Jon (Darce) Cassidy was probably not meant to become one of the foremost left wing agitators of his generation. Jon’s upbringing was privileged. His father, Ralph Cassidy, tragically killed on RAAF service in 1942, was a barrister from a poor Irish background tinged with “Orange” sectarianism. His mother, Audrey Cassidy, scrimped and saved to send Jon to the elitist (and anti-Catholic) Sydney Church of England Grammar School (“Shore”).
As a student, Jon would drive his uncle, Sir Jack Cassidy (the right wing vice-president of the Liberal Party), and Sir Frank Packer to play tennis at the Royal Sydney Golf Club. Nevertheless, living in Cammeray in the fifties, in a by now downwardly mobile middle class family, Jon began to reject the narrow-minded ethos of both his home life and school. Symbolically perhaps, he embraced a new name – “Darce”.
Darce experienced his entry to Sydney University (as a law student on a Repatriation Department scholarship in 1960) as a liberation from a restricted background, and particularly enjoyed mingling with Catholics. His service (1960-63) in the Sydney University (CMF) Regiment belied his rapid evolution to the political left.
He attended his first political demonstration (the Martin Place rally against the 1960 Sharpeville massacre) and joined the NSW Association for Immigration Reform, becoming a speaker against the White Australia Policy. He read the magazines Dissent, Outlook, and Nation; and listened enthralled to Bertrand Russell, Jim Cairns and Ted Wheelwright on television.
From late 1961 to 1966, Darce set the standard for committed activism as a member of the Sydney University ALP Club led by the Trotskyists Peter Templeton, Sylvia Hale, Hall Greenland and Ian McDougall. It was Darce who made (from his parents’ wooden clothes line) and lit the petrol-doused “fiery cross” that turned a “Commem Day” prank in Wynyard Street (6 May 1964) into a sensational protest against US racial segregation.
Darce joined the ABC as a trainee journalist on 10 March 1964, the start of a long career in respectable journalism. In the ALP Club, he began his long parallel career in disreputable “guerrilla journalism”, a term he coined to describe the cheeky and irreverent style he learned from Pat Mackie, whose underground “roneo” machine had evaded the police at Mount Isa.
Assuming the editorship of the ALP Club’s scurrilous weekly news sheet Wednesday Commentary, Darce would type the stencil in the Four Corners office and rush to Bob Gould’s Woollahra home to use the Sydney left’s only gestetner machine. NSW premier Askin opined: “It’s the filthiest thing I’ve ever seen on paper – it makes ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ look like a very modest publication indeed”.
In February 1965, while employed on Four Corners, Darce and his tape recorder joined the Freedom Ride to Walgett and Moree, organised by Student Action for Aborigines. (He soon found the ABC wanted only to bury his tapes, meaning his now famous Freedom Ride documentary was not aired until 1978). Darce later returned to Walgett, conducting organising work at great personal risk.
Darce was transferred to Melbourne by the ABC in September 1966 and worked on This Day Tonight. A chance meeting with Monash Labor Club president Dave Nadel, whom Darce had first met at an Australian Student Labour Federation conference (Adelaide, May 1966), prompted the establishment of Jasmine Street, an off-campus political and social centre for the Labor Club in Caulfield, with Darce as front man with the landlord, and genial host at Friday night parties and Sunday night dinners.
Darce enrolled part time at Monash, and his influence was soon apparent. The outrageous style that had marked Wednesday Commentary began intruding into Print, the Labor Club’s renamed news sheet with Darce’s phrase “political power grows out of the barrel of a gestetner” emblazoned on its masthead. Nadel and Cassidy (the editor) were soon called before the vice-chancellor. When Monash awarded a doctorate to premier Bolte, the Labor Club students, with Darce officiating as MC, conferred the degree on a pig. The ABC transferred Darce temporarily to Canberra in mid-1967. He completed his politics unit at ANU and joined its Labor Club, then engaged in collecting aid for the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.
Darce returned to Melbourne in February 1968 and bought 1 Shirley Grove in East St Kilda, which doubled as the de facto headquarters of the Monash Labor Club throughout the heady year of 1968, the gestetner in the laundry being used for both Print and the high school “underground” leaflets of Students in Dissent. Darce was instrumental in establishing the Bakery, a political centre in Greville Street, Prahran, catering for the Monash Labor Club and the Revolutionary Socialists organisation, and thereafter (1969-71) held the show together, collecting the rent, fronting the landlord, organising the meetings, editing Half-Baked.
He was active in the Vietnam Moratorium of 1970-71, an organiser of the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) formed at the Bakery in 1970, production manager of WSA’s organ Struggle, a member of the clandestine Young Communist League, a member of Red Eureka Movement, a pioneer of Community Radio (3CR) and one of the principal organisers of the six busloads that undertook the 1974 “Long March” to North West Cape. Darce received death threats when his name and address appeared on a leaflet celebrating the throwing of Nazis into the Yarra, and WSA members guarded the house.
In 1971, Darce was the subject of a sustained attack by News Weekly and Maxwell Newton’s Melbourne Observer accusing him (and WSA) of terrorism. A Democratic Labor Party question in the Senate led to an in-house ABC investigation and his eventual exoneration (ironically by ASIO). Darce led the 1977-82 campaign to wrest control of the ABC Staff Association from the right wing. In 1989, he was appointed South Australian state manager (radio). After retiring, he acted as spokesperson for both Save Our SBS and Friends of ABC, and was on the board of Ethnic Radio 3ZZZ.
In his last years, before succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Darce Cassidy joined the Australian Greens and fought for the rights of refugees. He was the man with the silver pen and the heart of gold. He is survived by his wife Jan Smith, their son Michael and his daughter Anna (with Julie Rigg). R.I.P. Darce.
First published online by Labour History Melbourne.