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Anything but politics as usual

30 October 2010 2,659 views No Comment

THIS brilliantly conceived and elegantly constructed biography of militant politician Percival Stanley Brookfield provides a unique insight into radical politics in Australia, and in Broken Hill and Sydney in particular, during a period of revolutionary politics and industrial militancy, especially around the time of the great Russian revolutions of March and October 1917.

As the extremist representative of the miners and other workers of Broken Hill from 1917 to 1921, Lancashire-born Brookfield is regarded as the most radical class warrior and anti-politician elected to an Australian parliament. For much of his time as the member for Sturt in the NSW parliament Brookfield was disgusted with the institution, which he characterised as a “den of iniquity and time-servers”.

Yet, as Paul Robert Adams writes, even his parliamentary opponents realised that “the secret of Brookfield’s hold on the Barrier workers” was that he was “utterly fearless and transparently sincere”.

A big man of tremendous physical strength and mental agility who remained a bachelor and an avowed atheist throughout his fascinating life, Brookfield at the beginning of his political career campaigned strongly for health and safety in the mines of Broken Hill. He was a prominent anti-war and anti-censorship activist and an avid anti-conscriptionist in the Australian referendums of 1916 and 1917, yet was also a strong supporter of returned servicemen and their families.

Brookfield was a passionate advocate of the One Big Union, of the Big (or General) Strike and of militant direct action as the main means for mobilising a united working class against capitalistic oppression in Australia. All the while, when not in jail, Brookfield continued to work as a miner in Broken Hill and to promote the anti-war Labor’s Volunteer Army and the militant Amalgamated Miners Association Army. In particular he campaigned against the draconian War Precautions Act, which effectively prohibited working-class action against the war and against conscription.

Throughout his political and parliamentary career, the charming Brookfield was well liked by friend and foe. The one huge exception was Labor, then Nationalist, prime minister Billy Hughes, who hated him with a passion rivalled only by Brookfield’s contempt for the “Little Digger”.

Although not a member, Brookfield was a staunch supporter of Industrial Workers of the World, 12 of whose members were imprisoned, on dubious evidence, for planning to burn down Sydney. He spent much time and effort in trying to get them released from jail. Similarly, although not a Bolshevik or a member of the Socialist Party of Australia, Brookfield campaigned for freedom of speech and expression, including the right of workers and others to mobilise, to strike and to carry the red flag. Despite contracting the Spanish flu in 1919, he agitated in support of the unofficial Russian Bolshevik consul-general Peter Simonoff.

In 1920 a strange state of affairs ensued: as the sole member of the Industrial Socialist Labor Party, Brookfield held the balance of power in the NSW parliament. Labor was in power only because of his support. As Adams makes clear, while his influence had multiplied exponentially in the hung parliament, Brookfield’s concerns remained much the same. He constantly agitated for a shorter working day for the Broken Hill miners and a fairer deal for strikers and their families. Above all, he wanted the case of the IWW Twelve reopened. It was only after unremitting pressure from Brookfield that an independent inquiry into their jailing was held. Subsequently most of these imprisoned “Wobblies” were released.

Even though he was a staunch lifelong supporter of White Australia, Brookfield was arguably the most uncompromisingly militant parliamentarian in the history of Australia. In this he is rivalled only by Queensland barrister Frederick Woolnough Paterson, the MLA for Bowen from 1944 to 1950 and Australia’s only communist member of parliament. Brookfield and Paterson were champions of the working class and of the poor and dispossesed. Although not killed like Brookfield — who was murdered in a seemingly random action by a deranged Russian in 1921 — on St Patrick’s Day 1948, almost certainly on the direct orders of Queensland Labor premier Ned Hanlon, Paterson was brutally bashed from behind by a Queensland policeman and suffered permanent brain damage. To add insult to injury, in 1950 Paterson’s seat was redistributed out of existence.

Two previous biographers of Brookfield had died before finishing their respective works. It is pleasing to report that not only is Adams alive and well but he is at the top of his form in this compelling biography.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 33 books, the most recent of which is Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence.

The Best Hated Man in Australia: The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921, By Paul Robert Adams, Puncher & Wattman, 377pp, $34.95

The Weekend Australian October 30-31, 2010