Friends and Enemies

Australian Workers Film Guide


Seen from the perspective of workers and their families, this feature length documentary follows events unfolding during the South East Queensland Electricity Board strike in 1985. The bitter nine-month strike between the Electrical Trades Union and the Queensland government led by right wing Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen saw the sacking of 1100 electricity workers and the introduction of contractors. The union busting tactic saw widespread industrial turmoil that resulted in a prolonged strike, electricity blackouts, community protest, clashes with police as well as an ACTU freight and transport blockade of Queensland.

Morphing into a savage attack on unionism and civil liberties, Bjelke-Petersen, and his Industrial Affairs Minister Vince Lester, declared a state of emergency, rushing through Parliament extreme anti-union legislation, outlawing strikes, union picketing, seeking the deregistration of unions as well as provisions to fine and confiscate the property of the strikers.

The film opens with a provocative scene at the 1985 Anzac Day march in Brisbane, in which a marching war veteran approaches Bjelke-Petersen to return his medals, telling the media that he is against tyranny and the oppression of unions, adding “What the Premier is doing in Queensland is more than what Hitler did.” Swiftly marched off by police, the underlying message of state oppression is established from the beginning.

Extensive use of television news reporting is used to provide context to the dispute, which is interspersed with extensive observational footage of union meetings and speeches, numerous protests and mass arrests by police, strike support and food distribution, flying pickets and the efforts of the strikers’ wives, which includes a protest bus. In one scene, students protest the awarding of an honorary doctorate by the University of Queensland to Bjelke-Petersen.

The film mockingly employs a fascinating device in contrasting the real world of the oppressed strikers with an incongruous and anachronistic world of the privileged Queensland elite. In scenes reminiscent of the Waterside Workers Film Unit’s The Hungry Miles, while strikers are brutally arrested by police, the elite indulge in lavish debutante balls, privileged parliamentary anti-union summits, the conferring of honorary doctorates on Bjelke-Petersen and country fairs stuck in a 1950’s time warp.

Remarkably, Vince Lester allowed the filmmaker to follow him around his country electorate seemingly under the impression that Zubrycki was making a film about him. There is a revealing scene in which Lester dances with a young lady and remarks that the camera is there because they are making a film about him – a testament to the vanity, self-importance and narcissism of Queensland’s ruling elite.

The union movement itself is not spared the filmmakers’ attention, as the internal union disagreements are aired between the ETU on one side and the Trades Labour Council and the ACTU on the other. This culminates in a fractious and embarrassing scene in which the strikers’ wives conduct a sit-in at the Trades Labour Council, demanding that union leadership not sell out their husbands.  The film ends with one of the wives ruminating, “This has done wonders. Fair enough, you’re a lot poorer, but by bejesus hasn’t it sorted out your political views, your friends and your enemies.”

Special Notes/Achievements

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 88 mins

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Film Cinematographer: Fabio Cavadini, Larry Zetlin,

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