Lucy Taksa and Terry Irving, Places, Protests and Memorabilia: The Labour Heritage Register of NSW, Industrial Relations Research Centre, UNSW, Sydney, 2002. Copies of the book are available from the Industrial Relations Research Centre, University cf New South Wales, Sydney, 2052, at $30 per copy plus $5 postage
In her Sydney crime novel The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender (1988), author Marele Day has heroine Claudia Valentine comment: “Memories are short in this city and facades change all the time”. Later Claudia identifies a powerful Sydney characteristic; the city looks like “a huge building site. The present annihilating the past and sweet-talking the future”.
is reasonable to argue that this building has historical significance close to equalling that of Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Yet Trades Hall is virtually invisible: it is not on any tourist trail, nor does it have a significant web profile; indeed there was a recent time when it seemed destined for the great rubble heap of lost history .
Speaking at the October launch of Places, Protests and Memorabilia, The Labour Heritane Renister cf New South Wales by Terry Irving and Lucy Taksa, Jack Mundey argued that this historical invisibility was an Australian phenomenon, and not confmed to Sydney. The Australian trade union movement has one of the proudest histories of any union movement in the world, but too little of it is preserved, recorded or publicly celebrated.
Sure, scholars keep some of the record alive in articles and books, but the buildings and the sites tend to disappear or remain unmarked, while an too often significant records and memorabilia lie neglected in suburban garages as memories fade to forgetfulness.
Sydney never stands still. It is a city that constantly rebuilds. And beneath this movement, called ‘progress’ by apologists, is a rootless energy. Realestate figures show that during 2001, one in twenty Sydney homes was bought and sold; owners pulled up stakes and relocated; twenty-six billion dollars changed hands in the process.
In this process of unceasing change and turnover much has been lost. You can wander the streets of Sydney and be unaware that the labour movement has been a vital and dynamic part of the city’s cultural and political life. Unlike in other world centres, there is no dedicated labour movement museum, or even a dedicated part of a museum, and little in the way of labour movement related plaques or memorials. Labour movement buildings and environments that helped change history have mostly gone. The Sydney that remains suggests the triumph of capitalism and big-money; the labour movement is all but invisible.
The old Trades Hall building in Goulbum Street symbolises this invisibility. Nearly a century of political and cultural energy emanated from this building, affecting the lives of millions of Australians and shaping history; it
Physical evidence helps establish an emotional link with the past. When this link has been established, the past can then be d.rawn upon in a living way to help inform and shape the present and the future. To a great extent, for example, the Anzac legend continues as a powerful ideological force in Australian politics and culture because a huge effort has been made by custodians like the RSL and a variety of statutory authorities to establish memorials, organise celebrations, preserve memorabilia, even to the extent in recent times of encouraging ‘war tourism’ to Gallipoli and the Kokoda Trail.
Terry Irving and Lucy Taksa have tackled the historical invisibility of the labour movement in their book Places, Protests and Memorabilia, the result of six years of research and field work. The book is a pioneering list, with brief explanatory notes, of historical sites, buildings, documents, and memorabilia relating to the labour movement in NSW. Whilst Sydney is the focus, regional centres and suburbs also rate attention.
The book is a useful research aid, and could be used to inform and guide walking and educational excursions. It might help jog memories and set readers thinking about sites not included that should be listed. Ideally it will inspire the labour movement to think seriously about the preservation and use of its heritage, and put the establishment of a labour history museum on the agenda.