Paul Robert Adams, ‘The best hated man in Australia’ the Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921
Puncher & Wattmann

ACT Greens Newsletter

Plundering the wealth of nature carries the added costs of ruining the health of working people. Killing is not murder when done for profit. Nowhere in Australia was this connection more deadly than at Broken Hill from the start of mining in 1888 until the early 1920s when strikes and agitation reduced the working week and imposed stricter safety regulations. Those improvements resulted from the efforts of thousands of miners and their families who starved during lockouts which lasted for as long as eighteen months. Percy Brookfield personified their sacrifices and struggles.

English-born Brookfield worked underground from 1910 until the 1916 strike for a forty-four hour week brought him to prominence. He served as ‘general’ in the Labor Volunteer Army to oppose conscription for the ‘sordid trade war’, incurring £700 in fines. Elected to State parliament in 1917, he quit the Labor Party to be re-elected in 1920 for an Industrial Socialist. Holding the balance of power, he secured a thirty-five hour week and decent compensation for lung-diseased miners. He also secured a Royal Commission into the conviction of twelve members of the Industrial Workers of the World for ‘terrorism’, winning the release of all but one.

Brookfield died from gunshot wounds when he disarmed a deranged Russian on Riverton railway platform on 22 March 1921 . Rumours of assassination can be discounted because Brookfield put himself in harm’s way. As Mary Gilmore put it in her verse tribute – ‘ Brookfield died for his people’.

The gulf between Brookfield and the likes of Gillard and Shorten is so vast as to make comparisons not so much invidious as impossible. Instead of strengthening health and safety, Kill-ard is pushing for the ‘harmonisation’ of State laws down to the lowest common denominator.

Brookfield ’s years in parliament have lessons for Greens and independents today. He was clear and unwavering in the concessions he demanded in exchange for support, seeking nothing for himself. Above all, his absences from Broken Hill never lessened his involvement with the community campaigns that had ensured his re-election. Rather, he knew that pressure on the field was his strongest bargaining card.

Percy Brookfield was a giant among labour leaders. In life, as in the manner of his death, he made personal sacrifice the measure of his political commitment. Morally and physically fearless, his probity withstood parliament. Paul Adams has given us a biography as thoroughly gripping as it is thoroughly researched. Inspiration floods from its pages.