In Conversation With Graeme Dunstan

When many think of the prominent figures in Tharunka’s history, few mention the name Graeme Dunstan. But his editorship stands amongst the best in Tharunka’s history. It was part of the turning point towards a burgeoning radicalism.

First Contact

I first began emailing Graeme on a whim. I’d seen his name crop up here and there in the editions of the newspaper from the ‘60s. Eventually I found him with a random Google search late one night, his Peacebus website looked as if it was straight from the early 2000s. I knew from reading the homepage, I’d struck gold.

So, we asked Graeme to pass by campus for a chat and he quickly obliged. As he was leaving his base in Nimbin, he sent us an email lamenting his departure; “My heart is torn about leaving Nimbin’s recent loving embrace. Living in a tropical garden. Meditating in a rainforest, Microdosing on shrooms and constantly stoned on the best of buds. Venerated by friends. Immersed in stories. Does life get sweeter than this?”. Meeting him in person, I realised he was a bit of a character – his outward appearance had all the hallmarks of the quintessential hippy – but when I spoke to him, there was a certain acuity to how he thought.

Buried under his countless non-sequiturs were sharp observations of a bygone era. And so, below is our interview with Graeme. In it, he discusses his time in the military, becoming radicalised at university, editing for Tharunka, and how it shaped his countercultural mindset, eventually leading him to co-direct the Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973. Apologies if the conversation is all over the place, think he might’ve been a bit high when we interviewed him.

Tharunka: How did you first get into the newspaper?

“By accident”, Graeme says chuckling. “In 1965 I was the Engineering Representative and Secretary of the Student’s Union, and nobody wanted to do the paper. They couldn’t find anyone willing to take time off from their studies to learn to edit the newspaper. I put up my hand for it. I was a total beginner in layout and writing. I made millions of mistakes, but we got the edition out and I was hooked.

When the papers finally came off the press… There was something addictive about the smell of printing ink. That’s how I was introduced to Tharunka. It was like a tool. There to be used. It was just a question of what the editors were brave enough to do. There was a certain excitement about being an editor and having deadlines, working through the night, chasing stories. It meant a liberation of ideas and an introduction to media. How stories worked and how they influence things.”

Tharunka: In 1967, you were the President of the Student’s Union and editor for Tharunka at the same time?

“Unusual combination – I don’t think it’s ever happened before or since. I was such a presence organising things on campus, and in that year, we got money to pay the editorship. Rupert Murdoch in effect offered the editors a cadetship to run the paper, and then later work as journalists. It was the first time for a paid editorship, and it seemed logical that I could do both.” Graeme graduated from UNSW in 1967 and went to work for ICIANZ for a while but hated it. “The computer won” he says, before proclaiming he was a terrible programmer.

So, he went back to UNSW and undertook a degree in sociology, his fascination at the time. “When I got back, the Student’s Union Council said I could be the Director of Student Publications and Chairman too. That meant appointing Wendy Bacon and her crew to be editors; they chose an anti-censorship program which I supported, so they had the backing of the Union. Wendy Bacon was a libertarian, and so were her co-editors. They were from the Sydney Push and were determined to push the censorship laws. They weren’t the first though, two other sets of editors had been charged like that, Martin Sharp and Richard Neville were one – with ‘The Gas Lash’, and before that was another.

There was a lot of sexual repression. Sexual liberation was the opposite of what we got at schools. There was a lack of information about sexuality because of this prudishness. I can’t imagine being a student without sex. We thought we were doing a public service, but we were gratifying our own needs of course. One of the things we printed was just called “Sex”. Information about sexuality for undergraduates. It was bold, no holds barred. Liz Fell and I edited it, but she was driving it along. We put it out as a supplement to Tharunka in the boxes around campus and overnight they disappeared.

They were hijacked by a Christian College on campus who didn’t think it was appropriate to be sharing the information to undergraduates. I wasn’t really that convinced, but I was happy to point the finger at Opus Dei [for stealing the papers]. It was a pro-fascist organisation known for its right-wing activities. Then we heard that Opus Dei was going to have a Catholic College on campus. So, I ran a campaign against them. What a thing to do to a university to put a pro-fascist organisation to be in charge of the catholic students. But the church is almost dead now so…”, Graeme says, casually shrugging.

People question it now. “Did we go too far?”. I don’t think so, I don’t think the walls were going to hold anyway.

Liberation and Agitation

Tharunka: And what about the material you published with Wendy?

“Wendy was determined to challenge the censorship laws. A particular issue was when T.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ was banned, and it was kind of random. At the time, customs officers could seize any books and say what was indecent. “Time to end this” said Wendy Bacon. Direct Action! Publish obscenity and defend it in court. That’s what they took on to do. They went out of their way to publish indecent material.

