George Petersen 1921-2000

Hall Greenland

These days in State politics it’s only premiers who take up the big issues – Carr on the fate of the planet, Kennett on depression. Backbenchers apparently know their place. Not in George Petersen’s day. The Labor MP for Illawarra (1968-88), who has died at the age of 78, never had any ministerial ambitions, let alone anything grander, ‘but it did not stop him speaking out on the matters of the day.’

He had not been long elected when Michael Matteson, the anarchist draft dodger who had just served a short sentence at Long Bay, came to tell him of systematic bashings in NSW prisons and the first signs of organised prisoner protests. Petersen started to ask questions, and collect and sift statements from ex-prisoners, and was soon in a position to name names.

Government ministers covered up and the Labor leaders, fearful of electoral backlash, tried to gag him – but he pressed on with his campaign for penal reform. When prisoners briefly seized control of Bathurst Jail in February 1974 and burned it to the ground, the problems could not be ignored any longer. The subsequent royal commission vindicated him and an all-too-brief period of prison reform followed.

Petersen had rather more lasting success with his other campaigns: homosexual law reform (although that didn’t come until 1984) and the freeing of the three members of Ananda Marga, jailed in connection with the Hilton bombing.

In the opening rounds of these crusades he never had more than a handful of supporters (sometimes even his local party supporters hesitated), but that didn’t faze him. Nor did the fact that he had a slight stutter; such was his passion that the stutter disappeared when he was in full flight in the House or in branch meetings.

While there was obviously a large measure of principled courage involved, Petersen never denied that the big causes relieved the tedium of the parish pump politics which tend to monopolise the time of State MPs.

Petersen was a member of a small group of determined reformers inside the State Labor Caucus. He supported other backbenchers like Alan Stewart and Keith O’Connell, fighting to stop sandmining of Myall Lakes and logging of rainforest at Terania Creek, and Maurie Keane and Bill Knot on Aboriginal land rights. And there were even kindred spirits in Cabinet – Frank Walker, Jack Ferguson and, on occasion Neville Wran, who Petersen credited with playing the crucial part in decriminalising homosexuality. But by the time Petersen left parliament in 1988, these MPs were gone and he had been expelled from the Labor Party. The heroic period of Labor reforms was over.

The shorthand explanation for someone like Petersen is Depression Communist. His parents were the offspring of Danish and Swedish immigrants to Queensland who had tried farming and gone broke.

The Great Depression of the 1930s radicalised members of the Petersen clan. Some turned to Communism but Petersen hesitated because of Stalin’s show trials and purges. The Soviet Union’s wartime record overcame his doubts and he joined the party while in the Army in 1943. He eventually left in 1956 after the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising.

He was then living near Wollongong and joined the Labor Party. He quickly rose to become the right-hand man of Rex Connor, then the local Federal member and undisputed Labor chieftain on the South Coast. It was a left-wing area and Petersen was the logical choice when the State seat centred on Port Kembla became vacant.

Despite the switch in party allegiance Petersen never renounced his Marxian socialism. It was one of his constant frustrations as a State MP that he couldn’t do more for the industrial workers who elected him.

There were two exceptions. The first was a successful campaign in association with local unionists to force BHP to protect steelworkers from carcinogenic emissions from their coke ovens. The second was his attempt to block the reform of workers’ compensation.

He crossed the floor in 1987 to vote against the Unsworth Government’s dilution of workers’ rights and entitlements to workers’ compensation. Expulsion from the Labor Party automatically followed. As a socialist representing an industrial area with its more than fair share of dangerous industries, it was not surprising he chose this issue as his Golgotha.

There was to be no resurrection, although he stood as an Independent Labor candidate in 1988. Nevertheless he remained active as an environmentalist and civil libertarian. In fact, a week before he died he attended his last meeting – the Kiama branch of Amnesty International. Next day, before he went to hospital for the last week of his life, he dictated letters of support for 10 prisoners of conscience. It was a fitting end to the career of a political dissident and civil libertarian.

Petersen had the good fortune to not only have the love but also the political sympathies of his family. His first wife Elaine and children Eve and Eric, his second wife Mairi and daughter Natalie, all shared his socialist convictions. He is truly one of those people of whom it can be said that the good they did lives after them.