AGITATORS, EGGS AND AUTHORITARIANISM
The authoritarian impulse lurks close to the surface of many who claim to be leaders. George Houston Reid was mocked as Yes-No Reid because of wavering on the merits of federation. He was willing to speak to anyone in public debate in formal and informal meetings. This contrasts sharply with many politicians who use strong opposition as an excuse to seek draconian laws.
We can compare Reid’s approach to that of Billy Hughes, Robert Menzies and Tony Abbott.
In July1898 Reid was campaigning for the NSW election. The subject on many people’s minds was Federation. Reid was campaigning for Federation but against the form of Federation put forward by people like Edmund Barton (later the first PM).
According to a contemporary report in The Capricornian (a Rockhampton paper (reported by electric telegraph) the meeting was outside a hotel in Woolloomooloo and the speakers stepped up to a window to address the crowd.
As Reid appeared in the window an egg was hurled.
As the paper put it “the aim was not quite accurate but the egg struck the windowsill on a level with his waistcoat, and, consequently his ample frontage [see the image above for the truth of this comment!] was largely bespattered. A roar of delight went up from one section of the crowd. As Mr. Reid plunged into his speech, interruptions in the shape of cat-calls came from almost every direction. Mr. Reid struggled valiantly and good-temperedly to make his voice heard; but he had not proceeded far when whish came another egg. This also missed, and, falling in with the spirit of the affair, he jocularly remarked, ' Ah, that was a bad shot. I do not altogether mind your gentle attention, because a rotten egg will become fresh before it reaches me.' Such good humour seemed to appeal to the bombarding party and it let Mr. Reid alone so far as eggs were concerned for the rest of his speech”
We move forward to a federated Australia and war jingoism. The ALP and the other parties competed with each other in the nationalist war rhetoric to fight a war 20,000 km away for a nation we had supposedly become independent of. The election campaign was underway in 1914 when war began. Andrew Fisher, a former working miner from Scotland declared Australia was in the war to “our last man and last shilling. “
Those opposed to the war and generally those opposed to the right of capital to make profits were the subject of constant attack.
Broken Hill miners fought hard for a 44 hour week during the war, in the interests of their health and their right to a decent life. BHP, the Prime Minister Hughes and others used the war effort as a means of attack, claiming German sympathisers were behind the strike. Hughes used a tactic that may seem familiar today in expressing “concern” about lives being endangered by armed security men at the mine but his real motives were made clear by a comment later
“I hope that the counsels of reason and patriotism will prevail and that the advice of the German sympathisers who are insidiously active in fomenting disturbances will be disregarded. I ask the men to return to work at once.”
Hughes didn’t speak up for wise counsel and reason earlier when, following the “outbreak of hostilities” on Australian soil near Broken Hill when two men under a Turkish flag attacked a train near the Broken Hill cemetery and were killed by the locals. The Broken Hill jingoistic crowd, fuelled by their success in the earlier shootout, attacked and burnt down the German Club and then attempted to attack the camel camp. Happily the local police prevented too much violence in the latter case.
The ALP had passed a federal War Precautions Act in 1914 that greatly expanded the rights of the federal government to make laws about anything to do with the war effort very broadly defined. There were 3,442 prosecutions under the Act, almost all of which were successful. Penalties ranged from cautionary fines to imprisonment for up to six months.
Hughes had ensured the act was passed. He was a member (and founder of the Waterside Workers Federation (1903) but one of the first uses of the new laws was a restriction on his own union in a dispute and a limit of their right of preference at wharves in Australia. The union eventually expelled him in 1916 because of his pro conscription stance.
Hughes appetite for control and power was well illustrated by his use of the act against anti-conscriptionists and in particular the Industrial Workers of the World and their supporters. The act enabled censorship, internment and deportation. Percy Brookfield the Member in the NSW Parliament for Sturt (Broken Hill) was one of Hughes bête noirs throughout the war and Brookfield accumulated many court appearances and convictions because of his fearless advocacy for the antiwar movement and the IWW 12
Hughes ran a pro conscription campaign with lots of racist rhetoric and attacks on trade unionists who strongly opposed his stance. The arrest of the IWW 12 occurred just before the plebiscite, as part of the overall aim of stirring patriotic sentiment and fear of “foreign agitators”.
The vote was for no, despite Hughes efforts, but he searched for more dirty tricks.
