite but detached.

On 20 March 03, 2 policemen and one woman were involved with my arrest. I refused to give them my full name and address as I thought I had done nothing wrong. I was going to wash down the statues myself before leaving the Consulate to attend the rally at 5pm called by the Victorian Peace Network. As it was water-soluble paint and would wash off immediately, I did not think I had committed a crime and did not have to give police my full name, address, etc. The police insisted I give personal details, and when I refused, I was arrested, put in a car and taken to St Kilda police station.

In the car, alone with the police sergeant, he wanted to know what my background was, if I was Sri Lankan, where I came from. Traumatised by what had happened and needing to be silent within myself, I told him that I needed to be quiet. He then drove without another word.

In the police station I was told of my right to call a solicitor, which I did, and obtained advice. I was told that I should not be photographed. The chatty sergeant took a picture of me without my permission, and I told him that he was wrong to do that. He didn't care. I was not allowed to use my glasses for reading and during the interview, for fear that I might harm myself. I was left alone in a locked room for a long time before and during the interview, resulting in increased stress and trauma. The door was always banged and locked loudly, giving a jail kind of impression. I dealt with all this by becoming a witness, a fly on the wall, observing what was happening to me.

I think being older helped, having my head covered with a veil helped in a way that I'm still trying to understand. The police and other figures in authority don't seem to know how to treat and deal with a woman of my age wearing a veil. My silent demeanour also confused them.

The Shrine action

The Shrine action on 11 November 2003 & the Myer Window of Suffering

In these two actions by Women For Peace the police acted to further the agenda of The Shrine trustees, and Myer business, and violated our rights of peaceful protest.

At the Shrine in Melbourne, the police set us up completely. They were on the lookout for us, and when 7 women aged 20 to 78 (most of us were over 50 years-old), turned up, they were prepared. The Shrine trustees were not having a repeat of the 2002 incident with full media coverage.

The police confiscated our banner immediately and refused to let us distribute our peace flyers, although The Shrine information was being distributed. The police confined us to a spot where we were not visible, and then broke us up because they thought we were going to chant and disrupt the ceremony. We had no intentions of doing that.

Reinforcements were called immediately, and I was carried forcefully away by two policemen and arrested.

I was held tightly underarm and shoulders and dragged across the front lawn of The Shrine. I cried, No, No as I was being dragged. No-one from the hundreds of people assembled stopped the police or registered their disapproval about a woman of my age being dragged in such a violent way. "Pathology of indifference," I thought. "The Jews were dragged away in a similar way in World War 2, and no-one cared."

I suffer from arthritis in my arms, shoulders and back. The tight hold by the police triggered severe pains that lasted many days. I saw a doctor and the symptoms were documented.

Another woman, Anna (not her real name) was also arrested for "assaulting police and resisting arrest". Anna was charged for "assaulting police, resisting arrest, etc." I was not charged.

Anna had reacted emotionally to the police dragging me across the lawn. She knows that I have severe pains in my arms and shoulders from arthritis. She was concerned for my wellbeing and implored the police to let me go and not drag me. In the context of this commotion, Anna bumped into the man accidentally. He assaulted her by choking her. She cried, I cannot breathe, several times. The police did nothing. When she was released from his grip, she had something like an asthma attack and sat on the ground, gasping for breath. The police surrounded her and continued to harass her, wanting to drag her to their car. She asked for a Ventolin inhaler. Nobody had one. Anna received no first aid, nor was an ambulance called. When she felt calmer, she was taken to the police car.

Anna's 78 year-old mother, a frail woman, recovering from a virus infection on that day, was very distressed to see Anna assaulted and not assisted when she had difficulty breathing. (The mother is a veteran of the Vietnam War peace protests, and is distressed that we have learnt nothing from the past. She joined The Shrine peace action, despite being ill, as she needed to make a statement.) She was not allowed to be with Anna in the car to the station. She walked down the hill with the other women to the police station to await the outcome of the arrests.

The inhumanity of the police in treating Anna's mother in that way was shameless. When police/army/citizens follow rules without compassion, we near the edge of darkness and all forms of cruelty become possible.

The police had actively created the conflict and managed the ensuing chaos to damage Women For Peace at The Shrine.

