Remembering the real Alec Campbell 1899 – 2002

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When Alec Campbell died in Tasmania in May, the nationalistic humbug monitor went off the scale. There was a State Funeral at which Prime Minister Howard spoke. There were wrap-around specials in all the newspapers and endless drivel from the talking heads on TV and radio. All focussed on two months at the beginning of this man’s remarkable life — all the while disappearing the real Alec Campbell.

There was only one truth in all the flag-waving hypocrisy. It was indeed a moment for reflection — and the end of an era. He was not just the last Anzac. Of  the tens of thousands of men — from Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, England and elsewhere — who fought in the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, Alec was the last in all the world. None of us alive today were there. It is now truly in the past. But, as Alec himself said, this wasn’t surprising, because at 16 he was one of the youngest. Outliving other old men is hardly heroism.

How he would have hated the thought of the most reactionary Prime Minister in this country’s history reading his eulogy! As a socialist and unionist, Alec was the antithesis of all that John Howard stands for.

Alec’s two months in the hell of Gallipoli convinced him of the futility of war, and he was a peace activist throughout his life. After a few itinerant jobs in South Australia and New South Wales, he returned to his Tasmanian hometown of Launceston. He joined the railways as a carriage builder and was an active unionist in the 1930s and ’40s, holding the position of State President of the Australian Railways Union (ARU), my old union, between 1939 and 1941. He was also President of the Launceston Trades Hall Council from 1939 to 1942. He considered going to Spain to join the International Brigades, who assisted the Spanish workers in fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Launceston media branded him as a Red when he ran on a radical, union-endorsed platform in the municipal elections in 1941.

He is known to have attended meetings of the Communist Party. He was also very active in the Workers Education Association.

Away from politics and industry, he was an amateur boat builder and navigator, and competed in no less than 18 Sydney to Hobart yacht races. Married twice, he had nine children. In retirement he became a mature age student, and worked with feminist peace activist, Jessie Street. It is no surprise that he voted for a republic in 1999, in his hundredth year.

Alec was no caricature Aussie digger — he hated the glorification of war that surrounds Anzac Day. He was even left out of a book called The Last Anzacs, so little did he care for his wartime experience. But Alec  Campbell was a conscious fighter for workers and the oppressed all his life. He was not John Howard’s, not the RSL’s. He was our comrade, and we are saddened by his passing — and a little angered by the whitewashing of his adult life.

Yet Alec managed to strike back at the military severity of his funeral — with a little help from his family. After the military pallbearers carried his coffin from the cathedral and placed it on the mandatory gun carriage, they were forced to yield.

And so, during his final journey through Hobart’s streets, Alec was not surrounded by a martial guard of honour: at each side of his coffin walked four of his daughters and granddaughters.

The solidarity of those eight women told me more about Alec’s life than all the media’s set-piece obituaries and the political hypocrisy.

Goodbye Alec Campbell. The working people of Australia are grateful for your life.

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