Hal Alexander 1924–2014: a Tribute

Bob Boughton

When Hal Alexander died in the last days of December 2014, his tiny one-bedroom flat in the Erskineville public housing estate gave up a treasure trove of memories of Australia’s radical working-class history. Hal would never have written this history himself, because, as he told me once, those who write history have given up on making it. He did, however, write – witty and poignant (but often libellous) short stories and poems; countless letters of demand to politicians and bureaucrats; speeches in his own defence at several of his trials for acts of subversion and protest; hundreds of polemical pamphlets and factory bulletins; and words of counsel and advice to his comrades, of which I was proud to be one.

Fortunately, he also gave interviews, especially in his later years, which revealed “an extraordinary life”, exemplifying a style of political leadership embodied in one of his favourite sayings, a quote from Lao Tsu: “When the work of the best leaders is done, the people say they did it themselves.”

Hal joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1941, and he was still a member when it dissolved itself in 1992. “I didn’t leave the party”, he said. “It left me.” That certainly didn’t slow him down; more than ten years later, he was still speaking publicly, condemning the closure of the Erskineville Post Office; on a loud hailer outside John Howard’s north shore home, protesting the impact of aircraft noise on inner city flight path suburbs; and defending himself and his co-tenants against the privatisation push of several NSW Housing Ministers.

What gives someone such passionate commitment and such unflagging determination to challenge and resist injustice? For make no mistake, for every communist in Australia who reinforced the anti-communist stereotype of the cold and heartless Stalinist manipulator, there were at least a hundred Hals, men and women of warmth, passion, fire and love of the people they came from and worked with; people who made trouble, as much as possible, whenever they could, and truly loved doing it.

Hal was born in Singleton, NSW in 1924, second child of Harry and Agnes, younger brother of Joyce. The family moved to Sydney when Hal was a baby, and he grew up in Belmore. He did his Intermediate Certificate, twice, at Paddington Tech, before starting as an apprentice electrical fitter in the Leichhardt Bus workshops in 1939, the year war broke out in Europe. Influenced by workshop comrades, he joined the CPA in 1941, when it was an illegal underground organisation, due to its initial opposition to the war.

When the line changed, CPA membership rapidly rose to 20,000. In 1947 Hal, at 23, was selected to be an organiser in the Australian Labour League of Youth (later the Eureka Youth League). Leaving this position in 1949, he went back on the tools in the Eveleigh Carriage workshops in Redfern. Between 1954 and 1963, he was a CPA organiser in the Red Belt, as it was known then, the factory districts around Alexandria. In 1957, he was sent to China (a trip at the time illegal) and spent a year studying at the Beijing Institute of Marxism-Leninism, an international communist university which educated many of the leaders of the national liberation movements and communist parties of the Asia Pacific region. In 1959, he married Marie Perkins; their first son Michael was born in 1963.

When Michael was 6 weeks old, the CPA sent Hal to Adelaide, to be an organiser there. Two years later, his second son David was born. Hal became involved with the radical left of the anti- Vietnam war movement; in 1965 he was arrested for his part in setting fire to a replica of My Lai village in Rundle Mall; then jailed for contempt after he accused the arresting police and the magistrate of trying to cover up war crimes. In jail, he mounted a hunger strike to draw more attention to the issue. On his release, Elliott Johnston QC, communist barrister and later Supreme Court judge, helped nurse him back to health. By the time he returned to Sydney in late 1971, he’d helped mobilise a new younger generation of anti-war activists to join the Party.

Hal was active in the Left Tendency grouping in the lead-up to the 1975 Party Congress, putting forward an alternative radical Party program against the incumbent leadership. This did not endear Hal to his old comrades in the leadership, nor them to him, and he spent the next few years back in his trade, including at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, where he was part of the Health Worker Collective, which produced a fairly libellous and very funny rank-and-file bulletin

In the 1980s, Hal began visiting Alice Springs, and for the rest of his life devoted much of his boundless political energy to supporting the Aboriginal struggle for land rights and self-determination. In 1982, he was a driving force behind the white supporters’ team to the land occupation of Werlatye Therre, a sacred site, to prevent its being flooded for a recreational lake. Later that year, he camped in Musgrave Park, Brisbane as part of the huge Commonwealth Games protest. His electrical skills came in very handy: whenever the council disconnected the park lights people used to cook by, Hal hotwired the pole to get the power back on. He was arrested several times just in that one week of protest. Back in Alice Springs in 1985, he also became active in the movement against US Bases, and famously was one of the group riding push-bikes down the Alice Springs airport runway to stop the giant US Galaxy transport from landing with parts to upgrade the Pine Gap Base. He was there in 1987 too, for the Anti-Bases Coalition national camp and invasion of the Base, for which he did another gaol stint, this time in Alice Springs gaol. All this time, he was also supporting the main traditional-owning Arrernte families of Alice, the Rices, Furbers and Stevens, and he helped them set up their camp on the stock routes in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, part of a campaign which eventually, after Mabo, led to some of the native title rights being recognised.

In the late ‘90s, Hal began demonstrating his extraordinary talent for writing and story-telling, as evidenced from the neglected works of Oscar Zeet, his pseudonym. In 2001, he was the driving force behind what he called ‘an intervention’ at the National Labour History Conference in Canberra, to popularise stories of rank-and-file communist and union organising. This work eventually led to the publication of the Rough Red series (edited by Hal and Phil Griffiths), now available on the web.

Another whole chapter of Hal’s life can be written around his role as an activist in the local residents’ struggles in Erskineville in his last two decades, including the struggle to save the Erko Post Office, the anti-aircraft noise campaign and the defence of his own public housing estate.

Hal died at home in his Housing Commission flat on 19 Dec 2014, which, as he always said, was the only way anyone would ever get him out of there. He is survived by his sister Joyce, his sons Michael and David, a tribe of in-laws, nieces, nephews and grandchildren; and by the hundreds of communist and socialist activists lucky enough to have known him.

Students of labour history wanting to know more about the struggles in which Hal and his comrades played such a vital role should check out a website containing some of his best writing, at http://halalexander.blogspot.com/