Parliamentary Riots of 1996

Jason Byrnes
An overview of two violent protests in the heart of the nation’s capital, at the pinnacle location for Australian democracy. The story was originally printed in the December 2003 issue of the APJ.

The riot at Parliament House on Monday 19 August 1996 was described by Bob Halverson, the then speaker of the House of Representatives, as " ... one of the most shameful episodes in the nation's history."

That riot, and the one the following day at nearby Old Parliament House, proved to be two days of violence that shocked even the experienced members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), many of whom had previously attended large scale public disturbances such as the AIDEX anti-armaments protests of 1991, the storming of Old Parliament House by protesters in 1982 and the violent anti-apartheid riots of the early 1970s.

For over three hours on 19 August, 1996 Federal Police, Australian Protective Services (APS) and Parliamentary Security staff fought to keep hundreds of protesters from causing untold damage to Parliament House and its occupants. At the height of the violence members of parliament were advised to lock their office doors and police seriously considered utilising tear gas (for the first time in the history of the AFP). By the time that order was restored, over 40 people had been arrested and some 89 police injured. Several members were taken to hospital, one being admitted for several days.

The forecourt area and front of Parliament House, opened in 1988

POLITICAL PROTESTS

The rally outside Parliament House on 19 August, was advertised to the public beforehand as being a vocal but peaceful protest against the Howard Government's first budget and proposed work place reforms. The latter had been described as being perhaps the most radical change in Australia's employment laws, the former promised to dramatically cut government spending in a range of services. Thousands of workers and their supporters were encouraged to attend the demonstration, which was sponsored by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

In the lead up to 'the day, police kept in routine contact with the rally's organisers (the ACT's Trades and Labour Council). Such contact is common for demonstrations as it enables protesters and the authorities to assist each other in ensuring that events are peaceful and well organised. Both parties gain an understanding of the needs and requirements of the other, and if there is good will, try to accommodate each other on the day. Adding complexity to protests in Canberra at Parliament House is the question of jurisdiction. Security of the area of Parliament House (including its immediate surrounds) is not technically the responsibility of the police, but of parliamentary officials who have the final say in whether a demonstration is allowed or not. 

Planning for the August protest took the better part of three months and as the day approached, a plan by the Trades and Labour Council was deemed workable by the authorities. With less than a week to go though, it became apparent to the AFP that there may be some problems with rally discipline. The Trades and Labour Council were unable to give assurances that they would supply the numbers of crowd marshals that was thought necessary to ensure a good degree of 'tactical discipline' on the part of the crowd. Furthermore, intelligence indicated that some more radical elements were planning to in effect hijack the rally by undertaking dramatic acts of civil disobedience. Several personalities were identified by both police and union officials as troublemakers with violent protesting pasts.

" ... one of the most shameful episodes in the nation's history."

Bob halverson, speaker of the house or representatives

With the Trades and Labor Council refusing to increase their security and coordination capability for the demonstration, the AFP upped its resources. Hoping for the best but planning for the worst, AFP command rostered 200 uniformed police for demonstration duty – a third of the available community policing strength in the Territory. A further 300-odd police from a variety of areas within the AFP were placed on stand by, and New South Wales Police districts surrounding the ACT were advised of the potential for trouble.

THE DEMONSTRATION BEGINS 19 AUGUST 1996

On the morning of the protest police gathered for the formal briefing at the AFP support complex in the Canberra suburb of Weston Creek. The parade was interrupted with reports of an unscheduled  demonstration starting in the northern suburb of Dickson (around five kilometres to the north of central Canberra), consisting of people who identified themselves as belonging to the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Reports had the group marching towards Canberra City, blocking commuter traffic on the city's main arterial road, Northbourne Avenue. A group of police were hurriedly dispatched to assess the development. Soon afterwards a train arrived at Canberra's only railway station, in the inner southern suburb of Kingston. The packed train had been hired by the ACTU to ferry demonstrators from Sydney, a group which included the then ACT President, Jennie George. Meeting them at the station was about 5,000 protesters and a contingent of police.

This gathering had been planned and after a while the group began to march a couple of kilometres northwards to Parliament House, peacefully along a pre-arranged route. While the 'Kingston' group progressed peacefully, the 'CFMEU' group continued to cause delays, annoyance and headaches for police and the public alike. Ignoring police directions, the group meandered and at times deliberately obstructed passing traffic. Outnumbered and desiring a peaceful gathering, police had to make the best of a poor situation, which got worse when the protesters entered the Canberra City area. There they were joined by other demonstrators from groups considered as radical, including left leaning student activists and numerous Aboriginal protesters well known to police for previous violent confrontations. It soon became apparent that there were a number of ring leaders in the combined group who were inciting others to continue to ignore police requests and directions, and that they would cause trouble once they reached parliament.

