Just an hour after Andrew Refshauge stood down on Tuesday as NSW deputy
premier and treasurer, a colourful crowd of aging agitators, unionists,
politicians, journalists and citizens gathered in Melbourne to pay
final tribute to the man who 20 years ago helped pave the way for
Refshauge’s ascent.

History will record Refshauge as a good guy who made a sterling
contribution to Labor and NSW both as a member for Marrickville and as a
minister. What very few will remember are the people who helped get him
there. People like HT Lee, a political activist whose campaigning in
the 1980s helped rid NSW Labor of the real rats in its ranks – the
scourge of organised crime which infected the party root and branch. HT
Lee’s legacies also include the heritage building codes, expanded
libraries and child care centres, but Refshauge and the new
breed of local politicians will be credited with them.

HT was a friend and photojournalist whose contributions to Crikey
across a range of topics from East Timor to internal Labor politics
were built on 30 years of activism. My obituary on the site barely does him justice.

HT was a long-time member of the notorious Enmore branch of the ALP and
his obsessive eye for detail was a significant factor in the reform of
the branch and the Marrickville electorate which was to become Andrew
Refshauge’s in 1983. Both Refshauge and Peter Baldwin, the federal
member for Sydney during those turbulent times, have reason to be
grateful to him for their parliamentary careers.

His friend, arts writer Joanna Mendelsson, recalls the pivotal night
when the Left finally clawed back control of the Enmore branch –
leading to the removal of the criminal elements that had infiltrated
the electorate. When the lights fused that night in 1980, the
membership and minute books vanished in the subsequent blackout.

HT helped spirit the branch books to Peter Baldwin, who was seeking
preselection. He in turn presented them to ALP head office. No longer
could the Labor machine ignore the evidence that non-residents were
being stacked into the branch by a non-resident secretary – one Joe
Meissner.

The stackees were transfers from the Rozelle East branch, associated
with the Balmain Welding Company and Meissner’s offsider, Right heavy
Tom Domican. Baldwin was savagely bashed a week after Meissner was
stripped of branch membership, but it was too late to stop the return
to representative local democracy.

While all this was going on, who was NSW branch secretary? One Graham
Richardson, who subsequently defended his inaction in his book Whatever it Takes: “It was a long time ago, I didn’t know then what I know now, and if I was wrong, I had plenty of company.”

Mendelsson recalls HT was also there three years later, scrutineering
for Refshauge when he got up in Marrickville by 12 votes. People always
remember the politicians; but contemporaries say that
HT’s obsessive nagging, the way he got people to meetings, organised
brochures and then sat down to make sure no dodgy votes got up, was
critical.

The Enmore reform flowed on to the entire inner west, and Marrickville
Council. The fallout wasn’t just the emergence of left wing ALP types
like Barry Cotter (and the later rise of Anthony Albanese), but also
Liberals like Marrickville’s current Mayor Maurice Hanna and new
generation Greens.

Meanwhile, the wheel turns. New Premier Iemma counts as a mate and
mentor one Graham Richardson, and the Left finds itself divided and in
retreat. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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