Bob Gould, 2000

The life and times of George Petersen, MLA, 1921-2000

Source Self-published pamphlet, 1983
Mark-up by Steve Painter

George Petersen, one-time member of the Communist Party and several Trotskyist organisations, Labor MLA for the Illawarra seat of Kembla from 1968 to 1971, and for the seat of Illawarra from 1971 to 1988, died on March 28, 2000. In his period as a Labor member of the New South Wales parliament, he had more lasting effect than any other left-wing Labor parliamentarian in any state parliament, taking the lead in many major reforms to improve the situation of oppressed people in NSW.

George Petersen was the grandchild of Scandinavian migrants to Queensland, Danish and Swedish. It is a fascinating story of Australia’s migration history that the two most well-known Australian public figures of Scandinavian extraction should be two Queenslanders, George Petersen, a courageous, disinterested and effective left-winger and reformer, and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a dogged, self-interested reactionary.

George was converted to socialism as an idea and aspiration in his youth in the late 1930s. He served as a soldier during World War II. During the war he joined the Communist Party, to which his brother, a building workers union official, also belonged. He later became an active communist in Brisbane, although even at that stage he had some misgivings about Stalinism, and he was expelled from the Returned Services League as a suspected communist during the postwar witchhunt. He married in 1947 and he and Elaine, his first wife, had two children. He became a commonwealth public servant. In 1956 he got a job transfer to the industrial city of Wollongong in NSW, and this coincided with his increasing disillusionment with the Communist Party, which was sharpened by Khrushchev’s exposure of the crimes of Stalin in his speech in 1956.

In 1957 he joined the Labor Party and he also took the initiative in forming a small semi-Trotskyist group of militant workers who published a small newsletter called The Socialist. In 1960 this group merged with another semi-Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass, of which I also was a member. I first met George at conferences of the dissident communist magazine Outlook, where he and I tended to represent the “left opposition”, so to speak. The redoubtable Nick Origlass, also, like George, a major and significant figure on the far left of the labour movement, used to often refer to George with a twinkle in his eye, as the “dole clerk”, and later on when George was elected to the state parliament, Nick’s first question to George at any casual meeting would be, “What’s happening in the Gas House?”, meaning the state parliament. This reflected, really, the fact that Nick rather envied George his position as a major tribune of the working class in the parliament, having himself just missed out playing that role by a whisker.

For getting a toehold as a serious left-winger in state Labor parliamentary politics, George’s move to Wollongong in 1956 put him in the right place at the right time. In 1968 Howard Fowles, the longstanding Labor MLA for Kembla, who had started his own political career as a member of that political curiosity, the Protestant Labor Party, retired from the seat. George had entrenched himself for a number of years, in the time-honoured ALP way, as Fowles’s major party activist in the electorate, and George won preselection in a hotly contested ballot.

In the last four years of his life, George wrote his autobiography, George Petersen Remembers, a very long book, which is of enormous and intrinsic value to anyone with a serious interest in most aspects of labour movement politics. The length and detail may possibly overwhelm some people in this more instant age. Among the discussion of an enormous range of political and historical questions, is a very detailed account of George’s own political activity over the whole period he was in the state parliament. A significant part of the book is necessarily taken up with the detail of ALP preselection ballots, ALP leadership ballots and other aspects of the electoral process. Anyone with an interest in running for public office through the ALP, motivated either simply by career considerations, or by the complex mixture of ambition and desire to serve the interests of the working class, which motivates a significant minority, would do well to soak up the following paragraph and more, out of George’s useful book (page 217):

As I had found out in three previous pre-selection ballot campaigns, it was very time-consuming sitting in people’s kitchens and answering their queries. In assessing my progress in obtaining support I applied the three basic rules of ALP pre-selection ballots. First, the only possible voters for you are those people who give a definite “yes” answer to the direct question whether they will vote for you. Second, treat all statements which do not give a direct “yes” answer as “no” votes. Third, discount the number of “yes” responses by 10 per cent. I also learned that most ALP members welcomed my radicalism, and that included a substantial number of the people who were going to vote against me. They all appreciated two things. First, they liked the fact that I turned up to most of their branch meetings and gave a report which never exceeded 10 minutes. Second, word had got around that I always answered the telephone myself both in my office and my home. Very seldom was I asked any questions about my stand on controversial issues. The popularity of the Wran government had rubbed off on me. It was very tempting to identify myself completely with him and to not present my own point of view. I tried to resist that temptation. I hope I succeeded without being sectarian.

George’s book also describes the enormous number of bread-and-butter issues that he took up on behalf of constituents or other people, many of which he successfully resolved on their behalf, and this aspect underlines the importance of apparently “mundane” local issues to ordinary people. George Petersen was an extremely conscientious local Labor politician in this regard, which was repaid by the great respect and support he built up amongst his constituents.

