Type
Essay
Category
Politics

Getting out of the boat

Headquarters ASIO HQT 67/972
Michael Dudley HYDE
Enquiries conducted by this Office have revealed that the Michael HYDE who resides at 7 Jasmine Street Caulfield and who is an active member of the Monash University Labour Club and the Monash Committee for Aid to the National Liberation Front is probably identical with

Michael Dudley HYDE
Born: 20th November, 1945
At: Waverley, New South Wales

The heart of it was this: we set out to aid the enemy by collecting money for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam.

I sat in the middle of the lecture room, the usual place for the Monash Labor Club weekly meetings. One of the larger lecture halls, it was packed, standing room only. A wonderful collection of students wearing jeans, tights, leather jackets, miniskirts, caps and suits sat squashed onto sprung vinyl seats or cross-legged in the aisles. Some were there because they’d heard about our proposed sedition and didn’t want to miss the excitement. Others – ALP supporters, mostly – wanted to voice their opposition but thought our support for the NLF over the top, liable to drive people away from the movement. A few sat goggle-eyed, along for the ride but with little or no idea what was about to happen. And then the rest, the majority – smiling, watchful, on the edge of their seats – intent on taking the fight a big step further.

It was, we thought, no use simply condemning the war and demanding our government stop its hostilities. If the US was the aggressor then it was logical to support the victims of that aggression: the Vietnamese people and their government, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), often referred to as the Viet Cong.

Amy opened proceedings. She said she’d received a letter that she wanted to share. She’d spoken to the press; here was the first response.

Dear Mrs. Amy, (slut)

You should be rooted and burnt. Sluts like you should be locked up. If ever I see you at Monash or anywhere for that matter I will personally cut your bloody throat, you wouldn’t even make a good whore for the Abbo’s [sic.]. Our blokes are being killed overseas while you, you harlot are sending the Viet-Cong money. I write to you on shit paper to a bit of shit.

Yours truly,

Aussie.

P.S. I know you so watch out.

Beneath the derisive laughter, some of us trembled a little. It was beginning to dawn on us that there were consequences when you took on the state.

Amy’s motion – to send aid to the NLF – was hotly debated. The most intense argument revolved around the sending of medical aid as opposed to unspecified aid, the preferred position of the Labor Club leadership. But money for medical aid had already been collected by the Sydney University Labor Club – and had virtually gone unnoticed. By contrast, ‘unspecified aid’ signalled to the NLF and to the world, ‘Here’s some money – use it whatever way you wish. Use it for weapons if that’s what you need.’

The motion was duly passed at 1.30 pm.

All hell broke loose.

‘Government must stop Cong Aid,’ announced one tabloid, in an article in which RSL heavies explained that the decision did not reflect the average Labor Club member. The Minister for Defence said we were ‘unworthy’ of our citizenship. The State Council of the Liberal Party said we should be sent to Vietnam or to jail. The Democratic Labor Party declared our support for the NLF to be open treachery. The Liberal Club called it ‘particularly poor taste’ since ‘whether it be right or wrong, we are fighting in Vietnam and presumably fighting the NLF’.

Whether it be right or wrong? What did that mean? If your country, your government, does something abhorrent, then too bad, you’re in the boat and you’ve got to keep rowing. But I didn’t want to keep rowing, and I was increasingly sure I didn’t want to be in the boat at all.

It did fleetingly occur to me that treason was not something to trifle with. Left-wingers, progressives and unionists in other countries had been executed on the charge. From the perspective of our government (and from that of most of the Labor Party as well), we were, after all, openly supporting an enemy of Australia, so it logically followed that we were traitors. But we never accepted that logic. We felt we were acting in the best interests of the Australian people. Committing troops to a US-led invasion of an independent Third World country was criminal, and who did it benefit? Not Vietnam, not Australia and sure as hell not our soldiers. In a way, we argued, we were more patriotic than those who carried around their nationalism like a neon sign.

11 September 1967
Headquarters ASIO
OPERATION BARGAIN
Monash University Anti Conscription Society
Reference: Victorian Non Gratis Intercept
dated 1-4.9.1967
The above referenced Intercept item disclosed that a meeting of the Monash University Anti Conscription Society was held […] on the evening of Sunday, 3rd September, 1967.
2) This meeting was covered by surveillance by this office personnel and their report is attached hereto.

ASIO and the Special Branch – Victoria’s ‘political police’ – started crawling around university, picking up leaflets and broadsheets, and spying on meetings. They didn’t exactly wear trench coats but when you had middle-aged men dressed in a sports jacket and pressed Fletcher Jones trousers collecting every radical newsletter available and hanging around the edges of anti-war and anti-conscription meetings and the very democratic new-look Monash Association of Students, well, you didn’t have to be a forensic scientist to figure it out.

