Our Radical History

A look back at some of the defining moments of MQ’s political history

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Words || Katelyn Free

You may not know it now, with the serene sounds of corporate construction and student apathy consistently ringing throughout the Macquarie University ecosystem…but once upon a time MQ was considered a politically radical university. Student activism used to be a regular and prominent part of life at Macquarie, but now the scene has dimmed, with USyd and UTS becoming the more politically active of the Sydney universities. 

So, what was it like back in the day at MQ? Glad you asked, because Aunt Grapey is going take you through some of key political moments in Macquarie’s history, whether you like it or not.

Round the Table We Go

Before the events that really made Macquarie the ‘radical’ university it would become known as, there were a few events that sparked student activism on campus in the late 1960s’. One of these was the Round Table protest.

On July the 24th 1969, amongst rising student discontent at university management and the growing organisation of the political left on campus, 70 students forced their way into a ‘Round Table’ discussion between university representatives, academic staff and some selected students. These meetings were allegedly used by the university to propagandise their talking to students, however the informality and secrecy of the meetings, meant that there was limited accountability for the university, who had no tangible incentive to act on the students’ demands. 

So, on the 24th of July, students forced their way up the stairs of the building, pushing past security guards and disrupting the ‘Round Table’ meeting. The Vice Chancellor and his cohorts exited quickly. 

Three of the students, Calvin Noack, Pierre Vicary and Derek Dolstra, were subsequently identified as the main instigators and charged with ‘being present at a meeting which they were not entitled to attend or be present: with the intention of disrupting the course of business’. Other students involved in the protest signed a petition supporting them, but the Macquarie University Students’ Council supported the university. 

Tent City Bitch

In October 1969, in protest to the university refusing to provide adequate student housing, students in need of housing set up a make-shift slum of tents, wood, tin and fibro on the front lawn in front of the former student union. On the first night, Tent City had 30 residents, which quickly became 80 permanent residents, with up to 200 students being present at any time. Despite torrential rain that the University Council hoped would displace the students, Tent City lived on. 

News and media covered the event, putting further pressure upon the university. The Vice Chancellor gave the students until October 5th to leave, pinning notices of eviction and demolition to the tents. Instead of moving on, 300 students turning up to defend Tent City. 

The University then agreed to provide housing if Tent City was taken down. The students agreed, and Tent City was taken down as a student played the Last Post on a trumpet.

We Go to War

The event that truly changed the political scene at Macquarie were the Moratorium protests against the Vietnam War. It was the first political event to gain serious traction and paved the way for greater student activism on campus. 

Grapeshot’s predecessor, Arena, the newspaper of the Macquarie University Students’ Council (MUSC), ran extensive coverage on the anti-Vietnam war campaign and stirred students into action. However, the Vice Chancellor refused to allow Moratorium materials to be printed at the university. 

Despite this, in the weeks leading up to the big march, events were organised on campus to build support for the demonstration and debate the political issues around the Vietnam War. Student activism against the war reached fever pitch, with Moratorium marches taking place on 8 May 1970, 8 September 1970 and 30 June 1971 respectively. 

In the wake of the Moratoriums, Macquarie well and truly radicalised, as left and right factions became intensely divided, even going to the NSW Supreme Court to block Macquarie University Student’s Council giving funds to La Trobe University to cover the legal fees of students charged with offences in the wake of the Vietnam protests.

Macquarie’s Stonewall

The final defining moment in Macquarie’s political history is the emergence of Gay Liberation at MQ. Following the Stonewall riot in 1969 the Gay Liberation movement spread from the US to many other countries and take root in most major universities. 

When Jeff Hayler, a gay student at Macquarie and a member of the Socialist Youth Alliance, ran for a position on MUSC in March 1973, a homophobic campaign was launched in Arena, by then editor Mark Aarons from the Communist Party. However, this resulted in student backlash and Jeff Hayler won the position. Mark Aarons eventually resigned. This all took place in time for one of Macquarie’s most harrowing pieces of history: the victimisation of Jeremy Fisher by Robert Menzies College.

Fischer was a gay student and resident of the still under construction Robert Menzies College, when on the night of 26 May 1973, he tried to commit suicide. In hospital he was interviewed by a psychiatric registrar who had been told by the university that Gay Liberation badges had been found in Fisher’s room. Fischer admitted he was gay. The master of RMC, Dr Alan Cole discovered that Fisher was treasurer of the Macquarie University Gay Liberation Club and upon Fischer’s discharge insisted that Fisher repress his sexual preferences and seek psychiatric help. Until he did so, he was expelled from RMC. 

What happened in the wake of this, was the world’s first ‘pink ban’. 

Fisher went to MUSC and spoke with Jeff Hayler. A demonstration was arranged, MUSC started a campaign for RMC to be disaffiliated if it didn’t let Fisher back in and a Special General meeting of the Macquarie University Staff Association voted to support Jeremy Fisher. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), who covered worked completing work on RMC, supported the campaign, and arranged for labourers working on the college to go on strike in support of the demand that Fisher be let back into the college.

In the face of university opposition, BLF extended the strike to cover other buildings on campus and even threatened a full university ban. 

RMC eventually bowed to the pressure and offered Jeremy his room back. He didn’t take it.

Similar discrimination happened at the end of 1973, but this time to Penny Short. Short was studying to be a teacher at Macquarie University on a teacher’s scholarship and was denied her scholarship for refusing to hide her homosexuality. 

Student activists at Macquarie organised for Short to do a speaking tour at Sydney University and UNSW. At Macquarie, between 600 and 1,000 students attended a meeting and voted for MUSC to support Short. A rally, organised by the NSW Teachers Federation, of 1,000 people marched through the city to the Department of Education to protest her situation. Similarly to Fischer, the BLF endorsed the campaign. 

Unfortunately, Short’s scholarship was not reinstated. But after passing a Diploma of Education at UNE Armidale, Short did become a teacher in 1987.

Macquarie nowadays shows little sign of its radical past. Student groups are largely individualistic and political groups do not hold as much sway over the general student body. We are less active and less engaged. 

But who knows? The legacy of the 60s’ and 70s’ students who stormed university meetings and created industrial strikes still lives on within the concrete walls of MQ…or maybe lurking beneath the lake. If the occasion presented itself, we too could build a Tent City and protest our rights as students- come rain or shine.