The fight against the death penalty
The fight against the death penalty

Time for a reality check. For all of Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop’s lecturing of the Indonesian government over the planned execution of two Australian citizens, it is worth recalling that, as late as the 1960s, Liberal state governments in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australian were still carrying out ghastly executions by hanging.

The death penalty was not abolished in Australia because our rulers were more civilised or morally superior to their Indonesian equivalents. Determined mass protests backed up by strikes by workers put an end to the brutality.

Liberal premiers excelled in whipping up law and order hysteria to provoke a lynch mob atmosphere. The notorious Victorian Liberal premier Henry Bolte, during his 1962 campaign to hang Robert Tait, who had been convicted of murder, publicly advocated administering the lash (it was still on the books as a punishment at the time).

Bolte was not some isolated figure in the Liberal establishment. He had the unanimous support of the cabinet and party room for hanging Tait.

Nonetheless, a wave of public opposition erupted to oppose the hanging. The trade unions campaigned against it, and even the murdered woman’s son spoke out against the execution.

When Bolte and his education minister went to open a secondary teachers’ college building next to Melbourne University, he was greeted by defiant students who let down the tyres of the two ministerial cars and padlocked the gates so that they could not get out. Famously, a female student managed to write “Hang Bolte” on the windscreen of his car in coral-pink lipstick.

Despite all this opposition, the Liberal government refused to defer the execution – even though various legal appeals were still in train. In an extraordinary step, the High Court intervened to order the government to issue a stay of execution until the appeals had been heard. Tait was eventually declared legally insane.

Bolte was incensed that he had been thwarted in his quest for blood. He was determined to get his revenge and to ensure a hanging was carried out on his watch in Victoria. In 1967, his victim was to be Ronald Ryan. He had been found guilty of killing a warder during a prison escape.

The campaign against the Tait hanging had had a significant impact on public opinion.

A Gallup Poll in February 1966 showed that support for hanging had dropped dramatically, from 69 per cent 12 years previously to 42 per cent. The numerous anti-hanging petitions that were circulated received a broad response.

The anti-hanging committees formed during the Tait case were quickly reactivated, and there was a new round of even more militant protests.

Students set up a permanent vigil on the steps of parliament in the lead-up to Ryan’s hanging. Then, on 27 January 1967, 1,000 demonstrators led by Melbourne’s militant waterside workers stormed parliament while chanting “We want Bolte!” and “Hang Bolte!”

Wharfies carrying a wooden frame on which their union banner was displayed forced their way through police lines and began beating on the doors. Vicious fights broke out between workers and police. The following Sunday, 8,000 protesters marched to Pentridge prison carrying placards reading “Hang Bolte” and “Bolte Murderer”.

What particularly provoked workers’ anger was that Ryan came from the bottom of the pile – a very poor Irish Catholic working class family – and thus was the perfect target for the Liberals’ reactionary agenda.

Initially, there were a few waverers in the Liberal cabinet. But they soon fell into line behind Bolte; the final cabinet decision to reaffirm the hanging was unanimous. One Liberal backbencher, Brian Dixon, publicly opposed the hanging. He was ostracised by other party members, and there were moves to expel him.

The night before Ryan was hanged, there was an all-night vigil outside Pentridge, at which Bolte’s effigy was hanged. Well before the execution at 8am on Tuesday, 3 February, the crowd had swelled to 3,000 booing, chanting, angry protesters. There were repeated clashes with the 300 police guarding the prison and more than 90 arrests.

A nationwide three-minute silence was observed at the exact time Ryan was hanged. Ryan’s fellow prisoners staged their own protest – they refused to get out of bed, staged a sit-in, refused to work or obey orders. There was an eerie silence throughout the prison.

Bolte had the grisly execution he had so desired, but it was to be the last in Australia. The protesters and striking workers had not saved Ryan, but they had demonstrated to the ruling class that any future state executions would face concerted resistance and could potentially rupture the whole fabric of society.

Read more
On the socialist campaign trail
Louise O'Shea

Hundreds of Victorian Socialists volunteers have been staffing early voting polling booths since 14 November, building on the more than 150,000 doors knocked across the north and west of Melbourne during the state election campaign. They are bringing a new style of campaigning to the state election, and have found a constituency of voters fed up with the prevailing pro-corporate, mainstream politics.

WA nurses defiant
Nick Everett

The Australian Nursing Federation will proceed with a ballot of its West Australian members in defiance of an order by the Industrial Relations Commission. If nurses reject the McGowan state Labor government’s below inflation pay offer, they will resume a campaign of industrial action, which was suspended last week.

Workers’ wages squeezed at a record rate
Workers’ wages plummeting
Tom Bramble

The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirm that real wages are falling at the fastest rate since the Great Depression, possibly even the 1890s, both period of massive unemployment.

Reclaim the city
Reclaim the city
April Holcombe

“The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be”, Marxist geographer David Harvey writes in his book Rebel Cities. “What kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold”.

Get a socialist into parliament
Sandra Bloodworth

Victorian Socialists—recognised by Beat magazine as “the most left-wing option Victorians have this election”, and by PEDESTRIAN.TV as “Fierce door knockers and grassroots campaigners”—is making a mammoth effort to push against the grain of history in the state election. The party has a chance of getting Jerome Small elected to the upper house in Northern Metro and Liz Walsh in Western Metro. If successful, it will be only the third time a socialist independent of the ALP has been elected to any Australian parliament. 

COP27: yet more blah, blah, blah
Edgar Daniel-Richards

The UN COP27 climate conference is taking place in Egypt, which is an apt choice for a climate conference—a military dictatorship propped up by oil money from Saudi Arabia. And it’s reflected in the outcome.