But there were others about whom we knew less: the ordinary students who’d been approached by ASIO. We had suspicions, of course, but never knew for sure until about a year later when one of their number, a regular attendee at Labor Club and other meetings, confessed his guilt to a hand-picked group of more moderate left-wingers whom he was reasonably sure wouldn’t tear him limb from limb. In reality, we radicals wouldn’t have dismembered him but we would have liked to question him about ASIO’s modus operandi. Reports to ASIO about our activities had led, after all, to people being picked up, questioned and jailed.

I was asleep one night when there was a banging on the front door. Cassie and I emerged from our bedrooms, pulling on jeans and dressing gowns as we opened the door to two burly detectives from the Special Branch.

Detectives Cometti and Richards suspected us of collecting money for the Viet Cong. The words slid out of their mouths like an eel from a gunny sack – ‘veetcongg’.

Cassie and I glanced at each other as they went through a routine that would become very familiar.

We asked what we were being charged with.

Nothing at the moment, they said, but maybe we could come in for questioning. Just to clear things up, wouldn’t take long.

I said that if we weren’t under arrest, we had nothing more to say. My voice was steady but my guts were in turmoil.

They had a few questions, they said.

We responded in unison with the advice offered by all left-wing lawyers: we’d done nothing wrong and we had nothing to say.

The Special Branch left, throwing insults behind them – mutterings about ‘our boys over there’, ‘cowards’ and ‘traitors in our midst’. They implied that things could get a lot worse if we didn’t co-operate.

The afternoon tabloids later reported the visit, emphasising that the young man and woman involved weren’t married and had answered the door in sleep attire. If you supported the Viet Cong, you also had loose morals.

Many times after that, we noted an unmarked car parked opposite our house. If people were visiting, even just for a chat or a meal, the agent on duty could be seen writing down the rego numbers or taking photos of the parked cars. If we ever felt like going outside to have some fun with them, they’d melodramatically drive off, relieved, no doubt, to have escaped with their life.

We were also tailed wherever we went.

On one cold Sunday night an unmarked powder-blue car passed us on the Nepean Highway, the passenger gesturing at me to pull over. Two suited cops got out, asked for my licence, looked at my passengers (all three student revolutionaries) and then told me to step out of the car.

‘Your car has seen better days, hasn’t it Michael?’

The familiar use of your name set off warning bells. The Commonwealth and the Special Branch cops did it to unsettle you and perhaps to test the waters, to see if you’d warm to them and inadvertently divulge information.

‘Gets me from A to B.’ I felt some affection for my clapped-out old Austin A40. It was a comrade in arms – it didn’t deserve their derision.

One clambered into the driver’s seat to work the gears. While he grated through them, another crawled under the car. Five minutes later, they left with the warning they could have issued an unroadworthy certificate but had generously decided not to make things difficult for us to get home.

We all felt uncomfortable, even after they’d driven off, though we couldn’t say why. Since when did they care about our convenience?

A kilometre later, I gently touched the brakes at a bend in the road coming into Mordialloc – and found almost nothing. I lunged for the handbrake (itself notoriously dodgy) and yanked. The car slewed to the side of the road.

Was it a coincidence?

We were, in many ways, innocents abroad. We uttered the incantation ‘there’s nothing they won’t do’ but were frequently caught by surprise when what we’d suspected – a hunch, an intuition – turned out to be true. But not one of us in the car that night had realised how far they would go.

LMP: KF
VPF 20032
Commonwealth of Australia ASIO
SSO Field
Victorian Office, Melbourne
25th September, 1967
Michael Hyde
Please refer to B1 (a) request dated 7th August, 1967
2. A perusal of registration particulars of motor vehicles held at the Victorian Registration Branch confirmed that the Subject is the registered owner of motor vehicle GHW 666, a 1958 Austin Sedan, blue in colour

News of our proposed aid to the NLF began to echo across campuses, across the city, across the continent, into workshops, lunchrooms, schools and backyards with sheets drying in the wind. It swept over the Indian and Pacific oceans into Chicago, Paris, London and Berlin. We hoped it reached the ears of Hanoi as well.

There had been growing consternation about Australia’s involvement among the general populace, but to some extent the war was still something happening ‘over there’. Our action polarised the university and the community. Collecting money for ‘our enemy’ demanded something more from everybody, not just university students. We’d placed in the spotlight something that had been politely forgotten: that the Viet Cong was actually an organisation called the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, consisting of nationalists, peasant farmers, urban workers, Buddhist monks and nuns, Catholics, trade unionists and, of course, communists. It was an alternative government, administering two-thirds of southern Vietnam, and providing government health, education and postal services. It published forty provincial newspapers and maintained diplomatic relations with forty other governments.

Some in Australia began to think about what they would have done if faced with an invasion of their country. Some wondered if they too would’ve joined something like the Viet Cong.

