DEATH OF WILFRED GEORGE PETERSEN, A FORMER MEMBER OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
Dr REFSHAUGE (Marrickville—Deputy Premier, Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and Minister for Housing) [8.23 p.m.]: I move:
That this House extends to Mrs Peterson and family, the deep sympathy of members of the Legislative Assembly in the loss sustained by the death on 28 March 2000 of Wilfred George Petersen, a former member of the Legislative Assembly.
It is with genuine sadness that I rise to speak to this condolence motion with respect to George Petersen, who died last Tuesday in Shellharbour Hospital. It is fitting and proper that this House pay tribute to his achievements and express the deepest sympathy to his family, friends and comrades. George Petersen was born in Childers, Queensland, in 1921. He was born into the Australian rural working class, the offspring of northern European immigrants. There were five children in the family and George's father was a carpenter. George often recalled his father being unemployed and having to get relief work during the Depression. At the age of 47 his father had to get back to cane cutting, a job George said "just about killed him one season because it is a young man's game".
George was educated at Bundaberg High School and worked variously as a telephonist for the Postmaster-General's Department and as a pensions officer and special magistrate for the Department of Social Services from 1937 to 1968. George was a good student: he was top of his class. Poverty and the Depression forced him to leave school at the age of 15. He served as a military signaller in a commando squadron from 1942 to 1946. But George’s school education was in the school of hard knocks or the university of life. His politics, principles and philosophy were developed at a young age and shaped by his experiences of the Depression. In the middle of the Depression and aged only 15 he first read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressall, who was a socialist house painter. His book was about a group of working-class labourers in England. George later recalled that "anyone who reads it at 15 and doesn't become a socialist doesn't have a heart".
His working-class background served him well and he was an honest, courageous, compassionate and generous person. I think most of us in this House probably remember him best as a tenacious fighter. George was a lover of humanity and believed people were good. George joined the Australian Communist Party in 1943 and remained in the party until 1956 when his differences with the party were defined. George was a colourful member of the Labor Party for 30 years. He presented a radical left leadership and did much to strengthen the party organisation in the Illawarra and Wollongong. He worked with the local steelworkers and coalminers to set up the Unanderra branch of the ALP. George was involved in the moratorium marches against the Vietnam war. He was in favour of women's right to choose and a defender of minority interests.
In 1968 George was preselected for the State seat of Kembla for the Labor Party and entered this House at the next election. He was the Labor member for Kembla from 1968 to 1971 and then member for Illawarra until 1988. His commitment to the working class was clearly and powerfully articulated in his maiden speech in August 1968. It included references to the practices of BHP, "Australia's most greedy monopolist firm", the "obvious evil" of air pollution in Wollongong, and a famous description of the problems of lack of sewerage in the Illawarra. He asked, "Just what exactly does one do with dirty nappies in an unsewered area?" before giving a very graphic and descriptive answer. I would like to quote briefly from his maiden speech:
Perhaps there is no other area in Australia where the gap between potentiality and actuality in living standards and the quality of life is more apparent than in the Kembla electorate. As an example of the importance of the electorate to the Australian economy, it might be noted that the value of annual industrial production in the Kembla electorate is greater than the value of the wool clip for the whole of Australia ... One would expect under those conditions that the workers of the Kembla electorate would have one of the highest living standards in Australia_after all, there is no question of the industries concerned lacking profitability...Yet at least two-thirds of the workers in the steel industry are low-paid workers who take home pay packets of no more than $40 if they work only their forty-hour week without overtime.
The labour practices of some of Australia's largest companies deeply concerned him as did "the scandal of female unemployment". I again quote him:
If the wages of workers in employment are scandalous there is an even greater scandal, the scandal of female unemployment. In 1964 the Illawarra Regional Development Committee conducted a survey of the Illawarra region and discovered that there were 6,000 unemployed women and girls in the area. In this region 23 per cent of the female work force is unemployed, compared with an Australian average of less than 2 per cent.
As a new member he made some insightful comments on the operations of State Parliament. I quote:
With the growth of Cabinet and Government, one has come to expect a decline in the status of Parliamentarians, but there is a certain smell of decay about this Parliament which goes beyond the normal decline.
