Leichhardt Living Legend

Issy Wyner

In August 2002 Issy Wyner was awarded the inaugural Leichhardt Living Legend Award. The following is the speech given by Issy at the Leichhardt Town Hall on 26th August, 2002.

Madam Mayor,

I congratulate Leichhardt Council and the Broadway Shopping Centre on the Leichhardt Living Legend initiative and its accompanying award, and offer my sincere thanks for placing me in the forefront of the many who must be more deserving of this honour.

At the outset, I have to say that I fmd the pleasure of this moment tinged with sadness, as it recalls for me the one person who, in ‘my view, would have merited such an accolade, and certainly played a major part in my development: the unselfish, kind compassionate girl (leader of a successful strike of laundry girls at sixteen) who married me and remained my beloved wife, partner, companion, true mate and stalwart throughout the 58 years we enjoyed together, only marred by the suffering of her last agonising few months. My memories of Ruby never fade and tonight’s happy event adds poignancy to my ever-present thoughts of her.

And, I pay tribute to the many people who played some part in the thinking, attitudes and activities which have led me to this unexpected moment. In particular, I refer to the late Nick Origlass, a mate for over sixty years, whose life and work certainly outshone mine. And to Jack Sylvester, remarkable journalist, cartoonist and soap box orator, an English soldier from the first World War, who became the leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement during the Great Depression and was hospitalised after a brutal bashing by police when they broke up a huge rally outside the Glebe Town Hall.

And there was Albert Robbie, a ship’s engineer, thrown out of work during the Depression. He was a well-read radical Scot who had known Keir Hardie and other noted leaders of the British Independent Labour Party during the late 1890s and early 1900s. He led me to the ancient plays of Aristophanes which included, the anti-war play, ‘Lysistrata’, about awoman who organised a successful women’s strike of denying what shecalled ‘all sexual favours’ to husbands and lovers until they ceased conducting wars.

And, by the time I was 16 years of age, I already knew of one of the veryfew Australian politicians whom I held in high regard: Percy Brookfield, a great workingclass champion, who fought many battles for the underdog but who, in 1921, was cut down by a madman’s bullet which would havekilled a woman had Brookfield not stepped in between and collected the shot.

I don’t know what leads to a person being regarded as a legend. In my case, I can only assume that it arises from a general community sentiment whichendorses what has driven me for so long: that urge to rebel against a society which tolerates the existence of large sections of humanity who areunprivileged, under-privileged, impoverished, deprived, downtrodden in so many ways. A society which braggingly promotes the inhuman, selfish, compassionless mantra: GREED IS GOOD and ensures that the almighty dollar dominates and adulterates the whole intellectual and physicalenvironment, of which by Henry Lawson wrote in his poem, ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’:

But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promises, Old Greed must crook ‘is dirty hand
An’ come to take it from us.
So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song,
And join in rebel chorus.

It was this rebelliousness which, in 1931-32, in the depths of theDepression, when I was no more than sixteen years old, led to mybecoming one of the leaders of a group of youngsters who demanded to be admitted free of charge to the Elkington Park Baths (now known as theDawn Fraser Pool) because our parents were unemployed and we could not afford the threepence admission charge. That was my first taste of local politics when, after storming the Town Clerk’s office to state our case, we were informed some weeks later that the Balmain Council had agreed to our demand.

I could recount other Depression-time influences, including how my radical thinking was shaped by my disturbing experiences at Fort Street Boys’ High School, and the occasions when the long arm of the law came into play in some rebellious moments, and of a father who walked out on my mother leaving her to worry over her five children, but suffice it to say that my experiences and wide reading coloured my thinking and desire to seek redress, wherever possible for those who suffered under our so-called egalitarian society. It was Albert Robbie who introduced me to the works of Anatole France, in whose book, ‘The Red Lily’, I read of:

The majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

If I were to seek a highlight in my somewhat chequered career, it would certainly be the 1971 introduction in Leichhardt of the Open Council Concept, which pointed the way to participatory democracy in its ultimate form: decision-making by the people who would be affected by the decision. As one of the seven (out of twelve aldermen) who agreed to open Council proceedings to the public, it was exhilarating to work with Nick Origlass, Philip Bray, Eric Sandblom, David Young, Ernie McIlveen and Bill Dougherty, in allowing the winds of change to blow through the musty corridors of local government in Leichhardt. This openness included our approach to the staff of Council, who were invited to raise their problems, issues or suggestions with Council, either individually or collectively. What we established, of course, became anathema to the State Government, for it trumpeted the possibility of similar principles for all forms of government. Eventually the State Government introduced a completely new Local Government Act, which gave some lip service to the concept of openness, but in essence reduced the effectiveness of the Leichhardt example.

But, here, I feel that I must mention some other activities by the State Government:

  • Its moves to destroy the Leichhardt and South Sydney Councils in the interests of its latest favourite, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, as well as being aimed at emasculating two Councils which are critical of the State Government; and
  • The economic rationalism so fervently adopted by Government, and foisted on Councils, giving them the visage of profit-hungry businesses; a so-called “rationalism” which leads to the destruction of hospitals and schools, to fire sales of the people’s assets.
  • Its frenetic activities aimed at heaping more and more residential development on our already over-developed municipality, by raiding in on the beautiful Callan Park lands and buildings.

How heartening it was to see the magnificent coalescence of forces on Sunday, 18th August, when people from the Sydney Heads to the Blue Mountains, from the North, Central and South Coast areas, joined in a concerted cry of outrage, condemnation and promise to challenge the numerous Government moves to hand over people’s assets to dollarhungry developers!

As a backdrop to all this, we are obliged to watch the dangerous sabrerattling of the war-crazed Bush administration, which a toadying Federal Government uncritically supports. And the draconian, inhuman detention of the few asylum-seekers who have managed to reach our shores, and today ‘celebrate’ (for want of a better word) the first anniversary of their arrival.

All this leads me to note that after many years as a union activist and official, striving to foster, improve and protect wages and working conditions and in the ship building and ship repair industry; and after many years as an alderman, striving to foster, improve and protect the people’s living area amenity, the environment generally and democratic procedures for the community, and looking at society in all its disquieting ramifications, I find myself drawn to another writer shown to me by Albert Robbie, Omar Khayyam, in whose ‘Rubaiyatt’ , appears this verse:

Ah Love, could thou and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire, Would we not shatter it to bits – and then Re-mould it nearer to the heart’s desire.

To me, the ‘heart’s desire’ is to see humanity set on the road that will lead to a society of peace and plenty for the free and equal peoples of the world, on a planet that is environmentally safeguarded against the vandalism of Big Business marauders and their lackeys.

I conclude by saying that I have never wanted to be placed on a pedestal, or to be the subject of hero-worship, or to be flattered, by being told, as someone once did, that I was an ’emeritus alderman’, especially since I do not feel that I have earned such accolades. If, perhaps, my endeavours have brought some ease, benefit, improvement or safeguard to those in need,that is no more than might be expected from one human being for another. If there is some act of mine which might be followed by others, I can only borrow from Shakespeare’s Portia and say: ‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world’.

For the rest, perhaps like Ian Mudie, in his poem, ‘They’ll Tell You About Me’, I may be permitted to say:

Yesterday I was rumour,
Today I am legend,
Tomorrow, history.