Q&A with Dr Sally Percival Wood

Q&A with Dr Sally Percival Wood

1. Tell us a bit about your professional background and your work as an academic historian.
My PhD traced the evolution of pan-Asian, pan-Arab and pan-African movements that began in the firt half of the twentieth century and culminated in the Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. Western allies including Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States took a hostile view of the Bandung Conference, perceiving – rather ironically – that ‘blacks’ were ganging up on ‘whites’. My historical specialisation stemming from my thesis led me towards an interest in Australia’s post-WWII engagement with the Asia region. As Asia’s former leaders of revolutionary independence movements gradually became presidents and prime ministers, Australia keenly felt the loss of Britain’s presence in the region. Domestically, the White Australia Policy had kept it psychologically distanced from its Asian neighbours, and it had remained at arms-length in terms of security and economic engagement, all of which had been largely mediated by the British Empire until WWII. The formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, itself a product of the Bandung credo of ‘unity in diversity’, often left Australia at odds with its region.
After completing my PhD at Deakin University, I moved to Asialink at the University of Melbourne where I was manager of applied research and analysis. This entailed the organisation of Asialink’s Track Two diplomacy program in Southeast Asia and led to a further specialisation in Australian engagement with ASEAN. This became the topic of my postdoctoral fellowship at Deakin. Earlier work as a research fellow at Deakin focussed on Australia’s relations with India and the cultural dimension of international relations. This has often been problematic in Australia’s stop-start relationship with India. My teaching at Deakin and Victoria Universities on Australia’s engagement with Asia, was infused with these cultural aspects of Asian diplomacy and how central this is to understand the regional geopolitics.

2. What was the impetus behind your decision to write Dissent?
I met 1960s student editor Pete Steedman in 2011, at a time when I was writing a chapter on the teaching of history in Australia for Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century (David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska, 2012). I was looking at how – or even whether – Asia featured in the school history curriculum. Pete had an impressive archive of student newspapers from the 1960s and I was fascinated to see their treatment of events unfolding in Asia, not least of all the Vietnam War. Pete himself had written articles, in 1961 when he was only 19, about how Australia needed to ‘make friends with Asia’. None of this would fit into the chapter I was writing, but I returned to the student newspapers of that era, and the idea for the book blossomed from there. It was not only representations of Asia, but the participation of Colombo Plan students on campus and a general social restlessness that fascinated me. There was simply nothing written about the student newspapers, only brief references here and there in other historical works, and I realised there was a gap in our social and cultural history that needed to be filled.

3. You have looked at student newspapers around the country. Is it possible to discern significant differences between the states?
Yes, I think so. For example, the first universities, in Sydney and Melbourne – established in the 1850s – demonstrated a degree of rivalry right from the beginning. This was evident when the University of Sydney founded Hermes in 1886. A letter to the editor in Melbourne’s Argus grumbled that the University of Melbourne was more deserving of a literary journal than Sydney. Then when the University of Queensland founded its literary journal, it rejected Sydney’s Euro-centric choice of names, opting for the Aboriginal name, Galmahra. Each university sought to establish its unique identity through the naming of its student newspaper. Honi Soit and Farrago, of course, represent the first universities’ identification with the classical British Oxbridge academic tradition, but after the war more robust national identity was evident in the naming of newspapers. The Australian National University and University of New South Wales, for example, chose Aboriginal names Woroni and Tharunka, and universities themselves were named after prominent founding fathers in each state, such as Matthew Flinders, Charles La Trobe and Lachlan Macquarie.
Content also reflected this differentiation between states. While it is unwise to over-simplify, Melbourne student newspapers were seriously political, and perhaps this reflects the origins of federal parliamentary democracy in the city of Melbourne from 1901 to 1927, especially when it came to outcries over conscription. Sydney, on the other hand, had more of a propensity to shock with flagrant abuse of censorship laws and the printing of obscene material. The University of Adelaide was progressive in a slightly different way. South Australia always led the way in terms of women’s rights, and it was where the women’s movement first took off through students Anne Summers and Anna Yeatman. This was, nonetheless, foregrounded by student newspaper On Dit’s blatant obsession with women’s breasts, with its column ‘Abreast of the Times’ running from 1962 to 1970, which featured more topless women than any other student newspaper. And we see at the University of Tasmania much less dynamism, and the paper Togatus often appearing to be on the brink of collapse. Over in Perth there was frequent discussion about secession, not only for Western Australia as a state but students pondered seceding from the National Union of Australian University Students.