Protesters forcing their way through police lines near the front entrance to Parliament House

PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Parliament House is probably the most unique building in Australia. It is built into a hill; a symbolic statement that it serves the people (who can walk over the roof). Three ring roads encircle parliament, the closest to the building being Parliament Drive, which is designed for parliamentary and tourist traffic. In front of the building, on the other side of Parliament Drive, is a large grassed area known as Federation Mall. The Mall stretches between the new and old parliamentary buildings, and is the designated area for protesters. Almost a kilometre long, the Mall is large enough to hold several thousand people.

In approaching Parliament and Federation Mall from the north, the CFMEU group walked up a large off ramp, which connects the main ring road (Commonwealth Avenue) with the higher Parliament Drive. The ramp intersects Parliament Drive at the building's northern corner. The plan agreed to by protest organisers and police had been for any protesters coming this way to turn left at the top of the ramp and move straight to Federation Mall. Indeed by this time in the morning a couple of thousand protesters were already gathered in the Mall, in front of a large temporary stage erected for the formal part of the rally.

Instead of moving to the Mall, a number of protesters in the front of the CFMEU group immediately made their way towards the front of Parliament House itself, pushing their way through a cordon of police who had been deployed behind a number of roadway style barriers to guide the group to Federation Mall. The police initially were able to hold the advance group of protesters back, but only for a few moments. These chanting and screaming protesters were joined by others who quickly, were able to push police out of the way by force of sheer numbers.

Once through the police cordon the protesters made their way into the Parliamentary Forecourt area, about 200 metres of gravelled walking space between the Parliament Drive and the front doors of the building. Police reinforcements attempted to re-establish a cordon of sorts inside the Forecourt, but they were rapidly outnumbered by scores (and then hundreds) of protesters that were flooding into the area and running towards the front doors of the building with an apparent intention to storm Parliament. Many in the group were screaming, waving placards, some wielding barriers that they had taken from Parliament Drive. This group was soon followed by several hundred protesters who had lawfully gathered in the Mall but who thought that the protest was now moving into the Forecourt.

When the lead agitators arrived outside the doors to parliament they were faced with another line of police, standing in front of the hurriedly shut entrance. A great deal of pushing and shoving began between the AFP there and the protesters, several of whom appeared to deliberately target individual police. There were several reports of police being punched or kicked to the ground by groups of four or five men, and who continued to be attacked until other police arrived and rescued them. The extensive numbers of protesters and limited numbers of police made making any arrests at this time virtually impossible.

The push became a crush with the arrival of the column of protesters who had marched from Kingston railway station. Approaching the building from the south, the group saw the crowds in the Forecourt area and with no crowd marshals to guide them, ignored police directions to the contrary and moved into the now packed Forecourt. While the majority of those present did not directly contribute to any violence or civil disobedience at the front doors or inside the building, their presence did assist the core group of violent offenders who were able to force their way to the front doors. The police officers outside the doors found themselves almost trapped and withdrew, a process which took time as several more officers were attacked and had to be rescued. Once they had gathered to the side of the Forecourt, the members quickly entered the building by an alternative route and rushed to the front foyer area, on the other side of the doors the mob were now trying to force open.

The crowd, using a trolley stolen from the gift shop, begin to force open the inner front doors

STORMING IN

Standing between the violent thugs on the outside and almost 200 police and security personnel inside, were the building's main doors - two sets of large brass framed perspex fixtures with one design floor - the doors opened outwards towards the protesters. This posed a serious problem. Slowly the lead agitators in the mob were able to prize open the outer doors using items such as placards, wheel braces, pinch bars and even a sledge hammer, obvious signs that the events weren't totally spontaneous. During these efforts the crowd en-masse continued to chant phrases such as " ... the workers, united, we'll never be defeated!" and "Johnnie, we're coming to get you!" The chants were joined by the crowds milling in the Forecourt area, some gathered around burning effigies of the Prime Minister and Senator Amanda Vanstone.

Once breached, the building's front doors were flung open as the crowd began to surge through, only to be confronted by the inner doors, locked with police and security personnel on the other side. Between the two layers of doors were a series of ante-rooms and small service-ways normally used by security staff. One mini-corridor had a window into the recently renovated Parliamentary Gift Shop. The window was smashed and protesters moved into the shop that had only just been urgently evacuated and locked. Several protesters ran for the main door from the shop to inside the foyer but found they could not easily open them. On the other side of the doorswere a few handfuls of police. Lyndon Michielsen, a photographer for the Daily Telegraph newspaper at the time later reported: 

"The protesters said, 'look, we're going to smash the doors or you can open them. It's your choice.'

