Meredith Burgmann: A Coogee Beach Adventure

Civil Liberties President Josh Pallas has recently pointed out that NSW CCL has advocated for the rights of protesters since 1963. I can certainly attest to that. In 1968 I was a teenage protester and in those days when we were arrested for anti-Vietnam activity we were assigned various civil liberties lawyers.

This is how I first came in contact with Jimmy Staples and many other young radical lawyers and later life-long friends Rod Madgwick, Tom Kelly, Greg Woods, John Basten, Wayne Haylen, Jack Grahame and John Terry.

However one of my funniest memories of working with Civil Liberties lawyers was the 1971 arrest of four of us at Coogee Beach during the tour of Australia by an all-white, South African Surf lifesaving team. It was an important curtain raiser to the Springbok rugby tour a few months later in the year.

If you think it’s hard work demonstrating against popular sporting teams, try demonstrating against sports teams that also save lives. We were pretty disliked.

The march past on the beach was to be the scene of the demonstration. We had hoped for a good turn out and were surprised and excited when about 600 protesters turned up. The police had cordoned off the march past area but four of us women decided to think outside the box. So we paddled out to sea fully clothed and came running in from the ocean (a crazed mermaid-like tableau I reckon) and threw ourselves under the South African team as they strode magnificently past.

I grabbed the reel, Helen Randerson threw herself under the feet of the nearest life saver and Frannie Letters lay down in front of the leading marchers like a prostrate human sacrifice.

The South African broederbond did not miss a beat and marched straight over the top of us. However there are wonderful photos of the occasion; police soon converged on us and we made front page of all the Sunday papers.

As indigent students we were given CCL support in the form of the brilliant and irascible barrister Ken Horler, a great supporter of the dramatic arts and co-founder of the Nimrod Theatre.

I remember so clearly my first encounter with Ken. He marched into the room, sat down in front of us, looked at the details of the charge and shouted at us, “You silly girls, you silly silly girls, silly girls” It was actually very funny, but we were also suitably chastened.

However the moral high ground of the CCL position was revealed when we eventually appeared in court. Ken did exactly what we asked him to do, which was to rely for our defence on the United Nations Charter of Human Rights.

Imagine Ken with the UN Charter and a bit of oratory about Apartheid under his belt. It was a sight to behold. The rather sleepy Waverley Local Court magistrate did not see this as a significant defence and we were all found guilty of course.

I remained a great fan of Ken Horler from then on and have been a paid-up member of Civil Liberties for 50 years.