Looking back, it’s quite amusing. They had stuffed the newspaper with reprints of obscene folk culture. These were things that everyone had heard of but never seen in print. A lot of them were bawdy things from the barracks. Poems like ‘Eskimo Nell’ and ‘The Good Ship Venus’ [Graeme proceeds to sing a verse of it]. The challenge for me was that there was only so much money available for publishing Tharunka and it was measured out for 16 editions at 16 pages. Wendy always went for 32 pages, she wanted to publish every obscene thing that there had ever been.

I said, “if you keep publishing editions like this, you’re not going to be able to do all your editions”. She basically said, ‘just give us more money’. I had to be the person to say ‘that’s it, there is no more money!’. That didn’t stop Wendy, she just went and called it ‘Thor’ and sold it in the pubs around places.”

“Her provocation eventually bore fruit and the State of NSW decided to pursue us as publishers of indecent publications. She was arrested and the four other editors were arrested and indicted eventually. Wendy was fearless and it was really her that was the face… they were out to get her. Wendy didn’t turn up to the committal trials, which was a big deal. She did it twice, and after the second time, she was arrested and held in jail.

I can remember Wendy coming out after it and being shocked by the conditions of it and being changed by it – she had plenty of conversations with women prisoners there. As student newspapers, we weren’t afraid to be prosecuted. We couldn’t be sued for defamation. We had no assets! True, Wendy Bacon went to jail, but that only radicalised her more. It was a free time for us, but we chose that, and asserted it. The State eventually lost on the censorship laws.

It’s everywhere now. Pornography, all that kind of stuff. Glossy magazines like Playboy and Hustler followed the liberation. People question it now. “Did we go too far?”. I don’t think so, I don’t think the walls were going to hold anyway. Wendy went on to become a great prison reformer, the State got an agitator from initiating her into the prisons. It was shortly after that we had an enquiry into the prison systems. A Labour government was actually brave enough to enquire into the incarceration industry.” Graeme sighs, “Wish they’d do it now”.

Confessions of an Ex-ASIO Spy

Getting off topic again, Graeme begins to reminisce on the seeds of his radicalisation at university, and how it led him to Tharunka. “I went from High School to Royal Military College. All through school I was military-mad. My grandfather had been killed in World War I and my mother’s family was raised in poverty. I always liked the photograph of him when he came back. I thought I’d please my mother by becoming a soldier. Big mistake.

I’d got it wrong; she never wanted me to be a soldier. I had just imagined it. But I did go there, to Duntroon, and for the first year I worked really hard to comply. I was the top cadet in my year. Back then, Duntroon had been created to supply officers to the Australian Army. They were also looking for graduates. I was in the engineering stream out of a group of six. Your feet don’t touch the ground. It was about discipline. Everything was assessed. When we eventually got into the college itself, it was madness. But I became very academically competent.

By the next year I was the most punished cadet because I was starting to question things, and by the third year I got persecuted. They thought I was a rotten apple. I left the Royal Military College feeling bitter about the army and how I’d been treated. When I entered university, it was first at Melbourne Uni. I thought to myself, “what am I going to do with three years of military experience?”. I applied for the University Squadron because I wanted to learn how to fly. The Commanding Officer sidled up to me and said, “we haven’t accepted you into the squadron, but a better offer is coming”.

A couple of nights later at my parent’s place, two guys in suits came by looking for me. They said they were from the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, and they’d come to make me an offer. “We understand you did well at Duntroon but fell out with it, but maybe you’d be useful at helping your country by becoming a spy”.

It didn’t sound much different from being an officer in the army. They just wanted me to go to student meetings and write reports. It required that I attend student meetings at lunch hour and record them. It was a form of learning to write. I did this, and went to all of the radical meetings, and got radicalised. Because I was writing the notes, I took attention to what people were saying. I’d hand these reports in, we’d have meetings near campus in a car and I’d be cross-examined. They wanted me to be a deep mole. I was paid something like 30 pieces of silver per report.

What ASIO were doing of course was trying to bring down the Communist Party, so they used this information to prevent people from having jobs in defence industries and more particularly they wanted to disrupt people’s lives. Once you were a communist, you were not to be cared for or understood. In the end, I had to go to ASIO and say I didn’t want to do it anymore. I went to UNSW without telling them, but they found me. They wanted to keep me writing reports and I felt uncomfortable, but wrote a couple of reports and then threw it in. By this time, I was completely radicalised though and could see through the corruption of the war. There’s a confession… all those years ago.”

Direct Action

As he becomes lost a little in his own random access memories again, we reel him back to talking about one of the major issues that he fought against at UNSW, conscription.

Tharunka: Do you think that control over the student press meant having a vehicle for direct action?

