In November 1991 over 1000 protesters blockaded the National Exhibition Centre in Canberra with the goal of shutting down the Australia International Defence Exhibition. Over 12 days AIDEX ’91 saw the most police violence and the highest number of arrests in the Australian Capital Territory since the Vietnam era. Although the exhibition was eventually able to go ahead the blockades caused enough disruption to ensure that no one would dare hold another large scale arms fair in Australia again. The success of the protest came at a cost however with hundreds of demonstrators injured and their actions demonised in the mainstream media.
Alongside a detailed account of the blockade itself ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE: THE AIDEX ’91 STORY traces the background of the protest amidst the growth of the Australian arms industry. Using the words of the protesters themselves the book also explores the lessons of AIDEX ’91, the effect of the protest on a generation of Australian activists and the way in which similar strategies were used to stop the 2008 Asia Pacific Defence and Security Exhibition from occurring. This book was originally published by Homebrew Press in 2009.
Download a PDF of the book from the box at the bottom of this page. For other download options including for print-disabled users, visit Internet Archive.
AIDEX ’91 was a defining moment for a generation of Australian activists and troublemakers, and it was one of those rare moments that delivered a shock to the system (both theirs and ours). Over a week or so in late November 1991 up to 2000 protesters descended on Canberra to blockade the National Exhibition (NATEX) site in hopes of closing down the Australian International Defence Equipment Exhibition (AIDEX) arms fair. In a foretaste of the anti-globalisation protests to come, the campaign brought together people from a myriad of political causes and countercultural scenes and gave them a clear goal and the numbers and determination to meet it.
In the build up to the protests the ACT government declared it would not allow AIDEX ’93 to take place at the NATEX site due to lobbying and national protests which saw the number of exhibitors fall from over 200 in 1989 to 140 in 1991. Despite ever-increasing levels of police repression, internal conflict and media vilification the AIDEX ’91 demonstration itself further disrupted the event to such a degree that no other city in Australia would host an arms bazaar on the same scale for 17 years.
I attended AIDEX ’91. As was typical of many other protestors in their late teens and early twenties, my primary focus was on environmental issues, particularly those relating to old growth logging and rainforests. For about four years I’d been involved in environmental and anti-racist groups in Western Australia that were engaged in direct action and which used consensus decisionmaking processes. I identified as an anarchist and had taken part in a range of activities from leafleting Bunnings stores and performing guerilla street theatre pranks to taking part in Land Rights pickets and blockading rainforest imports. I was reasonably well versed in the then interminable debates over the validity and usefulness of non-violent direct action (NVDA), deep ecology, vegetarianism and a whole host of other theories and lifestyle choices. For the most part however, I wanted, to paraphrase the old-time Wobblies, action and plenty of it.
However despite our best efforts and the existence of a fairly unified, but small, West Australian activist scene, there was not a huge amount of action on offer at the time. Like many others I had been horrified and angry at the recent Gulf War, but Perth, a conservative city, had seen some of the smallest demonstrations in the country. We’d responded with vigils, peace concerts, satirical posters and other efforts, but we were left fairly gutted at our inability to do much about the first war Australia had formally taken part in since Vietnam. I’d heard some crazy stories about the AIDEX ’89 protest from friends who’d been there, so when the call went out for people to join in a major blockade to halt the event in ’91, I leapt at the chance to get one back at the warmongers.
I traveled to AIDEX ’91 on my own with the plan of hooking up with friends when I got there. It was my first time outside of parochial W.A. and the trip certainly opened my eyes to what the rest of the world had to offer. I caught a plane to Sydney and then a bus to Canberra, which by chance got held up by a protest march from Parliament to NATEX. Hopping off the bus, I embarked on one of the more intense weeks of my life, one which would play a big role in cementing my ideas around the possibilities of mass defiance and the media and State’s reaction to it.
Unlike many at AIDEX ’91, I wasn’t particularly shocked at the escalating police violence that was meted out in response to our successful blockade of the fair. Similarly, the media’s demonisation of our efforts seemed par for the course, although I was surprised at the number of so called “alternative” types I later met who had swallowed its line. Luckily I didn’t get too hurt during the protest, beyond a trashed pair of glasses and a few bruises, although many of my friends did not come off so lightly. One had a dreadlock ripped out of his head and another had her head slammed into the tarmac. Although the direction of the blockade was often reactive and I didn’t know what was going on half the time, I did get the sense that we were winning and after so many defeats in my short activist career that certainly felt good.
Although the violence and chaos of AIDEX ’91 burnt out a lot of protesters, I was one of those who took its success as a reason to carry on. In the coming months I visited various activist offices and spaces, took part in a dreadfully ineffective anti-woodchipping action in the Gippsland, attended the New Years Earth First! gathering and then joined many others from AIDEX at the rowdy Melbourne protest against US President George Bush (the first one) before going on to have many other varied adventures.
