Soapbox Speakers

4. The Soapbox Rings.

Edward John Craigie was a politician and journalist (1871-1966). He was the first to set up a ‘ring’ from the International Union of Single Taxers.(followers of Henry George, the U.S. economist). Craigie said “I started one Sunday afternoon meeting in Botanic Park. Meetings were held there by many organizations on somewhat the line to those held at Marble Arch London.”

He continued to speak at the Botanic Park for the next 25 years. Craigie was deeply committed to Henry George’s theory of a single land tax. In his own words,              “at the local bookshop the only literature I could obtain about the subject was the pamphlet, “Thy Kingdom Come,” by Henry George. I “saw the cat” (I understood the subject) after reading this pamphlet, and at once commenced to proclaim the truth I had discovered.”

From 1905 till 1911 Craigie represented the Labor Party in his home suburb of Moonta. In 1911 he served as Secretary of the Henry George League of South Australia. Craigie achieved electoral success as an independent in 1930-1941 in the South Australian House of Assembly Electoral District of Flinders, which covered the west coast of South Australia.

In the 1941 federal election, Labor and the Liberals conspired to exchange their preferences to defeat Craigie. The fact that in South Australia one-third of the South Australia municipal councils switched over to site-value rating is a tribute to the effectiveness of his efforts. He said; “Communally created values must be safeguarded, and it is the function of government to collect into the public treasury the value attaching to land by reason of the presence of the people, as that is the natural source from which public revenue should be drawn.” Edward John Craigie died on 17 January, 1966.

REFERENCES: Select Bibliography Progress (Melbourne), Feb 1966; Good Government (Sydney), Mar 1966; Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Mar 1938, 25 Apr 1944, 18 Jan 1966; Peoples’ Advocate (Adelaide), 21 Aug 1948; private information. Author: Suzanne Edgar. Print Publication Details: Suzanne Edgar, ‘Craigie, Edward John (1871 – 1966)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981, pp 134-135. Prosper Australia. ‘This land is your land’.

The Labor Ring.
The Australian Labor Party was founded before Federation. Tradition has it that a meeting of striking pastoral workers under a ghost gum tree (the “Tree of Knowledge”) in Barcaldine, Queensland, in 1891 called for a united labour party.

South Australia was the first to elect Labor candidates into parliament and the first state to elect a stable Labor government to run their full term in office in 1915.

Ward Frederick Furner (1872-1954) was the South Australian Labor Party Secretary. As full-time Secretary from 1922-44, Ward chaired the ‘Labor Ring’ in the Botanic Park on Sunday afternoons bringing much needed political stability to the Labor platform at Botanic Park. Ward was described as tall, laconic, obstinate and dogmatic. He was an anti-conscriptionist in World War One and a vehement anti-communist in the 1920s. He later became more radical. In 1948, he was chairman of the South Australian branch of the Australian-Russian Society. Elected in 1946, he became the oldest person to enter the Australian Senate. There he stayed until defeated in 1951. He died in 1954.

John Gunn (1884-1959) was a self-educated man and was encouraged by the well-known English activist, Tom Mann. Gunn learnt the art of public speaking in Botanic Park. He was elected leader of the Labor Party shortly after Labor’s disastrous split in 1917. The Crawford Vaughan Labor government fell in July 1917 due to the Australian Labor Party split of 1916 on conscription, and was replaced by a Peake Liberal minority government.  Gunn was a lucid and forceful speaker although he lacked eloquence and colorful phrasing. It is said that he developed from an embittered young radical to a political moderate. He became Premier in 1924. His government was beset by its inability to pass acts of law because the opposition had full power in the upper House.   He resigned in 1926 to accept appointment to the Commonwealth Development and Migration Commission. Though he remained politically active, he slowly faded from the limelight and died penniless in N.S.W.

Gregor McGregor (1848-1914) was possibly the most colorful figure of early Federal politics. He too perfected his speaking skills on the Botanic Ring. He was born in 1848 at Kilmun, Argyllshire, Scotland. He father was chief gardener to Sir Gerald Aylmer’s Irish land holdings. Because of this, he received a schooling at the National School of Ireland. He was a keen sportsman – playing cricket and rugby for Scotland. He also practiced wrestling. In Scotland he became an itinerant farm labourer, travelled through England and experienced rural poverty first hand. Between 1869-76 he worked in Glasgow’s Clyde shipyards. Workers there successfully agitated to reduce working hours. He immigrated to Australia in 1877, where he took up itinerant farm labouring once more. An accident permanently impaired his sight. He compensated for his blindness by developing a prodigious memory, described as “astounding” – able to recite lengthy passages perfectly after hearing them read.

In South Australia he immersed himself in the union movement, becoming secretary then president of the United Builders Labourers’ Society. McGregor relished stump-oratory, which he had seen on Glasgow Green and perfected on the Botanic Ring. His talent as a speaker soon caught the attention of the Australian Labor Party. In 1901 he was elected the first South Australian Senator. His speeches were usually short and spontaneous with a calculated vulgarity that led him to be accused of “coarse brutal directness”. They could however be inexorably logical, fortified by the pages of figures he could recite from memory.

McGregor supported protectionism and the white Australia policy, workers’ compensation, compulsory arbitration, age pensions, land tax and the formation of the Commonwealth Bank and believed that the High Court and not the Privy Council should be the ultimate court of review. In fact, he opposed British aristocratic traditions. He opposed the reading of prayers in parliament, believing them to be a distasteful and hypocritical “parade of religion”, though he was member of the Church of Scotland. He opposed the appointment of British aristocrats to government positions. He even opposed the Boer War. As a Senator, McGregor served in Australian Labor government cabinets as Vice-President of the Executive Council prior to his death in 1914. Australian Dictionary of Biography Gregor McGregor (1848-1914)

Marie Elizabeth Skitch (1900-1989): Even though the colony granted the vote to women in South-Australia in 1894, it was not until 1959 that a woman was elected to the South Australian Parliament. In 1926 Mrs Skitch first attracted wide public attention during what was described as a “fight for free speech” at the Adelaide Botanic Park.  On October 24 of that year, she addressed a meeting of the Plasterers’ Society. This was her first public speech and having no permit to speak, she was ordered to leave the Park. She did so, but returned within an hour, and addressed the meeting again. She was arrested, and was subsequently fined for a breach of one of the Botanic Garden by-laws. marking her for ‘martyrdom’ reference ( )

Marie Skitch was the first woman candidate to be endorsed by any political party. She was the president of the Labor Women’s Central Organizing Committee and a Botanic Park Labor ring orator. She stood for the seat of Thebarton in 1938 but was beaten on preferences, which were directed away from her by her three unofficial Labor and one Liberal opponents. At the time both Labor and Liberal parties were reluctant to endorse women. Her policy speech stressed the problems of unemployment, its relief and the need for the state to provide work. Skitch believed education was the key to the country’s greatness. She advocated a forty-hour working week, free hospitals, public housing and welfare services. Marie Skitch went on to work behind the political scenes in the Housewives Association, lobbying on behalf of women.

Steve Maxwell. Oct 2019

Derek Whitelock (1934-2015) author of “A history of difference and Adelaide amusement 1836-1976”
REFLECTIONS OF A VINTAGE RED. (By David Penberthy, industrial reporter, Adelaide ‘Advertiser’ p5 4-12-1995.
“REPRESENTATIVES OF  DISCONTENT ,” History of the Communist Party in South Australia 1921-1981. Jim Moss.

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