I thought forcing young people to face what I did was outrageous, so my anger turned to direct action. Organising opposition to conscription and the war in Vietnam. I became a campus organiser of opposition. The paper was the voice of the opposition. When I matriculated, I only got a pass in English. I had teachers who convinced me I could never write. And then I got the opportunity [of Tharunka] where I was forced to write. By the time I was editing the paper in 1967, I was writing perfect journalism. The inverted triangle, central story in the first paragraph and more information as you go down. Writing about the university business using the minutes from the Council to get stories and interview people.

The administration loved it. Come 1971, I get stoned. Mushrooms, cannabis, LSD was being produced on the campus in the chemistry labs. It wasn’t illegal at the time. We were aware of it happening around the world, particularly in California. I’d tried getting stoned before using very bad cannabis but it was the acid trip that spiked it. I got into counterculture as a result of this and gonzo journalism. Getting stoned completely changed my writing style. Intuitive writing was what I became good at. I was a rebel, no question. A very prominent rebel on campus. I used to organise protests against the university when they’d be meeting. I had speakers amplifying outside their windows, complaining about them and occupying university buildings to make our mark.

But understand, we’d been betrayed by the government. This was a bullshit war for the bullshit US alliance, and they expected us to die for it. I got through university with a cadetship. It meant not only did they pay your fees, but you also got a stipend to live quite comfortably. My stipend was with the weapons design establishment of the Department of Defence. So, what I was doing at university was getting an engineering degree which would allow me to kill people. The idea of the sausage factory that Vice-Chancellor Philip Baxter had set up was turning out people for technological command of a war economy.

That was the realisation and a sense of betrayal. We wanted to do the best for the country, and suddenly we were doing the worst for it. That’s what the revolt of the counterculture was about. The resistance took the form of protest, speeches, gatherings. We marched from Kensington campus through Darlinghurst to Martin Place, blocking the roads.

The student newspapers at the time became the underground press. The tabloid press was the vehicle at the time, and the pamphlet was the artform for activism. The activism was part of the counterculture, and it fed the counterculture. The change of direction in my time was from writing stories through university minutes, to reporting what was happening in the war. There was a wonderful lecturer in Psychology at the time called Alex Carey. He came into the Tharunka offices once, that’s how I met him. He introduced himself to me and started publishing things.

He was the voice against the war on the campus. He got persecuted for it, but he was an inspiration to us. He stood high amongst other academics who were either keeping their heads down or worse, working funded by a US grant from a CIA front-organisation.” Graeme flits through his recollections, and so we finally arrive at the topic of the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin. He fondly mentions the town, calling it a ‘Magic City’. This year is the 50th anniversary of the festival, and he’s organising things with his old co-director Johnny Allen. The festival itself was an iconic part of the counterculture in the 1970s, largely responsible for creating the community of hippies that reside in Nimbin today.

Tharunka: So, how did Tharunka and the student press play into the Aquarius Festival?

“At the time, the Australian Union of Students was a big organisation of students. It was getting 55 cents per student nationally. On top of that, it was radical. Students getting involved in politics tended to do that through being radicalised over conscription and the Vietnam War. The delegates that would go to these conferences were the distillation of the best of the universities at the time. The Union had become so large, that it could afford a cultural officer and arm, which was created by Robin Love at Melbourne University. It was to have two functions: to run inter-varsity tours and produce a biennial festival.

The Aquarius Festival they called it, the Dawning of Aquarius. They’d done two, the first was at Melbourne University, the second was at ANU. I went to the one at ANU, dropped acid and enjoyed the festival. Afterwards, I was fascinated by what had happened. When you gather in one place, the students across Australia, they turned out to be radical protesters. Every day there would be a food cooperative, speeches, choirs, theatres, debating – the kind of student cultural life of the campus would be reflected in the program of events – but what had been added to it, was a spontaneous and anarchic organisation of protest. Each day there would be a protest. I thought about this and wondered what if we didn’t have a program?

Let the people invent the program. And what if we took it off the campus? My friend Johnny Allen had a place up in the Northern Beaches, so we got stoned and went for a walk, talked it through and agreed I’d write an article about these ideas. That we take it off the campus so it wouldn’t be in reaction. We were looking at ourselves and asking what was the peace that we wanted to create?

That’s what the Aquarius Festival was all about. It was Tharunka [and other student publications] that gave birth to it. It was my edition, when I was editor in the ‘70s. It was the countercultural themes that created the shape, manifested in Nimbin. The idea of what the counterculture was about. It was turned into a cultural reality in Nimbin.” As Graeme finished speaking, we walked him back to his Peacebus, reunited with his dog Sunny. It seemed like he didn’t remember too much of the campus anymore, but his memories of Tharunka lingered on.

The Man From Duntroon

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives and Tharunka