The Shrine incident showed how a women's peace action against war is hijacked and demonised by the power structures terrified by even the minutest notion of peace. The police were there to do the bidding of The Shrine trustees and the state. Our rights as citizen protesters were not protected.

The police were also called by Myer executives to move us forcefully as our Window of Suffering next to the Christmas windows was bad for business as it might make people think.

The police came in large numbers, again all men. They ripped up our placards, bundled up our things, and dragged me to their car. Then they let me go with a warning that I go home.

A few people protested and argued with the police about our treatment. Michael Leunig was one of the witnesses.

When we put up our Window of Suffering opposite the Myer windows, we had no trouble from the police. The two police who did turn up were very supportive.

The police were more aggressive in the last two incidents. They were supportive in other peace actions at Nike, Borders Bookshop, and McDonalds.

Another feature of an all women's peace group is that authority figures think that women are easy to frighten and intimidate. Council officers, private security guards, etc. try to move us on within the first 10 minutes of our peace actions. They tell us we need permission, they intimidate us with their body language, they threaten to call the police. When we tell them politely but firmly that we are not moving, and we know our rights about public spaces, they usually disappear. But this level of intimidation is sometimes enough to frighten some women. Hence the need for strong group cohesion and support within Women For Peace.


Championing peace does not make you a hero in Melbourne. A visible and public stand on peace makes you a villain. People and structures that benefit from invasions and wars, groups who support the status quo of Western power domination will attack you verbally and physically. The police will not protect you but do the bidding of their political masters. To be a peace activist is to be a pariah, the faceless mob. The women in Women For Peace will continue to work for peace. The price of indifference is, personally and globally, too high.

Area denial tactics at Kirribilli

On April 10, 2004 approximately 250 people from various states in Australia rallied in support of refugees in Bradfield Park, Kirribilli, New South Wales.

Organised by the Refugee Action Coalition, the protest marked the third year that refugee-rights supporters have converged over the Easter weekend calling for an end to the politics of fear, with a focus on the treatment of refugees.

Before the protest began, police set up a temporary operational headquarters with mobile fencing, three generators, massive floodlights, two marquees and five portaloos.

The state government deployed close to 200 crowd-control officers, water and mounted police, the dog squad and helicopters. There were three police paddy wagons, six caged vans, a police truck, three police buses, a rescue van, nine police cars, a fire truck and an ambulance on the scene.

Protest organiser Ian Rintoul told the April 11 Melbourne Age that this was designed to "make residents here and the general public think there is some reason to be afraid of us when all we are doing here today is exercising our right to free speech in a peaceful fashion".

Adapted from an article by Sarah Stephen from Green Left Weekly , April 21, 2004.

Reclaim the streets

An overview and analysis of police responses to Reclaim the Street (RTS) events in Melbourne and Adelaide.

RTS in Melbourne

It appears that the police in both Melbourne and Sydney have been becoming increasingly intolerant of RTS as they get over their initial surprise at such a brazen community action and develop some 'fears' once they conducted some research into the UK versions of these full scale political street parties.

At the first Melbourne RTS (about two months after the first Sydney one in 1997) Victorian police initially sent a low-level presence of a couple of cars. Then the senior police arrived only after they realised that they had lost control over an entire city street! The police liaison was certainly intense but the police were unprepared and there was no way they could mobilise to move such a large, organised crowd of partying people.

The second Melbourne RTS, however, was substantially different, with a massive police turnout, twenty horses and the Inspectors (senior police) present and in control of the liaison from the outset. The march to the secret site was heavily policed and they had obvious fears that the RTS would take over a major arterial like the first time.

On arrival at the site (Smith Street, Collingwood a relatively minor local road) horses blockaded further movement onto the larger Victoria Parade, RTS road barriers were confiscated and the police began running interference with the party set-up at every turn.

From an initial stated intention of 'shutting the party down, with force if necessary' the police attitude gradually changed to one of grudging tolerance after some incredibly heated and assertive police liaison. (Which also served quite nicely to allow time for enough of the party structure, sound systems and couches, etc to be set up.)

Police attempts to shut down one of the generators failed due to the resilience of the large blockade around it and, again, more assertive police liaison. Police concerns gradually shifted to 'public safety' concerns about the safety of power cords on the streets etc. that we could easily mitigate to allay further police action.

