Sydney, 29 November 2013
First, I’d like to thank the organisers for giving me this chance to catch up with old friends and make some new ones as I have been doing with Dale Dengate. The contribution that John made to this event over the years and to so many progressive causes led me to reflect on the significance of singing for a democratic polity. As we have just felt, these gatherings are brought to a new pitch by singing ‘Solidarity Forever’. There is something radically wrong with a society in which your best chance for belonging to a choir is to attend a posh school or to be long-term unemployed and homeless.
Music played a central role in the Melbourne commemorations for the 150th anniversary in 2004 with the staging of Eureka – the Musical at the Princess Theatre. For my money, the most memorable song was ‘That’s what women do’. Now Clare Wright has shown us how much more they did – and still do.
That year, the Melbourne commemorations were held at the Maritime Union HQ which had been the ‘Eureka’ stockade in 1998 dock dispute. The Spirit of Eureka is put into practice in numerous places several times everyday on worksites and in communities. The spirit is not confined to one day of the year. As a French revolutionary put it to me about the centenary of Paris Commune, the real celebrations of that struggle had been in the May Days of 1968. He added that if a marriage is celebrated only on anniversaries, then love is dead.
Yet, a bit of history never goes astray – especially if it is a red armband view. I shan’t repeat what you know about the rebels. Rather, we should look into what the boss class and their state got up to. Labour history always has to be set against the needs of capital.
‘Shall we tax ourselves?’ That question from the leader of the squatters in the Legislative Council in 1853 goes to the heart of the conflict – and it still does. The squatters refused to pay more for the land they had stolen from the Crown. Yes, from the Crown – not the traditional owners. The government had to get revenue to cope with the 100,000 recent arrivals who were ranging across the colony. The sensible solution would have been to impose an export tax on gold. But the merchants blocked that impost because they feared an export duty would open the door to import duties. The whole burden, therefore, fell on the diggers.
Eureka was not a revolt against tax as such. The Reform League opposed the unfair impact of the licence. They resisted its corrupt and brutal enforcement. They raised the cry of ‘no taxation without representation’. Geoffrey Blainey spins the line that the rebels’ opposition to the licence set a precedent for campaigns such as Rinehart’s against the super-profits tax on the corporations that have been paying him to write their histories for more than sixty years.
We gather here to celebrate the struggle but also the achievements of the diggers. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that Eureka was the birthplace of Australian democracy. That struggle had been going on almost from the arrival of the First Fleet – indeed, before then if you include the political prisoners. Nonetheless, the colony of Victoria in 1856 got universal suffrage for male settlers – but only for the Assembly. The Legislative Council became the capitalists’ stockade.
To qualify as a member you had to have £10,000. To vote you needed £1,000 – or be a university graduate in the days before HECS. Ii is impossible to put a contemporary number of that spending power but it would be in the millions. The then radical Bulletin called the Council the ‘House of Landlords’. Membership was in effect hereditary for the Baillieus, the Clarkes, the Grimwades and the Manifolds. The last of the property qualifications was not removed until 1950 after 94 years of struggle.
The leaflet promoting this dinner illustrates the achievement of the 8-hour day in 1855-56.
The leader of the Melbourne stonemasons was James Stephen who had been a physical force Chartist who swore that he would do whatever it took to win the boon. Again, the bosses did whatever they could to regain the labour-time they had lost. Their first move was to go for piece-rates: ‘Yes, you can work for only eight hours, but we will make sure that you add as much value for us in those eight hours as you did in ten.’ One of the biggest employers imported German stonemasons to act as strike-breakers. When they arrived they supported the unionists.
The bosses did not have it all their way as the boom slumped into recession. The corrupt contractor to construct a railway from Melbourne to the Murray paid his navvies five shillings a day – but only when the weather let them work. The men struck for thirty shillings a week, wet or dry. They stayed out for months, with their families. How did they survive without wages? They got support from mining communities across Victoria. The spirit of Eureka continued in the physical struggle mounted with hundreds of strikers marching through Kyneton to battle the police and troopers. The navvies won when a gold rush to Otago resulted in a labour shortage and after the troops were sent to fight the Maori.
The story of the House of Landlords, the eight-hour day and the rail dispute remind us that there are no permanent victories. The organisers of this dinner have lived that truth. Bob, Bruce and Jack are in not just a long haul but for the endless haul.
Where is the frontline of the struggle to defend and extend democracy today? We face multiple threats, There is the state terrorism in the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the self-styled anti-terrorism laws and now the anti-gang laws. The latter are alarming because they do not specify which ‘gangs’ are subject to their provisions. I don’t suppose they will be used against the directors of Hardie asbestos. The impoverishment of government schools is a perpetual assault on our liberties.
Important as these matters are, I want to focus on one that is already shaping political debate and will do so even more during the coming six years. I refer to the pro-war propaganda around the centenary of the Great European War. The poison from this indoctrination will last far longer if we do not intervene to tell a different story about our past.
