Untold History of WA: Government’s controversial attempt to ban small gatherings under 54B law
In the minds of many, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a turbulent time.
And that is for valid reasons.
Historian Geoffrey Bolton, in Land of Vision and Mirage, Western Australia since 1826, wrote that protests over national service during the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and growing environmentalism and activism in the early 1970s, ushered in a period of social unrest
Such controversies “suggested that if the ideal of community consensus had ever had validity in Western Australia, it was now on the wane”, Bolton wrote.
Jenny Gregory, in City of Light, A History of Perth since the 1950s, wrote that such unrest was “a reflection of the general social turmoil throughout Australia”.
“Between 1963 and 1967 there had been between 25 and 33 strikes each year in Perth, but in 1969 the number of strikes increased to 125, rising to 257 in 1974, 306 in 1978, and 436 in 1982.”
It was during this time that another issue was added to the list of grievances which had West Australians taking to the streets to protest — a new piece of law which became well-known as simply “54B”.
And while its authors in the Liberal-Country Party State government of the day portrayed it as simply a measure to ensure good public order, its detractors saw it as a crackdown and infringement of basic rights
It was perhaps ironic that probably the biggest and most violent demonstration in the years leading up to the enactment of 54B was that aimed at a Labor prime minister — Gough Whitlam — at a rally in Forrest Place in 1974.
Whitlam was targeted with soft drink cans and tomatoes as angry farmers protested against the proposed removal by the Federal government of a $12-a-tonne superphosphate bounty.
The legislative step aimed at regulating protests was taken in 1976 by the State government, then led by the towering presence of premier Sir Charles Court.
Bolton wrote that Court, “who seems sincerely to have believed that much of the protest against developmental policies was stirred up by outside influences wishing ill, if not evil, to the State’s prosperity, advocated facing down opposition by confrontation”.
“Irked by occasional hostile public demonstrations, in 1976 his government passed an amendment to the Police Act, Section 54B, that made it illegal to convene public meetings of more than three people without securing a police permit.
Gregory wrote that the Labor Party saw the move as “the removal of the right of assembly, hard won by working people in the 19th century, and an attack on the industrial movement”.
“Justifying the legislation, Premier Court later said that, in an era of strikes, protests and demonstrations, society’s most dangerous enemies were political or social activists,” Gregory wrote.
Under the headline, “Outcry On Police Powers”, The Weekend News of November 27, 1976, reported that, “an outcry has started over a Bill to give police sweeping powers over public meetings”.
“It has been attacked as another step towards a police state and aimed at the trade union movement.
“Anybody who wants to hold a public meeting or march of more than three people will have to get written permission from the Commissioner, who can also put conditions on his approval. The Opposition spokesman on police matters, Mr Tom Jones, has slammed the Bill as blatant suppression of individual freedom. ‘It is interference and suppression of a basic right’, he says. ‘It means the end of the sort of free speech you can see in Sydney’s Domain or London’s Hyde Park’.”
Gareth Evans, who was then a senior lecturer in constitutional law at Melbourne University, told the paper the law would be “the most draconian of its time anywhere in Australia”.
“Under such a law there would be no way that the police would not become involved in political decisions,” he told the paper.
But Bill Hassell, who was elected as Liberal MLA for Cottesloe in 1977, and who was police minister from March 1980 to when Labor under Brian Burke won government in February 1983, maintains the legislation’s intent was simply based around ensuring the ability to maintain public order.
Mr Hassell told The West Australian this week that, “the principal aim was simply to regulate public demonstrations and marches so that the police could do their job of protecting the demonstrators or marchers especially when there was a conflicting group in action at the same time”.
“It was undoubtedly necessary for good order. But some militant unionists seized on it as an attack on freedom of association and protest because permission had to be obtained from the police,” Mr Hassell said. “The attack was always political. I said many times, there was never any intention to curtail the right to assemble or to march. It was a typical political pile-on: the unions saw the chance to have a go at the Court government and they beat it all up mercilessly.
“54B became a touchstone for union attacks on the Court government. The law might have been more felicitously drafted. But positions became entrenched.”
Gregory wrote that the State’s political temperature went up a further notch in 1979 with legislation ostensibly in response to a dispute involving the Transport Workers Union, which had disrupted supplies of bread and milk in Perth.
“The situation escalated with the arrest of 10 unionists under Section 54B when they addressed an illegal meeting in support of striking unionists at Hamersley Iron Ore’s three Pilbara towns, Tom Price, Paraburdoo and Dampier,” she wrote.
“Over the space of a week in June 1979 the situation deteriorated. Unionists throughout Australia threatened to strike in support of the arrested unionists.”
An attempt at resolving the issue through talks between Court and then-ACTCU president Bob Hawke failed.
Gregory noted that The West Australian editorialised that, “a combination of stubbornness and stupidity is to blame for the mess in which Australia finds itself today — stubbornness by a government that cannot brook criticism and stupidity by trade union leaders who have grossly overreacted”.
On June 16, 1979, The West Australian reported that “mounting industrial anger” led to a Transport Workers’ Union snap strike action at Perth airport delaying for three hours a flight which was to take Court on a visit to Israel.
“The action, by 100 TWU members — cargo handlers, refuellers and caterers — caused angry scenes in the airport terminal,” the paper reported. “The secretary of the TWU, Mr John O’Connor, said the snap strike was in protest against the arrest of union officials for holding a meeting in Karratha this week.”
For his part Court said that though he was amazed and disgusted that the union would keep 400 passengers waiting, it was for him “a godsend as I have been able to catch up on some work I didn’t complete before leaving for the airport”.
The paper also reported that unions in other States were preparing for Statewide strikes to support their WA colleagues and that Court had “reiterated the Government’s intention to bring down tougher industrial legislation if the circumstances warranted it”.
A flavour of the way the debate filtered through the community can be gleaned from files held by the State Records Office, which reveal queries to the police about whether a parents and citizens meeting at a school which discussed government policies was subject to 54B and even — possibly tongue in cheek — a letter to the police commissioner asking whether scouts sightseeing as part of a jamboree could fall foul of the law.
But finally the government relented, Gregory wrote, after it found itself “backed up against a wall with the threat of a nationwide stoppage”.
“The police announced that they would seek an adjournment of the charges against the unionists, and the government announced a review of public assembly laws.
“The result was a refinement of Section 54B providing for greater definition of what constituted a public place and what constituted a meeting, though police permission was still required before any meeting or procession could be held in a public place.”
The union movement argued the changes were cosmetic and protests continued, including over Indigenous rights after approval to drill for oil on Noonkanbah Station, and it was not until the Burke government came into office in 1983 that 54B was repealed.
“The new Public Meetings and Processions Act still required police permission for assemblies and processions (the definition of which did not change) but now there was recourse to appeal to a magistrate if a permit was refused,” Gregory wrote.