Michael, get the blunderbuss that’s hidden in the thatch


Bob Gould

In her important and warm-hearted novel, Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant describes labour movement battles in Sydney in the 1930s:

The strange turbulence of the city, its careless ferocity, was perhaps due to the large strain of Scots and Irish in the population, but it seemed that if anyone wanted to start a fight, there were always plenty of strangers ready and willing to join in. If the thing had a political flavour, the unions would take up the case, the Labour Leagues [the old name for Labor Party branches] would take it up. Part of the duty of the UCDL was to be out addressing meetings of Labour supporters night after night in little drafty and dusty halls all over the suburbs, putting the case for this or that protest. It was as though Sydney was encompassed with a network of separate spider webs, the spiders might be suspicious and ready to eat each other; they might be connected by a single thread, yet if you touched a strand of that network, 100 spiders leapt and danced indignantly in their webs … The Sydney of the UCDL was a network of lawyer’s offices, of bare wooden meeting halls, of committee meetings, annual conventions.

The NSW labour movement still has some of the features so eloquently described by Kylie Tennant. In the past six months there have been hundreds of such meetings all over the state in the sort of location Tennant describes: local protests against electricity privatisation, union meetings, shop stewards’ meetings, demonstrations, Greens meetings, National Party meetings and Labor Party branch, state electorate council and federal electorate council meetings.

These community and labour movement gatherings have been presented with very detailed and thorough, well-documented material opposing electricity privatisation. After hearing the discussion and the evidence, hundreds of these meetings have voted overwhelmingly against electricity privatisation. These meetings have spread in a wide and rising arc, which culminated in last weekend’s Labor Party state conference.

That conference laid down a policy of opposition to privatisation as party platform and law for the NSW Labor Party, the highest parliament of the labour movement in this state. After a comprehensive six-month discussion, the movement rejected privatisation by 702 votes to 107 despite heavy pressure from government, the bourgeois media and all the other forces doing the bidding of capital.

I’ve just been to my first meeting of a Labor Party branch to which I’ve just transferred. It turned out that I knew three or four of the people there, but I didn’t know the political layout of the branch much. The branch is in the electorate of one of the left ministers who have so far been cautious about voting against the government in the Labor caucus.

I know this minister a bit. She’s a fine young woman and a very competent minister just at the start of her political career and I’m conscious that it’s a big ask for her to stand up to her cabinet colleagues.

Nevertheless, I’ve been rather publicly and vigorously pressing her and her left cabinet colleagues about the political necessity of breaking with the vague convention of cabinet solidarity on the question of electricity privatisation. I’ve tried to make it as impersonal as possible, because I respect and kind of like the woman. Four or five months ago, when she had just become a minister, she was pretty cagey. People in the labour movement can see me coming when I’m on the campaign trail on some question or other.

By this weekend’s Labor Party conference we were a bit more friendly again, and she appeared to have come around to the view that the Rubicon had to be crossed in the caucus, and she intended to do so. I think she probably will tomorrow morning, and three cheers to her for doing so.

There were 15 people at the branch meeting, which is a reasonable attendance for a Labor branch in the middle of winter, and the members present said it was bigger than their last few meetings. About half the members are younger people, some of whom work for left politicians and the others are older workers and some labour movement veterans. The president turns out to be a woman I’ve known quite well for many years.

I had intended to move a resolution couched in careful and not unfriendly terms, pressing the left minister to vote against Iemma in the caucus despite the cabinet solidarity convention. The branch was way ahead of me, and two or three of the older members were putting up the same proposition in slightly different words in a fairly vehement way. The younger people, some of whom work for Labor pollies, were also quite vehement in their support.

I seconded a couple of the motions. There was a show of hands and they all went through by 13 or 14 to one abstention or opposition (from the same individual, a conservative older worker who I know slightly. Sydney is a small town of five million people).

I gave out a few of the leaflets I prepared for the conference. The younger ones already had it from the conference, but the older members who spearheaded the resolutions hadn’t seen them.

That’s just a fairly ordinary Labor Party branch and similar meetings are being held all over NSW. I’m reliably informed today, that the idea of emailing all the Labor pollies has been brought up independently all over the place, and the politicians are getting hundreds, if not thousands, of emails from all kinds of people and organisations.