Sydney Glebe Point Road RTS in 1997 was similar in that there was a massive initial police presence, high degree of intolerance and a great deal of concern about which street was planned to be blocked. (RTS organisers need to be aware that the grading of streets on which the RTS is to take place is a large determining factor in the police response any sort of 'secondary or major arterial' road which assists traffic flow through the city will reduce the likelihood that police will 'tolerate' the action.)

RTS in Adelaide

Adelaide held its first Reclaim The Streets (RTS) on Saturday 25 March 2000. There was nonviolent direct action training for organisers including marshals and police liaison people the week before. The organising group was quite large and the training was full of excitement, plans and ideas.

On the Saturday, about 400 people piled into the central square in Adelaide. Several media organisations showed up and interviewed one of the organisers. When everyone was ready the march piled out onto King William St (the largest thoroughfare in the city), blocking all lanes on one side of it completely. The route had been organised so that no single street was blocked for very long, and the marshals managed the traffic very well.

When the march reached the secret party site, part of Hindley St (full of nightclubs and such) it was about 2.30 pm. The road was blocked and the blockage signposted quickly and effectively. Cars wishing to leave the street party area were escorted out. Sound systems had begun playing music, dancing and juggling and a small skatepark had started and a permaculture display garden had been established in the street before the police arrived.

The police soon realised that two of them would not be able to move 400 people and police liaison began in earnest. The police liaison from RTS did a fabulous job of engaging waves of ever more senior police as the police cars arrived. They were assisted by the chosen site being a low traffic area in the afternoon (though it gets very busy at night). Thirty one individual police attended, including six STAR force officers (SA's paramilitary policing team) and 7 cars.

It was difficult for police to argue that the event was badly organised (when it was so obviously elegantly organised, albeit without any permit), or that it was unsafe (when the road had been blocked so as to minimise hassle for motorists and danger to pedestrians), or that businesses were unhappy (when all the businesses had been told in advance, all except one were supportive, and two had opened especially for the event!), or that it was violent (children having their faces painted, people dancing, street decorated with chalk...)

By about 4 pm RTS had negotiated to move the barricade past the business that objected to its presence, provided police ensured the continued safety of that part of the street. A police officer who said "I'm in charge of the city!" arrived and eventually offered to leave RTS alone in place until 7.30 pm provided people then moved, and negotiations among the activists in the street began as to what to do next. Sometime after 7.30 pm people paraded through a busy part of central Adelaide to a city park where they partied on into the night!

It was exciting to be part of such a positive and well-organised event, and to see how well the police liaison team managed what could clearly have been a difficult or violent confrontation with police taken by surprise by a large public event.

Adapted from discussion papers by Anthony Kelly (Melbourne) and Mary Heath (Adelaide).

For further discussion of police tactics see the Police tactics at protests section.

Pay the Rent campaign to the High Court

Aboriginal law student takes Australia to the World Court 1997

With native title negotiators sidelined in the latest government-supported farmer/mining company land grab, David Langsam reports on a legal challenge to Australian sovereignty.

Robbie Thorpe, a 39-year-old, first-year Melbourne University law student and a member of the Brabuwooloong clan, walked into the Melbourne registry of the High Court in 1997 and began the process of taking Australia to the World Court to decide who has the right to hear and decide cases involving sovereignty over the land known as the Commonwealth of Australia.

Mr Thorpe also obtained an inter partes summons to stop Prime Minister John Howard claiming that his 10-point plan on native title "does not breach international conventions or the Racial Discrimination Act". Mr Thorpe says that Mr Howard "acted in bad faith in his claims that Aboriginal rights will not be weakened in the present round of negotiations".

In a statement of claim served on the government, April 21, Mr Thorpe seeks High Court declarations on "the existence of the fiduciary obligation" by the Commonwealth (a duty of care for those in its charge) to the original peoples of Australia as a result of the "recently-admitted illegal invasion", "the commission of war crimes", "the general and continuing premeditated criminal genocide" of Aboriginal people and "the genocidal effect of the longstanding official lie of terra nullius".

