More than meets the eye – the CPA(ML) in NSW Part 4 – No surrender

Written by: Louisa L on 30 October 2020

 

On February 20, 1976, less than three months after Whitlam was sacked, a small notice announced that US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (see cartoon) would be visiting Canberra and Sydney. The head of one of the largest US imperialist conglomerates as well as VP, he was giving royal assent to his new colony. 

In Sydney he would celebrate with the misnamed “Australian-American Association”. In reality the American name preceded the Aussie one, showing who had first place in the relationship. Set up in New York by Murdoch empire founder, Sir Keith Murdoch in 1948, it was an agent for economic and cultural imperialism, among other things offering lucrative cultural and academic scholarships for hand-picked recipients. Nearly 50 years later it operates with impunity and five-star ratings, while the Chinese-funded equivalent, the much smaller Confucius Association, causes widespread gnashing of teeth, as a danger to democracy. 

The AAA’s online gala this year honours Kathy Warden CEO and President of war corporation Northrop Grumman. The other Rockefeller guest was the United States Chamber of Commerce, AmCham for short. Now with offices in five Australian capital cities, it describes itself as “Australia’s largest and most prestigious international business organisation” and “the voice of international business interests”. Back in ’76 we exposed AmCham and AAA as undermining our independence. Things have not improved! 

Like latter day reality TV, in 1976 we had 38 days to organise. We plastered areas the suburbs with screen printed posters inviting people to the first meeting of the Mobilisation Against Rockefeller (MAR). Interstate groups were contacted. A Vietnam vet (a former commissioned officer) and his wife joined. He told us how he and the men under his command painted up army vehicles and planes at night four years earlier: ‘Vote for Whitlam and be home by Christmas’. There were English and American accents, including Tex, who soon launched the CYIA (Committee of Yanks for an Independent Australia). Dogmatic and humorless? Hardly. Tex was involved in an independence show on community station 2SER and helped work on the newspaper, National Southern Cross.

It was a wide reach, to match Rockefeller’s economic empire. According to the first verse of our street theatre’s reworked Christmas carol, 

‘Old King Rockefeller bagged all our best resources
 Then he sent to CIA to muster up his forces
E-sso, Pan Am, White Wings too, Co-olgate Palmolive 
Then he grabbed uranium, for atomic fu-u-el’. 

Of course. The timing of Whitlam’s sacking also involved a US corporate court case over failure to supply uranium, blocked by his government and the will of the people.

Five days before his Sydney visit, MAR and Campaign Against Foreign Military Bases in Australia almost filled a thousand seat venue at NSW Uni with four bands. This was in tune with our emphasis on cultural independence through numerous other concerts, bush dances and events over years, like internationalist Afrika Nights which members helped organise alongside the Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness members, and those fighting for Eritrean liberation. A packed Sydney Town Hall concert with People for Australian Independence and Citizens for Democracy was hosted by Bryan Brown.

These events breathed the history none of us learned at school.

So, on Wednesday March 31, 1976 a thousand people turned up to protest.

We were keen to get close to the Wentworth Hotel, perhaps through the front doors, by dividing into two marches. What a debacle! Only two people knew the not so grand plan. Police let loose with boots and fists. On Elizabeth Street they broke a woman’s ribs before arresting her and a number of others.

Regrouping in Hyde Park, it was left to others to announce legal assistance. We had made no preparations for that. It was an important lesson in looking after people and on focusing long term work alongside everyday people, rather than just the fireworks of big events. We began by fundraising for those arrested.

Work

All this time, other members and supporters continued their daily efforts. On the buses and railways, in hospitals and schools, in factories and academia and the public service, on wharves and driving trucks, their work was quieter, longer-term, deeper, slower and powerful. 

Nurses, both members and supporters, drove the party’s national struggle to protect Medibank, underpinning its strength, one of many struggles we directly helped organise.

The party encouraged young students to become workers. Union militancy was not universal in the late 70s. Some of us found ourselves under attack at work. One was expelled from his job as a bus conductor three times, but workmates came to his rescue. Often workers understood solidarity far better than union officials. Our educational backgrounds in largely migrant workplaces, meant we could effectively voice grievances. Sometimes it was a small issue, delayed arrival of safety gloves, that lit a fire of action. It was a time when lessons came thick and fast.

For this writer, four years on a metal industry process line gave infinitely more than I gave back, including lifelong friendships. It underpinned a real understanding of the web of relationships, collective wisdom and discipline, strategy and tactics that had till then been words on a page. It taught me to ask questions and listen, to rely on the people for strength, to sense when they were ready to act. After being unsuccessfully sacked for the fourth time in four years, I knew my time was nearly up. I did a Dip Ed and headed into teaching, profoundly changed. It didn’t mean I always followed these lessons, or didn’t make mistakes, but at least I had a fighting chance. 

The collective ideological leadership of the party – in study, in discussions, in Vanguard (the longest continuously published left paper in Australia), the Australian Communist and in Ted Hill’s prodigious output above his full-time legal practice defending workers – showed these small battles in their wider context. 

Errors

Rather than left blocs criticised by Hill and the Central Committee, the mistake of younger members and supporters from the mid-80s, was that we had no independent presence beyond the party publications and public spokespeople after People for Australian Independence’s successor, Australian Independence Movement, folded.

