LABOUR HISTORY - BROOKFIELD - LAUNCH SPEECH
by Humphrey McQueen at launch of Paul Robert Adams’s ‘The best hated man in Australia’, The Life and Death of Percy
Brookfield 1875-1921 (Puncher & Wattmann), held at
the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University on 25
best hated man in Australia’ What a title! What an ambition!
Certainly not one to cross the mind of candidates promoting themselves
for public office these days. The contestants in the recent reality
electoral show reminded me of the line in Arthur Miller’s The
death of a salesman, where the protagonist explains that one of his
co-workers was ‘liked, but he wasn’t well liked’. We are left to
presume that he had not absorbed Dale Carnegie’s How
to win friends and influence people.
of course, is a relative term – hated by whom? In Brookfield’s case,
it was by the most hateful and hate-filled elements in the country –
the Empire patriots and grinders of the faces of the poor, abetted by
Labor rats such as Billie Hughes, whom Brookfield went to gaol for
identifying as ‘a viper, traitor and skunk’. Of course, to
Brookfield’s own community at Broken Hill, and throughout the working
class, Brookie was among the best loved.
is the only way to describe my feelings when the Brookfield typescript
arrived for me to pen a few words for the back cover. I had just plunged
into the final rewrite of my history of the BLF and was not answering
the phone. But I held Percy in high regard and respected the person who
asked me on behalf of the author whom I met for the first time this
afternoon. Well, I thought, I don’t have to even glance at the first
page to concoct an endorsement. Plenty of reviews are written that way
and the authors are often better served than if their books had been
studied with care. But curiosity got the better of me and I began to
read only to find myself gripped and inspired. Since then I have done as
much as I can to promote Paul’s book.
politics of doing so became clearer when the elections ended in what of
the press gallery in its collective ignorance dubbed the first hung
parliament since 1940. Making that claim was possible because the
journalists lacked all sense of the context and the dynamics at work
seventy years ago. They saw two stray bits of information and, by
rubbing them together, thought that they had achieved an insight into
history when all they had done was to expose their subservience to the
lobotomized mentality that Marx and Engels called parliamentary
cretinism. Parliamentary cretinism is not a statement about the
intellectual capacity of the representatives beyond observing that they
suffer from the delusion that their deliberations determine social
reality. During his five years in parliament, Brookfield displayed not
one iota of that malaise.
also goes without saying that the Canberra hacks had never heard of
Brookfield or that he did held the balance of power in the New South
Wales Legislative Assembly after the 1920 poll. At the time, the Labor
caucus was as desperate for office as Killard & Co. Premier John
Storey was a labor man, unlike the current crew, and perhaps felt at
ease with conceding improvements in the health and safety of Broken Hill
miners and appointing a Royal Commission to facilitate the release of
the IWW Twelve, convicted of arson. Today, Killard is preparing to
diminish protection for workers through her ‘harmonisation’ of
OH&S laws across the economy, and continues to back the anti-terror
regime that merits investigation by a Peoples Commission.
the many differences between 1920 and 2010, none is greater than that of
the political cultures. That Brookfield is unknown to many on the Left
is one sign of our times. Similarly, the fact that miners in the Hunter
Valley have not destroyed the RTA sign that points to a ‘Rothbury Riot
Memorial’ – which by rights should read ‘Police Riot Memorial - is
another’. The willingness of Dr Evatt to take up the case against
banning the Communist Party in 1950, when he had only 12 percent support
in the polls, before winning 51 percent to defeat the Act at the
Referendum in September 1951, is so remote from the focus group agenda
as to make one’s head spin.
