Please find below an excerpt from John McCollow’s review of the plays of Errol O’Neill that appeared in September 2016 and March 2017 editions of the Queensland Journal of Labour History. The play being reviewed is ‘The Hope of the World’ which is about an industrial dispute in Queensland. To write this play, Errol O’Neill draws from his own experience of the 1985 SEQEB dispute where the Bjelke-Petersen government sacked 1002 striking workers opposing contract labour.
Other plays by O’Neill mentioned in McCollow’s review are:
- Faces in the Street which is about the general strike of 1912 in support of the Tramways union;
- Popular Front which is about the influence of Fred Paterson in the labour movement. Fred was the only communist ever elected to an Australian parliament.
- On the Whipping Side which is about the formation of the Labor Party from the 1891 shearer’s strike;
- The Hope of the World about the 1985 SEQEB dispute; and,
- Red Soil, White Sugar which is about the 1911 Isis district sugar strike.
The play’s title, The Hope of the World, refers to the saying ‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world’ found on the banner of The Worker – the newspaper of the Australian Workers Union from 1891-1955. Of all the disputes O’Neill could have chosen to write a play about, this was one where unity was most lacking. Conflict arose early in the dispute when the leader of the ALP, Nev Warburton, announced that the lights had been turned back on, unashamedly calling this ‘a victory for Queensland’.
But what about the workers? The rank-and-file kept fighting for months after, arrested on picket lines, risking huge fines. The poverty of this leadership was shown in the physical attack on a mother of one of the sacked workers at the 1986 May Day by Assistant-Secretary of the Trades and Labour Council (TLC), Tom Barton, and the TLC’s media spokesperson, David Hinchcliffe. The conflict arose because the strike committee in the SEQEB dispute believed they had been sold out by the union leadership under influence from the ALP, specifically ACTU secretary, Bill Kelty and Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Curiously the ending of the play depicts the rank and file arm-in-arm with union officials. Errol O’Neill later expressed regret that he had not discussed the dispute with Bernie Neville, the person who set-up the strike committee after viewing the TV sellout by Nev Warburton.
John McCollow says that ‘the strike was called off with the unions weakened and without the workers being re-instated.’ The words ‘was called off’ while accurate, only tell part of the story … one yet to be told. However the reviewer’s claim that the sacked workers received ‘some compensation in the early 1990s with the election of the Goss Labor Government’ is both inaccurate and misleading.
SEQEB workers received entitlements which were legally theirs anyway. Many never worked for SEQEB again, for example workers from Albion depot were blacklisted early in the dispute, SEQEB management telling the men they would never work in the industry ever again.
What is needed is a rank-and-file history, one unafraid of offending those who obtain power as a result of defeat of workers.
“In 1985 the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) announced that it intended to make use of contract and casual labour. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) saw this as reduction in working conditions and a precursor to de-unionising and privatising the industry and called a strike of linesmen. In response, the Queensland government sacked over 1000 SEQEB staff who were members of the ETU. In support of the sacked workers, power station operators, who were members of the Municipal Officers Association (MOA), reduced power supplies causing blackouts across southern Queensland. The government declared a “state of emergency” (which was in effect for a month) and took measures to significantly increase penalties for individuals and organisations engaging in industrial action or protest. It sought and obtained the de-registration as a state union of the ETU. It passed legislation to facilitate greater use of contract and casual staff. Hundreds of people were arrested for protesting at rallies. Eventually, the strike was called off with the unions weakened and without the workers being re-instated (though the workers did receive some compensation in the early 1990s with the election of the Goss Labor Government).
The Hope of the World was first produced in Brisbane by the Queensland Theatre Company in 1996 (interestingly, the year that the National/Liberal Coalition returned to government).
The Hope of the World is unique among O’Neill’s labour history plays in at least two ways.
First, it is about a labour dispute which most of the audience would have lived through, even if they hadn’t participated in it, and in which he had some involvement. As reported on the Workers Bush Telegraph website (2016) O’Neill stood ‘in protest, with many other believers, on a pubic footpath outside an electricity depot in Taringa’.
Second, although historical figures are alluded to, in The Hope of the World all of the characters are fictional. Further, the play does not go into specific details about the strike; that it is about the SEQEB dispute is never specifically acknowledged in the script, and the events in it could be said to parallel the historical events more than to depict them.
The Hope of the World is also the labour history play that comes the closest to a mainstream dramatic work. There is a relatively small cast and while political issues remain important, there is a greater emphasis than in the other plays on personalities and personal relationships. Jim and his wife Clare are at a crisis point in their marriage when Clare’s former lover Red appears after a prolonged absence interstate and attempts to restart his romance with Clare. The strained relationship between the striker’s wife Maureen and her mother Shirley is also explored at some length. In a media interview, O’ Neill stated, ‘The Hope of the World is as much about relationships and a struggling marriage as a union dispute’ (Gold Coast Bulletin, 1996).