We gave talks to anybody who’d listen – church groups (sometimes the most sympathetic), ALP branches (even though the Labor leaders were virulently opposed to almost anything we said or did), Young Labor (often remarkably ignorant about the war), Rotary (yes – even Rotary) and union branches (members who seemed deaf to our arguments but soon made clear that they hadn’t missed a word).

Part of what we called our ‘mass work’ involved turning up to lectures and especially tutes, which often went by the wayside when the struggle was uppermost. If there was a chance to transform them into discussions about the war, and specifically the NLF, we’d be there. It didn’t matter what the subject was: English Literature, Politics, Economics, even Engineering. If anybody complained – ‘we’re here to study and get a qualification, not waste time talking about Vietnam’ – we’d ask ‘what’s more important?’ We banked on the belief that most students were bored in tutes and so welcomed the chance for distraction.

I was in a small English tute discussing a particularly honourable character from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles who hadn’t received the accolades that were his due. An attractive young woman, a recent product of a Catholic convent education, said rather sympathetically, ‘Oh well – he’ll get his reward in the afterlife’.

Here was my opening: ‘There is no bloody afterlife, for Christ’s sake. It’s stuff like that that keeps people down and accepting of an awful, oppressed life in the here and now …’

And then, what I considered a seamless transition: ‘… just like the Vietnamese. That’s why the NLF are fighting.’

Whether or not it convinced her, it did nothing for the romantic interlude I’d been fantasising about.

Soon after our campaign took hold, Vice-Chancellor Matheson returned from overseas. In press releases and radio and TV interviews he condemned ‘the small minority’ bringing the university’s ‘good name into disrepute’ and promptly declared any collecting of monies on campus for the NLF illegal – this before any law had been passed in parliament.

We met to plan our response. We’d take on the university authorities, we resolved, by openly collecting money for the NLF. For tactical reasons, however, we decided that only three Labor Club members would defy the ban: Bill, who’d been elected chairman of the NLF Aid Committee; Mat, because he wanted to and because he was fast becoming a spokesperson for the Maoist position on everything; and me, because I believed the action was the right thing to do.

But decisions like this one didn’t come without cost. The press was baying for our blood and the newspapers had whipped up a frenzy. There were letters in the paper from Australian soldiers stationed in Nui Dat saying, ‘If any of these Labor Club people get in my way there will be some bloody noses, believe me’, and ‘What’s wrong with the government that they don’t step in and stop this crowd?’ Private Alf Bennet told the press: ‘The government should conscript all these ratbags and send them up to Vietnam … Perhaps after they have experienced a few of their sneaky bombs they might think a second time before wanting to help them.’

The night before the collection, I sat up with Bill drinking red wine. ‘What d’you reckon they’ll do?’

‘They could do anything I guess. Send us a charge in the mail. Demand that we stop. Call in the cops.’

‘The cops? It’s not even illegal yet. The Defence Forces Protection thing hasn’t gone through. It’s only illegal according to the Vice-Chancellor.’

My voice betrayed my alarm.

‘I wouldn’t put anything past the bastards. They’ll do what they can get away with and work out their bullshit reasons later.’

That night I slipped into melancholic contemplation. I imagined my political life slowly and inexorably becoming worse for me personally – breaking the law, arrested, interrogated, bashed, imprisoned, on the run, even dead.

At lunchtime we set up the table with leaflets for as many who’d take them, as well as flags and badges proclaiming ‘Support the NLF’. Armed with our donation buckets, Mat, Bill and I collected the dough while Paul began an education program through a megaphone.

The union building was a thronging mass of students, visitors from other unis, a waterside worker or two and a gaggle from the press. There wasn’t a great rush at first, just a few of the comrades throwing in a couple of dollars to get the ball rolling. A few students and staff had been lined up to donate more significant amounts; towards the end, other students stepped forward.

I understood people’s hesitation: it’s hard to break the law if you’re not used to it, especially when cameras are flashing.

Surprisingly, we were not physically attacked. Some idle threats, yes, but nothing we had to watch out for. In any case we were so pumped-up that fear didn’t enter into the equation.

We ended up with over sixty dollars and our names taken by an administration lackey.

Two days after our collection we received a letter summoning us to appear before a Disciplinary Committee consisting of a number of Deans, which we dubbed the Dean Machine. We had been charged with ‘bringing the university into disrepute’, which was exactly what we’d wanted. If the authorities and the Vice-Chancellor had done nothing they would have encouraged more into our ranks. But by adopting this course they were helping to raise the political consciousness of the university population in particular and society in general. We had them over a barrel.

The words ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’ had, up till now, never been in my lexicon. I had thought of them as being directly, indelibly connected to the military and, because of my recently discarded pacifism, I’d dismissed them as reactionary. But when used by people like Mat they assumed very different meanings.

