Mini-Series: The True Believers – a Rebuttal

Edgar Ross

The T.V. series The True Believers gives an incredibly false picture of the 1949 general coal strike and events leading up to it. The strike was not a communist plot to bring down the Chifley Government but a dispute over industrial issues of a character similar to the many that have occurred in mining history. It was the Government which deliberately distorted it into a political confrontation aimed at establishing “tame cat” unions.

The script writers apparently set out to make Chifley a Knight in Shining Armour seriously concerned about changing society along socialist lines and sincerely reluctant to undertake repressive actions against the miners. The reverse is the truth. In furtherance of their thesis the authors set about denigrating most of Chifley’s contemporaries to one extent or another. And that applies in a special sense to me. Those who know me well could not recognise me as the pub-crawling fanatic portrayed, spouting revolutionary phrases all the time.

The serious nature of this misrepresentation of events and personnel lies in the situation that members of the present (and future) generations are encouraged to accept it as historical fact whereas it is melodramatic fiction.

To give some concrete examples:

  • Contrary to the series presentation I did not advocate or forecast an early socialist revolution in hotels or anywhere else and the leaders of the Communist Party did not see this as a perspective. In fact, in a draft statement prepared by the political committee in the closing period of the war socialism was initially not even mentioned.
  • The three scenes at my home in which my brother Lloyd is shown endeavouring to dissuade me (and with the aid of my wife) from taking militant action, are complete fabrications. The fact is my brother and I had no association whatever in the period covered, and my wife supported my activities with no qualification.
  • The miners never conducted their elections in public brawling sessions as depicted, but in secret ballots at the pit tops and there has never ever been from any quarter any reflection upon the integrity of the elections.
  • I did not take part in any meeting with Chifley to demand the nationalisation of the mines, nor did Idris Wilhams. In fact, the Federation president at the time was not Williams but Harold Wells. There was never any confrontation on the issue, the Federation setting aside its call for nationalisation and accepting the Government’s decision for the setting up of a Joint Coal Board. And the Miners Federation Central Council called upon its members to work for the return of the Labor Government.
  • As for the speeches attributed to me, such as talking about the individual requiring to subordinate his interests to those of the State etc, I never spoke like that in my life.
  • I did not, as portrayed, advocate industrial action for the purpose of bringing down the Chifley Government and starting a revolution. Action was always related to achieving improved working conditions for the mineworkers or resisting proposals by the employers for worsening the.(sic)
  • I did not, as depicted, hypocritically write articles in Common Cause against my real views; e.g. on the decision of the Coal Industry Tribunal grunting improved holidays, which was welcomed by the Federation, a view with which I concurred and published in Common Cause.
  • The activists of the Federation, including me, did not (as presented) deliberately look for issues on which to precipitate a strike. In fact, in the period prior to the general strike the Central Council recommended the members not to take strike action while negotiations were proceeding. Evincing the feeling among miners at the time, one union branch, that in southern N.S.W., rejected the recommendation and sought an immediate stoppage.
  • The sharp divisions among Federation officials and activists depicted in several sequences are completely contrary to the facts. Most of the decisions taken in the period covered were unanimous, including the eventual decision to recommend a general strike.

As I have placed on record, I endeavoured to negotiate a deal in an attempt to prevent the strike, along the lines of the settlement already approved by the A.C.T.U. for the acceptance of a 35 hour week in principle. To that end I had a meeting with the secretary of the Joint Coal Board, Nevil Stuart, a personal friend of years standing. He told me “No deal is possible. Chif is determined to pull you on.” Contrary to the scene in the series, my move was not the subject of fiery disputation among the miners’ leaders. The fact is none of them knew anything about it.

While fought around outstanding claims such as the 35 hour week granted to the Broken Hill miners in 1920 and long service leave, the general strike was essentially a defensive action against the announced intention of Australian employers to bring about worsened conditions for the workers, including longer hours and the elimination of opposed “work practices”, associated with rationalisation and dramatic advances in technology, raising the spectre of mass unemployment.

The preceding period had also been marked by undisguised plans to remove “militant influences” in the unions; in fact, to “tame” the trade union movement in order to assist a planned offensive by the employers. Before the strike union officials had been gaoled for mild comments about the Arbitration Commission (e.g. L. McPhillips, Ironworkers Union), the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Lance Sharkey, had been gaoled, several communists framed (Ken Miller in Victoria, George Splayford in N.S.W.). There had been a Royal Commission into the Communist Party in Victoria, as part of the move to stir up hatreds (its conclusions were negative) as far as any serious wrongdoing by the party was concerned.

As subsequently revealed, the Chifley Government was doing the bidding of the employers in determining to prevent any further improvements in working conditions and, in fact, to worsen them. The Coal Industry Tribunal had told the miners “the basket is empty.” It had decided to “pull the Reds on” as part of the overall strategy against the background of the intensifying Cold War internationally. The miners’ strike provided the Government with the opportunity it sought and Labor politicians (like Entiknap, N.S.W. M.L.A.) proclaimed the determination to “remove militant influences” not only in the Miners Federation, but such unions as the Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen’s Union.

So, the Government set out to break the miners’ strike around Working conditions on the cynically manufactured cry of “Communist conspiracy”, which was taken up by most Labor politicians. Communist Party headquarters were raided and “proof of the plan” allegedly found. The Miners Federation, having seriously underestimated the forces arraigned against them and the effect of the “Communist conspiracy” cry, in creating divisions, confusion and even alarm were defeated after the unions’ funds had been frozen to prevent strike relief for the miners families, union leaders had been gaoled and the army put to work in the mines.

There was no scene after the strike (as included in the series) when I was personally blamed, apparently by a colleague, as being solely responsible for the strike (a rather absurd promotion!)

Recriminations were directed mainly to the three officials of the Northern District branch of the Federation for splitting the strike front (they were subsequently rewarded with seats in Parliament).

In the series the savagery of the Labor Government’s action (which was commended by Menzies as Liberal Policy) is drastically played down. The freezing of the unions’ funds was literally a starvation tactic. One politician, Stan Wyatt, publicly advocated the additional action of preventing the trains from carrying food supplies to the coalfields. Not two, but seven, union officials were sentenced to 12 months gaol, not only from the Miners Federation but also the Waterside Workers Federation and the ironworkers Union. And the unions were also heavily fined.

The penalties were not imposed over some “funny” business with cheques, as suggested. The men were gaoled after being found guilty of contempt of the court in refusing to reveal the where-abouts of the union funds, which they had withdrawn from the banks and hidden. The whole procedure was subsequently declared by the judiciary to be unconstitutional. But no compensation was paid!

After the strike the attack on workers’ conditions continued and repression was intensified, more union leaders gaoled and moves made by the Menzies Government that would, If successful, have meant the introduction of a set up of a fascist character.

And today the miners are again fighting for survival through the effects of an anarchistic lack of control in the industry – is this, too, a “communist conspiracy”?