Lower Secondary – Men and Women in Political Life – Focus question 3: What can we learn from people who have worked outside parliament?



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Lower Secondary – Men and Women in Political Life – Focus question 3: What can we learn from people who have worked outside parliament?

Assessment task

Work in groups of five to prepare questions and answers for a television interview program. One person is to be the interviewer and the other four take the roles of Spence, Street, Gibbs and Nicholls.

The Assessment task for Focus question 2 lists examples of the kinds of questions you could ask. Make sure that:


  • some of your questions are about what happened to Spence, Street, Gibbs and Nicholls in their lives
  • some of your questions are about what is happening today. (You could choose to write some questions about the political activities on the poster you made at the beginning of this unit.)

Perform your television interview for the rest of the class, using a video if one is available.
Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:
  • showing an understanding of types of political activity
  • showing an understanding of the reasons for different political activity
  • showing an understanding of the political beliefs of the people studied
  • applying an understanding of historical situations to situations in society today.
Biographies of four Australians who were politically active outside parliament

Definitions for words in italics are given at the end of the biography.
William Spence 1846-1926
Some major achievements
  • Australia's first full-time trade union organiser
  • Secretary of the Amalgamated Miners' Association, 1882-91
  • Founder and President of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, 1886-93
  • Founder, Secretary and President of the Australian Workers' Union, 1894-1917
Memorials or monuments
  • Spence, Canberra suburb
  • Plaque on the site of his parents' house, Creswick Victoria




WG Spence, President of the Australian Workers Union, c. 1915


Background and experience
William Spence was born in Scotland and he spent his childhood on the goldfields near Creswick, Victoria. In November 1854, there was a day he would never forget. A miner came to Creswick from Ballarat, asking the diggers to support their mates in Ballarat who were protesting about the cost of miners' licences and bad treatment by police.
These protests led to the famous Eureka Stockade at Ballarat, where soldiers defeated the miners on 3 December 1854. Within five years, however, the Victorian Government had given in to most of the miners' demands and had granted them the right to vote.
Although there was no local school, Spence learned to read and write. By the time he was 14, he had his own miner's licence and was looking for gold. But he soon became interested in the needs of other miners and founded the Creswick Miners' Union.
Spence realised that all miners had similar needs, whether they were mining silver, gold or copper. They were all concerned about their pay and working conditions. So he founded the Amalgamated Miners' Association. His idea was that all miners could benefit from getting together to negotiate their pay and working conditions with mine owners.
Political life and times
Before the 1880s, most Australian workers had to work for long hours, in bad conditions, for little money. Any workers who complained could lose their jobs, because there were always other people ready to take their places. Although skilled craftspeople (such as furniture makers) had 'craft unions', other workers had no support or protection.
In the early 1880s, Australia's economy was growing. In the cities there was a building boom. In the country there were new mines, and more wool and wheat was being produced than ever before. Jobs were getting easier to find and workers were starting to ask for higher pay and better working conditions.
Workers were able to form trade unions to bargain with mine owners and pastoralists. The workers found that being in a union gave them 'strength in numbers' - they could get a better deal from their employers. They could even go on strike to put more pressure on their employers.
After his success in organising miners' unions, Spence began to work with shearers and other rural workers who were complaining about their pay and working and living conditions. He established the Australian Shearers' Union in 1886. Four years later, most shearers in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were members of the union, and about 85 per cent of shearing sheds were closed shops.
Spence was a clever union organiser and negotiated skilfully with employers. He changed Australian trade unionism by creating large and powerful groups of workers.
Amalgamated means united or combined.
A pastoralist is a farmer who raises sheep and/or cattle.
A closed shop is a workplace in which all workers must be members of the same union.
Beliefs and aims
Tyranny is the use of power in a cruel way.
Scab is a slang term of abuse for a person who does a job while the workers who usually do the job are on strike.
Challenges and responses
As a union leader, Spence was involved in organising major strikes which could involve thousands of workers and last for long periods. When this happened, it caused great problems for pastoralists and other employers.
In 1891, some pastoralists in Queensland had an agreement with the Shearers' Union to improve working conditions in the shearing sheds. When the pastoralists tried to change the agreement and cut shearers' pay, 8,000 shearers went on strike for six months.
The pastoralists employed non-union workers to shear the sheep. Eventually, with the help of the Queensland Government, the pastoralists defeated the shearers and their union. Some union officials were jailed for three years, and Shearers' Union members had to agree to work with men who had been 'scabs'.