4. Is it historically meaningful to talk about the radical sixties, as opposed to the conservative fifties and the growing (and arguably conservative) individualism of the seventies? Or is there a lot more ‘slippage’ between the decades than those broad characterisations allow?
No, I don’t think it is accurate to represent the decades in that way for several reasons. First, the fifties bled into the early sixties, with Menzies retaining a firm grip on leadership, and post-war reconstruction policies still very much in operation – certainly in terms of building the education sector and encouraging new migrants to Australia. These two elements of post-war reconstruction policy were pivotal to the sort of education egalitarianism we saw unfold in universities in the 1960s. Together with the Colombo Plan, these policies fundamentally changed, and even radicalised, university students giving conservatives quite a headache. For instance, the children of European migrants often had more sophisticated political views that inspired Australian students, while the presence of Colombo Plan students made a mockery of the White Australia Policy and posed the question: where are our Indigenous university students? At the other end of the decade, the 1960s did not really end until 1972 when the Labor Party and Gough Whitlam came into office. So, framing history within decades is only notionally useful.
Second, where student newspapers were concerned, there were radical voices in the 1950s as well as conservative ones in the 1960s and ‘70s. The so-called ‘left’ grabbed a great deal of attention in the 1960s, but there were equally passionate voices coming from the conservative ‘right’. It helps to set the Vietnam War and conscription aside when considering this, as they do tend to dominate our thinking about 1960s social movements. Censorship, abortion and contraception were hugely contested social issues among both progressive and conservative young people at the time. Bob Ellis, who came to represent the left later in his life, was violently opposed to abortion as a student. He went so far as to recommend abortion be a hanging offence.
So, while the ‘radical sixties’ does stand as a valid proposition given the debates that were unleashed around war, reproductive rights and later the women’s movement and gay rights, conservatism was alive and well on university campuses too.

5. How do you account for the change from the social issues of the sixties to a greater focus on individual concerns by the seventies?
The Women’s Liberation and gay rights movements turned attention towards the individual at the very end of the 1960s. Considering that the Kinsey Reports (on male and female sexuality) in the US and the Wolfenden Report (on homosexuality and prostitution) in Britain had started to readjust attitudes towards sexuality in the 1950s, progress was excruciatingly slow in Australia. These issues, along with debates about conscription and women’s rights to abortion and contraception, brought individual liberty to the forefront. It was not until the Whitlam Government came to power in 1972 that these matters were given a thorough airing with the Royal Commission on Human Relationships of 1974. This seems to be largely forgotten but was absolutely ground-breaking in its attempt to recalibrate social policy in Australia. The Royal Commission investigated matters that were pushed aside by conservatives throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It examined abortion and contraception, homosexuality and lesbianism, de-facto relationships and divorce, single parenthood, pornography and sex crimes, sex education, women in the workplace, and child abuse.
The Fraser Government inherited the Royal Commission on Human Relationships after Whitlam was dismissed in 1975 and it was denigrated during the 1977 election. Nonetheless, these issues it explored were finally brought into public discourse and policies around them gradually changed. Interestingly though, many of the topics covered by the Royal Commission were precisely the social issues that had been debated throughout the 1960s in student newspapers. With Whitlam many of the battles, such as conscription and censorship were won and students turned more determinedly towards issues involving individual liberty, as well as the environmental movement, which took hold in the early 1970s.