Only those who do nothing make no mistakes. But this was a serious one, particularly for a party that lauded Mao Zedong’s The Question of Independence and Initiative in the United front, which warned that when working with others, although concessions could be made, both independence and initiative must be maintained. But beyond our workplaces, we were often subsumed in the united front.

It was not till the rise of Spirit of Eureka in the 90s that Sydney again had a separate anti-imperialist organisation able to take independent action. 

There were other mistakes too. During the Whitlam period, the imperialist power of the Soviet Union, bearing a fake socialist façade that shamed its heritage, grew around the world. Research, at the suggestion of communist veteran Bert Chandler exposed its moves into Australia. 

Few knew that Khemlani loans affair (the final excuse to ditch Whitlam) involved millions from the Moscow Narodny Bank. In Wolloomooloo, it partnered with shady slum landlord and developer Sid Londish. Other ‘development’ deals included Queensland’s Fortitude Valley. Like its US counterpart, the KGB was busy building favourable connections in unions and the ALP generally.

This was important research, showing superpower contention as a great mover in politics then as now, with a rising China. 

But in Sydney our young members and supporters greatly overestimated the power of the new superpower, often seeing it as more dangerous than a weakened US imperialism. While Boris Detentevich rightly joined Uncle Sam in guerrilla theatre, wielding giant missiles, facts spoke for themselves. US imperialism was still numero uno here. It held state power.

Industry or community

From the early 80s through to the late 90s, the party’s chairperson, Bruce Cornwall, and other members and supporters were instrumental in the Peace Squadron which, alongside Paddlers for Peace took to Sydney Harbour each time US warships sailed in. The focus on the enemy was sharp. In 1983, the NSW Government banned nuclear powered ships. 

US policy was to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear arms, so the Paddlers and Squadron treated all US ships as potentially nuclear armed. Eventual Greens MLC Ian Cohen was famed for his surfboard bow-ride from a US aircraft carrier. One of our loosely defined mob was less shimmering in 1988. He climbed up an accommodating aircraft carrier sewage pipe, stepped on board with “G’day mate!” to an African American Naval Officer in regimental finery, who offered his white-gloved hand to our friend’s poo covered one, and shook it. 

Bruce and others spent decades in working with numerous church and left political groups in the peace movement, including the 400,000 strong Sydney Walk Against the War before the US invasion of Iraq. Others took leading roles in the latter on behalf of their unions. 

Industrial issues also held our attention, including the destruction of the BLF. There were many picket lines, small and large that drew our support or in which we marched alongside workmates.

The oral history, No Surrender, charted the historic three-month strike and occupation of Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island Dockyard in 1989. It honoured the occupiers and strikers who were unable to win the industrial support from the ALP-dominated union movement that would have ensured victory. It drew connections to the bigger struggle for independence and reflected the many hours the author spent on the island in support during the struggle and with the occupiers afterwards.

Community struggles were, and continue to be, numerous and diverse, including small ones that won against offshore sandmining, or gaining East Timorese families refugee status, against hospital closures in Sydney and regional NSW or rapacious overdevelopment. There are too many to list.

No one will do it for you

But the majority of our work has been below the surface of huge events, in the day to day slog of jobs away from media spotlights. Some of us have been deeply involved on state union executives, while maintaining full time work in schools, hospitals and construction sites. We work together and individually to draw together corporate connections, like Rupert Murdoch’s hunt for multi-billion-dollar profits from schools, or that overthrew the corrupt leadership of the Heath Services Union and helped keep hospitals in public hands.

We have been at the heart of actions that hit national front pages or were barely a blimp in local ones.

In unions, we focus on rank and file organisation, pushing for the most militant positions possible in often narrow opportunities, so our workmates can gain a few scraps from the capitalist table, but also learn how to fight effectively to get out from under the US imperialist thumb. We work hard in trade unions, but we try not to succumb to trade union politics.

In connections with First Peoples’ struggles we expose the danger of divisive corporate plans that might otherwise be hidden and stand with them when their enemies try to smash and destroy. First Peoples will lead their own battles, but they are not alone.

We work quietly in numerous community struggles, building webs of connection despite weaknesses rising from the capitalist stew in which we all live. We aspire to something better than individualism and ego. We trust the Peoples of this continent and its islands, for only with them can imperialism be overthrown.

History did not end with the rise of US imperialism as the sole superpower, despite the proclamations of its pet historians. Another dangerous superpower has risen. Yet people still stand in defiance. 

After 100 years of struggle for the classless society of communism in Australia, we are all better placed to move forward, not because we have made no mistakes, but because we accept their inevitability, analysing and learning from them, enriched by them, as we are by what we have done well. 

If you don’t write your own history, no one will do it for you. So, these four articles focus on the role of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in Sydney and in NSW. But we have to be truthful. We are not the only ones struggling for a better future. There is no sense in point scoring or mud-slinging, to distinguish this or that group from the other. The Peoples of this continent and its islands need leadership. They want a unified and strong response to the destruction, by war or climate change or mounting attacks under Covid’s cover. It is the people versus imperialism. 

To the huge and dangerous forces that face us all, we speak our defiance. 

With the people we raise collective banners. Our actions speak two words – no surrender. 

 

 

Print Version - new window Email article

-----

Go back