In 1970 George took up the issue that stands as one of his major achievements_prison reform. He called for a public inquiry and later a royal commission. Following the burning down of Bathurst gaol in February 1974 and later a riot at Maitland gaol a royal commission was held. The report brought down by Justice John Nagle in 1978 vindicated George's campaign. Throughout his parliamentary career George continued to provide a forceful left leadership role. He was a vigorous and able debater. George took up politically unpopular issues but his principled and lonely stand was regularly vindicated. He stood for change and reform and, because that involved him in controversy, he had enemies within the conservative ranks. He was a ready-made target for their prejudice and criticism. He fought for better public services for the Illawarra and for Australia's withdrawal from the Vietnam war. He worked with the gay movement for the repeal of anti-homosexual sections of the Crimes Act and he was instrumental in homosexual law reform. He was a strong advocate for workers rights across the State. He defended Tim Anderson and the other Ananda Marga who were sentenced on trumped up charges of attempted murder in connection with the Hilton bombing—a conviction he referred to as a gross miscarriage of justice. His defence was later vindicated.
George was an environmentalist and fought to preserve our rainforests long before environmental issues became popular. In his electorate George led a successful campaign to force BHP to protect steelworkers from carcinogenic emissions from the coke ovens. George was an outspoken crusader for the Palestinians and their right to a legitimate homeland. He was a great anti-apartheid crusader. George described himself as being far removed from the corridors of power. However, his achievements show him to be a formidable fighter. His philosophy and his actions were directed to justice and equity. He worked to advantage the disadvantaged and to defend the powerless. At various times George was a member of the New South Wales State Council of the Commonwealth Administrative and Clerical Officers Association, a committee member of the Council for Civil Liberties, and a member of a parliamentary delegation to Egypt, Libya and Lebanon in 1974.
Some of us might argue that George's principles led him to cross the floor and vote against the Unsworth Government's workers compensation legislation in 1987. Others were saddened by this event. He was automatically expelled from the Australian Labor Party and saw out the rest of his term as an Independent. He served his constituency and this House for 16 years. To him the little things did matter. He reminded us often that one of his greatest achievements was the double yellow lines on Farmborough Road.
George was described as the maverick of State Parliament. After his retirement George remained active as an environmentalist and civil libertarian. The week before he died he was sending letters of support for prisoners of conscience. George was a particularly powerful personality, a leader of the Left and a colourful character; a kind and generous human being. George Petersen never renounced his Marxian socialism. Unlike many powerful personalities and colourful characters, he enriched the social and political lives of many of us. George is survived by his first wife, Elaine, and children, Eve and Eric, and his second wife, Mairi, and daughter, Natalie. We honour him today, and our sympathies are with his family, friends and comrades.
Mr ROZZOLI (Hawkesbury) [8.32 p.m.]: I add my condolences to the family and friends of George Petersen. My association with George was a very personal one. I would like to pick up on some comments made by the Deputy Premier, who said that George's strong leftist tendencies and his virile and forceful advocacy of what were often considered unpopular issues led to him being regarded by many members on my side as a person to be regarded with some disrespect and animosity. That was the climate in which I was first introduced to George Petersen. Over the years that all changed. I do not know whether my colleagues changed their minds, but I certainly changed mine. By the time he retired from this place, George and I were very firm friends.
As the Deputy Premier said, George was passionate about prison reform. I think a speech I made about prison reform brought us very close together. He said to me, "What you have said in the House tonight should be said over and over again, but it surprises me that the first time I have heard those words they have come from the Liberal side of politics." From that time onwards George and I had many long discussions. In the latter period of his service in Parliament I was studying law. It was a lonely task and a task that I did not draw too much attention to—I thought people might think I was not spending time looking after my constituency if I was studying law. I did not say much about it, but a few people knew, and George was one of those people. He would always come to me after an examination and inquire as to how I had gone. He encouraged me during some of my more desperate times.
Mr E. T. Page: He always took up lost causes!
Mr ROZZOLI: Perhaps that was right. He offered great encouragement. When I told George I was going to the university to check my final results he told me to come back and to let him know how I went. I told him I had passed five subjects in one hit to finish my degree. He said, "Come down to the bar." He bought a bottle of champagne and we toasted my success. Not one of my colleagues on this side of the House offered me the same degree of courtesy. George and I developed a number of strong connections. We were both strong environmentalists and we shared many of the same convictions. We talked often of the problems and of the reluctance of governments of all persuasions to meet the challenges out there. I was always interested in Amnesty International, and that was another of our great bonds.
