I first heard about George Petersen in 1981. I was a 22 year old gay liberationist and budding socialist. The gay movement was buzzing with news of the Petersen bill, a private member’s bill introduced into the NSW Parliament to lower the age of consent to 16 for both homosexuals and heterosexuals and to repeal all homosexual offences.
The struggle to win homosexual law reform in every Australian state was in full flight. I assumed Petersen must be an inner city MP with a vocal gay constituency. I was surprised to hear that Petersen was an ALP backbencher representing the industrial city of Wollongong. Petersen’s motivation clicked into place when someone told me he was a Trotskyist.
George Petersen was a pioneer of Australian Trotskyism. Attracted to communist ideas from an early age, he delayed joining the Communist Party because of concerns about bureaucracy. He did join in 1943 but left in disgust after the Kruschev revelations and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Petersen began studying Trotsky’s writing and founded a small group in Wollongong. In 1960, this group joined forces with a group of Trotskyists in Sydney led by Nick Origlass. George Petersen formed the Unanderra branch of the ALP, pursuing a popular Trotskyist tactic of entrism. He later rejected this tactic in his 1998 autobiography, George Petersen Remembers — The Contradictions, Problems and Betrayals of Labor in Government in NSW. Even so, he spent two decades as what he describes as “a left-wing opposition backbencher.”
Petersen was not afraid to rock the boat fighting inside the ALP. He was a passionate supporter of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, an opponent of the Prices and Incomes Accord and of uranium mining, an advocate for abortion, and a campaigner for prisoners’ rights.
In 1987 when the Labor Government caved into demands of the insurance industry and introduced regressive workers’ compensation legislation, Petersen — who had many times voted for legislation he opposed because he was bound by caucus solidarity — crossed the floor and voted against the bill. He was promptly expelled from the ALP.
George Petersen remained politically active until his death on 28 March at the age of 79. He was a man with strong working class principles who was proud to serve the socialist movement. His life has much to teach us.