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Marjorie Broadbent

(1921 to 2012)

Marjorie Broadbent

Source: Courtesy Marjorie Broadbent

Marjorie Broadbent, a process worker, was the Miscellaneous Workers' Union's Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) representative. She was, for a number of years, also the treasurer of the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee within FCAATSI.

Marjorie Broadbent was a member of the Communist Party of Australia and, in 1961, attended a peace conference in the USSR where she was amazed to learn that Russian students knew more about conditions of life for Indigenous Australians than she did. She saw the equal wages campaign as being at the heart of the battle against capitalist exploitation of Aboriginal workers and their families.

Marjorie recalls the controlling legislation which made entry to Aboriginal reserves and missions difficult. Notice also the Cold War mentality of the times.

And then there were some people from FCAATSI like Stan Davey who went on long tours - went right up to Bamaga. And I remember him telling a story where he was given a cake. To get permission to go across into different reserve areas, different laws applied. I mean I think that Aboriginal people up there and the men out there in the west and that were subject to probably three or four laws! You know they couldn't go and see their relatives. They had to have permission. Well a white person going would have to have some excuse. And so he'd have to go and see the local protector - usually the local policeman and so on - and go. But then he was handed a cake by a certain lady, that she'd made - an Aboriginal lady - she'd made this cake and she gave it to Stan to take to a certain other lady up north. Well of course the cake was full of messages. And he had to lug this cake all the way (chuckling) there! And they were saying, protectors and all these managers and that were saying, 'Oh what a lovely cake!' (laughs) So you know this sounds like spy stuff - Le Carre stuff doesn't it! And this was happening in this country.

In July 1965 Marjorie Broadbent travelled to Alice Springs to observe the Arbitration and Conciliation full bench hearing on the equal wages in the cattle industry case. Appalled to find that no Aboriginal workers would be called to speak, she encouraged them to at least attend the hearing and hear, as she put it, 'their fate decided by white men'.

Well, this case was - the arbitration court - it was a capitalist court of course - and the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] was called the graveyard of disputes, in my opinion. The court had been held somewhere else but then it moved to Alice Springs. And this lady, Anna Vroland, who was in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, asked me would I go. And I was working in a factory and I think it was in the middle of winter and you could easily get time off because they didn't have much work and they wouldn't - the thing they hated most was paying you at all. So I arranged to get some time off and I went. She paid my fare - I could never have gone if she didn't - and accommodation. And I went up to Alice Springs with leaflets and so on and was met there by a taxi driver at the airport. And, oh his name eludes me now, and he took me around. Now I spent the time at the court when it did meet at the Alice Springs Hotel. I don't recall any other person that I knew there. So I must've been the only one. No one - no one else that I even knew. There may've been but I don't know. And I spent - in this fiercely cold place - time with this taxi driver going out to all the camps. They were appalling! Some - out in this weather there were Namatjira's sons - painters - producing beautiful paintings, in the Namatjira style, just sheltered by a piece of corrugated iron! Not even a roof on it! And it would chill you to the bone - squatting on the ground painting. And we went around and told them about the court sitting and I had to convince them that it was necessary to come to the court to hear the evidence and to be present, although I think they thought the same as I did about the whole shake up of the arbitration court. Anyway they did come.

This taxi driver was great. He was an Aboriginal fellow. He was good. And we got all the leaflets out and we went all around the outlying areas. And some people were just living under just things made of bark - you know, little humpies made of bark. And more or less out in the open and dressed in the clothes that were filthy and they were living really in the dirt. It was the most appalling experience to see just how our Indigenous people were living. No wonder it was an international scandal.

And they came to the court and the court sat. And who was representing the pastoralists but John Kerr. That was the first time I'd laid eyes on his curly little head. And he ranted on about how - listening to the evidence of the pastoralists (whose names I can't recall). And they were trying to establish the fact that the Aboriginal stockmen didn't deserve equal wages or any wages at all, or very little wages, because they were cruel to horses, because they didn't understand and they worked their horses to death and so on. But in fact the evidence presented by others was that they had been the backbone of the pastoral industry. And that was true. They had helped make millions for Vesteys and all these big companies, these big pastoralists who'd been given the land for two shillings or one shilling a hectare or something. And some of the holdings by these pastoralists was bigger than all of England. All of Europe in fact. Extraordinary sizes.

And so - anyway the court case went on and I can't remember the name of the advocate for the Aboriginal people - Wood something. He was very good. And it was a tremendous battle. But I was sitting in the body of the court surrounded by Aboriginal people and they were angry. They were very angry. There was a murmur going up when the evidence was given that they were cruel to horses. It was - it just had been an appalling life. Many of them had just worked temporarily on these holdings and then came back. They were just told, when the mustering or whatever was over they were just told, 'right oh, bugger off!' And they just had to leave, having received no wages at all. Go in the clothes you're standing up in and then walk home. No other worker in Australia had such conditions. Even the women who got half pay. Was disgraceful!

The Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee was enormously successful in attracting donations, mainly from trade unions, to support the campaign for equal wages. This included money and food for the striking Gurindji pastoral workers in 1966 when they walked off the job in response to the Arbitration Commissions' ruling that equal wages did not have to be paid until 1968.

... because when the Gurindji people walked off the Vestey property and went to Wattie Creek, this equal wages subcommittee - and I think it was Dr Christophers who said, looking slightly up to heaven, 'I've borrowed 200 pounds' or something. And bought a lot of blankets and baby food like milk - powdered milk and clothing - blankets - because it was cold there. And he and others organised - the Waterside Workers took a lot of it by cargo ship up to Darwin and they had it taken by truck. Now that wasn't done without money. And that wasn't done by people who didn't know what they were doing. And also the blankets and milk and that was dropped by a certain airline pilot, cargo pilot, who just went off course a little bit and dropped it (laughs).

Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Marjorie Broadbent conducted by Sue Taffe on 17 January 1997

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