POLITICAL PARTY INVOLVEMENT
On this page: Joan Coxsedge; Edith Morgan; Yvonne Smith;
Marion Harper, Hellen Cooke
I joined the Labor
Party. Back then, the Victorian Branch had a very progressive agenda,
although all of that hit the wall in 1970 when the branch was federally
intervened on. The Whitlamites believed the Victorian mob was too left-wing
and might jeopardise their chances of being elected - when everyone knew
after 23 years of Liberal (mis)rule, labor was a shoe-in regardless of
what we were doing - but the feds didn't want any radicals hanging around
to embarrass them, so in 1970 they sacked the entire branch.
The Federal Executive
closed down the state office and handed power to a group of opportunists
and shysters, although there was still a significant element of rank and
file members angry about what had happened, determined to build something
out of the fiasco.
These members formed
the Socialist Left. Many women joined in - like Edith Morgan, who joined
the Victorian ALP because of its progressive ideology - and others who
saw that we were under siege and needed all the support we could get.
During those early years, we didn't see that bumping people into parliament
was the be-all and end-all of our existence, but that promoting socialist
policy should be our main aim. And so, from the word go, I immersed myself
in policy-making - Civil Rights, Anti-Uranium (where we did excellent
work) and in 1974, became the first president of the Status of Women Committee,
an office I held for many years.
We brought down excellent
recommendations, very progressive stuff on a range of women's rights,
including the decriminalization of prostitution and the fundamental right
of women to contraception and abortion - a hot potato back then which
has never gone away. Inevitably, we were attacked by the media, which
was shockingly biased (like it is now), coming in with guns blazing against
anyone even vaguely left-wing.
I was often the bunny,
having to present our reports to state conferences, when male delegates
would lick their macho chops (not all of them, I hasten to add) waiting
for the girls, the sheilas, to come on. They would stand around the edges
of the hall drinking cups of coffee, having a giggle at our expense.
It was an unsettling
environment, to say the least, standing up in front of 350 delegates.
I would take a deep breath and go for my life. Anything with a sexual
connotation meant a full house. Some of the blokes should have been in
the DLP (Democratic Labor Party), their views were so reactionary and
anti-female. In 1973, I stood as a Labor candidate for Balwyn - the safest
Liberal seat in the state - and a close friend became my campaign manager.
We ran a socialist/feminist
campaign and I got national coverage due to my outspoken support for a
woman's right to a free, safe abortion. The issue was prominently displayed
on my main campaign leaflet, guaranteeing attention from the Right to
Life organisation, which set up stalls outside some polling booths on
election day itself, creating a few scuffles.
At one booth, police
were summoned! In typical form, Marg and I organised a range of stunts
to get our message across and had a ball, with lots of laughs. We stuck
posters all over the electorate and one night got sprung by the cops!
For my campaign launch,
we hired the Balwyn Cinema and showed the magnificent film, Sacco and
Vanzetti. A full house, when Labor's leading lights turned up at my opening
to give support (and to be seen) - Jim Cairns, Tom Uren, Moss Cass, George
At the same time
- as an additional fund-raiser - I exhibited some of my pen and wash drawings
in the front section of the theatre. I also raised opposition to freeways,
demanding support for more public transport (we're still waiting), public
health, public education etc., all issues that are relevant today.
Being 'the candidate'
gave me a platform and the fact that I was standing for office in Menzies/Peacock
territory and only got 28% support in certain parts of the electorate
didn't seem to matter. I was good copy.
It's a different
story today with a more buttoned-up manipulative media, although I still
firmly believe that you have to speak up for what you believe in and say
it out loud - with passion - to put your case every chance you get, no
matter how small your audience. If you say things people don't like, so
what? They might get off their bums and respond, thereby creating a debate.
The worst thing,
the very worst thing that can happen to a society is silence. A killer
Which is precisely
what is happening in this country right now. A deathly silence hangs over
vital issues which should be shouted from the rooftops - our ongoing grovel
to Washington hanging like an albatross around our collective neck, and
our abysmal failure to protect the environment and public institutions
are a few that spring to mind.
... In the late 1970s,
the party asked me to stand for a safe Labor seat in the State Parliament.
I didn't think I had a dog's chance of winning the pre-selection battle,
but I scraped in by one or two votes. Mayhem erupted and I faced an extremely
dirty campaign, both inside and outside the party, which had more to do
with my 'extreme' views than anything else. A 'maddie'.
The same labels are
used in England against people like Tony Benn, a friend of mine. It is
fascinating watching this internationalisation of insults. But then, Tony
gets a lot of positive coverage that we don't get. We hear from the same
narrow little group of 'moderates' and academics, never the activists.
... For the 25 years
I was an ALP member, I was reasonably effective for the first 15 years.