The Great War
Progressives cannot afford to say ‘We’ll have Eureka and you can have ANZAC’. There is a democratic story to tell about the war years. We have to present a positive story. Standing on the sidelines throwing bricks might make a few people feel morally superior but it will also make it easier for the official line to win. Strategically, the test is always how to build a mass movement. People are open to radical ideas if those alternatives offer values that appeal to the best in our natures. Tactically, we need to tell stories which help us to feel ‘I could do that’.
One effective way to intervene is to turn the values and yarns pushed by the warmongers against them. Wartime propaganda concentrated on the claim that our side was fighting to protect British liberties against German junkerdom. Our case is that our rights and liberties were defended above all by the defeat of the conscription plebiscites in 1916 and again in 1917. On that second occasion, 54 percent voted NO. A majority of the front-line troops also voted NO.
Those No votes are two of the greatest expressions of democratic feeling in the history of settler Australia. It is no surprise that they are written out of the school syllabus. Pyne wants to teach about the Bill of Rights from England in 1688 but he does not want a Bill of Rights here today. Nor do his kind want to remind people of how our forebears voted down repressive laws pushed by people who are his ideological ancestors. The same is true for the popular rejection of the anti-Red Bill of 1951. No postage stamps celebrate those three triumphs of democratic determination. The conscription debates played no part in the recent feature film Under Hill 60 although the sapper unit was drawn from the militant coal-mining districts.
Counter-factual: What if YES vote had won? We have a good idea of the kind of regime that would have been imposed. Our guide to that future comes from the
solicitor-general, Sir Robert Garran:
The regulations were mostly expressed widely to make sure that nothing necessary was omitted, and the result soon was that John Citizen was hardly able to lift a finger without coming under the penumbra of some technical offence against the War Precautions Regulations.
If that web of controls had spread then an even more open dictatorship would have followed. Australian liberties suffered with the gaoling of Tom Barker, the Commonwealth’s censorship of the Queensland Hansard, the creation of the Commonwealth political police and the framing of the IWW 12. In addition, conscription for overseas service would have opened the door to industrial conscription to force wages down further and drive hours up through the intensification of time-and-motion methods that provoked the 1917 general strike in New South Wales.
By 1916, the question running through Australia was whether to sign up for a sordid trade war or wage class war. Ararat farmer J K McDougall gave his answer in a poem ‘Eureka’ in which the rebels speak across the generations to those fighting oppression sixty years later:
We’ll keep the warships running clean and man the people’s guns,
To trounce the foes within your gates who rob and sweat your sons,
We’ll gather with the rifles and will keep the bayonets bright,
Till the wrongs that fret the working-class are sifted and set right.
In 1919, returned officers tarred and feathered McDougall for a poem he had written against the Boer War. A YES majority would have legitimized more of such violence against dissenters.
More Lies: In the Howard-era campaign for values in education, the Department of Education sent around a poster with the image of Jack Simpson helping a wounded soldier seated on the donkey. Beneath were the words ‘Character is destiny – George Eliot’. Experience had taught me that such extracts are almost always out of context. When I looked up Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (book 6, chapter 6) what should I discover but this passage: ‘ “Character” says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms – “character is destiny.” But not the whole of our destiny.’ Eliot’s recognition that the aphorism was questionable set me to wondering where Brendan Nelson’s staff had found their literary gem. The likely answer is on a desk calendar. Had they known that George Eliot was a woman would they have used the snippet at all?
That poster is but one instance of how students are being indoctrinated. The prime suspect is the Simpson Essay funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs which hands out wads of money to cash-strapped schools if they play along with the sanitised version of Simpson. Who was Simpson? The best answer is in Peter Cochrane’s book, which is about to be reissued from Melbourne University Publishing. The short answer is found in a letter that Jack wrote to his mother in England on 1 September 1912:
‘I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want is a good revolution and that will clear some of these Millionaires and lords and Dukes out of it …’
It is seems likely that Simpson was a Wobbly. We know that he enlisted to get a free trip home to escape from unemployment here.
In 1965 for the fiftieth anniversary of Gallipoli, a lying lickspittle by the name of the Rev Sir Irving Benson mis-used Simpson to promote war against the peoples of Indo-China. Much the same is happening again where Anzac-ery is deployed to justify wars in the Middle-East and against ‘terrorism’.
The ACT branch of the Labour History Society is sponsoring an essay competition around the defeat of conscription. Perhaps the topic will be ’Had Simpson survived, would he have voted for conscription?’ You might care to support such a competition for your local school. The Honest History website is an important source of materials for educators.
I’d like to conclude with some words from someone who deserves to be much better known. Samuel Champ was the organiser for the Builders’ Labourers in Hobart in 1916. Like John Dengate, Samuel recited poetry in the Domain and also at the Inter-State Union Congress. Many of us feel that the labour movement could do with a lot more of that – as we saw with the recital of a poem by Oodgeroo at the last ACTU Congress. What Samuel said in 1916 against the demand for conscription to uphold ‘British Liberties’ rings true today:
Our liberties were not won by mining magnates and stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on gallows and rotted in dungeons and are buried in nameless graves. These are the men to whom we owe the liberties we enjoy today.