6. Tell us about some of the notable Australians who were active in the student newspapers in the sixties.
Two of the most fascinating student editors I focus on in Dissent are Humphrey McQueen and Pete Steedman. McQueen was editor of Semper Floreat at the University of Queensland in 1964 and was immediately controversial. Brisbane was a deeply conservative society in the 1960s, and he made every effort to dislodge the status quo. For McQueen, it was often about sexuality, although he had not publicly divulged his own homosexuality at that stage. He injected themes like polyamory and homosexuality into some of his writing for student publications, which often seemed to baffle his fellow students. But challenging Christianity was also a favourite sport. One piece, ‘My First Little Golden Book of God’ tells how God took two professors and rubbed them together to create the university campus at St Lucia. The sexual innuendo is clear, and might appear slightly ridiculous, but the offence it caused Christian students opened the topic up for discussion. McQueen’s student writing can be construed as juvenile, but I think it is more accurate to understand it as the manifestation of deep frustrations with the stifling censorship that students faced.
Steedman was a less frivolous, more political character at Monash University’s Lot’s Wife and Melbourne University’s Farrago. He represented the educational egalitarianism that the post-war education revolution delivered, introducing an element of unpredictability into campus life, which sometimes alarmed the authorities. What was fascinating about Steedman was his willingness to publish all sides of a debate. Debate on university campuses thrived in the sixties and Steedman was prepared to tackle public figures and expose hypocrisies. He also deployed investigative journalists to report on events in places like Indonesia and ran into serious trouble with the authorities for a series of articles setting out to expose the living conditions of Aborigines in the Northern Territory.
Other well-known editors in the sixties, to name a few, include John Bannon at On Dit, later Premier of South Australia, John Iremonger at Woroni, who became a highly influential publisher, journalist Laurie Oakes and publisher Richard Walsh at Honi Soit, academic Wendy Bacon at Tharunka and journalist Morag Fraser at Farrago. They followed in the footsteps of earlier famous student editors like Inky Stephensen (Galmajra 1921), Donald Horne (Honi Soit 1941), and David Malouf (Semper Floreat 1952). Student newspapers are a gold mine for uncovering the youthful germination of ideas among some of Australia’s most influential social, cultural and political figures.

7. Did women take a prominent role in student newspapers?
It is probably more accurate to say that women’s bodies took a prominent role in the student newspapers of the 1960s! But the women themselves – their political views or academic ideas – were almost invisible. This was a decade when the Miss University phenomenon flourished and male students were encouraged to evaluate female students on their appearance for the annual beauty contest. It seems incredible now to see winners of the beauty contests smiling from the pages of university papers wearing satin sashes, sparkling tiaras and nursing a bouquet of flowers. Women appeared to happily comply with this until Anne Summers and Anna Yeatman led a protest on the University of Adelaide’s campus against the Miss Fresher contest in 1970. The phenomenon quickly faded from view around the country.
There were, nevertheless, women editors in the 1960s – as there had been since the 1920s – but they were paired with male editors who tended to attract more notoriety. Women were given columns such as arts reviews or fashion and it is rare to find a female opinion, even when it came to issues directly affecting women, such as abortion. Females took a more active role behind the scenes, as typists and advertising managers. Two prominent exceptions were Morag Fraser who took on the sole editorship of Farrago in 1965 and Wendy Bacon at Tharunka in 1970. This was very unusual but, together with the women’s movement that germinated in 1969, women started to move to the forefront of political debate.

8. The sixties saw the rumbling of Indigenous protest movements. Was this reflected in the student newspapers?
It was actually university students who opened tertiary education up to Aboriginal students through the Aboriginal Scholarships program, known as ABSCHOL. The first Aboriginal student to graduate from an Australian university was Margaret Williams (later Williams-Weir) at the University of Melbourne in 1959. Progress was slow though, and there was a trickle, rather than a rush, of Aboriginal graduates. ABSCHOL invited the federal government to match its fundraising efforts pound for pound, but this was refused. Instead, the government offered to give scholarships to Aboriginal students after they completed their first year at university. University students were highly attuned to educational disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and frequently published articles about Aboriginal disadvantage and made ABSCHOL their primary fundraising focus.
The situation changed dramatically in 1965 when Charles Perkins, an ABSCHOL recipient, was the first Aboriginal student at the University of Sydney to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts. Perkins teamed up with students who had formed the Sydney University Organising Committee for Action for Aboriginal Rights formed in 1964 – shortly after it was renamed Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). Perkins was instrumental in the Freedom Ride into Northern New South Wales in February 1965 and it was the profound impact this had on young Aboriginal people who witnessed the Freedom Ride that was fundamental to the formation of the Black Power Movement in Redfern. So, while few Aboriginal activists were university students themselves in the 1960s, it was ABSCHOL, an initiative of university students, and the investigative reporting of student newspapers, that was the impetus behind the Indigenous protest movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. This, in turn, led to the establishment of the Tent Embassy outside Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day 1972, one of the most powerful symbols of Aboriginal protest the country has seen.

