Book launch – ‘The best hated man in Australia’, The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921

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 August 2010.

Image of Book cover

The 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.

‘Hated’, 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 Billy 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.

Unwelcome 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.

The politics of doing so became clearer when the elections ended in what 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.

It also goes without saying that the Canberra hacks had never heard of Brookfield or that he 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.

Of 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 HunterValley 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.

The 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 a story to be told and one which is fading.

Useful 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.

The 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 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 would make.

A 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.

In 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 rail line to the Murray in 1860 to tell the crooked contractor that the men would not negotiate. In 1897, the leader of the Perth  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

the sworn foe to the tricksters and trimmers, and politicians, who would make the labour movement subservient to their own selfishness and ambitions. He was a giant in the socialist fight; and, though we full recognise that no individual is indispensable to the movement, he was one whose loss we could ill afford. He was faithful, brave, and true to the fight. He was a man. And now he is dead.

This could have been in the obituary for Brookie, and the multitude of nameless others needed to raise the flag of stars.

Invaluable 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.

This 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, then 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.