The Guardian February 12, 2003


A tale of two malls

by Rowan Cahill

On Saturday morning (February 8) something remarkable happened in the Steel 
and University city of Wollongong, south of Sydney. Thousands of people, as 
many as 7000 according to helicopter scrutineers, but certainly 5000, took 
to the streets to protest against war with Iraq. Not just war without the 
blessing of the UN, but WAR FULL STOP.

The huge crowd choked the streets of the CBD, stopped traffic for the best 
part of half an hour, as it streamed from the Labour Council building near 
the railway station to the amphitheatre in the heart of the city Mall.

It was a multicultural and cross generational mix. There were old people 
with walking sticks, and those too frail to walk rode on fire trucks; there 
were adolescents with spiked hair; there were trade unionists with union 
flags and banners (the Teachers and the Maritime workers stood out); there 
were young people in their early 20s, protesting for the first time; there 
were people who hadn't protested since the 1960s and '70s; there were 
Muslims; there were Christians; and there were young families, many young 
families, complete with kids, strollers, and pet dogs on leads with peace 
ribbons around their necks.

The crowd settled in the amphitheatre area around the stage, and filled the 
Mall. During the songs and speeches that followed there were, for me, two 
memorable occasions.

The first was the speech by the Catholic Bishop of Wollongong, Peter 
Ingham; he spoke calmly, his confident delivery carefully paced and 
phrased. He drew from the Sermon on the Mount, and ended with the Peace 
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

In between he spoke about God in a way that crossed faiths, and he spoke 
about peace, and how while war is expensive, peace is priceless, and he 
questioned the motives of politicians who seem intent on creating a huge 
conflict with the Muslim world. God, he said, was smiling on the Wollongong 
demonstrators, which in context seemed to imply that He was not as close to 
George Bush as the White House claims.

The crowd was quiet; the Mall was quiet; many shops ceased trading; and as 
I moved through the crowd I saw people on tip toe craning to catch the 
Bishop's words. It was as though the Mall had momentarily become an open 
air church.

On the verandah of the restaurant overlooking the stage, Saturday morning 
coffee drinkers also listened attentively, and when the Bishop finished, 
joined the huge applause.

Later John Maitland, National Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, 
Mining and Energy Union, spoke; the second memorable occasion. What 
concerned him was the racism that courses through Australia's "war against 
terror" and the forthcoming war with Iraq.

He spoke with conviction, and with controlled passion, and when he told the 
crowd that the trade union movement welcomes Muslims, there was thunderous 
applause that sent the Mall's seagull community packing.

At the same time in another Mall, 60 kilometres south-west of Wollongong in 
the Southern Highlands town of Bowral, right in the heart of Liberal 
territory, 300 local anti-war protesters gathered. They were addressed by 
former Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett.

Again, the same generational mix of people, the same sort of sentiments, 
but minus the multiculturalism of Wollongong. And this at a time when the 
Bowral Post Office reports a deluge of demands to return John Howard's 
'anti-terror' booklet to the sender; a local citizenry outraged by the 
waste of public money and the attempt by the Howard Government to create a 
political climate of uncertainty and fear.

There is something stirring in the Australian soul, possibly similar to the 
cantankerous oppositional spirit that variously came alive during the anti-
conscription battles of 1916-1917, during 1951 and the campaign against the 
banning of the Communist Party of Australia, and during the 1960s and early 
'70s in opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War.

* * *
Rowan Cahill is a historian and journalist.

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