Taking it to the next level against Kennett: a chat with Stephen Jolly

“We were just stumbling across struggles everywhere. You’d be walking through the city centre and there’d be some minor rally, then there’d be some big rally and then there were occupations taking place. The Age on the day after the big rally quoted Lenin and said this was like Petrograd in 1917.”

As the Victorian Socialists gear up for the final push towards the 24 November state election, lead candidate Stephen Jolly sat down in the party’s Trades Hall headquarters for a discussion with Red Flag.

Steve started by describing the political environment in Melbourne in late 1992, when he was fresh off the bus from Sydney. His then political organisation, Militant, was throwing itself into the upsurge of struggle provoked by the newly elected Liberal premier Jeff Kennett. 

Kennett had launched an all-out assault on the working class. Wholesale privatisations, the abolition of state awards, and the closure of more than 300 schools were just some of the attacks. Steve compared the political ferment in Victoria at that time with the scenes he witnessed in China during the massive student protests in Tiananmen Square prior to the June 1989 massacre.

 “I’d never seen anything like it. The only thing comparable was China, before the fourth of June [1989], where everywhere you went, everyone was talking politics. And that’s the way it was here. There was just this spontaneous upsurge of anger against Kennett because of how he just went all in: initially closing 55 schools, eventually over 300 schools, cuts everywhere, poll taxes, you name it.” 

Richmond Secondary College was one of the first schools to be closed by Kennett. The campaign to save it became one of the most high profile struggles of the Kennett era, and one of very few to achieve real success. I asked Steve about how he got involved with the campaign there.  

“There was another guy in the same group as me, Laurence Coates … He had been here on holidays, and he was an organiser for the Militant in Sweden at the time. He got involved in the Richmond school campaign. I’d been involved in the Fitzroy school campaign, but it was run by the Labor Party, and they kicked me out. 

“So I ended up going down to Richmond. It wasn’t run by the Labor Party; it was run by the parents, especially the women. There was a much more sympathetic approach towards activists. We were welcomed with open arms and just got stuck in to help.”

The school community ended up occupying the school and running it as a rebel school for a whole year. Steve explains, “That was a stroke of genius from Laurence Coates, to be honest. The initial occupation was led by the teachers; it was a ‘traditional’ industrial occupation if you want to put it like that. With the support of parents, the students and the community, it lasted from the closure announcement in late 1992 to the end of the school term and right through the school holidays. 

“But as we got into 1993, the parents are going, ‘Now our kids have got to go to school, it’s a new year’. 

“Laurence argued that the only way for us to keep the momentum going was to actually reopen and run the school, illegally. 

“The teachers were given jobs in other schools that hadn’t been closed. So we put an ad in the paper for unemployed teachers. They’d get the dole plus $20. We had amazing teachers come down. Some of them, because they were unemployed and wanted to keep a foot in the door. But for many of them, it was a political decision. 

“So we ran a school, albeit with many less students than had been there when it was official. We got an agreement with the headmasters of the surrounding schools that they would accept the curriculum and the accreditation of the rebel school – in hindsight it was pretty amazing. And we launched the bloody thing. 

“One minute you’re an activist, and the next minute you’re literally on a Sunday night trying to work out classes and a curriculum for a school. It was pretty bizarre actually, but it all sort of worked out. 

“It meant that the point of the school remained. It wasn’t just an occupation of an empty building; it actually was a school, with a principal, teachers, a curriculum, kids, parents and after school activities. All the rest of the campaign was around that core.”

Steve goes on to describe how a school run by rebel staff and students “was like Preshil for the proletariat. [Preshil is Australia’s oldest and best known progressive or ‘alternative’ school, established in upper class Kew in 1931.] There were a small number of students, highly motivated staff, and the students were getting the type of attention that they never got at Richmond Secondary College. 

“But there were also challenges: the whole question of discipline, homework, and dealing with a whole range of anti-social behaviour typical to a school environment that some of us weren’t trained to deal with. There was also some tension between teachers, parents and activists, all of who were highly engaged because of the situation. 

“But the most important thing was that this was a living school that we refused to let die. The fact that we were occupying, the fact that we were going out to every single union rally, that we had to raise the $20 a week for all the teachers, plus all the money for the propaganda, meant that we were running a 24/7 political campaign. Raising money, whether at local political and community events, Labor Party and union meetings or at union rallies, was made easier because we were actually running a school that needed support.”

