My First Encounter with Sugar Roberts and John Wren

A.W. Sheppard

It was mid-thirties, not certain which year but after 1934 when I was appointed Returning Officer for the Clifton Hill pre-selection ballot. I was given the appointment for two reasons, as I recall: firstly, because I was Returning Officer for the adjoining State Electorate Council Heidelberg where there had never been allegations of bribery and corruption and secondly, because the Central Executive hoped that by appointing a young person who had never been involved in the electorate it might be possible to have an honest ballot.

The main polling booths were at Clifton Hill and St. George’s Road, North Fitzroy (St. Luke’s Church Hall). The Clifton area was the cause of most c1aims of dishonesty at previous ballots generally about 30-50% more ballot papers returned than had been issued by the Returning Officer, all properly printed, of course, and bearing initials resembling those of the Returning Officer. So I concentrated on Clifton Hill.

After the ballot had been proceeding for a couple of hours I was approached by two men who seemed familiar, one of them had just voted. He said to me, ‘Well young fellow, do you know who I am?” I replied that he seemed familiar but I could not recall his name. He replied “I am Sugar Roberts, Mayor of Collingwood and this gentleman is Mr. John Wren”. I acknowledged this and said, ‘Well, if you have voted you must leave the room, in accordance with the rules”. He said, “Don’t you realise I am the Mayor of Collingwood and Mr. Wren is the greatest patron of the party?” In my youthful enthusiasm and sense of power in one so young, I said, I don’t care if you are Jesus Christ, the rules say you must leave the room as soon as you have voted”. “And, what if I don’t?” “Then I will close the balloting area and call the police to remove you both”. I replied.

They both left. After about half-an-hour they returned and John Wren said to me, “It is good to see such a young man doing a good job”, and put out his hand to shake mine. I returned the gesture and when I withdrew my hand a bundle of notes fell on to the floor, some of them fivers.

As I had just started at the University, working at night to pay the fees, this would have represented a fortune to me. (There were only three public scholarships then, I was no longer a schoolboy) I ordered them both out again and with some fierce epithets they left.

But I did not win. Although I had put my initials on every ballot paper and had even put my thumbprint on them, and the ballot at Clifton Hill was correct – the total numbers equalled those on the list of members- at St. George’s Road they had almost fifty more ballot papers than members. All ballot papers appeared to have my initials and all bore a thumbprint. Not mine, of course, but how was I to prove this. Result: as usual, the ballot was declared invalid and the Central Executive had to choose the candidate. Wisely, they chose the standing member, Tom Tunnicliffe.

They had their revenge in another way. I was one of the founders of the Young Labor Movement, with Frank McManus and Tom Andrews, both to become DLP parliamentarians, and a New Zealander named lngoldsby (or something similar). At the next Annual Conference, the Wren faction had convinced Kennelly and McNamara (the real power brokers) that the Young Labor movement was a threat to their power and despite impassioned pleas from the silver-tongued Jim Coull and Jean Devenny, the movement was declared illegal. But I was permitted to continue my unpaid Sunday talks on socialism on radio 3KZ and E.J. Brady continued to publish my verse on the back page of Labor Call, including a sonnet in praise of Tommy Andrews (a good man who was led astray by religion).