Review: ‘The far left in Australia since 1945’

I’ve just completed reading ‘The far left in Australia since 1945‘ which is edited by John Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. It is a collection of essays about the left in Australia focusing mainly on the Communist Party and the New Left.

It is an academic work, an interesting read.

The book devotes a chapter to “1968” in Australia: The student movement and the New Left but there is no mention of the Quang incident where students and others detained Luic Tuong Quang, the Secretary to South Vietnam’s ambassador to Australia, just weeks before the September 1970 Vietnam Moratorium.

Two days prior the same anti-war activists had ransacked the University of Queensland army barracks. Those not already excluded were expelled from the University when they refused to appear before a star chamber.

Months later there was the first student and staff strike at an Australian university this time over South Africa’s apartheid regime that resembled the the Queensland Aboriginal Acts. This strike reverberated throughout the establishment in the Queensland capital bring onto campus paid police informants, special branch and conventional police.

The chapter makes no mention of Quang or the destruction of files at the army barracks even though it was a significant action that linked the first and second moratorium and the strike against the Springbok tour that was to follow. Jack Mundy and his mates pulled down the goal posts in Sydney, in Brisbane students and workers went on strike, were attacked on the picket line at the Tower Mill, a number were arrested and hospitalised including a future Premier Peter Beattie.

At first I thought the failing of the book amounted to nothing more than sins of omission.

There is no mention of the modern resistance struggle by five generations of ‘Brisbane Blacks’ from 1970 till 2019 demonstrated on the streets of Brisbane during the 1982 Commonwealth Games land rights protests which attracted national and international attention.

The maturity of that struggle was  in evidence on Invasion Day 2019 where Aboriginal leader Sam Watson made a call for ‘a truth and reconciliation commission‘ to address injustices of colonisation, theft of land, stealing of children, high incarceration rates, massacres, stolen wages and the deaths in custody. Why Sam Watson should be acknowledged as the leading socialist in Australia, blackfella or whitefella. The Aarons brothers are now both dead, Jack Mundy is retired from activism, Brian Laver is discredited as being corrupt, the leading women were never given a chance by a sexist and moribund New Left.

There is no mention of the defiant campaign of civil disobedience against the mining and export of uranium and the denial of democratic rights in Queensland from September 1977 till July 1979. This was a campaign that reached national proportions culminating in the arrests of over 3,000 grass roots activists, trade unionists, civil liberties activists, anti-uranium organisers, ALP members, MLAs from Southern states … all on the streets of Brisbane and elsewhere. It was a campaign that reached deep into popular imagination. So much so, that when the Museum of this Brisbane displayed memorabilia from that campaign in a ‘Taking to the Streets exhibition’ over 80,000 people visited the museum, many of them sons and daughters of the 2,000 women and men arrested.

There is no mention of the 3000 arrests which formed part of the ‘Joh Must Go’ and street march campaign. A campaign organised by the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee and Anti-uranium mobilisation committee with meetings often 100 strong debating tactics of how to bring down the Bjelke-Petersen government.

Nor is there mention of the successful 50 year struggle for reproductive rights and decriminalisation of abortion carried on by radical feminists in Queensland, many of them arrested again and again by repressive governments, Country Party, Liberal Party, National Party. The Labor Party spent nearly 30 years in government refusing to help until the last few months of the campaign.

There is no mention of the watershed SEQEB dispute in 1985 which resulted in the sacking of 1005 electricity workers and catapulted Johannes Bjelke-Petersen into the Joh for PM campaign which kept the liberals out of power federally for another 11 years. While Eilzabeth Humphreys does document the failing of the Left to adequately respond to the Accord the book does not mention how SEQEB rank and file spent 18 months railing against the sellout of a thousand workers and their families sacrificed on the altar of the prices and incomes accord by its high priests Kelty, Hawke and Keating.

To the uninitiated these omissions and others may seem like small beer when you take into account the struggles of the New Left in the 1960s and early 1970s, the dominance of the Communist Party of Australia, and the failure of the Accord resulting in the decimation of trade union membership in Australia.

However my major criticism is the lack of understanding that there are movements to the left of the ‘far left in Australia since 1945‘ referred to in this text. This book represents a failure of analysis and an inability to come to grips with radical political history in Australia which has international links and, at times, has been especially rich in ‘the red north‘. Queensland sponsors the largest May Day marches of any state in Australia. In 1978, the non-union contingent (the democratic rights movement) outnumbered the unions 12,000 to 8,000 through the streest of Brisbane during a ban on street marches by the Bjelke-Petersen government.

Why doesn’t the book describe the post war election to parliament of Fred Patterson by the Collinsville coal miners and the North Qld cane cutters, the only communist ever to sit in that place and his infamous batoning by special branch police on St Patricks day during the 1948 rail strike? No mention of the CPA organiser, Jim Healy, sent up north to get Fred elected. Yeah, what about the contribution of migrant workers, refugees from socialist and anarchist struggles in Latin America, Italy, Spain and the Middle East who voted him in?

There is no mention in this book of the Popular Theatre Troup which from 1975 till the late 1980s took radical theatre into workplaces and educational institutions.

A number of authors relied upon special branch and ASIO files for their information … they would have been better served to go to the source … to the memories of the organisers and activists themselves. WBT pages are full of them, so is the Radical Times Archive and no doubt there are many others.

But then if your are an academic buried inside one of those liberal tertiary educational institutions, you are likely to be blind to the universities of the working class found on the streets, in union pubs, the workplaces, on the picket lines, at the blockades, and strikes. There is no mention of the big waterfront strikes of the 1950s nor the 1998 MUA here to stay dispute. Where was the treatment of the jailing of Ted Roach and Big Jim Healy? What about the storm in the tropics, the 1964 Mt Is Mines dispute, and the colourful Canadian red, Pat Mackie? What about the 1977 Latrobe River Valley power dispute that brought Victoria to its knees and many workers learnt to know their friends and to know their enemies … leaders like John Halfpenny and Bob Hawke.

May Day Brisbane circa 1986

There is no mention of the tradition of radical radio found in places like 3CR in Melbourne and 4ZZZ in Brisbane … stations that came out of working class struggles, the anti-war movement and the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1970s.

Really, looking back through my life (1950 – ) … the only mass movement that got out to lots of layers of society that I have been involved in organising were the street marches (1977-79 … I participated in others like the end of the anti-vietnam war, the University strike against apartheid in 1971, the 1982 Commonwealth protests and SEQEB dispute (where I attended organisational meetings).

But it was the street marches (1977-1979) that penetrated deepest … I am not just saying that because I was involved in the organising inside the Civil Liberties Co-coordinating Committee and Anti-uranium mobilisation committee … those marches tackled many issues – education, land rights, union rights, environmental, women & democratic rights …. and, sadly, no other mass movement has come along since.

Here’s looking to a future further to the left, for to leave us without our history is to render us childlike, demented and lost.

in solidarity,
Ian Curr

The Far Left in Australia since 1945 (Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics) [Jon Piccini, Evan Smith, Matthew Worley]

Please comment down below