By Luisa Mitchell
When I stumbled upon Paul Bridges name in the old Grok newspapers, I had to know who this man was. He seemed to have been involved in so much while he was studying at Curtin, formerly known as the West Australian Institute of Technology, in the early 1970s: a Vietnam War draft resister, an active Guild councillor dring the heady, hippie era of free love, activism and passionate beliefs.
I spoke to Bridges to find out more.
When were you at WAIT and what were you studying?
I started in 1971 and was there until 1974, and I was doing what was then called an Associateship in Social Sciences.
In the first editions of Grok, you’re described as “already making progress in the Welfare area” and being “an active Councillor.” What work were you doing for the Guild and what contributions did you make for the students?
I got onto the Guild in 1972 and I was actually co-opted into being the Welfare Officer. it was during the Vietnam war of course, because we didn’t pull out until the following year when the Labor government was elected in under Gough Whitlam.
So, we set up a Draft Resistance Union because students were being called up and they could defer, but you did a year’s training and then a year in Vietnam, and if you survived then they’d let you go. We were a very left-wing Guild and so our sympathies were with the Vietnamese people and not the Americans and the Australians that were trying to defeat them.
Part of an article with advice on how to resist conscription by Paul Bridges, in Grok 1972.
There’s an article in 1972’s March edition that says Grok is “starting a special appeal in conjunction with Paul Bridges … the aim is to provide billets for draft dodgers so that when on the run from the Commonwealth police we can offer them a hiding place”. Was the Guild really providing accommodation for “draft dodgers” of the Vietnam War?
We had only one known draft resister on council, but the Draft Resistance Union encouraged people not to register. We used to do things like … the registration forms were available from post offices, so there’d be a van of students that would drive from post office to post office, and each would go in and grab a couple of forms, and then on an evening we’d sit down and do all these dummy ones. That was to stuff the system up.
There would have been a number of students that hadn’t registered. But by that stage there was so much resistance and so many people not registering, I think they saw that the end was nigh; and, of course, in the following year the Labor government came in and abolished conscription.
The Guild also paid for “don’t register for national service” posters, and they were posted up all over the metro area in the lead up to the draft allocation.
I saw a photo in Grok that year of someone burning up their registration card …
Yeah that was my hand, and Ray Coffey’s draft card [laughs].
Paul Bridges burning Ray Coffey’s draft card, Grok 1972.
People say students now are a lot more apolitical than students from your generation, but do you think that may be the case because you had crises like the Vietnam War going on—and your lives were on the line—whereas, we live in relative safety?
Certainly, but none of us that were committed; we would have all been draft resisters and have gone to gaol, rather than go to war.
What would happen is you’d fail to register; they’d cotton on to the fact you hadn’t registered, so you’d get a summons to appear in court; you wouldn’t appear in court, so there’d be a summons put out for your arrest; and that’s when you’d shuffle people around. When it did happen you just moved people around to different addresses. There were plenty of people that were happy to take you on and that were supporters of the cause.
It took about a year before they actually got to the point where you were gonna be sent to gaol, but at that point you could even apply for “conscientious objection”, which was an anathema to us. Generally, because of your previous record of resisting, you’d be granted one. It wasn’t devastating. You just had to keep on your toes and one step ahead of the police, and you were right.
Tell me more about what the WAIT campus was like then.
In those days, it was a pretty desolate campus because it had been built in a pine plantation. They built all these nice bitumen car parks near the buildings and most of them were allocated for staff parking. There was no-where for the students to park further out, they were supposed to park away from the buildings, but the frustrating thing was that students would then be parking and walking through all these staff parking’s to get to the buildings.
So, we began an open parking campaign, which said that people should be able to park where they like; but they kept booking students and giving them tickets. In the end, we got frustrated and went around on a motorbike and unbolted all the signs and took them away. The guys ended up with all these signs, and we thought, oh, they’ll never be found again.
Many, many years later when they were doing extensions to the buildings, they had a big opening ceremony and someone took this pile of dirt out from the bottom of the lake and dumped it on the bank, right in front of all the dignitaries and, apparently, they dumped out a whole lot of parking signs too [laughs]!
Parking did seem to be one of the few issues that got students interested in politics and protesting. What kind of difficulties did you face in challenging the University administration?
It was all about the parking fines, and in those days, that’s a lot of money. It was put through Institute Council whether to waive the fines or to stick with them, and it was carried by one vote—which was the chairman’s vote—so it was a close call.
Another one we were pushing for at the time was women’s issues, and we asked for tampon dispensers in the toilets; I don’t recall if we got that while I was there …
We also held Orientation camps. We did one up at Greenough. We took students up to another one on the train, which was quite fun. I remember we got off the train and the crew at the other end had organised a cattle truck, so all the students got on it. Some of the parents who were dropping their kids off were a bit horrified that their kids were being taken away on cattle trucks!
That was all organised by Andrew Thamo, who was then the Activities Officer. The camp was one of those hippy ones where you just bought big rolls of black builder’s plastic and had a whole lot of cane that wasn’t cut, because the students had to make their own accommodation. They swam in the lagoon for bathing, and people made rafts, there were a whole lot of drums there, and ropes … so, it was one of those “sit around the camp fire” events.