In the 1890s there was increasing unemployment and other strikes also failed. As a result, fewer people joined unions. Spence and other union leaders decided that workers would never win good working conditions and pay until they had a strong voice in parliament.
They decided that workers should have their own political party, and formed the Australian Labor Party. In 1901, Spence himself was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party. He stayed in the Parliament until 1917.
Jessie Street 1889-1970
Some major achievements
  • Founder and President of the United Association of Women, 1929
  • Only female member of the Australian delegation to the conference that set up the United Nations, 1945
  • Drafter of the petition for a referendum to remove from the Australian Constitution the clauses that discriminated against Aboriginal people, 1964
Memorials and monuments
  • Jessie Street Women's Library, Sydney
  • Jessie Street Garden, Sydney


Lady Jessie Street


Background and experience
Jessie Lillingston came from a family of wealthy landowners in northern New South Wales. When she was a girl she loved horse riding but she did not like the fact that she was expected to ride side-saddle. So when nobody was looking, Jessie would swing her leg across the horse and ride the same way men did. All her life she behaved in ways that people from her background were not expected to behave.
When she was a schoolgirl, Jessie met members of the suffragette movement in England and, on a visit to New York in 1915, she volunteered to help in a reception centre for young women arrested as prostitutes.
In 1916, Jessie married Kenneth Street, who later became the highest judge in New South Wales. When he was knighted, she became Lady Jessie Street.
Ride side-saddle means to ride a horse with both feet on the same side of the horse. A hundred years ago, well-off women were expected to ride side-saddle.
Political life and times
Street used her wealth and influence to help her work for political change, but many of the causes she supported were very unpopular at the time.
In 1929 she founded the United Associations of Women, which campaigned for women's rights, and she was a leader of the Equal Pay for Women movement in the 1930s. When only one woman was included in the 1936 Australian Olympic team, the United Associations of Women ran a campaign in the newspapers and, as a result, more women were included in the team.
Married women teachers were threatened with the sack in the 1930s, when there was high unemployment. Some people thought that married women should not have jobs if their husbands were working but Street spoke out against this idea.
She made speeches, wrote letters to newspapers and talked to politicians, and also offered practical help to women. In the 1930s, she started a cooperative farm for unemployed women at Glenfield, New South Wales. At the time, the government was giving some help to unemployed men but was not helping unemployed women.
During the Cold War, Australians generally regarded the United States of America as a powerful friend and people feared a war against communist countries, such as Russia. At this time, Street visited Russia and was a member of a number of organisations that wanted friendship with Russia. Some people accused her of being a communist herself.
In the 1950s, Street visited Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory and Western Australia and was shocked by the discrimination she saw against Aboriginal people. She then started working with Aboriginal groups that were aiming to change the Australian Constitution so that Aboriginal people were not discriminated against.
Street stood as a candidate for Commonwealth Parliament in 1943 and 1949, but she was not elected. She was criticised for being involved in controversial issues and some people said that the way she behaved was not what they expected of the wife of an important judge. But Jessie Street continued to fight for the rights of women, Aboriginal people and other disadvantaged people.
An Aboriginal reserve was a place set aside by governments for Aboriginal people to live. Usually, a government official was in charge of the Aboriginal people who lived on an Aboriginal reserve.
Beliefs and aims
The Basic Wage was the lowest wage that could be paid to a worker.
If something is reprehensible, it deserves to be criticised.
An invidious position is an unfair position.
Challenges and responses
During the 1930s and 1940s, there were periods of very high unemployment and a World War. In times like these, people often worry more about themselves than about whether other people are being treated fairly. So Street was often fighting for unpopular causes.
She believed that everyone in the workplace should have a fair go. Although she did not have to work for a living herself, she fought for equal pay, equal training and equal employment opportunities for men and women.
Some politicians and employers did not agree with her ideas. They said she was too idealistic and that, anyway, her ideas were too expensive to put into practice.
Street also disagreed with some unionists, even though they all wanted better pay and conditions for workers. She believed that housework, child rearing and other unpaid work should be included in the debate about minimum wages. But some unionists wanted to concentrate on people in paid jobs.
Pearl Gibbs 1901-83
Some major achievements
  • Co-organised the Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 1938
  • Co-founded a cooperative association of Aborigines and other Australians: the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, 1956
  • Pressured New South Wales governments to improve the miserable conditions of Aboriginal people living on reserves, and of young Aboriginal women working as domestic servants, 1920s-1950s


Memorials or monuments
  • Poem about her by Kevin Gilbert


Pearl Gibbs, an organiser and public speaker in the
Aboriginal protest campaigns of the 1930s. This photo was taken in 1954.


Background and experience
When Pearl Brown's mother took her to the state school at Cowra, New South Wales, they were told, 'Sorry, no blacks allowed'. After that, Pearl went to a Catholic school in Yass.
When she was 16, Pearl went to Sydney to work as a cook. There she met other Aboriginal girls who had been taken away from their families and sent to do household work for white families. Many of these Aboriginal girls were treated badly. Pearl later spoke up for them to the Aborigines Protection Board.
She was married in the 1920s and became Mrs Gibbs. When she separated from her husband she had to bring up her three children by herself.
In the 1930s, she organised strikes by Aboriginal women pea-pickers, who were expected to work in very bad conditions, and they achieved some improvements. She also organised a boycott of a cinema to protest against segregation of Aboriginal people.
Aborigines Protection Boards (or Aborigines Welfare Boards) controlled where Aborigines lived and worked, who they married, where and how their children were brought up, their bank accounts and even what they ate.
A boycott is a refusal to deal with a person or business as a way of protest.
In a segregated cinema, Aboriginal people had to sit in a particular area.


