Joan Coxsedge MLC

With a handwritten lists of drivers and safe houses which were scattered all over Melbourne Joan’s main job was ferrying the Draft Resisters to and fro. She did have one stay with her family for a short time risky because she was a high-profile activist and, living in a neighbourhood where most people supported the war, they could have been ‘dobbed in’. A founding member of Save our Sons, Joan was also one of the Fairlea Five, sentenced to fourteen days in Fairlea Prison at Easter 1972.

Joan’s story

As I watched the nightly horror show on our TV, long before war correspondents were embedded with the military, and saw napalm raining down on defenceless human beings and defoliants destroying their crops and the earth itself, I was outraged and felt I must do something to stop it.

But you can’t fight on your own when you’re up against governments and the military machine and believed my only hope was to join with others who felt the same way.  And so I put my art on hold and joined the broad anti-war movement and with Ceds joined the Labor Party, which back then strongly opposed the Vietnam War, with unions playing a vital part.  Our Balwyn branch, in the heart of Peacock Land, officially became a Draft Resistance Centre, even advertising in the local paper offering advice, which could have landed us all in gaol.

I joined Save Our Sons (SOS) and although it was part of the broader movement it had a distinctive character of its own by focussing on conscription and women who opposed the war, some of them had never been involved before in anything even vaguely political.  We took part in a huge variety of protests, some legal, some not. An important part of our work involved supporting conscientious objectors as they were forced through the legal system and hiding draft resisters, who directly confronted the National Service scheme, a form of Russian roulette where 20-year olds had to register with the Department of Labour and National Service and take part in a ballot, with stiff penalties if they failed to comply.  If their marble came up, purely based on their birth date, they had to spend two years in the army and could end up fighting in Vietnam, a rotten law we were determined to get rid of.

We had handwritten lists of drivers and safe houses who were scattered all over Melbourne and my main job back then was ferrying draft resisters in the back of my car covered in a blanket, but Ceds and I were also happy to use our own house as a ‘safe house’, risky because I was a high-profile activist. And lived in a neighbourhood where most of our neighbours supported the war, some were even members of the RSL, and could have dobbed me in, although years later a few apologised and said they felt bad they hadn’t supported me.

Volunteers came from a great variety of ordinary people, you could say many were well-to-do and middle class prepared to spend hours volunteering to help the draft resisters in any way they could, sometimes driving them around or leaving them with people considered to be OK. Bob Bissett became our responsibility for a couple of weeks and was dropped off by someone, whose name I can’t remember.  He wasn’t a great house guest. He didn’t help with the dishes or anything else, just sat around.

We were reluctant to use the phone because we reckoned they were ‘tapped’, although I have no doubt there were ‘plants’ among our ranks who pimped to authorities about what was going on.  The police didn’t want to arrest too many for political reasons because they knew conscription was unpopular, so just a few landed in gaol as an example.

The thing I remember most about that time was the humour and camaraderie and the trust, and the way Federal Labor MPs went out of their way to give us a hand.  And the huge amount of time we spent hanging around the courts waiting for cases to come on, but especially the times we spent in gaol, most notably in Fairlea Women’s Prison.  A reminder that we live in a class system.