The last time a great voice was raised in protest, our Government was sending people to an unwanted war via conscription. Geoff Mullen said no, and was jailed for his efforts.
At the end of the 1960s, the world was on fire. Hippies were weaving flowers in their hair and clashing with the police in the US, Paris had a student and workers revolt and in Amsterdam somebody allegedly drilled a hole into his own forehead as a way of protesting consumerism. Even Australia was infected by the idea that the times were a-changin’. The focus for a lot of the dissent was the war in Vietnam, which was broadcast on television in its full horror and brutality. In 1964, Prime Minister Robert Menzies had adopted the National Service Act and successive conservative governments made sure that as many “nasho’s” as possible served in Vietnam. From the moment the scheme was introduced until it was abolished in December 1972, almost 64,000 national servicemen served in the Army and more than 15,000 were sent to Vietnam. Selection was by birthdate: all the birthdates of 20-year old men were put on marbles, thrown in a barrel and when you were drawn in the ballot, you had to do two years in the regular army, followed by three years in the Army Reserve. Most people reluctantly went, but 1,133 refused. About twenty of them were thrown in jail for their principled stance. One of those was Geoff Mullen, who served three sentences, two in 1969 and one in 1971. This makes him my pick for Aussie Maverick number seven. “I am convinced that life is not worth living if one is not the master of one’s own decisions.”
Geoff Mullen (1947-2014) was raised as the son of a single mother in Sydney. He was very smart and studied at both Waverley College and Sydney University on a scholarship. Then he worked briefly for the ABC and the University of New England, before becoming a computer programmer at IBM. By that time he was already an anarchist, convinced that states and nations should be replaced by “self-management” of individuals and a class-less society. According to Mullen, this had to start with people having integrity and “being responsible for their own behaviour”. In 1967, he was balloted in to go to Vietnam, after which he wrote his first letter to the Department of Labour and National Service in which he tried to explain his motivation for refusing the Minister’s offer of a stint under arms: “I had to decide if there were in fact valid reasons for killing people in Vietnam, or if not, would I then commit murder? I am no saint nor would-be martyr, but if others can make me kill and maim against my conscience, I am less a man, a beast to be used and manipulated.” He refused to “recognise any government legislation that is unjust” and considered himself more patriotic in doing so than any of the “merchants of death” in Canberra, because he was, he thought, “doing my utmost that Australia should not become a nation of slaves or barbarians.”
Mullen’s protest was part of a larger refusal of a good portion of the Australian citizenry to obey its government. It had started with demonstrations during the visit of American president Johnson to the country in 1966 and gained momentum between 1968 and 1971. In 1968, there was the “Battle of Martin Place” in Sydney, with police clashing with protesters. In Melbourne, police on horseback took on demonstrators in front of the US Consulate. Government offices were occupied, NSW Governor Sir Roden Cutler was pelted with rotten tomatoes and in April of 1969 Louis Christophides sat on the train line from Wollongong to Sydney to block a train carrying conscripts. In 1970 and 1971 there were three so-called Moratorium Marches, that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in cities all across the country. In Adelaide a group of Vietnam vets assaulted demonstrators, in Sydney one was even bayonetted. Billy Snedden, the Minister for Labour and National Service, called the marchers “political bikies who pack rape democracy”. In April of 1971, five women were arrested and sent to jail for 14 days for distributing leaflets against the war. It was all happening.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Aussie mavericks: Juanita Nielsen – The martyred heiress of justice
- Aussie mavericks: Vida Goldstein – Women and children first
- Aussie mavericks: Fred Maynard – Our first Aboriginal activist
The history of conscription in Australia had been interesting. During WW1, two Referenda had rejected conscription, but in WW2 it had been introduced mid-1942. To avoid mass objections, PM Curtin limited the places where the conscripts could be sent: Australia and its territories only. Because of that, the men were called “chocolate soldiers”, although they saw more than their share of combat at Kokoda. During the second world war 2,791 people applied to become conscientious objectors. This had been possible since the 1903 Defence Act, but from 1939 the Act excluded “Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others believed to represent a threat to the state”, and a quarter of the men applying for CO status were rejected, some sent to jail. During the Korean War a few hundred people objected to the compulsory military training, but because nasho’s were not sent to the war, the protests remained small. That changed with the war in Vietnam and from 1966, most churches advocated men applying to become a CO. The longer the war went on, the more people were against sending conscripts to Vietnam and in favour of allowing young men the right to object.
In 1968, Geoff Mullen was called twice to attend a medical examination. Twice he refused. Twice he got fined. Twice he refused that too. So twice he was sent to jail, first for 16, then for 29 days. He took it on the chin, believing that Australia should “show some respect for individual liberties”, and that conscription was “the first step towards a totalitarian state.” In 1969, he stepped up his protests. First by writing a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, telling people to join him, because although all the marching was fine, “to think that that is enough is insane.” Later that year, he decided to gain some more publicity for the cause by standing for the House of Representatives. It was the seat of Wentworth, where he ran against Les Bury, then Minister for Labour and National Services. He lost and was officially called up for service in December of that year. Again he refused to go. So he was summoned to court in October of 1970. Again, he didn’t attend. In February 1971 he was arrested and a month later jailed for two years, of which he served one.
He was philosophical about his sentence, writing that “it is important that people do what they think is right”.
For the eloquent simplicity of that motivation, and the courage to act according to his conviction, Geoff Mullen deserves to become one of the worthy recipients of the Aussie Maverick Award 2017.
May they be remembered in perpetuity.