‘La Trobe Students Freed’ – so ran the billboard of the Melbourne Herald newspaper fifty years ago in its late afternoon edition on 4 August 1972. That edition of the Herald was the one read by workers on trams and trains on their way home from work. They would have known about ‘the La Trobe Three’. We were a cause celebre and had received publicity over the four months since the gaoling of Fergus Robinson on 12 April.
Brian Pola was the next to be captured and gaoled – with appropriate symbolism perhaps – on May Day, the first of May. I was the third, on 21 June.
The gaolings were extraordinary, even for the time. For contempt of court, we were imprisoned in Victoria’s notorious maximum security goal, Pentridge, for an indeterminate period, ‘indefinitely’, without sentence or right to bail or appeal. It was akin to the internment that people thought only happened in other countries.
Early in 1972, Supreme Court injunctions were taken out against four leaders of the student movement by the La Trobe University Vice Chancellor and Council, with the support of a small group of students associated with the far-Right National Civic Council. The fourth activist named in the injunctions was Rodney Taylor, who was never caught. We made clear our intention to defy the injunctions which were obtained with a view to restraining us from ‘entering the premises known as La Trobe University’. As a result of our defiance and continued involvement in campus politics, the Court issued writs of attachment for our lodgment at Pentridge.
La Trobe was a militant campus, very much in the spirit of ‘1968’. The authorities and their supporters resorted to extreme measures to intimidate the student movement and its communist leadership because they had lost the debate of ideas on the campus and wanted to deter future militancy. Three other universities had previously taken out injunctions against radical students but these prohibited specific disruptive actions rather than a blanket banning from entering the campus. The one exception was Mitch Thompson, who was singled out at the University of Queensland and banned from entering that campus.
There was a revengeful element among the university authorities who resented our campaign during 1971 for the resignation of the chancellor, Archibald Glenn. Glenn sat at the head of Imperial Chemical Industries (ANZ) and on the board of the parent company in London. In April, 1971, a thousand students had gathered in Glenn College to demand the chancellor’s resignation. Our argument against him emphasized the fact that ICI(ANZ) had a contract with the Defence Department during the Vietnam war and the parent company was involved in South Africa’s apartheid economy. To those on the left, Glenn was symbolic of the role of the universities in serving capitalism.
The campaign against Glenn was a protracted one, involving multiple general meetings of students and a blockade of the Council chambers in July, which led to some of the participants being hauled before a disciplinary kangaroo court known as the Proctorial Board. Several were suspended, others fined, and some additionally arrested. Fergus, Brian, Rod and I were among those suspended.
The repression at La Trobe was severe by Australian standards. On 30 September 1971, the authorities called in scores of police to evict students who had peacefully occupied the administration building in protest at the Proctorial Board penalties, something that had not previously happened on a campus. Foolishly, in an attempt to trap students in the Admin building to facilitate police arrests in the case of future occupations, the authorities rivetted heavy-gauge grilles over the windows of the ground floor. We called a general meeting, which voted to remove them on the spot – in broad daylight. It was fun tugging on the ropes that we attached and seeing the ‘bars’ come down. The Vice Chancellor took no action against us for this.
The reactionaries really did seem to be ‘paper tigers’ and, in December of the same year, 1971, and half-way through his term, Chancellor Glenn announced his decision to resign.
Students involved in earlier protests had faced fines and suspension. The Students Representative Council opposed these and resolved to pay the fines. The University Council objected and threatened legal action. They argued that such payment went against the La Trobe University Act. The Council also refused to recognize the elected SRC President, Brian Pola, who had been suspended. The payment of fines issue carried over into 1972 as the demand for ‘student autonomy of student funds’ was popular.
However, the demand shifted the political direction of the student movement from the Maoist leadership that challenged the role of the universities under capitalism, seeking to build a revolutionary socialist movement based on worker-student unity, to an institutionalised campaign that boiled down to an interpretation of the La Trobe University Act. Fergus, Brian, Rod and I supported this campaign but the Maoist way of paying the fines would have been to ‘rely on the masses’ and raise the money directly from students and workers. (Note: Brian did not identify as a Maoist).
We continued to play an active and leading role on the campus, asserting our right to free speech in order to show that intimidation doesn’t work. That is why we were picked up by the police under ‘writ of attachment’ and lodged at Pentridge ‘indefinitely’ – or until we purged our contempt and promised to obey the injunctions, something we were not willing to do.
Fergus did four months, Brian three and I served six weeks. Our release came as a victory for the students, trade unionists and members of the legal profession who took up our cause. We were released on application to the Supreme Court by the Vice Chancellor, and we never apologized or purged our contempt.
In 1992, twenty years after our release, I recorded Brian’s and Fergus’ recollections and reflections for the National Library of Australia and I also recorded a monologue of my own reminiscences.
The above is a simplified outline of events. For more detail, see my book ‘Student Revolt’ (Nicholas Press, 1989) which is available on-line for free: https://c21stleft.com/2015/09/05/student-revolt-la-trobe-university-1967-to-1973/
Here are other links relating to that struggle:
The first of a series of brief youtube clips based on excerpts from the recording made in 1992. There are seven clips in all – search Youtube ‘Barry York Pentridge’ for the others.
Barry York administers the blog C21st Left https://c21stleft.com/