It asks the High Court for a declaration requiring the Commonwealth to ask the United Nations General Assembly for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on:

  • the rights and legal status of Aboriginal people including sovereignty;
  • the question of consent by the original peoples to the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth and the Constitution; and
  • in the absence of that consent whether customary law applies to and is binding upon the Commonwealth of Australia.

Mr Thorpe's claim quotes (then) Prime Minister Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern address acknowledging: " was we who did the dispossessing ... we committed the murders ... we took the children from their mothers".

Mr Thorpe said he has begun the legal action in response to Mr Howard's threats to effectively extinguish native title by upgrading pastoralists' rights.

"Robbie Thorpe's court action throws a spanner in the works of the whole native title legislation and the current negotiations", commented veteran human rights activist, Mr Gary Foley.

"It brings the whole debate back to the central question of the illegal invasion and whose sovereignty is being challenged".

"When they found against Terra Nullius, at that moment the whole validity of the High Court disintegrated. They effectively conceded their own lack of jurisdiction to decide on any matter relating to Aboriginal people", Mr Foley said.

David Langsam 1997

John Batman's statue tried for war crimes

On Sunday October 6th, 1991 approximately eighty Koori and Gubbas (non-aborigines) took to the streets of Melbourne to uncover the brutal history of Australia since the white invasion and to call for a new era of solidarity and support for the Koori struggle for self determination in their own land.

The march was designed to highlight the 161st anniversary of the official declaration of war against the Tasmanian Aborigines by Governor Arthur on October 7th, 1830, and the establishment of the "Black Line", a massive official military operation designed to exterminate the Tasmanian Aborigines. The march focused on John Batman, the "founder of Melbourne", who was instrumental in the attempted genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines before arriving in the Port Phillip region and continuing to dispossess and destroy Koori peoples here.

Activists gathered at Flinders Park on Batman Avenue before marching to the Supreme Court where a barrister outlined the Genocide Convention of 1948 and how Australian law has continually transgressed that convention in relation to its treatment of Aboriginal people.

A Koori activist, Gary Foley, then outlined how Australian law continues to work actively against the interests of Aborigines in their struggles for recognition and social justice. After he spoke, activists climbed the fence at the Supreme Court en masse to serve eviction notices on the building, highlighting the basic illegality of this institution on Aboriginal land and the inappropriate and unjust nature of the laws and values it represents in relation to its treatment of Aboriginal peoples.

Attention then turned to the statue of John Batman, where activists returned those original implements and a Koori activist Robbie Thorpe tore up a copy of the original treaty. He then proceeded to place the statue of John Batman on trial for war crimes. Batman was charged with theft, trespass, rape and genocide.

As each charge was read, the crowd responded with a guilty verdict, and a sign for each of the crimes was hung on the neck of the statue. The hands of the statue were then taped red to signify the blood and suffering this man was responsible for. After the trial was held, Gubbas were invited to form their own treaty with Aboriginal people by signing up to pay the rent for their use of Aboriginal land.

The action was very successful in many respects. As with most Koori social protest, there was a very large police turnout, and the police present were exposed to the truth about treatment of Koori people, information that many of them would never have been exposed to before. It generated a lot of positive media coverage in both the electronic and print media. It was both educational and confrontational, by attempting to reclaim the real history of Melbourne, and to challenge the wall of apathy, indifference and racism that still runs through the Gubba community in relation to Koori issues and struggle.

Unless non-aboriginal Australia acknowledges and understands the brutal history of Australia since the invasion, we will never fully grasp the causes and nature of the attitudinal and structural factors that continue to oppress Aboriginal people today.

By Brendan Condon, originally published on the website

S11 Legal Support Team


In September 2000, the World Economic Forum (WEF) was scheduled to meet in Melbourne for one of its annual conferences. The WEF, like the World Trade Organisation, had become subject to world-wide public scrutiny for its undemocratic support of economic globalisation, at the expense of people, social justice and the environment.

A wide range of community groups in Melbourne and across the country planned protests against the WEF. Anti-globalisation protests had achieved mass public support and intense media interest following the protests in Seattle where thousands of peaceful protestors successfully stopped the WTO meeting continuing, before riot police, using tear gas, batons and excessive force, dispersed the crowd.

