Bill Hartley, 1930-2006


Kevin Healy, Melbourne

Since Bill Hartley died at the age of 76 on February 18, a number of friends have spontaneously proffered that it is the end of an era. Looking at Bill's 76 years, it is not hard to understand why — he became part of the political life of so many people in Melbourne over the last 40 years, beginning with his state secretaryship of the Victorian ALP in the 1960s.

Bill could be vague to the point of being maddening on the one hand and warm and empathetic on the other. He was also amazingly calm given the vitriol he suffered from the mouthpieces and media outlets of the establishment. Some of the most vicious attacks came during his period in the 1960s as Victorian ALP secretary, when the Melbourne Herald and Sun (they were separate papers then) would drag out the most sinister pictures of Bill. These lacked only demonic horns and a tail, although the accompanying article always let the public know they were dealing with the devil.

Bill was excoriated because the Victorian ALP at that time dared to adopt policies aimed at improving the lot of working people, including opposing the Vietnam War from the outset. Deputy federal ALP leader Gough Whitlam and state Labor leader Clyde Holding attacked the policy, claiming it would cost Labor votes (forget the principle!) And it did cost votes in the 1966 federal election. But, ironically, the policy and the anti-war movement played a key role in Whitlam being elected as prime minister in December 1972.

Many of us (and I was on the state ALP executive with Bill in the years leading up to and during the 1970 sacking of that executive by the party's national executive) believed the Victorian ALP was the norm, that the right-wing run NSW and other state branches were an historical aberration. But, in retrospect, it was the Victorian branch that was the aberration — a small left-wing bubble in history due to

the 1955 split, when the right-wing left the Victorian ALP largely to the control of left-wing unions.

For Bill, the federal intervention into the branch — and this was rarely mentioned — meant he lost his job and his income, though money and the accumulation of wealth were never his concerns. His only concern was the struggle and, although at times some of us may have disagreed with his position, we could never question his dedication, sincerity and commitment.

His dedication to the Palestinians, one of the most oppressed and mis represented people of the past 60 years, was well known, and his connections allowed many of us to visit the Middle East and gain access to refugee camps and contacts that allowed an invaluable insight into the issues.

When Bill became epileptic late in life, he even threw himself into the work of the Epileptic Foundation, leading to a glowing death notice from that body, signed by, among others, the Liberal Party matriarch (Dame) Beryl Beaurepaire. They obviously discovered the devil incarnate was in the flesh a warm, caring human being.

The illness led to his long and distinguished career at radio station 3CR. Even at the end of his life, Bill was working on a 12-month stint to establish a new Indigenous radio station in Geraldton, and was last seen sitting up in bed with headphones playing interviews he'd recorded with Aboriginal elders at a function earlier that night.

For many activists of my generation, Bill has been a constant in our political lives and his passing is indeed an end of an era.

A memorial celebration of Bill's life will be held at Melbourne's Trades Hall at 5pm on March 9.

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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