After that it was a downhill run, particularly towards the end of my parliamentary
term when I publicly criticised the party's increasingly right-wing direction
and ran foul of the power-brokers. I concentrated on looking after people
in my electorate, and used my office as a resource centre.
When I retired from
parliament I quietly dropped out of the ALP altogether, because I couldn't
see any point in staying in a party where deals were struck in advance
before policy had a chance of being openly debated. National Conferences-
the supreme policy-making body - are classic examples of media-hyped,
manipulated PR stunts. Mere charades.
Many former members
feel the same way. Our only hope now is to have people in the senate who
will try and stop the worst excesses going on in the House of Representatives.
There is still the
problem of Labor's hand-holding with the Liberals to support bad legislation.
Since 9/11, 14 'security' bills have been passed (with labor's help) taking
away our fundamental rights, with barely a squeak from our media, leaving
people ignorant and uninvolved. A similar situation with the US Free Trade
... One of the most
interesting gatherings I attended was the week-long 'Women and Politics'
conference in Canberra in September 1975 during the UN Decade for Women,
just a few months before Whitlam was tossed out. I went along as the official
Victorian ALP delegate - rather reluctantly at first - but loved every
minute of it. There were overseas speakers, plenary sessions and workshops
and a deal of stimulating discussion.
If Whitlam had hoped
for a nice controlled 'ladylike' assemblage, he would have been bitterly
disappointed. Enough female stirrers rolled up from around Australia to
balance the numbers of Liberals, Christians and non-boat-rocking 'party'
types to guarantee the very opposite. It was an amazing week. I gave a
workshop, but there were so many workshops, it was impossible to keep
up with the flow.
I vividly remember
the words of a Canadian MP, who articulated the fundamental dilemma faced
by feminists (and socialists). How far do we immerse ourselves in the
structures of the state without being swallowed up whole? A question that
has never been resolved. I believe in the Marxist theory of writing and
action. That out of action comes learning. Sitting in an ivory tower reading
and regurgitating other people's writings doesn't make you an 'expert'
- which is what happens now - with academics pontificating on everything.
Far better to get out and get involved. Which is what we did against our
snoops and learned so much about our society.
Being in gaol is
another great little learner! It's where you see our class system unadorned,
without the bells and whistles. You could say that out of little nuts
come many oak trees, if not always what you expect. For instance, when
you develop a basic understanding of the ways of the world, you can't
undo that knowledge and not understand, to return to blissful ignorance.
I question everything
and believe nothing, until I've had a damn good dig around. How much easier
to swan around shop, shop, shopping until you drop, or going to the footie.
A luxury we can't afford.
... I question everything
and believe nothing, until I've had a damn good dig around. How much easier
to swan around shop, shop, shopping until you drop, or going to the footie.
A luxury we can't afford.
Which is why we devoted
an entire chapter to his 'dismissal' in 'Rooted in Secrecy', detailing
what actually happened during that time, providing interesting insights
into the way our secret unelected government works.
Chile suffered a
bloody assault and straight-out coup d'etat when the US faced a progressive
leader it hated, whereas in Australia the same reactionary forces used
obscure laws and CIA figures in high places to get rid of Whitlam - with
the help of our media. Murdoch led the pack (he helped put Whitlam there
in the first place) - to ensure Labor lost the election. A leopard doesn't
change its spots.
A British survey
showed that every Murdoch newspaper around the world - with one exception
- supports America's war in Iraq and Israel's brutality towards the Palestinians.
Look at the way our elections are covered. Bullshit unlimited with important
concerns brushed aside.
My dad was a socialist. He had an immense effect on our
family. He was very clear on some issues, for example, the anti-war stuff
in 1914 when they had those first world war posters like the
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR YOUR COUNTRY?" posters.
I wasn't alive then, of course. He was quite involved
in the anti-conscription campaign. He was a strong figure in the union.
He used to work down at Spotswood and if people were in trouble they would
say "go and talk to Coldy, he'll know what to do (our name being
He was a wonderful man and we are very, very proud of
our father - the girls particularly.
Peace was the issue at that time. Dad took us all to
Festival Hall when the Dean of Canterbury (the Red Dean) was here, who
was a strong socialist advocate of the Soviet Union, and so forth.
It was a funny household in a sense. On the one hand
we had mum with her very strong religious factor - though that diminished
over time as her children all turned against religion, or just left it
behind as something irrelevant in their lives - and on the other hand
we had dad with his equally strong political convictions.
Most of the family was devoted to political action, and
that was dad's influence.
...Bill eventually was in the airforce, training as a
navigator, and so I went to Sydney to live. That is where all my kids
were born, in Sydney. That was when I joined the communist party, so that
was another life for me.
