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Activism
History

The La Trobe Three, fifty years on

Fifty years ago, on 4 August 1972, three La Trobe University students—Fergus Robinson, Brian Pola and myself—were released from Pentridge Prison after serving, respectively, four months, three months and six weeks. Hardly any other political prisoners of that period in Australia had served such lengthy terms, with the exception of some of the draft resisters. This was an extraordinary and unprecedented case of political repression.

The ‘La Trobe Three’ had been imprisoned in a maximum-security prison without trial, without rights to bail or appeal, and without sentencing. Formally speaking, we were jailed for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria for violating an injunction restraining us from ‘entering the premises known as La Trobe University’. The injunction had been issued by the university governing body, the Council, because of the students’ leading roles in what academics refer to as ‘the La Trobe Troubles’. A fourth student, Rodney Taylor, was also singled out and named in the injunction. However, he was never captured by police.

The ‘Troubles’ on the campus were part of the broader student and youth rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with core issues the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa and demands for greater ‘student power’ in university decision-making. Monash University had been the bête noir of the establishment due to its campus militancy and the capable leadership of Maoists like Albert Langer and Mike Hyde.

The immediate background to the La Trobe incarcerations dates to 19 April 1971, when a meeting of a thousand students—the largest ever held on campus—voted nearly unanimously in favour of a motion calling for the resignation of the Chancellor, Sir Archibald Glenn. Glenn was managing director of Imperial Chemicals Industries (ANZ) and sat on the board of its UK-based parent company. His presence as head of the University Council was intolerable to the great majority of students because ICI(ANZ) had been awarded a contract by the Department of Supply for Australian troops in Vietnam and the parent company was involved in the apartheid-based economy of South Africa.

The popular demand for Glenn’s resignation allowed the militant left-wing Labour Club (not to be confused with the Labor Party) and the Communist Club to connect the campus issue to the wider question of capitalism and whose class interests the universities served. The Communist Club leader, Dave Muller (1946–2021), had undertaken the initial research into Glenn and ICI, and this provided a firm basis for the campaign.

As with Monash, the communist leadership at La Trobe—which was also predominantly Maoist—posed a special challenge to the authorities. The leadership emerged through struggle within the Labour Club, while the revisionist Communist Party supporters split and either went with the Maoists or removed themselves from the practical struggle. Other factions went ‘every which way’, though basically supporting militant action.

There were other campus issues, too, such as an ‘exclusion clause’ introduced by the authorities to exclude anyone under suspension from a university from being admitted to La Trobe. This was clearly a political move designed to stop left-wing students who had been suspended from Monash being admitted to La Trobe.

The militancy at La Trobe went back further than 1971, most notably with the forced removal of Defence Department recruiters from the campus in June 1970 and later that year, in September, with the Vietnam solidarity marches from the campus along Waterdale Road in West Heidelberg. The first of these peaceful marches was savagely suppressed by police, as was the second march in defiance of the repression. Nineteen students were arrested, two at gunpoint. A third march attracted 800 people, including trade unionists, and marched defiantly along the street to the campus. At this time, the Maoist group was ascendant as leader of the campus left.

Robinson, Pola and myself were recognised as prominent among the leaders on the campus in 1971 when the campaign for Glenn’s resignation gathered momentum. As a matter of principle, no actions were initiated by the Maoist-led Labour Club without first convening a general meeting of students, either through the auspices of the Students Representative Council, or through unofficial general meetings. The latter were often larger than the former and, in July 1971, a meeting resolved to blockade members of the University Council until such time as the Chancellor resigned. A couple of hundred students blocked the doors of the Council room, where Council was in session, and police were called onto the campus that evening. 

As a result of this action, eight students were suspended by the university disciplinary body—the farcical ‘Proctorial Board’. Five of them were also arrested by police. Occupations of the administration building, endorsed by general meetings, took place in protest against the repression, which in turn resulted in greater repression. On 30 September, the authorities called in the police to evict students who had occupied the Administration building. This was a first on an Australian campus. In October, twenty-four students were hauled before the Proctorial Board, of whom twenty-three were suspended and/or fined. (The late John Cummins was one of them).

Hundreds of students took part in occupations of the Admin building on 30 September and 1 October. When the police were called on 30 September, students escaped via the windows of the ground floor. In response, the Vice Chancellor arranged for heavy-gauge wire gratings to be rivetted over the windows. A student general meeting on 11 October voted to remove them and marched to the building, where a group attached ropes to the gratings and proceeded to tug on them until they broke from the rivets. This was done in broad daylight—a sign that intimidation would not work. It was later revealed that the authorities had collected evidence against the student leaders over this action, but no charges were ever laid.

The struggle and sacrifices proved worthwhile. In early December 1971, prior to the end of his term, Glenn announced his decision to resign as Chancellor, and the University rescinded its ‘exclusion clause’. By the end of 1971, the students had won significant victories. However, the campus struggle continued, bringing to mind Marx’s saying about people making history not as they wish but rather as circumstances dictate.