Melbourne organisers of the protest against the WEF began organising under the name S11 (a reference to September 11, 2000 the date the WEF conference opened and hence the first day of protest). The S11 protests were expected to be one of the biggest seen in Melbourne for some time. People from all walks of life, all around the country were planning to converge on Melbourne to express their concern about the practices of the WEF.

In the lead up to the protest, there were media reports of Victoria Police planning mass arrests and detention of protestors. Whole country jails were allegedly cleared to enable protestors to be imprisoned.

Community legal centres in Melbourne became concerned to ensure that protesters were provided with adequate access to justice. With existing community legal centre infrastructure already stretched due to a lack of resources, S11 Legal Support was established to plan and coordinate a legal support strategy for the protest and thereby cope with the expected increased demand for legal assistance during the protests.

S11 Legal Support was co-ordinated by North Melbourne Legal Service, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service and Western Suburbs Legal Service. Community lawyers from a number of other centres also joined in the support team. Much of the work carried out by community legal centre workers was undertaken out of hours and in a volunteer capacity. S11 Legal Support also included over 100 volunteers from private law firms, the bar, law schools and the general community.

Legal support before the protest

Planning and development

Community legal centre workers met regularly for up to 2 months before the protest to plan legal support for the event.

Planning included the development of standard documentation, information and procedures, accessing volunteer lawyers and non-lawyers and securing other resources. In particular it included the development of an incident report sheet, which allowed legal support staff to speak with protestors who had been arrested, injured or exposed to police violence to record instantaneous records of the event for later use, if necessary, in legal proceedings.

Community legal education

Employing the philosophy of community legal centres, the S11 Legal Support focused heavily on community legal education amongst protest networks in the areas of police rights and criminal court processes. Many information sessions were held in the lead up to the protest. The education strategy employed the use of specially designed rights stickers, leaflets which were distributed before the event at trainings and meetings as well as at the protest itself, as well as promotion through the internet. This community legal education had benefits far beyond the S11 protest.

Training of volunteers

In the lead up to the protest training was provided for legal and para-legal volunteers around police rights, the law of protesting and court process.

Legal support during the protest

A 24-hour central telephone line and office - this office at Trades Hall was continually staffed by legal and para-legal volunteers. To support this work a whole office administration system and procedures were developed by the volunteers. An email address was also set up as another contact option.

On site legal support - The legal support team worked on site providing information, advice and taking notes about police actions. A small legal table at the protest site was placed next to the medical tent which became a busy focus throughout the 3 days. Injured activists would attend first aid then visit the legal support worker on site to make a statement. The ability to capture activist statements on site was crucial.

The legal support team worked closely with a range of other groups supporting the protest including the marshals, the medical team and the team of legal observers organised by the Pt'chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group.

Legal support after the protest

As we now know, there were only a handful of arrests arising from the protests both during and after they occurred.

On Monday 11 September 2000, following the mass attendance of thousands of people around the venue of the WEF conference, Crown Casino, protestors had made it very difficult for the conference to continue with delegates struggling to gain entry.

On Tuesday 12 September 2000, Victoria Police command instructed its members to use whatever force necessary to ensure delegates accessed the conference. Rather than effect lawful arrests of protesters, Victoria Police members used force to remove peaceful protesters from around the conference site. In so doing, they caused many protesters to suffer injuries. Some police mistreatment including overhead use of batons, inappropriate use of horses and other unwarranted behaviour such as punching, kicking and hair pulling.

Over the 3 days of the protest S11 Legal Support took about 500 statements from people who had been injured or who had witnessed violence. These statements were taken out in the field at all hours of the day and night often sitting on the ground with injured activists listening to their stories. The level of appreciation for the legal support team was immense it was very powerful for the embattled protesters to know that there was someone on their side and that the legal profession was prepared to stick up for their rights.

Media and campaign work

Against a background of extremely biased media reporting of the S11 protest in which activists were demonised and marginalised, S11 Legal Support played an integral role in alerting the public to the facts of what was occurring on the ground.

Both mainstream and alternative media sources were used get the facts about police violence out to the public. S11 Legal Support Team workers coordinated a range of print, radio and television interviews and late on the final day of the protests, organised a well attended media conference which included representatives from the Trades Hall Council and the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty Victoria), Victorian Trades Hall and an injured activist.