From this base of support gained by a serious attitude, taking up all the concerns of local people, George earned, in a completely practical way, the right to act as a “tribune of the oppressed” in relation to many questions that did not just directly affect his constituents. Over the years he strongly campaigned for Aboriginal rights, against the Vietnam War, against the apartheid regime in South Africa, in favour of Palestinian rights, against the frame-up of the Ananda Marga members Anderson, Alister and Dunn, and many other public issues. By and large, he did not suffer for this electorally, because his constituents knew him as a conscientious and ingenious representative of their local interests.

Chaos theory says that such a tiny thing as a butterfly’s wings may produce enormous hurricanes on the other side of the world. Well, a kind of chaos theory is applicable to politics, particularly Labor politics. It is quite reasonable to say that George’s actions in the ALP leadership ballot in 1973 were one of the factors that led to the long-running Wran Labor government. In 1973 Wran stood for the ALP leadership against Pat Hills, with the support of the ALP right-wing head office machine and the ALP left, but with the entrenched opposition of the two “caves” of the ALP right in state parliament. After all the arm-twisting and log-rolling, it became clear that George’s was the critical vote, the numbers in Caucus being evenly matched between Wran and Hills. George’s initial inclination was to abstain, because Wran would not publicly support Jack Ferguson for deputy at that stage. I remember arguing strongly to George that he should, in fact, vote for Wran, because Wran was marginally better than Hills, and that from a Marxist point of view, abstention in politics is rarely justified, but George remained unconvinced. However, Wran changed his stand, put Ferguson for whom George had considerable personal respect, on the ticket, and Wran was elected by the narrowest of margins, with George’s vote, on a tied vote in the second ballot, because he had had most number-one votes in the first ballot. In that sense, George’s butterfly wings were the factor that produced the politically very significant long-running Wran government, with both its good and bad features.

Possibly the Wran government’s best feature in relation to the machinery of politics, at its high tide, was the reform of the Upper House, in which Wran achieved what appeared to be the impossible in NSW, that is, transforming the reactionary old appointed upper chamber into a full-time elected house, with proportional representation, ensuring the input of minorities such as the Greens into state politics at a very powerful level. Every representative of a progressive minority elected under proportional representation to the Upper House ought to ponder the significance of George Petersen’s butterfly’s wings.

Everyone in the parliament, both friends and enemies, and many in the wider community, acknowledged that George was an energetic, painstaking and ingenious parliamentarian, and took up every significant progressive cause and humane interest, major or minor, taking advantage of whatever parliamentary opportunities opened up.

He made a very major, material difference in three important areas of NSW life. First of all, his exposure of the Bathurst jail bashings, and his constant and long-lasting campaign for prison reform, was the direct cause of the Nagel Royal Commission into Prisons, which led to very major prison reforms in NSW.

Secondly, his long-standing campaign for abortion law reform resulted, effectively, in the legalisation of abortion in NSW. He personally moved a private members bill for abortion law reform, which failed. He supported several other private member’s bills, which also failed. He kept raising the question of abortion law reform in the parliament, deliberately embarrassing the civilised amongst his Labor colleagues and among the Liberals and Nationals, with a view to getting a result. As this parliamentary pressure built up, a legal case against an abortion clinic was decided in the courts and Judge Levine gave a decision in this case, which effectively legalised abortion, if conducted after proper counselling by a qualified medical practitioner. The Levine decision took place while one of George’s private members bills on the question was before the parliament.

Jim Staples revealed at the 1988 launch of George’s book the inside story of what happened. The most senior administrators of the NSW police approached George and others involved and offered a deal. If George’s private members bill was dropped, there would be no more prosecutions, the Abortion Squad would be abolished, and the Levine decision would stand as the status quo, in practice legalising abortion. George and the others concerned made the necessary deal with the coppers, and abortion has been legal, for practical purposes in NSW, ever since. Subsequently a private member’s bill, on this occasion moved by Neville Wran himself, made the broad outlines of the Levine decision the law of NSW. There is no question that George Petersen was the parliamentarian primarily responsible for the de facto legalisation of abortion in NSW.

The third issue in which George’s parliamentary activity was a major factor in a civilised outcome was homosexual law reform. George, for a number of years, conducted a parliamentary agitation for homosexual law reform, and he heated up the parliamentary atmosphere by initiating or supporting several private member's bills on the subject, which failed. Under this constant pressure from George and others, finally, in 1984 the Premier, Neville Wran, moved a bill for homosexual law reform, which, while not perfect, as it left the age of consent at 18, still effectively legalised homosexual activity among consenting adults.

Any woman who requires an abortion and can have it in proper medical surroundings, and any gay man who can engage in sexual activity without fear of arrest, and any unfortunate prisoner in a jail whose time inside is not as cruel and barbaric as it once was, might never have even heard of George Petersen, but they owe him a lot.

