|Issue No 48||31 March 2000|
OBITUARY - George Petersen (1921-2000)
By Rick Petersen
A tribute to one of the South Coast's favourite sons who passed away this week.
George Petersen died recently, in Shellharbour Hospital. His wife Mairi and stepdaughter Natalie were with him. George had been hospitalised for 8 days, with complications arising from his cardiovascular system. During these days he was in the tender loving care of family, friends, and the wonderful hospital staff. He faded away without pain, remaining always the George we will know and remember.
George was born in 1921, the offspring of north European immigrants to QLD who arrived in 1800s. His grandparents were farmers, but George's parents had left the land, and he was born into the Australian rural working class.
George had a good head on his shoulders and was an accomplished school student, but poverty and the great depression ensured that he left school at age 15 and got a clerical job in the Bundaberg post office. By then he was under the influence of the political upheavals of the depression, and two communist uncles. The world was sinking into the abyss of fascism and war. George joined the struggle to drag it out. He wanted to go to Spain and join the fight against General Franco's military coup, but fortunately he was too young and his enquiries got nowhere.
George was conscripted into the Australian army in 1942, and spent 4 wasted years in QLD and Borneo training in guerrilla combat. He was a member of the Australian Communist Party from 1943 to 1956, leaving soon after the Party supported Russia's 1956 invasion of Hungary to suppress a workers revolution.
In 1957 George was transferred to a job in the Department of Social Security in Wollongong. He joined the ALP, and did much to strengthen the organisation in the suburbs of Illawarra to the south of Wollongong city. Together with local steelworkers and coalminers, he set up Unanderra branch of the ALP. He became for a few years a close political associate of the major figure of the Illawarra ALP, Rex Connor.
In 1968 George was preselected as the ALP candidate for the State Parliamentary seat of Kembla, and won comfortably at the election. For the next 8 years he was, as he often described himself, a left wing opposition backbencher. He was far removed from the corridors of power, but used his position to agitate for better public services in the Illawarra, for American and Australian withdrawal from Vietnam, and for workers rights everywhere. He agitated against systematic bashings of prisoners by the administrators of NSW prisons, against anti-abortion laws, against Apartheid, and against destruction of the natural environment. One major result of his agitation was the Nagle Royal Commission Into Prisons, which made recommendations leading to some lasting reforms in NSW prison system.
As a backbencher in the Labor governments of 1976 to 1988, George agitated, along with the Gay movement, for repeal the of anti-homosexual sections of the NSW Crimes Act. This bore fruit in 1982 when laws against buggery and "indecent act with consent" were repealed. Together with a handful of close allies he used parliament to expose the frame up of Tim Anderson, Ross Dunn, and Paul Alister, who were sentenced to 20 years prison in 1978 on trumped up attempted murder charges in 1978. This played a major part in their release in 1985. On a larger scale, if it is possible to fall in love with a people, George fell in love with the Palestinians. He was for many years a major voice in defence of their legitimate right to remedy their dispossession and expulsion from Palestine after 1948.
In 1987 the Labor government capitulated to demands from the insurance industry that the compensation benefits paid to injured workers must be cut. George had many times voted for legislation he personally abhorred because he was bound by Caucus solidarity. This time he drew line. His loyalty to organised labour in the Illawarra, which was fighting the compensation cuts, was more important to him than his parliamentary job. He voted against the new laws, and was expelled from the ALP. At the 1988 election he stood for Illawarra as the candidate of the Illawarra Workers Party, and achieved a remarkable 17% primary vote while NSW as a whole was swinging 10% away from Labor.
George's parliamentary career was over, but his political life merely moved to new areas. He was, for over 15 years, a driving force in a campaign to prevent Walker Corporation from obliterating Shellharbour Beach in order to build a marina for the yachts of the rich. In 1991 he joined with many allies, old and new, who formed the Bring The Frigates Home Coalition to tell Bush and Hawke to get out of the Gulf.
Throughout all these achievements, and despite a number of heart attacks starting in 1968 and open heart surgery in 1980 and 1996, George impressed countless people with his unstinting energy, his infectious humour, and his passable singing voice in the Illawarra Union Singers. Even his political enemies could rarely fault his personal honesty, and the clarity of his words, writing, and deeds.
George often observed that those elected to parliamentary office usually went right or went cranky. He was an exception. He was too self-effacing to spend any time wondering why, but part of the reason lies with his friends and allies in Wollongong. They kept him honest, and sensible. It was a two way process. The many people who learnt much from George were also part of his education. He was an impressive individual, but he most impressed himself when he felt part of a living movement for a world where no-one had bosses over them or servants under them.
George was privileged to be married to Elaine for 20 years, and Mairi for 30 years. He had a son, two daughters, and three grandsons.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005