I did not agree with George on every issue—there were certainly issues on which I violently disagreed with him. However, I respected his conviction, and he respected mine. He crossed the floor—I know how difficult that is as I have done it myself, but it was infinitely more difficult for him—because he believed that the Labor Party was selling out the worker. People can draw their own conclusions as to whether that was the case, but that was George's conviction. He said to me afterwards, "I just could not bring myself to vote for that legislation. I know the consequences and I am prepared to accept the consequences." I thought that was a mark of a great man. It was the mark of great conviction.
He was true to his support for the workers of this country and this State right to the end. It was a decision that cost him dearly. The last thing he wanted to do was to leave the party he had put so much effort into over the years. In the remaining months—when he had a lot of time on his hands because he did not often get the call—we had many long discussions. At the last press gallery party before his retirement we must have spent 3½ hours—and consumed the odd ale in the process—delving into and attempting to solve many of the problems of the State and the world. He said to me, "I am leaving but, young fellow, you have a few years to go. I hope you continue to champion the causes on which you and I agree." He was a fierce believer in people who stood up for what they believe in. For that reason, I pay tribute to the memory of a man whom I greatly respected. The world is a poorer place for his passing.
Mr DEBUS (Blue Mountains—Minister for the Environment, Minister for Emergency Services, Minister for Corrective Services, and Minister Assisting the Premier on the Arts) [8.38 p.m.]: I offer condolences to the family and friends of George Petersen and I endorse the description of the character of the man that has just been given to the House by the honourable member for Hawkesbury. I experienced a very small amount of the isolation that the honourable member mentioned when I sat with George and very few members during divisions at times in 1982 and 1983 when George introduced his private member's bill to decriminalise homosexuality. The motion failed in the House—some of the provisions failed by overwhelming majorities. However, those who supported him were able to experience with him the satisfaction that followed when that reform was eventually passed. As I recall it, the then Premier, Neville Wran, introduced a private member's bill. He acknowledged that that change would never have occurred but for the campaigning conviction of George Petersen.
I gather that one of George Petersen's first campaigns was conducted as early as 1960, when he stumped the Illawarra in support of a referendum to abolish the Legislative Council. Those of us in this place at the moment should perhaps keep our own counsel about our opinions on the outcome of his support for that campaign. From the time of his maiden speech in this place in 1968 George Petersen set out the radical themes that would continue to engross him: his support for abortion law reform, his opposition to the Vietnam War, his passion for free speech and for civil liberty, and his commitment to conservation He was also one of the most hardworking of local members. He took his constituency duties extremely seriously and he was a fierce advocate for the interests of the Illawarra region. Local issues he campaigned for were many and varied. They included a sustained campaign to have the rapidly developing suburbs around Lake Illawarra connected to the sewer, the building of the Berkeley swimming pool, pollution issues affecting the Port Kembla industrial region and the environmental protection of Bass Point. He was assiduous in representing his individual constituents, particularly his public housing tenants. I recall him making speeches on their behalf in the Labor Caucus on a number of occasions, again in the early 1980s.
George demonstrated that an effective parliamentarian can tend to the individual needs of his or her own electorate while also making a crucial contribution to wider issues of public policy, issues that can affect all of society. As Minister for Corrective Services I would, in particular, like to acknowledge George Petersen's tireless campaign for prison reform. From 1970 onwards he collected evidence of brutality in the State's prison system, in particular the brutality that led to the famous riots at Bathurst and evidence of the dreaded Grafton biff. The honourable member for Hawkesbury will recall what that implied.
These days we tend to forget the barbarity that existed in many parts of our corrective services system during those years. What had begun as a trickle of former prisoners and honest prison staff coming to George with stories that seemed even to him so extreme as to defy belief gradually became a huge collection of evidence. He used that evidence over a period of more than two years to pressure the then Government to push ever more forcefully for a full and public inquiry. With what was, even in retrospect, a quite extraordinary coterie of colleagues and supporters from journalism, law and politics, he succeeded in making the pressure for a public inquiry into the prison system irresistible.
Ultimately, it resulted in the establishment of the Nagle royal commission in 1976. At the conclusion of the Nagle inquiry in 1978 the then Premier, Neville Wran, quite rightly commented that, but for the persistence of the honourable member for Illawarra there would never have been a royal commission. He undertook that, unlike previous inquiries, the recommendations of the Nagle commission would not gather dust and that promise by the then Premier was kept, although George Petersen would never have conceded that the reforms went far enough. As far as I am aware he never conceded that about any of the causes he espoused. Nevertheless, several generations of prisoners are in no small part indebted to George Petersen for reform of the New South Wales prison system I join with colleagues on both sides of the House in offering condolences to the family and friends of George Petersen and to the memory of a man probably as left wing and as committed to socialism as anyone can be and still be elected to this Parliament, a member who was understood by us all to be a person of the most profound integrity and someone who, in his way, was an ornament in this House.