The only leftist in any state parliament who gets anywhere near George Petersen in importance, is the redoubtable Percy Brookfield, who was the Labor member and later the Independent Socialist Labor member for Broken Hill, from 1917 to 1921, when he was assassinated. Brookfield also played an energetic and courageous role in the NSW parliament. When the Storey Labor government was elected, Brookfield had the balance of power, and he nominated as the price of his support that the Storey government should find the means, somehow, to release the 10 Industrial Workers of the World members who had been framed up in the notorious trial in NSW in 1917. As recounted in Ian Turner’s book Sydney’s Burning, and J.T. Lang’s memoir I Remember, Storey as premier needed to find a pro-Labor judge who could preside over a royal commission necessary to find a formula for the release of the framed men. The only such judge was in Tasmania, and the Tasmanian Tory government would not make him available. However, Tasmania was short of cement, and the ingenious deal was made that Tasmania got a shipload of NSW cement in exchange for Mr Justice Pring, who presided over the royal commission in the proper way and released the men. Unfortunately, Percy Brookfield was shot dead by a madman while protecting other passengers on a railway station near Broken Hill, and his parliamentary career thereby ended in his prime. He did not have the time to further use his balance of power to bring about other major legislative changes in the interests of the oppressed.

George became increasingly disenchanted during the latter years of the Wran and Unsworth governments, particularly at the demolition of the workers compensation rights of ordinary people, which had been so painstakingly built up over many years by the activity of the trade unions. He chose quite deliberately to cross the floor and vote against the Labor government on this issue, thereby incurring automatic expulsion from the ALP. He then set about, in his usual energetic way, starting a breakaway labour party, the Illawarra Workers Party, on the South Coast, and running for parliament as a labour independent under its banner. He had the very clear idea that, if elected as a Labor independent, he might have considerable possibilities for continuing his radical parliamentary activities as a tribune of the people of NSW.

He was very unlucky in the political conjuncture, when the decisive election was held. Unsworth’s legislation against guns, combined with weariness at the right-wing nature of Labor governments, combined to produce a massive backlash against state Labor, and a very big electoral swing to the Liberals. In a totally principled way, George very publicly supported the Unsworth government’s gun control legislation, which did not help him electorally at all in a working-class South Coast electorate like Illawarra.

In the unprecedented swing to the Liberals in that election, the Liberal candidate got ahead of George and the Labor candidate was therefore elected. George was very unlucky. In normal circumstances, he might well have won as a labour independent. One can imagine the relief in the mind of Bob Carr, later down the track, when his new Labor government had a majority of one vote. I’m sure that Carr, who is quite a discursive student of history, must have contemplated with some relief the fact that George was not present in the parliament with the balance of power, which he might have had. Had these been the circumstances, there is no doubt that George would have used the balance of power ruthlessly to force all kinds of reform measures on a reluctant Labor government.

As Premier Carr has said on radio the day after he passed away, George was a complex, interesting, intelligent and passionate man. In the cut-and-thrust of politics, he could be extremely sharp, if that was necessary. He was very loyal to friends and not a bad hater if circumstances led him to (usually quite justified) hostility to any political figure. His feud with a one-time associate, Bob Harrison, who had shifted over to the populist right in Labor politics, was the stuff of legend, as were his parliamentary wars with such reactionary figures as Fred Nile and the Liberal MLA, Peter Cameron. He won a widely publicised defamation suit against Fred Nile, and happily banked the money, which he used for righteous radical political causes.

In private life, he was an affectionate husband and father, and his enduring and powerful relationship with his second wife, Mairi, was of enormous importance to both of them. George was a stubbornly heterosexual man and he really enjoyed the company and friendship of women. After he and Mairi got together, her political and trade union interests, which were pretty similar to his anyway, became an important part of his political activity as well.

He lived long enough to write his autobiography, which in my view is of genuinely enduring interest as an account of labour movement politics and his life and times. As he became more ill and infirm, he tended to hang on rather stubbornly to life, and to rage a bit, in Dylan Thomas’s words, “against the dying of the light”. His wife Mairi was his great and enduring support in his final illnesses.

George’s Memorial Celebration at Dapto was attended by a very large and diverse crowd of 500 people. The Trade Union Choir sang the Internationale and Solidarity Forever. Speakers included Tim Anderson, who in part owes his freedom to George; Stewart West, former federal Minister for Immigration; Graeme Roberts, the federal president of the very important Australian Workers Union; Mahommed Matir, representing Palestinian Australians; John Marsden, and George’s son, barrister, Eric Peterson. Those present included Jack Ferguson, the former Deputy Premier of NSW, and Michael Knight, Olympics Minister, representing the state government. The chairman, Russell Hannah, pointed out that as a descendant of Vikings, George would probably go to a socialist warriors’ Valhalla. This extraordinary memorial went on for more than two hours without the slightest hint of boredom in the packed hall at Dapto.