A characteristic of the La Trobe struggle in 1970 and 1971 had been the willingness to bypass official structures of student representation as part of building a revolutionary socialist movement. In early November 1971, the official representative student body—the SRC—resolved to pay the fines imposed by the Proctorial Board, subject to approval by a general meeting of students to be convened early the following year (which, as expected, supported the move). The University Council objected and threatened legal action against the SRC and against any suspended students who remained on the campus. The latter group included Brian Pola, who was the elected SRC President.

The slogan ‘Student control of student funds’ was popular but created a struggle that refocused the campus left onto official SRC politics rather than the previous revolutionary politics that challenged the role of the universities under capitalism. Had this shift not occurred over the issue of payment of the fines, the left would have raised the money from the rank-and-file student body instead. This would have been the ‘Maoist’ way of doing it—relying on the people—and it would have been effective.

With our victory over Glenn and the ‘exclusions clause’ achieved by the end of 1971, Fergus, Brian and I were among the few of the 1970-1971 militant activist generation to return to campus the following year when the continuing, unresolved, issue was ‘student control of student funds’.

Our consistent revolutionary perspective on politics and struggle, challenging the role of the universities under capitalism and supporting unity between students and workers, was as much of a threat to the authorities as the actions we supported. The use of Supreme Court injunctions to stop us entering the campus grounds was a clear attempt to stop us expressing our views at general meetings.

It is pertinent to note that in the three other cases of university authorities applying for injunctive relief against student radicals—at Sydney and Monash in 1970 and Queensland in 1971—the restraining orders were narrowly focused and specifically prohibited the named students from participating in disruptive activity. The exception was an ancillary injunction taken out by Queensland University on 30 July 1971 against an individual leader, Mitch Thompson, who was prohibited from entering the campus. This served as the model for the La Trobe injunctions, which sought to stop us from entering the university grounds—that is, to stop us expressing our views on campus.  This left us no choice but to be defiant, as a matter of principle. And, of course, we were aware that the injunctions were designed to intimidate other leaders and developing leaders.

Police protecting the Administration from dissident students at La Trobe University 1971. Courtesy Barry York.

The indeterminate nature of the ‘sentence’ for contempt could only be resolved if and when the ‘La Trobe Three’ agreed to purge our contempt before the Supreme Court and promise not to enter the campus grounds if released. This we were not prepared to do. Rather, we sought to continue to exercise our right to participate in the political life of the campus, including helping to organise, initiate and address rallies and general meetings of students, and take part in protest actions on the campus.

It was very hard doing time without knowing when we would be released. We could not count down the days and we were in ‘A’ Division, which had a lot of long-term prisoners doing time for armed robbery or murder. The fact that we were placed with so many long-termers was an ominous sign. However, a campaign for our release was underway at the La Trobe campus, building strong support from other campuses and trade unions and, notably, within the legal profession.

I remember being told that Amnesty International was about to take up our case in London but we were released before that became necessary.

All our mass actions on the campus had been endorsed by general meetings of students. Therefore, after the capture of Fergus on 12 April and Brian on 1 May, the left leadership called for the holding of an official referendum on the campus to allow students to resolve the issue. The left called on the Vice Chancellor and Council to agree to abide by the referendum’s results. The main issue—the release of Fergus and Brian—carried the day in the referendum which was held from 10 to 12 May 1972. Of the 1667 students who voted, 1005 voted for the withdrawal of the injunctions.

I was captured and lodged at Pentridge in June, which added further pressure on the University authorities to abide by the referendum results and highlighted their refusal to do so. The Council was encouraged in its hard line by a ‘pro-violence minority’ among some senior academic staff and students aligned with the National Civic Council who consistently refused to support democratic means of resolving the conflict.

La Trobe Uni students protesting at Pentridge for the liberation of Fergus, Brian and Barry, July 1972. Courtesy Barry York.

We never apologised to the Court nor did we purge our contempt before it. So, how were we released?

On the 20th and 22nd July, Vice Chancellor David Myers visited us in Pentridge with a view to persuading us to purge our contempt. We still weren’t prepared to do that, as it would mean agreeing to not enter the university premises, but we were certainly willing to discuss any offer he would make on behalf of the Council. He wanted us to sign a statement repudiating violence on the campus. We were not prepared to do this either. Although the far right ironically described us as a pro-violence minority, we knew that the real pro-violence minority were those who relied on police violence and intimidation, not to mention those who sent troops to prop up a fascist regime in South Vietnam and ‘bomb back to the Stone Age’ those who were fighting it.

One of our legal advisors, communist lawyer Ted Hill, also visited us and advised us to sign the statement only on condition that Myers also sign the repudiation of violence on behalf of the Council. In this way, the terms for the disbandment of the injunction and for our release were neutralized and we felt we could sign. So, on 31 July, we joined with the University Council in repudiating violence on the campus.

