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North Melbourne Books: Maurice Blackburn (1880-1944) is not so well known today, but when he was active during the first half of the twentieth century as a barrister and Australian Labor Party MP, he was a key figure. Known for his integrity and socialist values, he also held views that could be controversial and often had major ideological differences with his own party. The Labor Party expelled him twice.
What made you choose Maurice Blackburn as a subject for biography?
David Day: Maurice Blackburn first crossed my path when I was writing the biography of John Curtin. I had a lot of admiration for Curtin and was surprised to find him being harshly critical of Blackburn in the 1930s, despite them having been colleagues in the struggle against conscription during the First World War. The cause of this antipathy intrigued me, but I wasn't able to pursue it at the time. When Maurice Blackburn, the law firm wanted to mark its centenary by commissioning a biography of their founder, I jumped at the chance to explore his life. It was during the research that I discovered Blackburn had been a serious contender for the Labor leadership that Curtin craved, which provides at least a partial explanation for the antipathy.
NMB: Your book paints a vibrant picture of the theatrical and very public nature of politics at the time. There are the street meetings in Melbourne's inner suburbs and rousing speeches on the Yarra. Do you think political communication has suffered in the age of the Internet and television, or did the old media have drawbacks of its own?
DD: What a wild time it was, with women brandishing red flags marching out of the then working class inner suburbs to smash the windows of posh shops and do battle with outnumbered police. The political action wasn't created just out of rowdy street corner meetings. There were plenty of radical newspapers and pamphlets that provided a different slant to the conservative newspapers back then. Now, those old media have been transformed into a new form by social media, which has allowed popular protests to be organised in a much more spontaneous way. Social media also has much greater reach, so that a 200,000-strong demonstration on global warming can bring people together quickly from across Melbourne and beyond.
NMB: Maurice Blackburn emerges as a politician and activist of great consistency and commitment. A rare beast in politics today. Do you think anyone has come close to him since?
DD: Of course, there are many politicians, from all parties and among the independents who care deeply about their political principles and wouldn't trade them for power. And there are even some who've grasped power without unduly compromising their principles. That said, it's hard to see anyone in recent years who could be said to exactly emulate Maurice Blackburn, who achieved so much on behalf of others without becoming prime minister, let alone a minister.
NMB: Great strides were made for worker's rights during Blackburn's time. People seemed active and ready to hit the streets for the things they believed in, gaining many hard won rights along the way. These passages in the book are quite inspiring. Do you hope your book will give today's readers optimism that positive change can happen?
DD: I didn't write it with that in mind. At least, not consciously. Instead, I wanted to understand Maurice Blackburn and his times. If his example inspires other, so much the better.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DD: For distraction, I like reading crime fiction, particularly the work of Don Winslow, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Heigo Higashino. At the moment, Elliot Perlman's new book Maybe the Horse Will Talk is on my bedside table. As for non-fiction, I was blown away by Kevin Hayes book about Thomas Jefferson's library, The Road to Monticello and also deeply affected by Behrouz Boochani's No friend but the Mountains.
Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, by David Day. Published by Scribe. $49.99