George Petersen 1921-2000

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George Petersen 19212000

George Petersen, Labor member of state parliament in Wollongong from 1968 to 1988, died at the age of 79 on March 28. Throughout his adult life he was a fighter for the rights of working-class and other oppressed people.

George was born into a rural working-class family in Childers, Queensland, in 1921. His early experiences of the 1930s Great Depression and the influence of two communist uncles, while he was working as a public servant in the Bundaberg post office, started him on the path to socialism.

Although attracted by communist ideas, George's concern about Stalinism delayed his joining the Communist Party until on leave from the army in 1943. He was an active party member until Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

In 1957 George was transferred to the Department of Social Security in Wollongong. He read widely on socialist thought and became interested in the ideas of Leon Trotsky. He initiated a small Trotskyist group and in 1960 linked up with the Sydney Trotskyists organised by Nick Origlass.

George joined the local Unanderra branch of the ALP, following the Trotskyist tactic-cum-strategy of working within the Labor Party. Thus began a 30-year membership and difficult relationship of an honest socialist bound by the fetters of the pro-capitalist ALP.

In his autobiography, George Petersen Remembers; The Contradictions, Problems and Betrayals of Labor in Government in New South Wales, George wrote: "With the advantage of hindsight I now believe that the strategy was a flawed one. A revolutionary socialist who is a member of the ALP is essentially a parasite on the body politic of the ALP. The parasite enters the host and the host changes the parasite.

"The practice of joining the ALP means that one becomes committed to the policy of obtaining reforms through parliament. You either go right or go cranky. I like to think that usually I went cranky but there were occasions when I went right. I hope it can be said of me, as it was said of Harry Holland in New Zealand, that the marvel was that the move to the right took place so seldom."

In 1968 George was elected to the NSW state parliament as the member for Kembla (later Illawarra). During his time in parliament George was a tireless worker for people's rights.

He always actively supported local community campaigns and he stood alone as a parliamentarian with integrity, who used his public profile, time, energy and skills to support many causes, including abortion rights for women, homosexual law reform, prison reform, Aboriginal land rights, conservation issues, anti-nuclear campaigns, despite the fact that it caused him difficulties within the ALP.

He was active in the movement against the Vietnam War and provided ongoing support for the Palestinian people in their struggle for a homeland. He was the leading figure in the campaign which exposed the frame up of Tim Anderson, Ross Dunn and Paul Alister for the "Hilton bombing".

George was a stalwart supporter of workers' trade-union rights. He supported many union struggles, including the 1982 Kemira mine sit-in, and was present at their march on federal Parliament House. He supported the BLF against deregistration and opposed the federal Labor government's Prices and Incomes Accord from within the ALP.

It can truly be said that George took up every significant progressive cause and used any parliamentary opportunity and his status as an MP to further the struggle for socialism.

In 1987, the NSW ALP government planned to introduce new regressive workers' compensation legislation, which was bitterly opposed by the South Coast Labour Council and local militant unions. George took the principled position of refusing to be bound by the parliamentary ALP caucus, voted against the bill, and was expelled from the ALP. His wife Mairi Petersen was also expelled.

George then formed the Illawarra Workers Party (IWP) and contested the March 1988 state election, in which the Labor government was defeated. The seat of Illawarra remains a safe ALP seat.

The IWP folded up but George did not cease political activity. He was a leader in the anti-Gulf War protests and he and Mairi have been the nucleus of the fight to stop the Shellharbour Marina development. Most recently, he actively supported the struggle for East Timor's independence.

George loved to sing in the Illawarra trade union choir. Although he suffered worsening health over the past few years he continued to support progressive causes and maintain his interest in working-class struggles. He was a long-term subscriber to Green Left Weekly and continued to contribute to both left-wing debate and letters to the editor of the capitalist media until very recently. He attended the International Women's Day march in Wollongong on March 4.

In the Illawarra, George Petersen will be remembered as a true friend and comrade of many, and a fighter for ordinary people against big business, pro-development councils and hostile governments. He will be remembered on the left in NSW as an honest debater and worthy opponent, and as a non-sectarian ally in the struggle for socialism.

George maintained his commitment to the interests of the working class. We should honour his memory by continuing to fight for a socialist revolution. In his own words: "The achievement of socialism can only obtained by millions taking action to control their own lives. A socialist must be concerned with organisation and action which heightens rather than dampens the class struggle."

BY MARG PERROTT