2014 Moomba Parade (60th Anniversary) Melbourne

A tale of two festivals: Mardi Gras and Moomba

It’s festival time in Melbourne and Sydney – and both cities are gearing up for two very different street parties.

In Sydney this weekend, the city will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, while in Melbourne it’s time for the iconic people’s festival Moomba – 65 years young.

The history of Mardi Gras traces back to June 24, 1978 – when it was not the celebration we know today, but the beginning of a galvanising protest movement. Homosexual acts were still illegal; homophobia was rife and widely accepted – and when the Sydney gay community took to the streets the result was large numbers of arrests and the beginning of an annual event that is arguably the world’s most famous celebration of LGBTQI rights.


The first Mardi Gras march came about as part of International Gay Solidarity Celebrations, which itself was inspired by the landmark Stonewall riots in New York nine years earlier.

Around 10pm on that Saturday night in mid-winter, people gathered at Taylor Square, ready to march down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. Police had others ideas. 

Hatch spoke to Amanda Wilson, who was a journalist covering the story in 1978 for The Australian newspaper.

Wilson recalls that “early on in the proceedings people were skipping, dancing and singing”.

“It wasn’t like today’s Mardi Gras, with lots of fancy costumes, flesh on display and great dancing.”

 Then Wilson recounts the brutal end to the night, as first recorded in her 1978 news story that captured the moment for history. (The headline in The Australian in 1978: “How a carnival turned into a vicious brawl”.)

“At the end people went to Kings Cross and the cops barricaded them,” Wilson says.

“It was like shooting fish in a barrel, they bashed so many people and I will never forget the woman in the motorcycle helmet, who they bashed and threw in a paddy wagon. As a journalist you should be an impartial observer, you should never do this, but I picked up her helmet and hit the cop with ist to try and let her go.”

The event started to gain extensive media coverage from the mid-1980s and onwards, and by 1994 had begun its move into the mainstream. This year, the 40th anniversary of the seminal event in 1978 will be marked with perhaps the biggest Mardi Gras yet – with gay icon Cher headlining the after-party at  Fox Studios on Saturday night.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne the start of March signals the annual Moomba celebrations – a combination of carnival, festival and parade focused around the banks of the Yarra. The high note of the event is the Moomba Parada, which brings the CBD to a halt on the Labour Day holiday – this year falling on Monday March 12. Often derided as a festival of dagginess, modern Moomba has embraced the country’s multicultural roots but still has a strong element of the corny – including the famous Birdman Rally. 

Moomba has been celebrated since 1955, but  traces its origins to the celebration of 50 years of Federation in 1951, which featured a parade and a theatre production, An Aboriginal Moomba: Out of the Dark. In 1954, Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Melbourne inspired plans for an annual autumn Moomba Festival.

Every year there is a King and Queen selected. Over the last 65 years, Melbourne icons such as Molly Meldrum, Bert Newton, Dame Edna, Lou Richards, Graham Kennedy and Ruby Rose have worn the crowns. This year’s monarchs: Chrissie Swan and Jimmy Giggle.

Melbourne’s Moomba King and Queen for the 2018 festival, Chrissie Swan and Jimmy Giggle.

Moomba may be old, but Melbournians say it remains a a key fixture at the heart of the city’s annual calendar.

Mary from Mentone told Hatch: “ I have seen the crowds increasing for this event and it is great, it brings people together such as families and tourists. It is great for Melbourne”.

“Tthe future for Moomba is positive. Melbourne has so many people visit and move here from different locations who will be interested.”

Natalie Pourer told Hatch: “ I don’t live in Melbourne. I live way out of the CBD, but as a resident of Victoria you hear about Moomba and how much it brings people together which is really nice … to be living in a great community that brings people together.”

The Moomba Festival kicks off on Friday March 9 and ends on Monday March 12.