Taking lunch at the Melbourne Club

Contributed by Glen Davis

Late on the morning of October 12, 1982, a group of young unemployed entered the Melbourne Club, at 36 Collins Street Melbourne. They brought with them paper bags of food, for a sit-down lunch in the esteemed confines of Melbourne’s salubrious Melbourne Club.

Established back in 1836, the Melbourne Club is a private social club, for wealthy males only. It is seen as a place where the ‘esteemed’ political and business leaders meet to talk about their world of opulence, with the political, and financial, benefits they enjoy. It Is certainly not a location where a group of younger, unemployed males, and females, would normally meet for lunch.

Illustration by John Shakespeare

They sought to draw attention to the disparity of the opulence of the membership of the Melbourne Club, compared to those who were unemployed.

In late 1982 unemployment had reached almost 10 percent.

After the end of the Second World War Australia experienced a long period of prosperity, as the post war reconstruction and the Keynesian economics of class compromise, high unemployment vanished for a considerable time.

However, the 1970’s saw major shocks to capitalism with the OPEC crisis, the American defeat in Vietnam, all assisting in creating the setting for high unemployment with stagflation: a challenging mix.  By the late 1970’s unemployment was returning to Australia in a way not seen since the late 1930’s.

This provided a backdrop to the events of this day. Unemployment was up to around 10 percent at this time. The effect of a severe recession, (some sources put it at 9.7 percent, others have it at 10.7 percent) hit hard. Capitalism was rocked in a way not seen in people’s recent memories. People became angry about this, wanting a solution. Groups, political parties, took actions designed to draw the attention to those suffering the impact of this crisis.

Upon discovering a group of scruffy, uninvited, Melbournians eating in their exclusive settings, the esteemed gentleman of the Melbourne Club quickly sought for police to attend. Their grandiosity could not be interrupted by the presence of 17 unemployed people sitting on the fine carpet.

After around 30 minutes the police arrived, then roughly moved the uninvited guests, throwing them in the back of a large, old Melbourne city dog catcher van. The arrested were taken to the then existing Russell Street police complex, photographed, and fingerprinted against their will. They were charged with several offences including an ancient offence called besetting. The besetting charge caused consternation among trade unions who were aware employers could use this to criminalise industrial action. The charge was quietly put aside.

Trespassing charges remained and when the case came to court the defendants received12 month good behaviour bonds.

The lunch-in drew attention to a Stop the City demonstration planned for November 12. It was sponsored by various trade unions, church groups, welfare organisations, and the state ALP opposition.

But that’s another story for another time.

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