Our release on 4 August 1972 was a victory because the University authorities bowed to mass pressure and it was the Vice Chancellor who applied to the court for an end to the injunctions and for our freedom. We never apologised to the Court and we promptly returned to the campus where, still under suspension for specified periods, we continued to take an active part in campus politics.

 

My book, Student Revolt, published in 1989, provides greater detail and contextualisation about the La Trobe student movement from 1967 to 1973. It is available for free on-line: https://c21stleft.com/2015/09/05/student-revolt-la-trobe-university-1967-to-1973/

Image: Fergus, Brian and Barry on release La Trobe University 4 August 1972. Photo courtesy Barry York.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21stleft.com.

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Comments

  1. Barry,

    I have meant to congratulate you for years on recording the history of the Proest Movement of the late 60s in Melbourne/Victoria. La Trobe was different to Monash and Melbourne Universities.

    Also different were Universities in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart, and Canberra. There has not been a definitive history of that decade 1962/72 across all universities.

    Michael

    • Michael, I have undertaken several oral history interviews with former activists of the late Sixties and early 70s but you migtht be confusing me with the real champion in the field – Ken Mansell. He has done hundreds over a long period of time and is doing invaluable work in the field.

  2. Neatly put article. I particularly liked the never apologising
    to the court coda. Bodies on the line takes courage. If there is a current lesson to be learnt from this, it is probably that the same is required today if climate change is to be reversed.

  3. Interesting to read this as students have been passive for decades. The author’s views on contemporary universities, for instance, systematic wage theft, vice chancellor remuneration, debauching of standards and the foreign visa route to residency would make a refraction on the politics of 50 years ago.

  4. Great article. Extremely important to learn from the struggles of the past to inform the struggles of today. Vietnam and conscription activated large numbers of people including students, to take action in support of legitimate demands for peace and justice. The dominance of neoliberalism seems to have squeezed out much radical action today, but times change and conditions turn into their opposite.

    • I studied at LaTrobe in 1970 with Sandy McKenzie who was involved with the movement … are you related …

  5. An impressive and valuable piece of ‘participant history’- in this case undeniably the personal was indeed political. As others have said, the anti-Vietnam struggle offers a model and an inspiration for today’s even more portentous fight against the hyper-threat of the climate crisis. I had no idea of Barry York’s involvement in this cause. As Americans say (in a quite different context), ‘thank you for your service’, Barry

  6. If we want to upset the ruling class, we can always expect a severe response from the state. However, the prison terms given to these three were hardly long by any standard. I write to an Iranian man imprisoned in Scotland; he is enduring a nine-year term of which he will serve all but the last six months. For middle-class, privileged people, even a night in a cell is a life-altering shock. For the working class extremely long prison terms have, in the last few decades, become routine.

    • They were long sentences in Australian terms, for political prisoners, which is the point I made. Some draft resisters did longer sentences, as I also point out.

      I was neither middle class nor privileged, coming from a migrant working class family, dad worked in factories, growing up in Brunswick (when it was poor folks) and experiencing homelessness for the first two years in Melbourne.

  7. A terrific article Barry, congratulations. Truly you were ‘right to rebel’. No sign of any repentance here. You mention in several places that the Maoists led the way and provided leadership at Latrobe. No doubt for many of you Mao’s works were an inspiration (particularly for the three of you poor blokes holed up in the Bluestone Hotel) but I’m wondering to what extent your familiarity with Mao was a reason for the eventual successful outcome of the struggle. It is conceivable that in a different place and at a different time, say at Sydney University, a similar struggle could have been led by a group such as Students for a Democratic Society. What do you think Michael Jones?

  8. They were certainly interesting times my friend. Your excellent piece highlights the cultural changes back then, often spearheaded by tertiary students, where the greater public finally began to question some of the appalling decisions of their elected representatives and the often corrupt behavior of state institutions, especially the judiciary and police. The popular protests that led to the end of capital punishment in Victoria and the withdrawal of Australian soldiers from Vietnam in 1972, were two of the more significant outcomes that resulted from the shift in public attitudes. Needless to say, the incarceration of yourself, Brian and Fergus was a shocking example of a democratically elected government and its bureaucracy corruptly welding the virtually unbridled power they enjoyed at that time (not to mention an absolute abuse of you three as human beings).
    On a lighter note, I tend to disagree with that old line: “if you can remember it, you weren’t there”. We certainly remember it Barry and we were there (although to admit to this makes me feel positively ancient).

  9. A great article which clearly shows the social and wider political basis of such protests back in the 60s and 70s. Sadly, there are protests in the current climate which seem to be based on individual rights at the expense of social responsibility. Your successful protest, Barry, was premised on the reverse of this and was all the more admirable for it.

  10. When I arrived at La Trobe in 1990 one of the things I did was find a few theses in the library which had been written by participants in those struggles, about those years. It’s always worth writing down detailed accounts of movements like these and reflecting on the lessons.

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