Mr HARTCHER (Gosford) [8.45 p.m.]: It is with respect that I speak to this motion of condolence to mark the passing of Mr George Wilfred Petersen. George Petersen was born in 1921 in Childers, Queensland, a small sugar-growing town near Bundaberg. According to his own account he was raised by his parents, Peter and Eva Engstrom, in financially testing times. From humble beginnings George developed a passion for those he regarded as less privileged and he translated that passion to all his community endeavours, including his service in the Parliament of New South Wales. Before successfully running for Parliament in 1968 as member for Illawarra, George Petersen was a union activist with the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association in Queensland and later in the New South Wales branch council. He was a committee member on the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties for 14 years. George Petersen's commitment lay in protecting the workers and in guarding the rights of the individual. He was particularly well versed in the theory and practice of socialism, the trade union movement and civil liberties. These themes underpinned his career as a member of this House.
Those who served with him know, and any review of his speeches to this House confirm, that he was a person with strong philosophical convictions. In his maiden speech in August 1968 George Petersen gave a powerful and forthright account of his concerns for entering Parliament, including the threat of increased air pollution in Wollongong and the lack of sewerage in his electorate. In 1969 Mr Petersen campaigned for legalised abortion and in 1970 he played a key role in the formation of Labor Party policy in relation to conservation. George Petersen was uncompromising in the principles that ruled his life and in his endeavour to apply those principles within the Labor Party and within this Parliament. More often than not, George Petersen was working against the flow of his own party, against the majority view in this Parliament and also against mainstream public opinion. That did not deter him in the slightest. The Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons in 1976 can be partly attributed to his efforts and campaigning. He was influential in the passage of the bill reforming homosexuality laws, which was finally passed in 1984. His passion in working, as he saw it, to protect individuals from injustice and oppression was constantly on show.
George Petersen fought with sincerity and commitment for the release of the three former Ananda Marga members who were gaoled after being accused of involvement in the Hilton Hotel bombing of 1978. In 1980 he was a member of the select committee on Aboriginal land rights, education, health, housing and employment. George Petersen was a strong believer in the rights of the worker. His own personal experience had been formed in the Depression years of the 1930s, years which many Australians now forget because it was some 70 years ago, but which were years of incredible hardship for large numbers of Australian families, including his own. He never lost the identity that was born in those days with the underprivileged in our community. He fought always for the underprivileged and he sought to protect their rights and to advance their interests in the community.
When the Communist Party failed to live up to his expectations he left it; when the Australian Labor Party failed to live up to his expectations, he left it. His passion was for the worker and for the underprivileged. He served them to the best of his abilities all his days. He is part of history in that he grew up at a time in western society when the working class was ill-treated, lacked opportunities for expression and was only able to find such expression as it could through the democratic process of the political organisations which sought to champion it, the Australian Labor Party and the Communist Party. He was always conscious of the fact that he was committed to those people. He was never strictly committed to a political process; he was committed to the rights of the underdog. He lived and fought always for those rights. I believe all honourable members would be impressed with such a life history and it is with deep respect that I pay tribute to him on behalf of the Coalition.
Mr MARKHAM (Wollongong—Parliamentary Secretary) [8.49 p.m.]: George Petersen was born in Childers, Queensland, on 13 May 1921 and died at Shellharbour on 28 March 2000. He was an incredible man. He was one of a few people that one might have regarded as a privilege to meet during one’s life. Honourable members have spoken about George’s history in this Parliament and I will say a few words about that. I was not a member of this Parliament during George’s term; I entered Parliament in 1988, when George left the Parliament. In 1975, after what had happened to the Whitlam Government, my wife and I decided that we needed to put our money where our mouths were and we joined the Labor Party.
It was not until some years after joining the Labor Party that I met George Petersen and his wife, Mairi. George’s history in this Parliament is an outstanding contribution to social justice from a man who was a true democratic socialist. In February 1968 George became the member for Kembla, and following the renaming of the seat in 1971 he was elected as the member for Illawarra, which he held until 1988. In 1969 George campaigned for legalised abortion. I often heard him say, “While ever abortions are going on, women have the right to choose the best way of having those abortions performed. Why should working class girls be forced to go to backyard butchers when women and girls of the wealthy go to specialists, even if they have to go off shore?”