That’s the way effective mass agitations against rotten actions by government are initially built, and the overwhelming vote at the Labor state conference gives great confidence to ordinary people to join the battle in some concrete way, however modestly.

Already people throughout the labour movement and in the community are considering what to do next if the government scrapes through tomorrow’s caucus meeting with its plan to push ahead with privatisation.

The number of MPs opposed to Morris Iemma and the rather disturbed Mick Costa is rising steadily and the good guys may scrape over the magic number of 36, but if they don’t and the government defies the conference vote, we’re set for a kind of political civil war in the labour movement, and everyone involved can feel it.

We’re on the high ground, the cabinet rump is defying party policy, adopted by an overwhelming majority. In his eccentric way, Costa is one of our main campaigning assets. The television media have been replaying his bizarre rant at his old colleagues in the movement that put him where he is, and many are amazed almost to the point of laughter at his strange behaviour, and some have expressed concern for his mental health. Labor Party president Bernie Riordan, an old friend of Costa, said from the platform that Costa should go and see his doctor. Many people on websites and other places have been comparing his performance to the oratorical style of Mussolini.

Michael, get the blunderbuss that’s hidden in the thatch

My late father, who was an activist all his life on the Lang side in the labour movement, was a one-armed veteran of the First World War (he married late in life, which is why I exist).

At the Labor branch to which I transferred this evening, one of the older workers who was most vehement in insisting that our left minister colleague should take a stand against privatisation, was also hopping mad about the obscene behaviour of the state government in closing the Anzac Bridge to the public on Anzac Day and only allowing dignitaries to get close to the unveiling of a bronze statue of a New Zealand soldier, to match the Australian soldier on the other side of the bridge.

The government turned away 1000 people, many of them New Zealanders, who had come to witness the ceremony, some at considerable expense. This was despite the fact that the logistics of the bridge would have allowed for any number of people to attend. This energetic protest against the government’s bizarre behaviour was carried unanimously. I pointed out that my late mother, the wife of a World War I veteran, would have been prevented from going on to the bridge.

My father was as Australian as me, but his father was a Fenian Irishman and a member of the Land League in Tipperary, who settled at Clybucca near Kempsey, where there was quite a colony of Tipperary Irish who had been peasants in Ireland and became small selectors in Australia.

Every three months or so they would have a bit gathering of all the family. My dad could swear in Gaelic and sing some of the old rebel songs in Gaelic and English. He wasn’t much of singer, but he enjoyed songs such as Napper Tandy, John Boland and the Land of Sweet Ross Row, and another song the name of which of I forget, had the punchline: “Michael, get the blunderbuss that’s hidden in the thatch”.

It was about one of the many risings over hundreds of years, which were usually defeated, until the final one in 1921, which mainly succeeded.

The present situation in the NSW labour movement is a bit like that. There are lots of Labor Party grandfathers metaphorically saying to Michael, “go and get the blunderbuss that’s hidden in the thatch, we’ll oil it and get it working it again for the political civil war in the labour movement, if it has to come to that”.

In the tradition of the Irish national movement, and the Australian labour movement, which has considerable Irish influence, there are times of quiescence and defeat, but the movement always revives. No one in the NSW workers movement wants another Labor split, we just want the Labor cabinet to adhere to Labor policy.

After 20 or so years of retreats and defeats on policy matters, the privatisation issue has become a sticking point, and all over the state, in meeting halls and school halls and back rooms in pubs, like the one in which the meeting of my branch was held tonight, the ranks of the labour movement are oiling their political blunderbusses.

Iemma and the very erratic Costa don’t realise what they’ve unleashed. The rank and file of the movement don’t want to bring down a Labor government, but they’ll fight if they have to, by any political means that are necessary.


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One Response to “Michael, get the blunderbuss that’s hidden in the thatch”

  1. Bob Gould Says:

    Meeting. The Labor Party rank and file committee, which has been organising pretty effectively since January, will hold an open meeting to which the public are invited on Wednesday May 7, 6pm, Tom Mann Theatre, 136 Chalmers St Surry Hills, for all who are interested in discussing the further development of the campaign against privatisation.

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