There are also continuities, echoes and parallels between The Hope of the World and O’Neill’s earlier plays. The most important is that the characters reflect a cross section of labour, occupying different places in its struggles, trying to make sense of the world, carving out different ideologies and strategies, arguing with each other and with themselves. O’Neill stated that the play:
“… deals with some issues which I think are universal to humanity to do with personal and political life. The personal and political conflicts in the play are about locating the enemy. Is the enemy out there or internal? How much is the enemy our own inability to come to terms with the real struggle we are involved in?” (quoted in Yallamas, 1996).
Union secretary Jim, a former firebrand who now seeks an achievable, “realistic” outcome from the dispute and harbours parliamentary ambitions within the Labor Party, can be seen as a 1980’s counterpart of Harry Coyne in Faces in the Street. Red Morrison, the journalist who holds on to his socialist principles, albeit from the relative safe position of interested onlooker and with a view to maximising his own advantage, is in some ways a more modem (and less sober) version of the William Lane of On the Whipping Side. The brash and committed but politically naive rank and file activist Len O’ Donnell has parallels with Joe Regan of Faces in the Street and Frank Connolly of On the Whipping Side. Social worker Clare Dixon recalls teacher Moira Maguire in On the Whipping Side and house-wife Maureen O’ Donnell recalls house-wife Evelyn Barry of On the Whipping Side.
As in his earlier plays, O’Neill employs humour strategically in The Hope of the World, both as a means of relieving the emotional and political tensions inherent in the drama and as illustrative of the Australian character.
Another interesting continuity is the use of a quasi-narrator/commentator – a feature of all of O’Neill’s labour history plays. In The Hope of the World, commentary is provided by conservative radio talk back host Shirley Condon (who is Len O’ Donnell’s mother-in-law). Shirley parallels the character of Mary Hall in Faces in the Street. Unlike Mary Hall, however, Shirley’s situation has a poignancy of its own:
“Even though she has fought a personal life-long struggle – an alcoholic husband and bringing up a daughter who resents her, Shirley is still blinded by a sense of loyalty to the status quo. At the close of the play, she is still isolated and alone.” (Dunne, 1996).
Most of O’Neill’s labour history plays depict the heavy-handed brutality with which Queensland police have enforced “public order”, violated civil rights and suppressed dissent. The portrayal of the operations of Queensland Special Branch in The Hope of the World is particularly stark.
Critical reaction to The Hope of the World followed the pattern described above in relation to On the Whipping Side the views of those who found it compelling jostling with the views of those who found it too political and didactic. Kelly (1996) called it ‘a courageous, important play’. Riley (1996b) stated that it was ‘stimulating, challenging and thoughtful … a political and theatrical experience not to be missed ‘. Galloway (1996) stated that the play ‘contains some of the most passionate political writing to be heard on the stage for some time. The passion of it sweeps you along’. Hope (1996) considered it ‘a faultlessly written production’ that should receive ‘nothing but praise’. Baldwin (1996) described the play as ‘meaty material which is Queensland in its heart, universal in its soul’. Cotes (1996) found it to be ‘a powerful story of victimisation and betrayal’.
Brown (1996), on the other hand, felt that ‘there is just way too much “debate” about “issues”‘, while Haxton (1996) faulted the play’s ‘over-reliance on political rhetoric’. Gough (1996) thought that O’Neill had matured as a playwright since writing On the Whipping Side and was not so tied down ‘to the facile polarities of Left and Right’. She thought that The Hope of the World was ‘more complex and therefore more honest’ than O’Neill’s earlier plays. However, she felt that ‘every now and then, the agitprop creeps back in’.
A number of critics commented on the potential audience response to the play’s politics. Galloway (1996) felt that ‘there is no doubt that The Hope of the World will alienate a fair section of its audience’. Cotes (1996) concurred, opining that ‘its unashamed partisanship [will] poladse the audiences’. Kelly (1996) described the play as ‘uncompromising-to some, perhaps, alienating’. Hebden (1996) appeared to include herself in this category, asking: ‘Do we really need to go back and relive the indignities of those years? The past is the past and resurrecting it doesn’t mend bridges’. Almost as if in response, Cotes (1996) wrote:
“The Hope of the World is a brave attempt to remind us of a part of Queensland history that needs to be remembered, and if it does nothing else, it will generate heated post-performance discussion on both sides of the political fence.”
That would be an outcome, it can be surmised, that would well-please O’Neill. The Hope of the World has not been published.
Queensland Journal of Labour History
September 2016 and March 2017 editions”
Photo: Ian Curr (bearded, second from right) arrested at SEQEB picket outside the Executive Building in George Street Brisbane in 1985. Charged and convicted of carrying a banner saying Joh Must Go! The photo was taken by Trades & Labour Council media spokesperson, David Hinchcliffe. For those not on facebook this article is posted at https://workersbushtelegraph.net/20…