9. Are there fundamental differences between the sixties generation of university students and those on campus now?
In Dissent, I conclude with a reflection of the student newspapers of 1967 and those of 2017 to gauge how things have changed over those fifty years. It is impossible to accurately evaluate this without considering the profound changes to the tertiary sector since the Dawkins reforms undertaken by the Hawke Government in the early 1990s, which have led to the corporatisation of universities. This, along with off-campus learning, has changed the university experience for students and, I argue, accounts for a diminishing sense of campus camaraderie. Indeed, students are actively dissuaded from political action on campus largely in the interests of protecting the university brand and ensuring a steady flow of international students who now make up a quarter of Australia’s university enrolments.
But it is not only the commodification of university education that has changed the nature of university student newspapers. The media landscape is also vastly different in 2017 and students have many more avenues for receiving news and disseminating their ideas. Social media is obviously the most popular but an ineffective medium for the sort of sustained debates we witness in the sixties student publications. Student magazines, often with an emphasis on visual appeal, have replaced the ‘hard news’ newspaper format of the sixties. While it is important to recognise the influence that changes in universities and the media have had since 1967, it does not augur well for robust policy debates among future generations of politicians who in the past cut their political teeth on university campuses through debates and involvement in the student press.

10. Your PhD was on the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the rise of the non-aligned movement. Can you tell us about this research and how it resonates with contemporary geo-politics?
The Bandung Conference was the highpoint of African, Arab and Asian solidarity movements – collectively known as Afro-Asian solidarity – which used conferencing to generate a global unity of purpose in the fight against Western imperialism. My research explored several pivotal conferences in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning in 1900 with the Pan-African Conference in London, followed by the Arab-Syrian Congress in Paris in 1913, the Pan-Asian People’s Conferences in Nagasaki in 1926 and Shanghai in 1927, and the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism at Brussels in 1927. After WWII, as decolonistion began there was the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947 and then the grand finale, the Bandung Conference in 1955. While there were also many conferences of ‘coloured peoples’, the Pan-African, Pan-Arab and Pan-Asian movements represented the evolution towards new nations and new networks of non-aligned cooperation.
Bandung spawned the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and was the birthplace of what became known as the Third World – a term that has since gone out of favour – which essentially represents the same constituent counties. The NAM survives today, albeit with less potency since the end of the Cold War. However, a sense of Afro-Asian solidarity at the core of the ‘pan-movements’ has survived in important ways. First is ASEAN, a direct descendent of Bandung which continues to embrace the Bandung spirit of ‘unity in diversity’. In geopolitical terms, it is the only regional mechanism that has the capacity to bring all Southeast Asian states to the negotiating table on regional issues, together with Australia, New Zealand and the United States, plus China, India and South Korea. This is a significant Asia-led achievement, as other Western initiatives like SEATO or Whitlam’s proposal for an Asian and Pacific Forum have fallen away.
Second is the regional primacy of China and its increasing influence not only in Asia, but also Africa. This has been striking in terms of aid. While Western aid has traditionally attached provisions to its programs in areas such as the environment, human rights or economic modelling, Chinese aid is given on a ‘no strings attached’ basis. This is reminiscent of the mutual respect for sovereignty and non-interference that were central to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or Panchsheel, set down by Premier Zhou Enlai and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. The policy of Panchsheel was taken to the Bandung Conference and became the foundational philosophy of the NAM. So, while the West historically suspects China’s motives in international relations, Asia and Africa increasingly work together with China with these historical principles continuing to inform their style of cooperation.

Sally Percival Wood is the author of  Dissent: The Student Press in 1960s Australia (Scribe, 2017).

 

 

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