In 1970 George played a key role in the State Parliamentary Labor Party’s commitment to conservation. George was a conservationist all his life. As the Deputy Premier said, George was a conservationist long before it became popular to fight conservation issues in this State and in this country. In 1971 George was at the forefront of campaigning against apartheid in this country. He led a small contingent of people who were protesting against a surf-lifesaving team that came from South Africa at that time. As honourable members have said, George’s absolute commitment to social justice issues brought him into disrepute with many people in the Illawarra, where he fought a good fight on apartheid. That is simply another issue on which George’s stand was proven to be right.
In 1976 the Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons commenced. George was instrumental in getting that commission established. In 1980 George was a member of the Select Committee upon Aborigines, which dealt with Aboriginal land rights, education, health, employment and housing. He had a passion in terms of Aboriginal affairs. During the latter part of George’s parliamentary life and early in my parliamentary career, when I was responsible for Aboriginal Affairs in the Opposition in 1989 and in the early 1990s, George and I often talked about the Maurie Keane report, which highlighted the fact that if there were no land rights in New South Wales there was no way forward in terms of some of the atrocities that were happening at that time.
In 1987 George was expelled from the party for crossing the floor on changes to the Workers Compensation Act, which he described as vicious, anti-working class legislation. From 21 July 1987 George held the seat of Illawarra as a member of the Illawarra Workers Party until his retirement in 1988.But George did not retire in 1988; he contested the seat of Illawarra as a candidate of the Illawarra Workers Party but failed to be elected. In 1998 George launched his book George Petersen Remembers—the Contradictions, Problems and Betrayals of Labor in Government in NSW. In 2000 George died on Tuesday 28 March at Shellharbour Hospital aged 78 years. The celebration of George Petersen’s life was held at Heininger House, Dapto, at 11.00 a.m. on Saturday 1 April. More than 600 people attended the celebration. It was an incredible experience because the celebration continued for 2½ hours with many speakers, songs being sung, and people clapping, laughing and enjoying the richness of a rich man’s life.
Many current and former members of Parliament attended the celebration. The Minister for the Olympics attended. Maurie Keane, who was the chairman of the Select Committee upon Aborigines, Jack Ferguson, who was Deputy Premier during part of George’s term in this House, and Frank Walker, a former Attorney General, were also in attendance. At the celebration we were told this story about George: Gough Whitlam rang Mairi one night to say that Fred Nile had said something. Gough Whitlam said, “You’ve got him dead because he slandered you. You should take him to the cleaners.” We were told that the matter was settled out of court. The name on the cheque was Right to Life, so the organisation did not have to pay tax on it. George showed the cheque to Frank Walker and said, “Look at this, this is corruption.” George told Fred that he should write a personal cheque, otherwise he would be in trouble. That is just one of many stories told at the celebration of George’s life.
Stewart West, who was the member for the Federal seat of Cunningham for many years, a Minister in several Labor governments and a shadow minister in Opposition at the Federal level, spoke at length about his friendship with George and Mairi Petersen and the family. Colin Hollis, the Federal member for Throsby, also attended the celebration. Neville Wran sent his apology and flowers. Also in attendance were many well-respected people in the Illawarra community. Also present was Arthur Rorris, the secretary of the South Coast Trades and Labour Council. Tim Anderson, the former Ananda Marga member convicted, with two others, of the Hilton bombing, spoke at the celebration. George was instrumental in gaining their release. Graham Roberts, the national president of the Australian Workers Union, talked about George’s total commitment to the trade union movement and to the Miners Federation. He referred to the battles that they had waged together for the rights of the working-class people in that region. Jim Staples, the retired Federal Court Arbitration judge, and Nando Lelli, the former Federated Ironworkers official, were present. Russell Hannah, a long-time friend and former Shellharbour councillor, acted as master of ceremonies. Joan Vinton, deputy mayor of Shellharbour council, who worked for George for 20 years, was there. In attendance were many great supporters and people who had been members of the Communist Party for many years—people like Fred Moore, Bob Heggen and Jack Lowrey. Pat Rogan rang me and asked me to pass on his respects to George’s family. He did not get to the celebration of George’s life on Saturday because he read about George’s death in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday. When one considers that George was often vilified and attacked, to get an editorial in the Illawarra Mercury and an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald about his life and what he did, and how he never shirked his duty as a representative of the working class, is extraordinary.