duty of Labour History Societies is to make these stories public
knowledge. We do not exist to advance careers in academe or to amuse
antiquarians. The hospitality shown by Maggie and the Butlin Archives in
providing the venue to launch Paul’s book is a measure of why the
battle to save the union records housed here was worth fighting and
winning. Kim Sattler’s hopes for a Museum of Labour in Canberra
expresses the conviction that there is story to be told and one which is
as Paul’s book, the Archives and a Museum are in keeping the flame
alive, they are as nothing against the avalanche of capitalist
propaganda in the commercial mass media, whether as advertising, reality
games or mayhem as entertainment, while the ‘News’ is not so much
biased as vacuous. Brookfield earned an elegy from Mary Gilmore but
where are the novels, the theatre pieces, feature films, documentaries
and television series built around the struggles at Broken Hill? Their
absence is partly a question of class power and partly one of cultural
imperialism. Swedes or Italians have done better. Now, Paul’s book
gives a chance to sell the screen rights.
difference that a popular proletarian culture makes is obvious as you
walk around Broken Hill. Reading Dale’s Industrial
History gave me a taste. In 1972, one of my students did his
research project on the 1919-20 lockout to help him understand why his
grandparents still kept a larder full of tinned food – just in case,
they always told him. A visit there in 2008 enriched this understanding.
The Barrier Daily Truth, which
is still owned by the unions, published extracts from a speech by Fidel
on the world economic crisis and a feature exposing limitations on the
right to remain silence proposed for the Queensland criminal code – an
assault on civil liberties about which few of my Brisbane friends had
heard. Most of the parks are named for union officials. The Social
Democratic Club flourishes – though the distance between its politics
and current marketing is apparent in the Lonely
Planet Guide which writes of the Social and Democratic Club. And
then there is the monument to Brookfield. Think for but a second what a
difference to our polity a nation-wide culture with these qualities
visit to the cemetery to pay respects to the great man brings us to the
manner of Brookfield’s death. Was he assassinated? Paul makes it clear
that that was highly unlikely. Above all, Brookfield went after the
gunman to prevent his killing women and children on the railway
platform. As Mary Gilmore put it, ‘Brookfield died for his people’.
What we can be certain about is that the people who hated him are more
than capable of any crime. How many thousands of miners died so that BHP
could prosper, although we must never forget that killing is not murder
when done for profit. Far greater proofs of the evil capacities of
Brookfield’s enemies are in the millions slaughtered in the sordid
trade war that he opposed. By late 1917, the leaders of Western
Civilisation had drawn up a ledger showing the birthrates of both sides.
The bookkeepers of mass murder calculated that if they could keep the
war going till 1921 the British and their allies would win because they
would overwhelm the German side. Plotting the assassination of one
troublesome unionist would have been child’s play to these monsters.
The 1948 bashing of Communist parliamentarian Fred Paterson by the
Queensland police is a further reminder to watch your back.
honouring Brookfield, we are honouring his type. No doubt he was
special, the more so because the times demanded it of someone who had
passed his first thirty-five in obscurity, coming to prominence with the
victory for the 44-hour week during 1916. We all know his like. Labour
history is full of them. For instance, a Mr Simpson came from the
navvies on the railline to the Murray in 1860 to tell the crooked
contractor that the men would not negotiate. In 1897, the leader of
thePerth labourers in the
strike for ten shillings a day was Bill Mellor, who in Melbourne and
Sydney had led teams to evict bailiffs and repossess sewing-machines
from their repossessors. After he fell to his death in June, his
comrades back East recalled that he had been
could have been in the obituary for Brookie, and the multitude of
nameless others needed to raise the flag of stars.
as the remembrance of Brookfield is to the movement in 2010, we have to
find comparable figures to appeal to the sixty percent of union members
who are women. The cultural shift required in labour thinking to match
that statistic has hardly begun.
afternoon, the honour is to Percy, who had no thought of self, certainly
no expectation of retiring to a seat on the board of the Macquarie Bank.
Honour also to Paul Adams for completing the story in words and images.
As I launch The best hated man in Australia, your job is to keep it afloat, the
sail it into bookshops and libraries so that its message can inspire
even more thousands than he did in death as well as in life.