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Pine Gap – decades of creative struggle to shut down US war base

Lee Rhiannon 26 Apr 2018

Pine Gap – decades of creative struggle to shut down US war base

Senator Lee Rhiannon has a long history in the campaign to close the US war base at Pine Gap in Central Australia. She was one of the organisers of the 1983 women-only peace camp. Below is her speech at the 20th anniversary of this extraordinary protest that kicked off on 11 November 1983 when 800 women of all ages and backgrounds, led by local Pitjinjara women, gathered at the gates of the Pine Gap base and stayed there for two weeks. 

 Speech by Lee Rhiannon at the function held in the NSW Parliament to mark the 20th anniversary of the women-only Pine Gap protest.

I do acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which meet and pay tribute to their history, their culture, their ongoing contributions to our communities and recognise their ongoing battles against child removal, black deaths in custody and denial of land rights that still continue.

In 1983 we took to the streets, the harbours and the deserts of this land to oppose the threat of nuclear war. We were at the height of the Cold War. We were on the cusp of nuclear war. It was the threat of global annihilation that drove these amazing protests.

The women's peace movement was after more than just stopping war. We were also fighting for a more just and more equitable world.

Twenty years after our 1983 actions people naturally ask what did we achieve. I think it was momentous and it is lovely to have this occasion to rekindle the extraordinary events of that year.  But we also need to remember that life is tough for many these days.

The Pine Gap war base still exists and it played a critical role in the US invasion of Iraq.

The biggest barrier to economic independence for mothers is the lack of child care places. The situation is worse than in 1983.

Tertiary education is out of reach of more and more young people.

And shockingly we are a more divided society. While widows loose their travel concessions the pay of CEOs knows no bounds.

Executive pay levels had exploded in the past decade from 22 times average weekly earnings in 1992 to 74 times average weekly earnings today.

Cruelty, exploitation and hardship are still very much part of life for too many people.

But in terms of our 1983 contribution the significance is very real, multi faceted and enduring.

Our 1983 actions at Pine Gap continued a long history of radical women's peace struggles in this country.

The awareness we generated around Australia’s role in US nuclear strike plans was one of our major achievements. We knew we would not get rid of the Pine Gap war base with our protest but we did ring the nation’s alarm bells on this score.

The strength, courage, and boldness of the actions still brings me pleasure when I reflect back on those heady days. We learnt so much for our political and personal lives.

For me the huge achievement out of this event is that we politicised ourselves and thousands of other women and also men.

To achieve the change in society that we know must come to eliminate the bases like Pine Gap; to close the wealth gap; to ensure all have a decent life, education and good health can only come when people take action.

It does not come from the good ideas of a few politicians in Parliaments like this one.

1983 was a great year – our actions then and actions into the future will close Pine Gap and help build a peaceful, just world.


1983 Pine Gap Women's Peace Camp – what it was


  • US spy base penetrated with women risking seven-years gaol.
  • In one action on 13 November 111 women were arrested. All gave the name Karen Silkwood.
  • Huge awareness built of Australia's role in a potential US nuclear war strike.

In November 1983 over 800 women of all ages and backgrounds, led by local Pitjinjara women, gathered at the gates of the Pine Gap base and stayed there for two weeks.  They sang and danced, they cut and climbed military fences and they met with the local Aboriginal women. 

The Women for Survival desert peace camp changed the lives of the women as they challenged the threat Pine Gap posed to Australia as it is a first strike target.  Each of us believed in making a difference and in the power of women joining together to spread an urgent no war message.  Worldwide, all-women's peace actions were loudly drumming “take the toys from the boys”, especially at the cruise missile depot at Greenham Common in Britain. Women deplored the billions then spent on an immoral Cold War nuclear arms race.

In 1983, 17 million babies starved before their first birthday. For that year, as change makers, women nationally campaigned.  They shared skills, produced street theatre, albums, banners and magazines, spoke with unions, churches and rural groups, protested at South Australia's Roxby uranium mine and painted “No” on US warships in Sydney Harbour.

They asserted that the very existence of nuclear weapons endangered us all.  

On 13 November 1983, 111 women were arrested at Pine Gap and each woman gave the name Karen Silkwood to police.  Karen Silkwood, a 28 year-old worker at the US nuclear fuel plant Kerr-McGee and active union member for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, was killed under suspicious circumstances on 13 November 1974.  A well-known anti-nuclear activist at the time of her death, she was active in seeking greater health and safety regulations for workers.  When Karen died she was heavily contaminated with plutonium from the plant at which she worked. Silkwood's family filed a civil suit to Kerr-McGee. In 1986 they were finally awarded an out-of-court settlement of US$1.3million.

Twenty years later although the Pine Gap spy base still operates as a critical part of the United States’ nuclear umbrella, opposition to Australia's complicity to US war policies is higher than ever. The women's peace camp 20 years ago played a critical role in building this opposition.

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