I was involved with Ernie Thornton, of the Ironworkers
Union, and his wife. They just lived up the road. I got entangled with
them and had wide association with communists in New South Wales.
There wasn't anti-Communist feeling then. Probably the
only one who was really anti-Communist then was Menzies. He was a very
strong influence, and of course it was touch-and-go whether we supported
Hitler in those early years.
Of course you would have been too scared to support Hitler
after the war had been going for some time, particularly when the Soviet
Union came in.
I got involved in many campaigns through the communist
party during and after the war. Then I joined the Union of Australian
Women, too. I was there at the inaugural meeting.
... A strong nationalist feeling came in Australia after
the war, an interest in Australian literature and films. There was that
wonderful play that has never been properly shown. It was a musical, "Reedy
River", written by somebody called Dick Diamond, I think. There was
a strong peace campaign.
There was some contradiction between where we had been
fighting fascism and peace. It was very difficult for some, that issue,
because it was very important fascism was defeated. I think people generally,
even those who would be strong antiwar activists like Joan Coxsedge, would
have been out there in campaigns against Hitler.
...I joined the Labor Party to support Jim Cairns, who
opposed the Vietnam war. The Labor party here stopped Jim Cairns from
going to Monash to talk to the student groups. Stupid stuff!
I actually went to Trades Hall and appeared before everybody
when I stood for preselection. I got such applause. I hadn't done it to
get in - I did it because Race Mathews was standing for preselection without
anybody opposing him. I ran close, two votes. I could have appealed but
I didn't want it for myself, I was happy in my job, but I thought it was
important to have a political perspective.
It was a very eclectic time to be in the Labor party.
Issues were becoming differentiated. The abortion debate was on, for example.
Going to meetings was very fascinating, seeing all the particular issues
come out. I found it exciting, actually.
I stayed with the Labor party till Bob Hawke came in,
when I got out.
... - At one time I was a member of
the Clerk's Union and would go to the meetings at the Trades Hall. It
was dominated by the old Democratic Labor Party people who were opposed
to anything they saw as 'left'.
It wouldn't make any difference what issue you raised.
If you were not one of them you would be howled down.
They were past masters at rules of debate. If there was
any way they could stop a motion, they would do it. They had it right
down pat, if they didn't have the numbers they would work out some way
to have it deferred or declared invalid.
You get intimidated after a while, the atmosphere was
so bad. The internal political war went on until the DLP dissolved, and
some of it is still there.
- ... There were changes at that time.
Positive changes like council opening up to people. It had been a very
But then other things happened. The outsourcing of council
services changed a lot of the opening up of Council. At one time, all
the people working on the Council staff knew the residents. They had been
there for years and lived in the area. But that all went.
Also, the Home Help services and Meals on Wheels - all
outsourced. A beautiful kitchen nearly wasted. Competitive tendering came
in after my time. I wouldn't have been able to stop it - the government
was all in favour of it.
Social justice and economic justice cannot be separated
- they are intertwined. Look at Tony Blair's "Third Way". It
is absolutely disgusting what he is doing. It is so obvious he is using
all of this terrorism to give himself a chance to grandstand. It is insincere
But that is how Labor here has been going.
Now they are going to disassociate themselves from the
union movement. Maybe they have had an undue presence, for example we
have never had a lot of women, but the Labor party has lost the class
To me, that is the only way you can really identify what
the problems are. It is almost as if class doesn't exist any more. That
has been a deliberate tactic. You don't hear the word 'working class'
any more. They are stripping the awards and the things that have been
run for people, steadily. And there is more coming.
On issues of equity and poverty I feel impelled to act.
... - I was eighteen
when I decided to join the Communist Party. I went along to a class at
Marx House in the city, where the Communist party had study groups and
a library. A young later to be well-known communist was
holding forth in a fiery and, I thought, a rather exhibitionist way. I
had no idea what these people were on about. I asked how to join and was
told that someone would come to see me but nobody did, so I didn't join
When I married I found out that my husband's father had
been a foundation member of the communist party down at the wharves. He
came back from the First World War with bad trench feet, faced unemployment
and went through the lottery system to try to get a day's work. These
injustices inspired him to get involved.
During the cold war things got pretty bad for anyone
with communist connections. Don, my husband, joined but I didn't. By that
time I had two small children.
and moved to Richmond in the 1950's - a time of recession - and we lived
behind a shop. We were quite poor and I remember a chap standing on the
corner selling a newspaper called The Guardian. I used to walk passed
him to go to the local shops and the headlines used to catch my eye.
to think 'well, that makes sense'. One day I got up the courage to buy
one - it took a lot of courage for someone with my background. . I took
it home and read it. My husband also read it and we thought 'this is good
stuff, it really explains what is happening here in Richmond'. People
sometimes couldn't buy food; kids were going to school with no shoes and
yet big shops and businesses seemed to be thriving.
to know why there was such poverty in such a rich country, and this paper,
The Guardian explained why. So the next time I went past the paper seller,
I told him how much I appreciated the material.