After a while they just smashed the doors ... (but) they sat there for about another five minutes because they didn't want to hurt themselves. They then said, 'Oh bugger it. We'll just do it.'''

The doors were shattered using a large brass bollard that had been ripped from its flooring. Initially tentative because of the large amounts of shattered and jagged glass present, the demonstrators began to violently attack the shield-equipped police at the foyer door. The scene became so violent that motorcycle police were put in the front line because they were wearing helmets. Attempts by police to calm the situation by negotiation, and to evacuate the increasing amounts of injured civilians, failed as the mob became feverous with anger. Police chants of 'move back' were matched by 'no you move back!' and charges by individuals against the shield line. Green and white paint were thrown over police and some news reporters. 

Some protesters were able to force their way through police ranks but they were rapidly captured and arrested. Behind these scenes, in the main area of the shop looters and thieves went about their business of taking thousands of dollars worth of items, including every watch and piece of jewellery on display. The storming of the gift shop created a vacuum in the larger protest group, which was filled by more protesters who thought that there was general movement into the building. A trolley from the ransacked shop was brought out and used with other implements to pry open the main inner doors in the same fashion as the outer doors. The lead group of demonstrators then moved into the doorway and attempted to push aside over 150 police and security personnel who by now had formed a wall five lines deep - the last ditch attempt to prevent the mob from entering and running riot throughout the building. This added to the massive crush and the rapidly soaring temperatures in the confined entranceway area.

Tempers worsened and before long the pushing deteriorated into violent confrontations. The crush and violence took its toll on police and protesters alike. Attempts to rotate front line members with fresh police failed because each time this occurred, police lost ground. To get around this, injured members had to be passed overhead to the rear. Injured protesters, and those arrested, were also passed to the rear this way. At the back, injured people were treated by nurses from Parliament House, members of Parliament who were doctors, or members of the ACT Ambulance Service. Those arrested (many of whom were literally stunned by events) were either lodged in an improvised holding area or in Parliament House's prison cell. This was the first time that the cell had been used as intended. As time passed the temperature in the foyer soared. Flour, dust, shouts and screams filled the air. 

Shocked tourists, politicians and crying children looked on as paint, acid, flour, urine and weapons were thrown at police by a mob that was (thankfully as far as police were concerned) growing tired and  dehydrated. It was obvious that many of the protesters had started out quite intoxicated, and these people were dehydrating at a rapid rate. Police too were tiring but were more fortunate in that they had water passed to them from Parliament House staff. Because of the magnificent assistance of so many groups, and the dogged determination of the police and security services, the line held.

A police officer and two APS officers moving a detainee to a secure holding area

As the violence continued attempts by Senior AFP officers and an Aboriginal elder to calm the mob failed. Options such as tear gas or the use of high pressure hoses were considered but the risks to protesters, bystanders and police alike were considered too great. An interesting side note was a question to a police officer from a man in the foyer who was a visitor from an overseas' country that is recognised as a police state. The gentleman politely enquired when police would begin to shoot into the crowd. He seemed genuinely surprised when told that that was not an option in Australia.

After almost an hour of the 'scrum', the situation was looking grim. Despite all efforts, it was proving almost impossible for police to regain the initiative. Plans were underway to round up as many  reinforcements as possible to form a wedge to push through the centre of the main group, when suddenly the crowd broke.

REGAINING THE INITIATIVE

While police were struggling to maintain the line at the main doors, in the gift shop a vigorous offensive was launched which quickly retook the premises. When all the items that could be stolen were, many protesters left the shop (which made it easier for police to push past the lead offenders still trying to attack them). Using the service corridors between the shop and the front entrance, police were then able to swiftly outflank the main protest group, an impetus that caught the protesters off guard. Several protesters fled and the loss of momentum was enough for the main police group to push back through the main doors and out into the area immediately in front of the doors known as the Great Veranda.

From a newspaper printed the following day

Now it was time for over 300 AFP, APS and security staff to surge forward and the protesters were pushed away in a series of stages. It was desperate stuff, many police were injured during this melee but within ten minutes the ground under the Great Veranda was cleared of protesters. Above though were several protesters who had climbed onto the roof to erect banners. These people began to spit onto police below, and drop weighty items. They were quickly tracked down and arrested.

