Earlier this month, around 3 October, media reports in Queensland and actually across the world announced that the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine was officially dead. That was a particularly troubling announcement. The interesting thing was that, whilst the Tree of Knowledge had been poisoned-and that has been determined by Queensland police-earlier in the year, sometime before May Day, someone, in amazing stupidity, actually covered the ground around the Tree of Knowledge in the centre of Barcaldine, near the railway station, with a very strong pesticide . Despite the great efforts put in by a large number of people, there was no way that the tree could be saved.
For many people, particularly those who have an interest in Australian history, there was something particularly special about this tree. It was an ordinary ghost gum, not particularly stunning to look at but one around which a degree of legend had built up over many years. Indeed, one of the things that many Queenslanders know is the story of Barcaldine, the rise of the shearers strike and the importance that people who had struggled put on this tree that was standing quite innocently in the centre of town. It appears to be a simple ghost gum, much like many of the ghost gums that grow across the centre of Australia. What has happened as a result of this action is that there has again been a focus on the tree's National Heritage listing process. We have acknowledged that in 2005 this tree was actually listed on the National Heritage list, for two main reasons. The first was that its:
... place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of-
... importance in the course, or pattern, of Australia's cultural history-
and the tree was listed in that case because of its linkage with the shearers strike of 1891-
and as the starting point of political and social processes, which led to the eventual formation of the Australian Labor Party.
The second reason for listing was:
... the place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the ... strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons ...
In this sense the listing was granted for the association of this tree and this place with the trade union movement and the excitement 'of the Labour/May Day celebrations'. As for the tree's particular relationship with Barcaldine itself, in the early 1990s a group called the Tree of Knowledge Development Committee worked really hard to preserve the notable history and succeeded with a wonderful opening, in 1992, of the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, which was opened officially on Labour Day. I am a very proud inaugural member of that organisation. The centre has tours of educational value and encourages the development of knowledge and involvement through interactive processes with kids and tourists and also through a website about the history. Central to all of that was this tree. In terms of the relationship, it was not just people who were interested in the history of the Labor Party and not just people who were interested in Australian history and the growth of the shearing industry and the extraordinary beauty of that part of the world, and I know that many people in this place have had the privilege and the fun of travelling in that part of the world. In terms of the specific history of the area itself, there is a legend that meetings were held under this tree in the centre of town. In the 1890s Barcaldine was a vibrant centre on the major transit routes that led through the area and was also central to the shearing industry.
We know about the outbreak of industrial turmoil at that time, the traditional fight between employers and workers trying to find equitable wages, and the process that went on around that. It is well documented in a number of very good history tomes, and I would encourage people to look up and read about the kinds of turmoil under which Australian workers operated, because at that time workers travelled quite extensively in the shearing industry so that people who gathered work in that industry came from right across the Australian nation.
The shearers strike actually happened outside Barcaldine, at Logan Down Station near Clermont, but then moved and extended to the township of Barcaldine. There is wonderful local history about what happened at that time. One of the key and most important areas is that, despite the fact that there was huge military involvement, with volunteer soldiers called up by the governments of New South Wales and Queensland to keep the peace, on the field there was no particular violence. I think that is something of which we should be proud-that, whilst there was industrial turmoil and strife, and the community built around the causes, there was no overt violence. I think that is something that the history of Barcaldine celebrates. According to the history recorded by the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, despite the large forces lined up against the shearers, there was no actual bloodshed.
There is quite a strong historical record of what happened to the leaders of the strike. Thirteen of the people were arrested and imprisoned for three years hard labour. We have histories about what happened there. My sadness is that the names and the futures of so many of those people who were involved in that struggle were lost in the unrecorded part of history. But there are some indications of some of the leaders who then moved on to take on elected office. William Fothergill became chairman of the very strong and proud Barcaldine Shire Council, William Hamilton became President of the Queensland legislative council and George Taylor became the Speaker of the Western Australian legislative council. I think that reflects how mobile people were. They worked across our country, learned skills-and in this case learned more skills by being imprisoned for their industrial action-and then moved on to take up roles in other parts of the community.
The legitimacy of the arrests and the fairness of the trial could be called into account. Indeed, the men were charged under an obscure English law for sedition and conspiracy. I think maybe we could learn a bit from that. That was one of the last times the sedition law was actively called into account in our country.
In terms of the celebration in Barcaldine, there is on record the fact that out of that struggle came a demand from workers that their voices should be heard in representative government. Out of that came development of political processes and also the election of people who had a labour focus into various parliaments. We claim that that was the beginning of what we now know as the Australian Labor Party. That is something that is of real importance to all of us who are members of the party. We hold that legend strong and we are proud of that heritage.
There is a plaque that now stands right beside where the strong tree used to stand. It says the aims of the movement were to:
Honour the men and women of the Labour movement who congregated in this area and, through their courage, determination and dedication to the principles, ideals and objectives of the labour movement, played a leading role in the formation of the Labor Party and further spearheaded the many reforms that resulted in the vastly improved way of life for the Australian people generally.
The plaque is still there. The pride and the strength are still there. Indeed, the people of Barcaldine want to maintain the status of this spot of importance. They want to keep their tree, and they are going to maintain the space as a special space in Barcaldine.
Pat Ogden, a mate and someone who has worked tirelessly to maintain the Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine, is the official caretaker of the tree. He said that all the town is downhearted about losing the tree. For Barcaldine it was significant-it was like Sydney losing the Harbour Bridge. It is disappointing to everyone. When he gave media interviews to the BBC, that point was made. Police are investigating the damage, but I think the spirit of the people needs to continue to be celebrated. The death of the tree is a sad loss to the people of Barcaldine and to the ALP. It is a significant symbol to the trade union movement and to our political system. It was a reminder of our past struggle and also of the need for all of us to keep together so we can continue the fight. The good news is that, as a result of modern technology, the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries has been able to take seeds from the original tree. We are hoping that, out of that, there will be shoots of more trees that will be kept. The Premier, Peter Beattie, is quite proud of the fact that shoots are able to be taken from that tree. During the Labour Day weekend in May 2005, offspring of the original Tree of Knowledge was planted at the Australian workers heritage site by the then Minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries, the Hon. Henry Palaszczuk. It is good news that the Tree of Knowledge offspring is going well. We hope that we will be able to have another tree in the spot. More importantly, we will be able to maintain our spirit and we will be able to conserve the Tree of Knowledge for future generations so that we can remind our children and their children of how the Labor Party started and to ensure that no stupid vandalism will be able to take away what is an important symbol for us and for people into the future.
10 October, 2006