More than 300 schools were closed by Kennett, but Richmond was one of the very few that managed to make a big political issue of it. I ask Steve what it was that made Richmond special.

“The rich always underestimate the poor, as they say in Ireland, and that was definitely the case”, he explains. “They thought we were just going to go away. They totally underestimated the level of resistance.

“Richmond was prominent due to a combination of factors: the school itself was the product of a struggle in the 1960s, of a working class community saying ‘Just because we’re working class doesn’t mean that the girls are going to study crochet, and the boys are going to go into tech’. Nothing against any of those things, by the way, but [the community] wanted an academic school. So there was a massive struggle in the late 1960s that Labor gave in to, which created a secondary college. People who knew the history of that school weren’t going to roll over and let it die. 

“Plus you had a very militant VSTA [Victorian Secondary Teachers Association] branch, which is now the AEU [Australian Education Union], led by people who had come through the Marxist movement, like Mike Naismith, and other people like that, who were willing to do whatever they needed to do to fight back. 

“You also had some remarkable working class women like Elvie Sievers. I’ve been involved in politics since I was 17 or 18. I’ve never met an organic leader like her – she had the ability to grasp the nettle of a situation and express it verbally, in a way that just captures everybody by the heart and soul. That’s an art. You can’t learn that in a book. You’ve either got it or you haven’t got it. 

“You also had a relatively sympathetic council, dominated by Labor. Although they didn’t do much to help, the Labor council couldn’t act against the campaign. 

“It also helped that Richmond has always been a very politically engaged area. Back in the 1950s there were three Communist Party branches there and a strong Labor Party branch. 

“The presence of activists with a contemporary Marxist training and experience of similar struggles was also key. 

“You throw all those things together, and it was a mix that worked.”

The occupation lasted about a year. The government eventually moved to evict people from the school, and the campaign responded by establishing a picket line. There was a notorious baton charge by police, but also various forms of negotiations. The eventual outcome, Steve explains, “was an 80 percent victory. They wanted to close the school down and sell the site off. The site is situated on the banks of the Yarra. It’s an absolutely stunningly beautiful site. You can imagine the apartments and the prices they’d get. 

“We stopped this happening. They were forced to keep the site as a public school. I say it’s an 80 percent and not a 100 percent victory because what was a co-ed school became a girls’ school. It’s now Melbourne Girls College. It’s probably the best girls’ school in the state education system. My daughter – she hated it by the way, that’s another story – ended up going there, so for us it was huge. 

“There were a few other little things that we won, for instance there was a co-ed annexe for Collingwood College put in to Gleadell Street, which is now part of a new co-ed school that we won much later in Richmond. 

“And it was probably the first victory against the Kennett government. They literally threw everything at us. We had $1.5 million writs, which was a lot more money in those days. We faced evictions with hundreds of police, baton charges and a media scare campaign. 

“And we took it all and kept going. 

“Every time I walk past that school, I remember the blood on the streets on the day of the baton charge. I think of the year of occupying, the hard, tough meetings and the nights we went through there. It’s not often in politics that you see real results for your hard work, but when you do it’s bloody fantastic.” 

Win or lose, the lessons of struggles stay with those who were involved. I ask Steve what the key ones for him were. “A tremendous belief in the power of working class people to stick it out to the end, and keep fighting so long as there’s hope”, he tells me. “Also, the importance of looking outside the square. Of course when you hear they’re going to close a school, you organise a rally, and you organise a march. But then you also need the ability and determination sometimes to say fuck it, let’s just occupy the thing, let’s take it to the next level.” 

By this time other people are arriving in the Victorian Socialists’ office, and the messages for Steve are mounting up. 

Winding up the interview, I mention that during doorknocking for the Victorian Socialists, I encountered a woman who knew all about the Richmond struggle. Her daughter had been at Northlands, another school saved by a school occupation, led by the local Aboriginal community, including legendary activist Gary Foley. “The Aborigines saved the school”, this woman had explained to me. 

Twenty-five years on, those struggles still resonate. A year ago, the idea of putting a socialist into the Victorian parliament seemed far-fetched, an example of “thinking outside the square”. But Steve’s many years of community campaigning, combined with the enthusiasm of a wide range of socialist groups and individuals, make it seem we’re in with a chance – as Steve puts it – of taking it to the next level.