"we are having a lecture next Friday. Why don't you come?"
went and that was the beginning of our activism. We learned there were
alternative ways of looking at things. We learned that capitalism wasn't
the only system, that there were solutions to problems, and that people
were the only ones who could change society. That was the beginning of
With the Progress Association and the tenants group I became immersed
in all aspects of life in Darebin. I have been doing that since 1960.
Now it is 2004 and I am 71, I am still doing that. Although I was expelled
from the Communist Party in 1960, that didn't mean that I, or we, weren't
still committed to socialism - we were!
to carry out our responsibilities as socialists as much as we could, with
awareness of the fact that the system of capitalism won't solve the problems
of the working class and that we need a planned economy. So wherever we
went, and we were quite well known, we never hid the fact we were members
of the Communist Party - we were proud of it.
people I worked with all knew and respected that. So, apart from a few
reactionaries , I have never had anyone who has changed their view of
our work because we were communists - although I have had people say to
me "you don't look like a communist".
wonder what a communist looks like. We had lots of stoushes with conservative
councillors who made statements about the' Progress Association meeting
in a telephone box and led by communists,' that sort of thing, but otherwise
I never found that the connection affected my work at all.
rejected our commitment to socialism and I continue today to believe,
fervently, that there is no alternative to socialism. It is very important
today, given the attacks, and more vicious attacks, on the working class
movement, particularly under the guise of 'dealing with terrorism'.
is that , I believe that they are using terrorism to introduce vicious
legislation that will be used to attack any attempt by the working class
to organize and that it will be used against progressive organisations.
I think we need to get terrorism into perspective. I think we need to
talk to people about what is happening - and what is happening in housing,
health, education, social welfare, social justice, democracy.
is the terrorism that exists in Australia today, the terrorism by the
State on peoples living conditions and quality of life. I think all of
these things have to be talked about wherever we are working, because
whereas someone with a health problem will see what is happening in health,
if they don't have children at school, they won't see what is happening
it is an overall package. You can't isolate one issue from another, because
there is no question that capitalist governments can't afford to wage
wars of aggression and to still provide for the needs of the people.
are going to have to say, strongly and in a united way "We pay taxes and
we want those taxes returned to us in the form of services. We are not
prepared to spend them on war unless we are being attacked."
the most urgent task we have today is to unite the working class movement,
and the trade union movement, and whatever allies we can find at the highest
I look at small organizations fighting for the same things, but suspicious
of each other, or are jealous of their territory or whatever, I would
like to remind them there is a bigger issue, a more important issue -
that is unity.
we can fight the real enemy, not each other.
occasionally I would have very clear ideas. One time was when I went along
for the first time to lobby a parliament -arian. I told the others I was
just coming to observe and I wouldn't say anything. But the politician
singled me out after the introductions. He said "Oh, your name is spelt
with an 'e' is it? You were born on the wrong side of the blanket" (a
bastard). That set me up! I sat very straight after that.
talking about about how they were not interested in the peace movement
any more. How, as far as they were concerned, if we were in the middle
of the road, they would run us over.
myself on my feet. I said "We are the people who elected you. How dare
you denigrate our efforts". I raved on for quite some time - to the astonishment
of my friends who I had told that I couldn't even say a word.
Senator was conciliatory. He was humble. He bowed low every time he spoke
to us. He was sweet and kind and was never rude again. But he lost any
respect I might have had for him. I never, after that, felt humble before
that if this is any example of them, I needn't worry about how I express
a lesson on how to become an activist on sheer indignation. I have met
Prime Ministers and all sorts of people, but they are very constrained.
It seems as a lobbyist that if you are not rich and if you don't wine
and dine them, you don't matter.
can be rude - extremely rude. I had one who just spread his legs in front
of me. I was the only woman there and without actually unzipping his fly,
he exposed his crotch and just sat there.
part of my brain said that as he was looking at me, it was up to me to
ignore this male power show and concentrate on getting across the issue
we were there for - land rights. On the other hand, as a mother, I wanted
to reach over and thump him on the knee and say "Would you stop that?"
we talked to our associates from the other delegations we found that several
of the women had experiences of being put down in one way or another.
It was clearly the intention of some politicians to belittle the women.
is an interesting experience. With the enormous money the paid lobbyists
have and the enormous respect given to them by the politicians and influential
bureaucrats, it seems almost useless to do it, but I think it is worthwhile.
It is not rewarding but it has to be done.
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