Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2019

Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People, by David Day

David Day is the historian who has so memorably written biographies of Australia’s war-time prime ministers Ben Chifley and John Curtin, and more recently of Paul Keating.  His latest book is the remarkable story of Maurice Blackburn, a name well-known as Australia’s leading compensation and social justice firm of lawyers, but perhaps not so well-known as the founder of the firm.

These days when the political class is full of lawyers and economists, it is salutary to read that Maurice Blackburn was the first-ever barrister to be elected to parliament as a Labor MP.  He arrived there at a time when the Labor movement was defined by its working-class and trade union constituency.  But though his origins were in the gentry (and he looks the part in the cover image, eh?) Blackburn had no easy entry to his profession, and struggled financially throughout his life.

Born in Inglewood in 1880 to a father who was a bank manager and an ambitious mother from the squattocracy, Blackburn might have had a comfortable middle-class life, but his father died of typhoid when Maurice was just a boy, leaving his mother Thomasann a widow with four children under seven at a time when social welfare was minimal.  She had something in the way of investments which enabled her to resume life in Melbourne, and to send Maurice to the Toorak Prep school and then to Melbourne Grammar, but from the age of 16, he was expected to support his mother and siblings and so he went to work as a law clerk in 1896.

His journey towards the law degree took some years.  He had to do an arts degree first, which he almost completed but he failed maths and couldn’t graduate.  Day suggests that his unimpressive academic record had a number of causes, not the least of which was that he was working to pay not only his university fees, but also the cost of keeping his brother James in the Kew Asylum after his mental illness escalated beyond his mother’s capacity to manage it.  But from 1901 Maurice left the law firm and worked as a tutor, which enabled him to become more involved in university life and develop his ideals of civil liberty and democratic participation in decision-making.  With a stint teaching at Wadhurst (Melbourne Grammar’s Prep School) and then at the Gippsland College in Sale, Maurice might well have had a career in teaching, but he recognised that even when he was finally able to complete the arts degree, he was never going to be able to compete with the preference for Oxford or Cambridge headmasters.  The death of his brother was the catalyst for him to return to Melbourne and enrol in law school.  He graduated in 1909, and after a year as an articled clerk, he was finally admitted to practise in 1910, aged 30.

This biography is a straightforward chronological account of Blackburn’s life, and Day is scrupulous about acknowledging where the gaps are.  So Maurice’s love life remains opaque until his political activities bring him into contact with Doris Hordern.  What is fascinating about this bio is the historical context that Day provides: the social milieu in a Melbourne very different to today.  These were the early years of Federation, and of the emerging Labor movement, and because Australians felt confident about progressive reforms that made life better for ordinary people, Melbourne had a lively cultural and politically aware milieu.  The Victorian Socialist Party held multiple activities to engage and educate people: lectures and debates with excursions and family picnics to lure attendance.  Maurice had made a name for himself through his advocacy in the Gas Consumers League, making gas prices an election issue in 1911 when the threat of nationalisation was enough to make them reduce prices.  He got to know Doris because although she was from the gentry, she was a feminist and a socialist, and they bonded when Maurice on behalf of the WPA (Women’s Political Association) presented the case for the female franchise in Victoria.*  My only disappointment with this book is that it ends so abruptly with Maurice’s untimely death in 1944—without acknowledging that Doris went on to become the second woman member of the House of Representatives, after she contested and won his Federal seat of Bourke as an Independent Labor candidate in 1946.  The Australian Women’s Register tells me that …

She was involved in the Free Kindergarten movement and numerous campaigns for better education, playgrounds and crèches. Blackburn was a member of the Women’s Political Association in Victoria, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Prison Council and the Save the Children Fund. In 1957, with Doug Nicholls, she was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.

Doris was the love of Maurice’s life, but she had to compete for his attention with his devotion to his work.  These days we would call him a workaholic and talk about work-life balance.  When he buried himself in work after their fourth child Margaret died of heart disease aged only 13 months, Doris consoled herself with the company of a trade union official called Frank Murphy.  It may not have been an affair, but it led to rumours all the same.

So often, great achievements are at the expense of family life.  When Maurice realised that the best way to achieve change was from within parliament, he became a prominent and very popular state MP, and went into federal politics in 1935.  It won’t surprise anyone to learn that there was ongoing political chicanery over preselection, and dirty tricks campaigns by the infamous John Wren whose ‘business interests’ were threatened by anyone honest and idealistic.  Blackburn was expelled twice from the Labor Party because there were long-standing enmities over conscription, and notably, Doris snubbed John Curtin at the funeral because of the way he’d treated her husband.

