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Flinders Uni occupation - 40 years on

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by Verity M.

The Flinders University occupation took place in 1974, a time of almost worldwide social unrest culminating in revolutions in some countries and invasion of neighbours in others.

The Carnation Revolution in Jordon, the Yom Kippur War, the fall of Allende in Chile, the war in Vietnam, the Paris student revolt were all part of this turbulent period.

The Vietnam War in particular alerted Australians to the extent to which Australian politics, economy and military were entangled with the United States and the resultant cost to Australia. It radicalised a great many Australians who were critical of what they saw as the subservience of Australian Governments to the expansionist needs of the United States.

Students are generally an aware group and often are quick to take action against what they see as attacks on democratic rights.

The Whitlam government had made Universities free of cost opening up tertiary education to more public school educated students, to the children of workers who would not have been able to attend a fee charging university and to mature age students, many of whom were denied a university education in their youth.  All of this led to a population both within and outside of the university who were recognising threats to Australian democracy and were organising to express their concerns.

Within the Universities students were critical of the hierarchical structure and the very limited voice students had over how knowledge was being constructed in many of the more conservative disciplines and who such constructions benefited, whilst other ways of seeing and knowing were being marginalised.

At Flinders University History students, in particular, were resisting examinations in their subject which they saw as blocking new ideas or ways of thinking from entering the curriculum.

As students outside the History Department moved in to support the struggle, and as the History discipline heads made no moves to negotiate, students upgraded their struggle and moved in to occupy the administration building, the Registry, bringing the whole university to a go slow.

As in all prolonged political actions the issues widened to include the whole functioning of the university; it's relation to capital and imperialism, particularly U.S. interests.

As the university moved into holiday mode students racked up their demands.  They researched Russell, the Vice Chancellor of Flinders, to discover that he had been involved in research for the American war machine and had been a consultant for the CIA.

This heightened the students' concerns about links enabling universities to meet the needs of capital and U.S. imperialism. They threatened to open the VC's office files, one per week, until their demands were met.

The files, once opened, revealed the extent to which Vice Chancellor Russell's research had been related to military and intelligence agencies and indeed some suggestion that there had been involvement or supportive research for chemical and biological warfare.

Just as importantly, students' published research saw the Flinders' findings and Russell's role as symptomatic of the 'parasitic cancer' of the United States imperialist system that builds its wealth on the exploitation of countries all around the world, including Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

This was all too much for the forces of reaction.  Staff who had been forced to find alternative accommodation were mobilised to storm the Bastille, (the Registry actually), climbed in windows and reclaimed most of the Registry. The Occupation was over but not the struggle.

Flinders students received considerable support interstate.  Students in Melbourne and Sydney held sit-ins to support Flinders students and to raise demands of their own.

Flinders students returned to the university to reclaim the Registry.  Police were called in.  A number of students were detained but no formal arrests were made. The University no doubt considered it too risky to invite the close examination that court procedure could involve; in fact the university administration implemented court proceedings to prevent publication of the material students had 'illegally' accessed and implemented their own disciplinary action, expelling several students, suspending and disciplining others.

When students returned after the end of semester break, the largest student meeting ever held at Flinders voted in support of the Occupation and its aims.

The kind of information students were retrieving and the struggles they were involved  in, not just at Flinders but around Australia, led to a reaching out to the working class who were working under the same constraints and whose struggles, like theirs, were against the foreign exploitation and capture of Australian labour, knowledge and resources for the benefit of imperialist global expansion, resources that rightly belonged to the Australian people and should be used for their benefit, not for the benefit of foreign, particularly American profiteers.

The militarisation of Australia in the interests of United States global domination is ongoing as witnessed by recent history and current events: the exploitation of Australian workers and the abandonment of the same workers when profits don't meet expectations is also ongoing.

Australia's resources, industrial, educational and cultural are no less foreign owned and/or influenced today than they were in 1974, and here we are going into yet another war at the behest of the United States.

We are spied on by American intelligence agencies, as are American citizens, and as we are by our own spying agencies. We have American army leading personnel and troops deeply embedded in our own armed forces, skewing our national strategic interests to what is in the interest of the United States global aspirations; we have American bases around Australia, some designated first strike targets;  companies dominating Australia's resource sector exploit Australian workers and send their profits off-shore. 

What began at Flinders and other Universities as local issues around the working conditions under which they studied and what happened to the knowledge and skills they developed became part of a working class struggle for independence, and in many cases an understanding long realised by workers, that that capitalism could not provide the cultural and economic conditions that would bring long term benefits to all Australians, not just a selected few.

Universal benefits can never be realised in a system of private ownership and reliance on a monopoly dominated market.  That requires a true democracy based on collective ownership. That is what the student and workers struggles in the seventies were about.  That is what they are still about.


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