At ground level, the police line was reinforced while a few handfuls of protesters stood just out of reach, continuing to yell abuse. As time passed the protesters realised that they did not have the numbers to get back inside and began to dissipate. For a short time a choir from the International Socialist Party began to sing victory songs, but they too left as it became obvious that the day's violence was over.

PRIME MINISTERIAL THANKS

When some sense of normalcy was restored, and a line of shield-equipped police established in the Great Veranda, members were directed into the Great Hall. There the Prime Minister personally thanked them for their efforts. The Prime Minister had insisted on remaining inside Parliament House during the worst of the violence, and had come to the foyer to speak to police as soon as practicable. After this he inspected the ransacked gift shop. "What occurred here today was un-Australian", he later said to the media. The following day he went to the Canberra Hospital to visit an AFP member who had been seriously injured and hospitalised. About a month later the Prime Minister said. " ... too often the unpleasant side of police work is carried out with too little thanks from those government authorities ... I can assure you as Prime Minister that the AFP and ACT Police continue to have my very great confidence and support and admiration for the work that they do."

After being addressed by the Prime Minister in the Great Hall of Parliament House on the 19th, and with the protest over, those members on duty were progressively stood down. One final act for police though was to try and find their hats in a large pile of hats, which had been hurriedly discarded during the fight!

The crowd surrounding the burning effigies of the Prime Minister and Senator Amanda Vanstone. This occurred concurrently to some of the worse violence at the front of the building

20 AUGUST

Battered and bruised, most of the officers at the Parliament House riot were again called out to a violent protest on the following day at Old Parliament House. Like the day before, the 20th is a record of a largely peaceful protest being hijacked by a few ardent agitators, with the result being scores of injuries and a host of criminal charges. The demonstration was held by Aboriginal groups who wanted to protest, according to various elders, peacefully in favour of their cause. Over 100 Federal Police were tasked to monitor the relatively small rally which walked between the two parliamentary buildings during the early afternoon.

Upon their return to the Old Parliament House, most of the group began to walk back to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy area (across the road) when a renegade group (including several agitators from the 19th) moved quickly towards the building, in an attempt to enter and occupy it in the same way a sit-in was conducted in 1992. Police were able to stop this group at the top of the steps into Old Parliament House, the very spot where 22 years earlier the then recently sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made his famous" ... nothing will save the Governor General" speech.

Police and protesters again were involved in a push-and-shove, the melee escalating when broken beer bottles and garden stakes (taken from the gardens of Old Parliament House) were thrown at the officers. After about ten minutes a handful of protesters reached into police lines, grabbed a policewoman. The officer was pulled into the crowd and flung her down the steps. She was punched and kicked into unconsciousness.

Instantly police drew their batons and charged. Fighting again erupted but this time it quickly ended with the protesters fleeing across, the road into the Tent Embassy area. Police reinforcements arrived and assisted in the establishment of another shield line. The fire brigade was also called when police received information from a taxi driver, indicating explosive violence. The driver had picked up a fare near the protest immediately after police charge, and the passenger was overheard intimating on a mobile phone call that Molotov cocktails would be thrown either at the building or police. Thankfully the threat proved to be idle, and the vast majority of protesters left the area within a relatively short period of time. The casualties from the violence were several protesters and five police, with two officers being knocked unconscious.

Public order police protecting ambulance officers who were attending to seriously injured police out the front of Old Parliament House on 20 August 1996

Although the two protests were technically unrelated, the fact that the two events occurred on consecutive days added to sense of shock and anger both within the community at large and the police. They were two events which would have serious impacts on future demonstrations within the Territory.

INJURIES AND CHARGES

In the wake of the riots a special AFP investigative team was formed to identify and charge as many of the offenders as possible. Then over the course of several months, people throughout Australia who had taken part in the riots, were identified by the team and more that 80 charges preferred against offenders involved. Evidence tendered ranged from witness statements to video evidence and in the case of one offender, an admission made on national television of his involvement in an attack. While some union officials assisted police in identifying key suspects, publicly the union movement refused to acknowledge any involvement by their officials (either direct or complicit) in the violence.

Penalties ranged from the extremely light (good behaviour bonds) to incarceration (the most serious of which was a year's imprisonment). At the insistence of the then Commonwealth Ombudsman, one federal police officer was charged with assault. The incident in question occurred on the 19th during the crush at the doors of Parliament House. The police officer told internal investigations that his action was in defence of another member who he believed was being attacked. The person who made the complaint was reluctant to press charges however the Ombudsman insisted on taking the matter to court. The Magistrate heard the prosecution's evidence and then dismissed the matter, stating there was not a prima-facie case to answer. 