Political life and times
Gibbs saw that Aboriginal people were discriminated against in Australia and in the 1930s she began a campaign against this discrimination. The campaign lasted for the rest of her life. Her aim was to achieve equality for Aboriginal people.
At that time, State governments were responsible for everything to do with Aboriginal people, through Aborigines Protection Boards or Aborigines Welfare Boards. There were often no Aboriginal people on the Boards. Gibbs wanted Aboriginal people to be involved whenever decisions were made which affected their lives.
She was a founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association, which aimed to improve conditions on Aboriginal reserves and remove laws which discriminated against Aboriginal people.
Gibbs also worked with Bill Ferguson, another Aboriginal activist, to organise the Aboriginal Day of Mourning on Australia Day, 1938. This was a demonstration by Aboriginal people to protest against the European invasion of 150 years earlier.
In the 1950s there was still a lot of racial discrimination in Australia. Some cafes, hotels and shops refused to serve Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people were not allowed to swim in some swimming pools and some school buses did not pick up Aboriginal children. Young Aboriginal women were treated badly by the white community, especially if their babies had white fathers. Gibbs continued to work against this racial discrimination.
Beliefs and aims
See extracts of Gibbs' words in Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Lower Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, pp 132-3.
Challenges and responses
Gibbs was very concerned about the living conditions of Aboriginal people who lived on reserves.
In 1954 she became a member of the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board but she was not allowed to visit Aboriginal reserves unless she was with other Board members. Because of this she could not speak freely to the Aboriginal people who lived there and she could not find out what was really going on.
By 1957 Gibbs found that important decisions were being made by the Board when she was not there. So she looked for other ways to achieve her aims.
As vice-president of the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship she organised a rally of about 500 Aboriginal people at the Sydney Town Hall. The rally launched a national petition for changes to the Australian Constitution. The petition demanded that Aboriginal people be given the same political rights as other Australians. This campaign led to the referendum of 1967 which changed the two parts of the Constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal people.
Sir Douglas Nicholls 1906-88
Some major achievements
  • Member of the British Empire (MBE), 1957
  • Co-founder of the Victorian Aborigines' League of Advancement, 1969-74
  • Knighted for 'distinguished services to the advancement of Aboriginal people', 1972
  • Governor of South Australia, 1976
Memorials and monuments
  • Nicholls, Canberra suburb
  • The Sir Douglas Nicholls Reserve, Northcote Victoria (part of the Aboriginal Advancement League Centre)


Sir Douglas Nicholls at the time of his appointment
as Governor of South Australia, May 1976


Background and experience
Doug Nicholls was born in an Aboriginal settlement at Cumeroogunga, on the Murray River in New South Wales. He did not have much schooling but he was very good at sport. In 1929, he won the Warracknabeal and Nyah gifts, which were important sprint races. He also played Australian Rules football for Fitzroy and represented Victoria in 1935.
But in 1937 Nicholls gave up his sporting career to become a minister with the Church of Christ. He became a pastor in 1947 and helped to establish the Churches of Christ Aborigines' Mission in Melbourne.
After that, he worked to improve conditions for Aboriginal people. In 1976 he was made Governor of South Australia.
Political life and times
In 1957 Nicholls was a foundation member of the Victorian Aborigines' Welfare Board and he stayed on the Board until 1963. He was also involved in other groups which were fighting for equality for Aboriginal people.
For example, in 1963 he was a member of one of the first Aboriginal deputations to be received officially by an Australian prime minister. The prime minister was Robert Menzies and the deputation was supporting changes to the two parts of the Constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal people.
Together with Doris Blackburn, Nicholls also established and led the Aborigines' League of Advancement in Victoria. The League was set up to work to achieve a better deal for Aboriginal people.
At the time, governments wanted Aboriginal people to live like white people. This was called 'assimilation'. It meant Aboriginal people giving up their language, their religious beliefs and their land. Governments might have thought that this would help Aboriginal people but Nicholls knew that it did not and tried to stop it.
A deputation is a small group of people which represents a larger group.
Beliefs and aims
Maladministration means bad management.
Challenges and responses
In 1963 the Victorian Government decided to close the Aboriginal settlement at Lake Tyers, east of Lakes Entrance, Victoria. The Lake Tyers settlement had 30 cottages but they were old and run-down and the Aboriginal people were living in very poor conditions. The Government decided to send the Aboriginal people who lived there to live in country towns, to assimilate with white people.
When Nicholls heard about what was going to happen he resigned from the Aborigines' Welfare Board of Victoria. He fought for the settlement to remain open, and led a protest march through Melbourne to Parliament House to present a petition.
Many other people agreed with Nicholls but the Government closed the settlement anyway, and the Aboriginal families were moved away from Lake Tyers. When they asked to be able to go back they were refused.


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