George possessed great courage and integrity and refused to compromise his principles. Everything George did was designed to improve the lot of the people of this world, especially the working class. George was a committed environmentalist and community activist, and he never swerved from his entrenched principles of social justice and environmental protection. He played an active role in the community. When the "Talkin' Up Reconciliation" convention was held in Wollongong at the Entertainment Centre in August last year, George was there, withered with arthritis—he suffered dreadfully with arthritis during the last 12 months or so of his life. George's wife Mairi was always by his side, wherever George went to fight the good fight for socialism. That is great dedication, and I am proud to know Mairi and her family.
After the celebration of George's life, we were invited back to George and Mairi's place—their home was never just “George's home” or “Mairi's home”; it was “George and Mairi's home”. I first met George during the 1980s when my wife and I had three young children. I was working in a coalmine and we did not have many opportunities to go away for holidays. After an ALP function one night, George asked, “What are you doing over the Christmas period, Col?”. I replied that I would be staying at home and probably going for a swim at North Beach. George said, “Why don't you come to our place? Mairi and I are going away for 10 days and you and your family could holiday there”. That is what we did. We stayed in George and Mairi's house, which was situated right on Shellharbour beach. It is a magnificent area, which is why George fought hard against the development of a marina at Shellharbour.
I was questioned by an Illawarra Mercury journalist following the ceremony to celebrate George's life. I said that people did not always agree with what George said or with the direction he took but that each and every person present at that ceremony would have said that George was fair dinkum. George was a principled man who never backed away from his beliefs. That is the man whom we are remembering tonight. George Petersen will be remembered for a very long time. John Marsden, a former Liberal candidate, spoke at the ceremony on Saturday. He said that George had talked to him at length about homosexual reform and that, if George Petersen had not been active in that area, many young men would be dead today. George gave them the right to respect their lifestyle over and above the prejudices of society.
George did not back away from those challenges. The honourable member for Hawkesbury remarked earlier how principled George was: He crossed the floor of the House and was expelled from the Australian Labor Party of which he had been a long-time member. However, George Petersen made the lives of many people—not only in this State but across Australia—much richer because of his principled stand. He never backed away from an issue. Some honourable members said earlier that they were always losing arguments. George won many arguments because he would not be browbeaten into submission by those from his party or in society who reckoned he was a ratbag. His stance on many issues was vindicated by the number of people who turned up last Saturday to the ceremony to celebrate his life, by the editorial in the Illawarra Mercury—which was not always kind to George—and by the obituary in Monday's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.
I have known Mairi for a very long time. George is survived by his wife, Mairi, his children, Eva and Rick, and stepdaughter Natalie Gould. He was grandfather to Peter, Ian and Bryn and loved brother of Allen and Marj. This State, this Parliament, this country and this world is poorer for his passing.
Mr ASHTON (East Hills) [9.05 p.m.]: I offer my condolences to the family of George Petersen on his passing. I do not mean to sound humorous, but George was one of a dying breed who always focused my attention when I was a member of the Young Labor Association. He was a well-spoken, working-class Labor Party socialist—and I do not know whether there are many of them left in either Young Labor or the Australian Labor Party at large. George Petersen's beliefs set him apart not only from conservatives in the Australian political spectrum but from some Labor Party members. He was so different from some in the ALP that one had to wonder whether they were members of the same party. George was a true socialist and he held those views until his expulsion from the Labor Party in 1987.
As I have said, true socialists are rare, and I am sure that George was bitterly disillusioned by the push for what we now call “economic rationalism” and “the level playing field”. Those myths that have emerged in the 12 years since he left this Parliament would have horrified George. George championed issues that are not controversial today. Yet when he focused my attention upon them they were not only controversial but heretical. Homosexual law reform was considered to be “the sky is falling in” stuff. George would have been interested—to say the least—in the success of the gay Mardi Gras that has been held for about the past 20 years. George was one of the first keen advocates for any level of homosexual law reform, for which he was vilified not only by church groups but within Parliament and the Labor Party.
As a Young Labor member, I remember hearing George speak at annual party conferences about prison reform. He said that it was not a matter of simply locking up people and that prisoners should not be bashed senseless every few days to keep them on the straight and narrow. I remember wondering at the time whether some of those who worked in the prison service were not worse than the prisoners. George Petersen focused my attention on issues such as that. George opposed the Vietnam War—as did I and anyone else about my age—from the start. In the early 1970s, I moved in an ALP branch meeting a motion opposing the Vietnam War. That motion was defeated and the branch carried a motion supporting the Vietnam War even as America was attempting to disengage and increase the involvement of the South Vietnamese. Even then my ALP branch thought the Vietnam war was a goer.