During the three-hour meeting called to thrash out our course of action, the phrase ‘strategy and tactics’ was thrown around like the Eleventh Commandment, adding weight to every twist and turn of the argument. That was the first time I heard someone say, ‘Oh yes, but one divides into two’. Mathematics had never been my strong point and the apparent impossibility of one dividing into two confused me for months to come, even though I began to blithely intersperse it into conversations myself. What it meant was that situations, political positions and decisions cut both ways.

But ‘one divides into two’ sounded much better.

The lounge room was packed to the gunnels with Labor Club members, some supporters from outside the uni, and a sprinkling of students who weren’t too sure about what we were doing.

We’d been offered help by a left-wing lawyer, John Little, though we were split over whether to accept it or not.

Mat sucked on a cigarette, exhaling as he spoke. ‘It’s got nothing to do with whether this lawyer is onside or not. He could be the most revolutionary lawyer in Australia and I still wouldn’t want him representing us. He’s a lawyer and as such he has to abide by certain restrictions and codes of behaviour.’

‘Yeah, but even if that’s right, he’s still going to make political points.’ Cassie spoke from her favourite possie, leaning against the mantelpiece, sipping a can of beer.

‘But they’ll be limited. He won’t be able to make the political points we want to make. He won’t be able to get away with it – he’s a trained lawyer and he’s expected to know the boundaries between political comment and legal argument. And remember whose law we’re dealing with – the law isn’t separated from the system it upholds.’

‘So’, Bill interrupted, ‘you reckon as a tactic it’s better to defend ourselves?’

‘Exactly’, Mat said. ‘We won’t have to get entangled in their phoney legalities. We can stick to the heart of the matter, which is supporting the NLF. The Dean Machine will always cling to the fact that we broke a University law – which we did, by the way. But it’s why we did which is the crux of the matter’.

Mat smiled around the room, always at his happiest when fomenting revolution and challenging other’s perceptions.

SURVEILLANCE REPORT
SUBJECT: OPERATION BARGAIN
DATE 17TH September, 1967
SHIFT: 1045-1250 HOURS
DATE OF REPORT: 25/9/1967
Surveillance commenced on 29 Mortimore Street, Moorabbin (home of John David LITTLE – VPF 19128)
1130-1200 Between these times the following vehicles were observed parked in the area –
GHW 666 – Michael HYDE (VFF 20032)

The trial began. A rally stood guard all day outside the administration building. Students refused to attend lectures and tutorials, a few brave academics cancelled classes, reporters once again swarmed, and bulletins came every hour on the radio.

Inside, the Dean Machine and the Vice-Chancellor did their best to invest the proceedings with gravitas as the three of us smiled sardonically. We had decided, after all, on using the lawyer as long as Mat, Bill and I would have plenty of opportunities to state what we saw as the political truth: that universities were as much a part of the capitalist system as anything else and the main reason for their existence was to maintain the supply of an academically trained and educated elite.

The bespectacled Matheson sat there, confident of his authority, and with an aura of being beyond criticism.

Mr Little (to the Vice-Chancellor): ‘[O]n the 12th of September [you said] that “collecting unspecified funds which might be used by the NLF for military purposes was repugnant to so many people that it should not be permitted on the campus”. Who were the many people to whom you referred?’

Vice-Chancellor: ‘The Australian public at large.’

Mr Little: ‘Did you actually sound out the Australian public at large?’

Vice-Chancellor: ‘I just, if you like, assumed that this was the case. Maybe if one had a Gallup Poll maybe one would find that it was not the case.’

Mr Stewart (for the university): ‘I think this lacks propriety. It seems we are exploring the propriety of the Vice-Chancellor’s actions.’

Objection upheld.

This was the first of my many court cases and, in some ways, it set the scene for everything that followed. The proceedings were designed to intimidate and frighten (which they succeeded in doing but not always and never completely) but they also exuded a slightly pathetic sense of shaky authority on show, whether it was in the august University Council Chambers full of polished wood and leather chairs, or in court staring up at the high-benched magistrates and bewigged judges.

The Dean Machine eventually fined us twenty dollars each, a penalty which we, of course, refused to acknowledge. It was eventually paid by a staff collection initiated by Joan Robinson, a visiting economics professor.

A fine was a slap on the wrist but it was also an indication of things to come. I never really thought we would be expelled but I suppose it was a possibility. But our first militant action concerning the NLF managed to raise their profile throughout the community. People at least now knew of their existence and some other brave souls even sent donations.

In the following months and days the attacks – physical, legal and psychological – continued unabated. But nothing deterred us, and we hoped that in the end our defiance would confirm Chairman Mao’s words: the US imperialists were like ‘a paper tiger … panic-stricken at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind.’

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

Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!