At this conference it was announced that complaints had been lodged with the State Ombudsman about Tuesday's baton attacks and about the police practice of removing name tags.

Co-ordination and referral of criminal defences

For the small group of protesters who were charged for protest related offences, the S11 legal support team helped co-ordinate legal defenses or refer protesters to private legal professionals for assistance. In particular, private law firm Stary George & Myall agreed to represent protesters who were arrested over the 3 days on a pro bono basis.

Co-ordination of complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman

For over a year following the protest S11 Legal Support worked on submitting complaints made by protesters to the Victorian Ombudsman for investigation. Pt'chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group also made submissions, based on their own Legal Observer Team incident report sheets, to the Ombudsman.

The S11 Legal Support Team co-ordinated evidence presented to the State Ombudsman who conducted a public interest inquiry into the protest activities of Victoria Police. This huge job was carried out with the assistance of the non legal and legal volunteers meeting regularly and attending working bees.

The Ombudsman released his report in 2001, which while largely upholding the actions of police, provided substantial criticism of some of the tactics used during some incidents.

Referral of injured activists to progressive compensation lawyers

The S11 Legal Support Team worked closely with the private profession, in particular Slater & Gordon, to investigate and provide advice to people injured during the protests as to potential causes of action they may have against Victoria Police and the State of Victoria. These cases are ongoing.

Legal support and the community

What was remarkable about the S11 Legal Support Team effort was that the community legal centres at its core were able to harness the energy and enthusiasm of a broad range of volunteers, the private profession and Victoria Legal Aid for the benefit of the broader community.

Through the S11 Legal Support effort, community legal centres secured an estimated 1500 hours of volunteer time for the benefit of the community.

The work of S11 Legal Support Team also strengthened the links between community legal centres and the broader community through the broad range of groups that were involved over the three days including trade unions, church and school groups and environmentalists.

The work carried out by S11 Legal Support Team built on and consolidated the work that had been done by community legal centres around police accountability at past protests including Richmond Secondary College and North Ltd/Jabiluka protests.

Whilst the efforts of the S11 Legal Support Team secured the admiration and thanks of community protesters, the community legal centres who dared to stick up for the civil rights of the protesters were actually maligned publicly. Inflammatory commentary was made by media identities and several community legal centres received hate mail from right wing groups such as the Nazi Party as well as death threats. This did not deter the S11 Legal Support Team who continued to uphold the rights of those in the community.

The S11 Legal Support Team was the winner of the 2000 Tim McCoy Award, which is awarded to an individual or organisation for a special contribution to the community, social justice and legal aid. The prize commemorates the work of Tim McCoy, a community worker, lawyer and political activist, who died on 9 November 1987.

By Pauline Spencer and Susan Campbell.

Indymedia sites

In the lead-up to the no-WTO protests in Sydney in September 2002 the NSW Police Minister and NSW Police Media Unit publicly announced their intention to shut down a number of activist internet sites.

The trigger for this was when an anonymous individual posted a shopping list for protestors attending the no-WTO protests on open-publishing independent news websites in Melbourne ( and in Sydney. The posting advocated bringing marbles and baseball bats and provided links to other sites explaining how to make sling-shots and smoke bombs. Although other Indymedia users quickly identified this post as spam and suggested it had been posted by provocateur intent on catalysing police violence at the protest, it was seized upon by the NSW Police Minister, Michael Costa, as a reason to shut down these two websites.

He referred the matter to the Federal Communications Minister and the Federal Justice Minister hoping to have the sites refused classification by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). Once refused classification, material can be banned either through forced removal or adding the sites' addresses to internet filtering software under online content legislation if it contains detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use.

Two weeks before the protests began, the ABA concluded their investigations and found that none of the websites in question breached any government guidelines or regulations. The Office of Film and Literature Classification stated: The criterion looked at was whether these sites incited people to commit violent offences and it was decided that it did not reach that threshold. As a result the two Indymedia sites continue to operate despite very public attempts to ban them, with the issue being used to generate extremely negative publicity about the protests well before they occurred.

(From the Legal Observers Report no-WTO Protests published by the UTS Community Law and Legal Research Centre )

Activist websites may also be subject to claims of defamation.