Percy Brookfield: MP who used parliament to agitate and organise

The Best Hated Man in Australia: The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921
By Paul Robert Adams, Puncher and Wattmann, $34

In a country where heroism is commonly deemed present only in wars and sports, it is sad but unsurprising that, for decades past, the story of Percy Brookfield has been known only to a few.
However, by any measure, Brookfield was a hero—an industrial militant, trenchant anti-war activist and reluctant, but effective, parliamentarian whose legend should stand tall among all trade unionists and anti-war activists today.

Hearty thanks go to Paul Adams for a biography that brings Brookfield’s uncompromising struggles for working class liberty back to light for a modern-day readership.

Born in England in 1875, Percy Brookfield’s early adult life was that of an itinerant worker, on ships and in mines, prospecting and travelling about.

While little is known of his early life we do know that, around 1910, he was drawn, like so many other socialists of his time, to the outback mining town of Broken Hill where the working class was highly organised and militant.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Broken Hill was deeply affected.

Metal prices fell through the floor and job shortages drove many unemployed miners into the arms of recruitment officers.

While the labour movement in Australia, like others overseas, was torn asunder by debates over support or opposition to the war, the vast majority of organised workers in Broken Hill who did not go overseas, opposed warmongering.

They recognised that the same Empire loyalists who were agitating for working men to sign up for the slaughter were also fighting tooth and nail against decent working conditions.

The battle for shorter working hours, so crucially linked with health and safety, drew many workers into a bitter strike against the mine managers in 1915-6.

It was in this ferment that Brookfield rose to prominence, a working miner who was prepared to throw himself into activity.

Unassuming at first, his tireless activism and skilful oratory in union and anti-conscription campaigns drew supporters around him.

He was a leading activist in the Labor Volunteer Army, formed to fight conscription.

Each LVA member signed a pledge refusing to serve as a conscript, military or industrial, and to “resist by every means in my power any attempt to compel me or any of my comrades in this organisation to break this pledge, even though it may mean my imprisonment or death”.

In Broken Hill, the rules of polite debate were not always observed. Brookfield wore his heart on his sizeable political sleeve on more than one occasion, when he was forced to face off against conservative returned soldiers and the like who took objection to his anti-war speeches and brandished fists, knives and guns in attempts to silence him.

He also had to deal with the full force of the law on many occasions, when he was arrested and charged for speaking out against war, poverty and industrial injustices.

Dragged time and again into court to answer charges that his speeches were “prejudicial to recruitment”, he continued to agitate against the war, even after being jailed.

Organising from parliament
When asked to represent Broken Hill for Labor in the NSW parliament, however, Brookfield was a reluctant candidate.

He knew that many a predecessor had rolled over on the working class once occupying a cushy parliamentary position.

Nonetheless, he stood and was elected by a massive popular vote; he went to Macquarie Street vowing to “always support the bottom dog”, a promise on which he delivered many times over.
His speeches in Sydney’s Domain attracted people by the thousands.

The eventual release of 12 Industrial Workers of the World members, who were wrongly imprisoned for conspiracy to burn down Sydney, was due in large part to his tireless agitation.

Brookfield’s radicalism, and especially his admiration for the Russian Bolsheviks, made him enemies in the Labor bureaucracy.

Like many good activists, he was expelled from the Party, but was successfully re-elected as an independent.

At one point, Brookfield held the balance of power and used it to further Broken Hill workers’ claims for shorter working hours and better health and safety conditions.

Sadly, in 1921, Brookfield was killed as he tried to reason with a crazed man who had begun indiscriminately shooting people on a railway platform in South Australia.

Even political opponents who would have happily seen the Broken Hill legend gone had to admit that the manner of Brookfield’s death aptly illustrated the courageous way he had lived.

Brookfield’s brief political career demonstrated how a political leader, connected organically with a strong rank-and-file movement and always prepared to fight for its demands, can publicise the hypocrisy of the system to a wide audience and draw people into struggle.

Sarah Gregson


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