As far back as the late 1960s, George Petersen believed in abortion law reform. There is still debate in some States and countries about the legality of such issues. However, it is important to consider how many women are alive today because they did not have to go to backyard abortionists. They were able to have safe abortions because of George's actions, which he convinced others to support. When I was working for Rod Cavalier in the mid1980s as an adviser, I had a number of conversations with George. Even then it was very clear that he did not care at all for what we might call the simple niceties of parliamentary behaviour and toeing the absolute party line on everything. George was a hard left-winger who today would not find himself able to sit comfortably in any left-wing faction in most Labor parties in Australia, and certainly in Britain and other places. We could argue that the world has moved on. Maybe one could argue that George did not, but the views he held and the views he put forward are views that have made a difference today.
George Petersen had views that were expressed at great cost to him personally. He was never going to be the leader or the deputy leader of the Labor Party, or even a great factional leader, with the sorts of views and attitudes he expressed. On the South Coast he represented miners, workers and seamen. I know people at the Revesby Workers Club, a club formed out of the seamen’s unions and the wharfies in that area, who held George Petersen in high regard. As I said, he was a controversial figure, and I think we could also say he was a colourful figure. Before I came into the Chamber to say these few words I was talking with a couple of members of Parliament who said that was a term they used, and they did not use it disrespectfully. What they meant was that the Parliament could do with people who represent extreme views, whether it be the most conservative view or the most radical view. If all members of Parliament stood here in their suits and looked the same, it would be a pretty boring Parliament and we would not represent anyone particularly.
George Petersen probably would not win a Labor Party preselection today. For those who know how that system works, some may say, "This bloke did not go to university; he does not have a couple of degrees." Gary Gray recently commented to the effect that we need to see in our Parliaments—and not just in the Labor Party—people who perhaps do not go straight from the best of schools, straight through university, join the Young Labor Party or the Young Liberal Party and decide to become a member of Parliament. When they are not Ministers by the time they are 28 years of age, they think, "Oh, God, I have missed the boat here. I had better get into another career." George Petersen was one of those, like Jack Ferguson and so many others—and there would be people like that in the Liberal Party as well—who did their time before they became members of Parliament, and that enabled them to make a greater contribution. Before becoming a member of Parliament one needs to have some other background and to represent people.
The honourable member for Wollongong made the point that Pat Rogan had spoken to him today. As I was walking back from another function to have dinner, I realised that condolence motions were to be heard for Fred Caterson—I pass on my condolences to Fred’s family as well—and George Petersen. I thought, "I ought to go into the Chamber and say a few words." Pat Rogan was a member of Parliament for about 25 years. I thought, "Pat would not mind if I went into the Chamber to say a few words about George." I did not ring Pat to ask him whether I should or should not. He rang Col Markham, because Col is an old mate of his. I thought, "They are members of the East Hills electorate. It is an electorate that has a very strong tradition through many of its organisations. They would expect me, given an opportunity such as this, to say a few words."
It is interesting that Col made the same point, that Pat had spoken to him today and wanted his views passed on. I think it is a reflection of the fact that, as members of Parliament, we should pass on condolences in this sense, but it does not mean that one has to do so. There would be no real need for a senior member of the Liberal Party to come into the Chamber to say anything about a member of Parliament who held views as different as one could imagine from some of the views that the honourable member for Hawkesbury would hold, yet they had a close bond. I know that that happens in parliaments. Some good relationships can develop between Government members and Opposition members. As we know, a lot of what we go on with in the Parliament is a little bit of theatre.
I always enjoyed George Petersen’s efforts. For those of us who had the privilege to go to the Labor Party annual conference, George was always there pushing his left-wing, radical views, during the time when Wran was Premier, at the time when Jack Ferguson was Deputy Premier, and of course towards the end of 1988 when the Labor Party was heading out. What I always enjoyed was that you knew that with George Petersen you were going to hear just about every left-wing view that you could expect to hear, well put, and you knew that it was going to be a lost cause. But George never minded going to the microphone and making the speech, putting the weights up on different people about things that should be done or should be looked at. I think that reflects great credit.
It is sometimes a lot easier to simply sit back or walk around the sides of all political parties and do deals and say, "Look, you get up and say this." There is no doubt that George Petersen’s great credit to the Australian Labor Party for all the years he was a member of it was that he was prepared to get up and have a go, rather than go up to someone else, get in his or her ear and say, "Get up and say this, will you?" I extend my condolences to George’s family. I acknowledge his 20 years in Parliament and the background he would have had, and agree with all the sentiments expressed by members on both sides of the House.