Since the mid 1990s, I’ve increasingly devoted much of my time to documenting and taking part in activities celebrating the radical past, in part because I find it nerdily fascinating, and in part because the rapid generational turnover of Australia’s activist scene leads to important knowledge being continually lost and struggles quickly forgotten. I now see AIDEX ’91 as taking place during the peak of a particular Australian “cycle of protest” that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whilst scholars of social movements expend a lot of energy in trying to quantify, measure and explain such cycles it is relatively evident that all campaigns, movements and scenes experience peaks and troughs in terms of their strength and effectiveness. At the peak of the cycle activists are kicking arse and taking names, but as repression, burn out and division set in the numbers drift away and the hard core sit about despairing (or if they’re far sighted enough begin preparing for the next upswing). Each cycle differs from the last and many may coincide at once across different social movements, but short of a major revolutionary break with all that has come before us, the general pattern seems likely to continue. All things must pass and all that. The fact that movements come and go is not a reason to despair however, but rather a reason to make us think about the long term picture and remember our successes during quieter times.
I had originally intended to produce something about AIDEX ’91 in time for the 2000 S11 protests as I saw many potential parallels between the two events and felt that a re-exploration could help play a part in informing recurring debates over organizational tactics and strategies. As it was, one thing or another got in the way and whilst I did some interviews for Radio 3CR and posted some recollections to Indymedia, the proposed pamphlet never eventuated and S11 went off just fine without my historical contribution.
Nevertheless the idea of producing a largely oral history of the AIDEX protests remained on the backburner. With the news that Adelaide was to host the first AIDEX style event in 17 years on Remembrance Day 2008 I decided it was now or never, and after months of hurried research and activity here we are. During the final week of completing the book the organisers of the Asia Pacific Defence Exhibition (APDSE) announced that they were canceling the event, in large part due to the threat of protest disruption, making the AIDEX ’91 story more relevant than ever. Over the next 140 or so pages you’ll find a variety of voices telling the story of the protests and giving their opinions on what, where, why and how it all happened. AIDEX ’91 naturally enough did not occur in a vacuum, and the first section of the book provides some detail on the background factors which motivated people to attend as well as on the political context in which it took place. This section of the book also recalls the AIDEX ’89 protest and the flurry of organising activities that occurred in the run up to ’91. An account of the protest itself then follows. The final section focuses on the aftermath of the event and its effects on both Australian social movements and the arms industry.
Unlike many of the accounts that appeared in the activist media and elsewhere following AIDEX ’91, this history will not focus primarily on issues of appropriate protester behaviour and its relation to the high level of police violence that occurred. Instead the book will attempt to tell the story of the campaign from a non-partisan standpoint that views a variety of tactics, strategies and groups as all contributing to the eventual success of the protest. Other events that took place around Canberra will receive some coverage, but my main interest is in what led up to and occurred during the blockade of the NATEX site.
In compiling this history I’ve drawn on a number of sources including alternative and mainstream media accounts and radio and film documentaries. I’ve also carried out a number of interviews with people who were members of groups or tendencies that I feel have not been adequately canvassed elsewhere. In tracing the order of events that took place on the ground I am heavily indebted to the Piecing It Together: Hearing The Stories Of AIDEX ’91 publication. For those who just cannot get enough of AIDEX ’91, I urge you to seek out a copy for yourself. As part of a series of ecumenical hearings designed to “bring about healing in the community and contribute positively to clarifying what took place”, the 474 page document was originally published in 1995. Whilst skewed towards NVDA perspectives and largely missing the voices of the more militant members of the blockade (no doubt because those tendencies failed to respond to or take part in the hearings), Piecing It Together provides far more detail on the media coverage, Ombudsman’s inquiries and community policing than has been possible here.
THE BACKGROUND TO AIDEX ’91 9
- The Arms Industry Makes A Comeback
- New Wars and Old Conflicts.
- The Return Of Direct Action
- DESIKO, PADEX ’86 and AIDEX ‘89
THE BUILD UP TO AIDEX ‘91 29
AIDEX ‘91 41
- Monday 18th – Friday 22nd November
- Saturday 23rd November
- Sunday 24th November
- Monday 25th November
- Tuesday 26th November
- Wednesday 27th November
- Thursday 28th November
- Friday 29th November
THE FALL OUT 117
- Stopping Austech ‘93 and the Asia Pacific
- Security Defence Exhibition (APDSE) ‘08
- Department of Social Security (DSS)
- Harassment Of Protesters
- Court Cases
- Complaints Against The AFP To The ACT Ombudsman
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: THE EFFECT OF AIDEX ’91 ON INDIVIDUALS AND THE LEFT 133
Download a PDF of the book from the box below. For other download options including for print-disabled users, visit Internet Archive.
- Campaigning - Approaches_Actions_Tactics
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Civil disobedience
- Collective action
- Direct action
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti war
- Movements_Campaigns - Peace