The Grok newspapers from the 1970s have, so far, been my favourite to read. There was such a strong counter-culture, and a sense of rebellion and revolution. What are your memories of that era?
They were pretty heavy days. The Guild was a very left-wing council. The Activities Officer organised rock concerts. We had various speakers on campus. One quite memorable one we had was with speakers on the Israel-Palestine issues. So, the Jewish students had a speaker, and we had David Palmer, who spoke on the Palestinian side. The Guild had organised the speakers for the panel, and the entire Guild Executive knew what was going to happen …
We had a guy that wore a Palestinian headdress, wearing no clothes, completely naked. He had a box of tomato sauce bombs and he was actually loaded out of the Tavern and onto the roof, and he ran around the roof into the quadrangle—which is where the speakers were—and bombed all the tomato sauce bombs and then dropped off into the back of somebody’s ute.
One of the Guild Executives then took the microphone and said, “Look, we had no knowledge about this, but any students that want to send us the bill for the dry-cleaning, we’ll pay it” [laughs].
There were also a lot of politics on women’s sexuality and liberation. How did you and others become such passionate writers on so many topics of minorities rights?
I mean, I still am. But it really was a time of change. The Palestinians to this day are a having a hard time of it. It was just stock-standard social justice issues we were passionate about.
In respect to women, the pill was then also pretty freely available, so we did an orientation handbook, and I wrote an article on contraception—not that I really knew anything about it. I did the research, wrote the article, and got the campus doctor to vet it, and he gave it the okay—so we printed it.
I don’t think we were all that much different to other campuses; we were one of the more radical campuses on a national level, but certainly not the most radical.
In those days, I was in the Australian Union of Students; and so, me being a young, fresh-faced, middle-class kid, who had been to Sunday School and Club Scouts, who was then going to Union conferences in Melbourne. It was pretty intense … and the Vietnam War was still going on, so we were pretty active in demonstrating against that.
You must have been enraged by a lot of the social issues at the time, because you also began a survey to see if a childcare centre should be established on campus. Why did you believe that childcare was a student’s right at uni?
For the same reason that it’s a woman’s right to go to work.
Enough said. What’s your fondest memory of working for Grok and the Guild?
I think it was working with the colony of people that I worked with. They were committed, passionate [people] … it was a really enjoyable atmosphere. People worked together, we had a common cause. It was different out in the world when you got into business, it was competitive; I work in the museum industry and we just work cooperatively.
But I still maintain my socialist beliefs; I ended up buying an old weatherboard house in Bassendean, and I’ve been here forty years, and of those I spent nine on the local council, fighting the battles there. You actually get in there and kick a bit of arse.
One of the things that came out of the open parking campaign is that they set up a committee of 50 per cent staff and 50 per cent students to resolve the issue and overcome the impasse. One of the people that the staff appointed was a guy called Brad Caffrey. He was sort of muscle-bound, looked like an old CIA agent.
You’d go along to these meetings and this guy would be that far off the planet in the way that he was behaving, that when you would relay it to other students they’d say, “oh, we don’t believe you, he’d never behave like that.” So, I thought fuck it, and I had a tape recorder and I put it in my bag, and got into the meeting a little bit late, and turned the tape on. Just after I turned it on, Caffrey fronts up to Tim Bleuhey, who was on the Guild Executive, and said to him, “Go outside, grab three of your mates and I’ll bash the shit out of youse.”
I had it all on tape. There was this other guy called David Brown, and this meathead apparently shirtfronted him—lifted him up by his shirtfront and held him against the wall in the staff room. So Brown was very much on our side about nailing this bloke. So there was the article written about it in Grok, but the Institute Council wouldn’t get rid of him. But about four or five months later he disappeared.
Yes, I remember reading the article about him in Grok! It’s cool that those stories are still being read about today. How has being a student unionist, a writer, and a student at WAIT, influenced your life and your career since leaving uni?
Heavily, ‘cause I had a classic middle-class upbringing. Both of my parents voted Liberal and I wouldn’t have done differently until I was radicalised as a student.
I ended up not finishing my degree and working for Telstra for twenty years. I was in the union and was a Labor Council Delegate, and then moved to Bassendean and got involved in environmentalist issues with the council.
After I left uni, I thought, I’m going to lose this contact with the left wing, and I ended up joining the Communist Party for years. Then that wasn’t going to go anywhere, and that party decided it wasn’t going anywhere; in fact, it dissolved. Most of those who were still active joined the Greens.
Are you in the Greens now?
I was in the Labor Party, but I found them a bit dull, colourless and boring. I’m a bit weird; I wear the red t-shirt and hand out for the Labor party in the morning, and then put on the green shirt later. I support both, and by moving between booths I get to catch up with a whole lot of people. They all know what I do and they don’t care.
What can we expect to see of you in the future?
I’m a museum curator. I’m going to retire at the end of this year—I’m pension age.
Thank you. I’ve survived [laughs]!