In total over 120 Federal Police were injured during the two days of violence, the majority of injuries occurring on the first day. Whereas most injuries were minor in nature (relating to abrasions, cuts or crush related strains), there were several members who required months (if not years) of rehabilitation and recovery.

AFTERMATH

The violence from the first demonstration seriously impacted upon the credibility of both the Labor Party and ACTU. There was a lack of effort on the part of rally organisers to avert violence, the images would be used by the government for months to come. There was anger among many protesters as well, for it discredited what had been a large demonstration - even though the first most people at the rally learned about' the violence was when they watched it on television that night. The crowd in the Forecourt area had been so thick that people at the back could not have seen the violence occurring at the front doors.

The violence on the 20th also damaged the Aboriginal protest movement in the Territory, particularly as it contradicted the promises of a peaceful rally made by several elders beforehand. In the years leading to 1996 Canberra had seen regular large demonstrations (many of which were violent) for a variety of reasons, however since these two events, the frequency of large and/or violent incidents has reduced noticeably. While less violence is obviously good, a reduction in the numbers of large protests is a notable development in the history of political rallies in the national capital.

Due to the nature of the rally of the 19th, it remained a political issue long after the last offender was sentenced. Liberal governments both federally and in the ACT, sought reimbursement for costs from the ACTU and related groups. The total cost of the 19th was estimated to be over $600,000. Of that figure $370,000 was paid by the ACT government (for the cost of ACT police wages,) compensation claims and one-off related items. Around $188,000 of damage was caused to Parliament House itself, stock valuing $12,000 was taken from the gift shop and almost $10,000 was spent in repair work and parliamentary staffing costs. The salary costs for AFP staff redirected from federal duties to the riots were not costed.

CONCLUSION

The riots of August 1996 were extraordinary in Australian and Federal Police history. They were not the first violent riots that ACT based police had faced, but they were the first in which individual members were deliberately targeted and attacked by well organised sub-groups of protesters. Others came prepared with weapons such as containers of acid, urine, paint, as well as the 'standard' blunt weapons including picket signs. In recent years such tactics have become increasingly common, particularly among anarchist and anti-globalisation protesters throughout the world. It's a disturbing trend to which police agencies have had to prepare themselves for.

The potential for loss of life on 19 August, 1996 was great but thankfully no one (police nor protester) perished. AFP members distinguished themselves with pride and honour, magnificently assisted by APS, Parliamentary Security and other staff from within the building such as nurses, ambulance officers and water carriers. Those police involved thought 'never was a cup of water more appreciated!'

SPECIAL NOTE: POLICING PARLIAMENT

(UPDATED SINCE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN)

Parliament House occupies 32 hectares of land just south of Lake Burley Griffin, on Capital Hill. Law enforcement within this area is unique in that the Parliamentary Precincts Act 1988 establishes the precedence that two parliamentary officers have in dealing with law enforcement agencies.

Each House of Parliament has a presiding officer and together they make decisions in relation to the enforcement (or otherwise) of laws within the parliamentary precincts. This quirk stems from the constitutional principle of the separation of powers between the parliament and the executive (of which the police are considered a part). Police have no automatic power of entry into parliament unless they have the consent of at least one presiding officer. A memorandum of understanding has been signed between the presiding officers and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) governing the protocol in relation to all foreseeable situations in which police may wish to enter the precincts (events ranging from demonstrations to executing search warrants or even traffic enforcement).

At the time of the riots in 1996 the Parliamentary Security Service (PSS) was the lead agency in tending to general physical security issues within the building. PSS staff were (and continue to be) unarmed and tasked to expel unruly people. The then Australian Protective Service (APS) provided a static armed security presence at the public entrances (in cooperation with PSS) and perimeter security on the outside of the building. Both agencies are coordinated by the Parliamentary Security Controller who is a senior AFP officer. The Controller is the conduit between the AFP and Parliament for all security/law enforcement issues. Since the original article was written the APS was subsumed into the AFP and today the role once performed by APS is now undertaken by AFP Protective Service Officers.

The practical upshot is that if police have cause to be at parliament for official business not normally associated with the protection of the building, they must have the express permission of at least on parliamentary officer. Further, if an arrest is required to be made, the offender can not be prosecuted without the written authorisation of a parliamentary officer.

This system is normally not as rigid as it may sound, with experience proving that the various groups are able to quickly work together in addressing any security threat.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996 Jason Byrnes was a constable in the Australian Federal Police. He was one of the police who attended both riots, and was involved in the melee on both days. He has been involved with the APJ in various capacities since 2001.

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