Mr E. T. PAGE (Coogee) [9.16 p.m.]: I spent more than seven years in this Parliament with George, and I believe that he and I were friends. There were not too many of George’s views that I disagreed with. I acknowledge the sentiments of previous speakers, particularly the honourable member for Hawkesbury, who spoke with pride. I did not realise that he had the association with George that he described. What he said epitomised George. Even though I was not aware of their association, the compassion he attributed to George was not unknown to me. George was one of those fairly rare politicians who are consumed by causes. In the parliamentary sense, this started not long after he was elected to Parliament, when he was approached by an anarchist draft dodger who spent some time at Long Bay, a man named Michael Maddison, who told George about the systematic bashings that were occurring there. In those days no-one wanted to know anything about prisons. If a person was in prison it served him or her right, and nothing was too bad for him or her. George had the lost cause of trying to convince people that what was happening in New South Wales prisons was not the right thing.
George was always extremely moral. To him it was morally bad that people should be bashed. So he ran this cause for the prisoners in the New South Wales prison system. The Coalition Government of the day was not particularly concerned about what was happening in prisons. Also, those in the Labor Opposition who did not want to cause waves were not particularly concerned about taking up unpopular causes. They believed that if they were quiet and did not stir up the horses, they might shortly be elected. The defining moment was when prisoners, as they do when things get out of control, burned down Bathurst Gaol, which brought on the Nagle royal commission. That commission validated everything that George had said about what was happening in the New South Wales prison system. George pushed for homosexual law reform, which had a fairly negative trial in the New South Wales Parliament. Resolutions were put up in 1983, but they were bowled over. Finally, in 1984 the then Premier, Neville Wran, put up a private member’s bill.
It often happens that when a Premier gives his or her imprimatur to a proposal, a change in legislation occurs. But George was one who never stopped pushing this issue in caucus. It was rather funny at one stage when he attacked a former Attorney General, Frank Walker, over an undertaking he had given to George to present a bill to caucus to do something about homosexual law reform. George said, "What are you doing, Frank? You are telling me lies." Frank said, "Look, I am bending over backwards!" In 1984 George was concerned about an environmental issue that did not involve New South Wales. A group, of which George was one, travelled to the Franklin Dam in Tasmania to show some support for the Tasmanian people who were running the campaign. I recall that you, Mr Speaker, were part of the group which included Maurie Keane and me. Laurie King. George was a very enthusiastic member of the group and his intention was to attract attention outside Tasmania to what was at that stage a major environmental issue in Australia.
The next cause in which George was involved was to defend the three Ananda Marga members who were charged and gaoled in connection with the Hilton bombing. That was quite an unpopular cause because at that time the Ananda Marga sect was connected with a number of overseas murders, particularly in India. However, George realised that the three members had been framed, and he never let up on that cause. Tim Anderson, who was one of the three accused, was at Shellharbour on Saturday. He is now free because of George Petersen. It was a long campaign because Tim Anderson was gaoled twice before he was exonerated. It was a wrong that George saw fairly early in the piece and, regardless of the perception that other people had at the time, he went ahead with the cause. As I said, Tim Anderson is free now basically because of the tenacity of our late parliamentary colleague George Petersen.
George used parliamentary privilege very cleverly. He only ever used Parliament to present facts that had been suppressed by the bureaucracy, the Government or the community. His motive was to present the facts in the Parliament so that they could be published and become part of the public record. His use of parliamentary privilege was clever but it was never malicious, and it was always intended to apply to a cause for the benefit of the disadvantaged in the community.
George was constantly active in his support for Aboriginal causes and the whole range of Aboriginal issues. It has been said by speakers in the debate that George was expelled by the Labor Party in 1987. He was expelled because he voted against a change in workers' rights and entitlements to workers compensation in New South Wales. Arguably—and, I would say, probably definitely—that legislation was against ALP policy at the time. George was expelled because he supported the policy of the party he represented. Approximately 12 or 18 months later, the policy was changed to what it had been previously, but the party never asked George to rejoin because it was wrong and George was right. I extend my condolences to Mairi and Natalie, whom I have known for many years. Like them, I am proud and satisfied that I knew George Petersen. Hopefully, I have been affected by him, his morality, his views on issues and the fact that he was prepared to fight for a cause.
Members and officers of the House stood in their places.
Motion agreed to.