Nuances are often lost in political scrums, but Day makes explicit the principles by which Blackburn lived.  He was…

a ‘guild socialist’, following an ideology that harked back to an earlier time or artisanal production whose craftsmen were in control of their work.  He looked forward to a socialist society where democratic national guilds would operate within state-controlled industries and join with other representative organisations in a transformed, democratic parliament. (p. 144)

Clearly this was anathema to socialists who supported revolution as a necessary precondition for change, but even after he lost office in 1917, Maurice was influential, succeeding at the Brisbane party conference in 1921, in having passed what has become known as the Blackburn Declaration.  Its provisions were that collective action was necessary only to prevent exploitation; that private ownership was opposed only if it were exploitative; and that the party would not seek to abolish private ownership if it were socially useful and without exploitation.  This declaration signalled that the party was interested in immediate reformist aims, not some remote revolutionary aspirations.

During the Depression, from opposition, Blackburn’s private members bills achieved these reforms:

  • protection for evicted tenants from having their chattels seized;
  • legal assistance for the poor;
  • enabling mothers to have an equal share in the estate of a child who died intestate; and
  • allowing women to stand for public office and to practise in the professions.

Day notes that in his work for the Council for Civil Liberties, Maurice liked to quote Milton’s assertion that there should be the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties. During both wars, he defended people who were caught up in the draconian national security laws   He was out-of-step with many people over this: it was especially risky in WW2 for Maurice to oppose Curtin and Menzies collaborating to legislate provisions that were even more stringent than Britain’s.  Maurice was not anti-war, but he was a passionate campaigner for the No Vote in the conscription referenda of WW1; he rightly predicted that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles would cause another war; and he wanted Australian troops to defend Australia on Australian soil.  His address to a meeting of the Australia-Soviet Friendship League was fatal.  Even though the USSR had by then joined the Allies against Hitler, this gave the Victorian Labor Party grounds to expel him for having an association with any organisation deemed to be a subsidiary of the Communist Party. (Victorian Labor was then dominated by right-wing Catholics who went on to split the Labor Party in 1955 and form the DLP which kept Labor out of government for decades.)

Day sums up this life of achievement like this:

He’d made a unique and lasting contribution to Australian political life.  In the process, he had transformed the lives of countless people, bravely championed a multitude of sometimes unpopular causes and been a notable exemplar for others.  In the end, Maurice Blackburn was a determined individualist with a deep commitment to a movement that eventually demanded a degree of discipline and conformity that he could not give without sacrificing his honour.  And that was always going to be a price too high for him to pay. (p.250)

*BTW Day presents a different side to Vida Goldstein to the heroic role she plays in the campaign for female suffrage in Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom.  Day implies that Goldstein’s interest in the British suffragettes was at the expense of taking an interest in Australian progressive causes, and that her association with extremists like the Pankhursts was detrimental to Australian feminism.  I guess we have to wait for a definitive bio of Goldstein to winkle out the nuances of that.

You can hear David Day talking about his book at ABC Night Life with Philip Clark. 

Author: David Day
Title: Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2019, 339 pages (but the bio itself finishes at p.250, the rest is acknowledgements, notes, and an index)
ISBN: 9781925713787
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the people or direct from Scribe Publications 

 


Responses

  1. I’m currently reading this, Lisa, and finding it very intetesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maurice Blackburn should have his rightful place in the political and social history of Australia. He advocated payment for mothers a long time before many feminists and his amazing wife Doris also deserves equal status. So many stories still to be told and how idealistic some of those men and women of that time were. Oh for some of their ilk today.

    Like

    • Yes, it seems like a different world.
      Can you imagine consumers today arcing up and saying they’ve had enough of this nonsense that privatised services work better and demanding that things change?

      Like

  3. Unfortunately I can’t.

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  4. Fascinating topic – just the sort of corporate biography I’d LOVE to be commissioned to write! Lucky David Day – imagine being able to legitimately and regularly drop the phrase ‘Maurice and Doris’ into casual conversation…
    Also interesting that a joint biography of the Blackburns was published earlier this year: The Blackburns: Private Lives, Public Ambitions (MUP, 2019). This one provides much more info about Doris, I think. For details try https://www.mup.com.au/blog/the-blackburns-private-lives-public-ambitions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gosh, there can’t be that much more to know about Doris, that promo page is practically a life story on its own!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure there’s much more to know about Maurice after your comprehensive review. Two pieces of trivia. Vance Palmer was a guild socialist (Nettie wasn’t a socialist at all); and I used to knock around with Doug Nicholl’s daughter before I left Melbourne and she was a clerk at Maurice Blackburn.

    Like

    • That’s good trivia, thanks Bill.
      I’m finding it hard to think books today. Like many Victorians, I hold Gippsland in a special place in my heart. I’ve been to (not just through)
      many of those small towns under threat or already gone: Sarsfield, Buchan, Bruthen, Lakes, Metung, Mallacoota, and I’m mostly glued to the media to find out what’s happening.

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  6. […] we saw in David Day’s biography of Maurice Blackburn, these differences are not merely theoretical: wartime security measures against Communists were […]

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  7. […] Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People, by David Day […]

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  8. […] Monash University Publishing) Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People (David Day, Scribe), see my review Gariwerd: An Environmental History of the Grampians (Benjamin Wilkie, CSIRO Publishing) Geelong’s […]

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