Trailing Thirroul’s long, rowdy ride with Labor

Author Chris Lacey with his book Illawarra Agitators. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Author Chris Lacey with his book Illawarra Agitators. Picture: ROBERT PEET

When chronicling the history of the Thirroul branch of the Australian Labor Party, Chris Lacey spent countless holidays and weekends lost in archives of branch motions, meeting minutes and newspaper articles to build up a clear picture of everything that has happened during the past 100 years.

But - as he filled the pages of his new book Illawarra Agitators - Mr Lacey also had access to a valuable primary source, who has watched more than 80 years of Thirroul Labor history unfold and brought life and colour to the stories contained in the yellowing documents.

Labor life member Keith Woodward has been handing out how-to-vote cards in Thirroul since he was 10 years old, when his father Bill was branch president in the 1920s.

Now 92, Mr Woodward campaigned at his 67th election in September this year, after manning the ballot boxes at 26 federal, 21 state and 20 local government contests.

Keith Woodward campaigning for Labor earlier this year at his 67th election.

Keith Woodward campaigning for Labor earlier this year at his 67th election.

He joined the party at the behest of his father when he was 22, after he returned home from fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

"When I came home from the war my dad had the papers ready for me to fill out," Mr Woodward told the Mercury in September.

His father, William (Bill) Woodward, was a key figure in the branch's formative years and his story, along with those of his two sons - the late Wollongong City Council alderman Fred, and Keith - are interwoven through Mr Lacey's tome, which will be launched on Saturday.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke arriving at Bulli Workers Club in July to speak at the 100th anniversary of the Thirroul branch of the ALP.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke arriving at Bulli Workers Club in July to speak at the 100th anniversary of the Thirroul branch of the ALP.

Although not involved in forming the branch in July 1913, Bill Woodward managed to time his desertion from the British Navy with Thirroul Labor's founding year.

According to Mr Lacey in the first chapter of his lengthy history book, the then 19-year-old sailor "resolved to jump ship in the Port of Sydney to start a new life in the great southern land".

He went on the work on the railways, and was transferred to work at Thirroul depot in the 1920s.

"In 1913, the young sailor from Birmingham slept his first night under a tree at Springwood in the lower Blue Mountains and chopped firewood for his first meal on Australian soil," Mr Lacey writes.

"A century later his family name is synonymous with the Labor Party and civic life in Thirroul."

One of the most lively chapters of Bill Woodward's time in the Thirroul branch was during the tumultuous 1930s, when members came to blows because of clashing views about the by-election of a state candidate.

Mr Lacey - who is the present branch president - described it as one of his favourite passages in the book, both because it was so dramatic and because Mr Woodward was able to illuminate the stories with tales about his father's antics.

"Keith's father was one of the key actors in this by-election in 1933," he said.

"Basically, Jack Lang's [NSW Labor] government had just been dismissed, and the local branches were getting a little bit upset with how the state party was operating and with the organisation.

"Lang and the inner group ruled the party with an iron fist, and then in the Illawarra the member for Bulli died.

"A pre-selection was called, where members could nominate, and the local members selected a candidate but the head office then installed its own candidate.

"The local members were very, very upset about this, and Keith was able to tell us in great depth about the sorts of things his father was involved in.

"[Bill] would drive down to the beach at Thirroul and get 50 or 100 men together and stand on the back of a truck and hold these really rowdy meetings about what the Labor Party stood for.

"Eventually, the Thirroul branch was so incensed with head office, and agitated so forcefully that it was actually kicked out of the Labor Party for a period of time. The charter was withdrawn, and then at one of the meetings to try and reestablish the branch, tensions were so high that there was a 50-a-side fist fight, like a bar brawl."

"These sorts of physical altercations are very, very rare today in the Labor party, but at the time it was a strong sign about the local members not standing for the decisions that had been taken on their behalf."

While they have not resulted in such violent physical outbursts, preselection battles have continued to rage in Illawarra electorates in recent years.

Numerous state and federal members have been parachuted in to their seats, including Throsby MP Stephen Jones, who was installed by the party before the 2010 election and Sharon Bird, who was voted in as the Cunningham candidate using Labor's controversial N40 rule instead of a rank-and-file ballot in 2002.

Ms Bird features regularly in the pages detailing the events of the past decade and recently mentioned the Illawarra Agitators in Parliament.

She said she found the past tales of bitter pre-selections, robust debates and community agitating comforting because it showed Labor's long history in the region.

"What that does remind us is that these contests are not negative things - that's what politics are about: a contest of ideas," she said.

"These are good conversations and debates - its not a knitting party for enjoyment - and should be testing your ideas.

"It reminds us that these are not negative new developments, that's what the whole history of political debate is about - and Labor has been around a long time, so we've got a lot of experience."

Aside from the Woodwards and present-day politicians, there are many colourful characters whose stories are woven through Illawarra Agitators.

Another key figure was Jim Hagan, a branch member for more than 50 years without whom the book would never have been written.

History professor Jim Hagan, left, pictured here in 2001 with former NSW premier Bob Carr and Dr Henry Lee.

History professor Jim Hagan, left, pictured here in 2001 with former NSW premier Bob Carr and Dr Henry Lee.

A professor of history at the University of Wollongong, Prof Hagan would hold dinner parties with other branch members - including Mr Lacey - and tell them stories about the past in an effort to foster an understanding of his beloved Labor Party's history. But then in 2009, Prof Hagan died, leaving his plans to chronicle the Thirroul branch's history unfinished.

"A number of us in the branch felt a real sense of responsibility to try and see the project through to completion," Mr Lacey said. "So I took it upon myself to lead that project and it's become an obsession, really."

A lawyer by trade, Mr Lacey had never written a book before and said he was relieved and proud to see finally Illawarra Agitators in print and being launched this weekend.

"There's a sense of relief that the project is finished, but I'm also really proud. It does feel really good to do something that hasn't been done before."

He believes the book is unique among Labor histories and a valuable asset for understanding the party's history.

"We haven't ever really found a full history of a local branch of the party before," he said.

"Most of the other Labor histories have focused on personalities - like biographies - or on particular events, like the Whitlam dismissal, or for periods of a certain government, like the Hawke or Keating government."

"A lot of what you see - and what forms people's perceptions of the Labor party - is those big personalities and the leaders of the party, but to peel back the curtain and look behind what actually happens in a local branch you can see ordinary people who are interested in wanting the best outcome for their community."

It was this ideal, of being able to secure the best for his community, that made Mr Lacey join the Labor Party in 2005.

With this in mind, he was pleased to find a strong record of policy making and debate carried through the branch's history while researching the book.

"In the Thirroul branch there's a terrific history of our members making contributions to policy well before governments and the party picks them up," he said.

"There's also a very strong theme, throughout the history, of health and education policy. For example, our branch was talking about needs-based education funding in the 1970s.

Mr Lacey said this focus stretched from the Whitlam years in the '70s, through the '80s and '90s, and remains important to members today.

"I guess in some respects this book shows things don't change - the debates Labor has today have been had in the past and are recurring," he said.

"And sometimes they have evolved, and sometimes not."

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