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.