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Why we didn't stop the war

  • 20 March 2013

On the weekend of 14–16 February 2003 more than half a million Australians participated in protest marches around the country against Australia's involvement in the looming Iraq War. This, the largest coordinated protest action in the nation's history, was the result of months of organisation and campaigning by coalitions of anti-war organisations and a reawakening of the once-influential peace movement.

One poll at the time found that 90 per cent of Australians opposed the war without UN authorisation.

For a brief moment, it appeared as if the peace movement might in fact keep Australia out of the war. However, Prime Minister John Howard resisted the pressure and on 20 March Australia formally invaded Iraq as part of the 'Coalition of the Willing' with the United States of America and the United Kingdom. What went wrong?

The movement benefitted from and contributed to a massive global uprising, the lack of UN authorisation, and hesitant but real opposition from the Opposition. But the timing of the campaign, during the middle of the electoral cycle when governments are least vulnerable to public pressure, reduced its chances of success.

The movement also suffered from a lack of social infrastructure: for all intents and purposes there were no 'peace movement staff' in the country before 2003, and even at the height of the campaign the union movement allocated only one person to work on it full-time. Researchers have demonstrated that coalitions need to mobilise and apply significant human resources in order to build enough power to win.

And while the wide and loose nature of the coalition helped mobilise large numbers of Australians, it constrained discussion and implementation of more disruptive tactics. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there were no concerted attempts at large scale noncooperation or intervention, such as strikes or acts of civil disobedience.

Before the war began, there were only two cases of nonviolent intervention across the whole country — the famous scrawling of 'No War' on the Opera House by two individuals, and a Greenpeace action to place the Prime Minister under symbolic 'house arrest' in the Lodge.

Some union leaders in WA did call for strikes to block the shipment of supplies, but were quickly silenced. All other tactics could be categorised as 'public persuasion' attempts,