The Australian Federal Police had their origins in Hughes dictatorial impulses and imperialist rhetoric. The current AFP celebrate all this in a publication The Warwick Incident Anniversary by Jason Byrnes (Platypus Magazine, edition 96, September 2007)
Hughes was on the stump speaking at Warwick, Qld during the second conscription plebiscite campaign in November 1917. Hughes was on a train and stopped to address a large crowd. Some locals hurled eggs one of which found its mark. Reid had good humouredly replied in 1898 but Hughes response was markedly different. He firstly attempted to attack the egg thrower, and was dragged away by the police (the thrower was attacked by others). One opponent returned to the fray to abuse Hughes who once again had to be restrained from a fight. The opponent was arrested and Hughes demanded he be charged with a Commonwealth offence. The sergeant in charge said a state charge was preferable. Hughes response was to set up the Commonwealth Police Force, using the War Precautions Act to make a regulation, thus not requiring a parliamentary debate. He merrily accused the Qld Police force of being dominated by Sinn Feiners (Archbishop Daniel Mannix was a leading anti-conscriptionist and the feelings of the Irish towards the British were at a lower ebb than ever following the 1916 Easter Rising and the execution of James Connolly. The Commonwealth Police Force was disbanded (whilst Hughes was in France after the war) and replaced with a Commonwealth Investigations Bureau
We can spring forward 40 years to the Menzies government in 1957 who used cold war scare campaigns to merge the Commonwealth Investigation Service with the Peace Officer Guard to create a “principal investigational and law enforcement authority” capable of fostering cooperation with other police agencies“ so as to bring about a more efficient economical working in the conduct of investigations of offences against Commonwealth law”.
The Peace Officer Guard itself had been created in 1925 as an attack on trade unions once again, justifying the force by saying there was a the national security threat posed by striking merchant sailorsand that the NSW Government was refusing to use its police to enforce special Commonwealth legislation enabling the deportation of foreign born (Australian resident) strike organisers. The Commonwealth Government hastily introduced legislation authorising the establishment of the Peace Officer Guard.
The ALP in opposition attacked this and criticized COMPOL’s potentially “unlimited” scope for expansionand claimed the Bill (and the new force) could prepare the way for a “vile dictatorship”. This legislation followed another failed referendum and scare campaign that Menzies had run against the Communist Party and the massive beat up that was the Petrov Affair. Bravely ALP leader Evatt had run a vote no campaign against the banning of the CPA. Starting from a position that saw only 12 % of people supporting the CPA the result was a no vote (just). Imagine the spin doctors now reporting on focus group findings of 12% support. No principle would be too sacred to throw out at that level for out current crop.
11th September 2001 was the beginnings of the “War on Terror” that has continued unabated since that terrible day.
The horrific actions on that day have been used by western governments run by all shades of political party to crack down on their own citizens in the interest of “our freedoms”. In Australia the First World War campaigns finds its equivalent in our fighting the war within by sending troops t the middle east and Iraq to defend our freedoms by killing people elsewhere.
The premise for our attacks on terrorist was based around an Iraqi store of weapons of mass destruction, one that did not exist. The attack on Afghanistan that our politicians supported was supposed based on restoring democracy against fanatics and has totally failed in that regard, if that was in fact the real purpose. It is estimated that the Iraqi death toll amongst civilians is between 134,000 and 153,000. The Afghan toll over 20,000 and these places are not more “democratic” or safer than they we 15 years ago.
Humphrey McQueen, author of many articles and books defending working people from the overbearing terror of those who claim to be their betters quotes a building worker speaking during the imperialist attack on working people (World War One): “Our liberties were not won by mining magnates and stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on gallows and rotted in dungeons and are buried in nameless graves. These are the men to whom we owe the liberties we enjoy today”.
The quote fails the gender issue but otherwise sums up well the way our liberties are constantly attacked by the ruling class, claiming to be doing it to defend us all, rather than honestly stating that they are defending their wealth and power. Tony Abbott’s action in February 2015 in ramping up terrorism laws because “we are being played for mugs” are a continuation of this, 100 years after Hughes sought to claim the patriots false cloak to attack his opponents.
Lionel Murphy as a High Court Judge gave perhaps the best statement of the importance of agitators and their rights in his 1982 judgment on an appeal by Yarrabah Councillor, Percy Neal:
“That Mr Neal was an ‘agitator’ or stirrer in the Magistrate’s view obviously contributed to the severe penalty. If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and the many who are unknown. As Wilde aptly pointed out in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, ‘Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation’. Mr Neal in entitled to be an agitator.”
(quoted on 28th September 2001 in the excellent 15th Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture: Reconciliation – Moving beyond broad support and goodwill by Patricia Turner)