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Focus question 3: What can we learn from people who have worked outside parliament?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: William Spence ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: A day in the life of a union organiser ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Achievements and personal qualities, skills and knowledge ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: Job description ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: Jessie Street and equal rights for women ESL Activity 5
Activity 6: Gibbs and Nicholls ESL Activity 6
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  
Unit assessment task 1: Crossword puzzle ESL Unit assessment task 1
Unit assessment task 2: Letter to a friend ESL Unit assessment task 2
Assessment criteria ESL Assessment criteria


In this part of the unit you will learn about four people whose political activity was outside the parliamentary system: William Spence, Jessie Street, Pearl Gibbs and Douglas Nicholls.

The Stories of Democracy CD ROM ‘people’ section contains information about many Australians and people from other countries who were politically active outside parliament. The interactive on this CD ROM will also introduce you to some Australians who worked outside parliament, such as Louisa Lawson, William Ferguson and Mei Quong Tart, as well as provide additional information about some of the people you will be introduced to in this part of the unit. Stories

The Discovering Democracy Secondary Video includes interviews with Heather Mitchell, then Patron of the Victorian Farmers Federation; and Michael Krockenberger, then Campaigns Director for the Australian Conservation Foundation. Video

Activity 1: William Spence

Read the biography of William Spence after Activity 6.

1a Imagine that Spence goes to a farm to meet a group of shearers in 1886, to persuade them to join the Australian Shearers’ Union. He stands in the shed where they eat and sleep, and makes a speech.

Write the speech he might have made. If necessary, use these ideas:

  • Spence had already helped miners bargain for better pay and conditions.
  • Other unions have done the same in other industries.
  • He believed that the pastoralists were doing well (making money).
  • If the shearers went on strike, there would be a delay before other shearers could be found to do the job.
  • The shearers were still living in very bad conditions.
  • The shearers could probably find other jobs if they had to.

1b The pastoralists who employed the shearers probably would not have wanted the shearers to join the Australian Shearers’ Union. Imagine that a pastoralist comes to speak to the shearers after William Spence. Write the pastoralist’s speech.

If necessary, use these ideas:

  • Workers would not be paid if they went on strike.
  • The pastoralist might be able to get other shearers to do the work if there was a strike.
  • The pastoralist could tell other pastoralists not to give jobs to the shearers if they made trouble.
  • Even if the pastoralist was making money, the shearers did not know how much he was making.
  • Even if the shearers could find other jobs, they might be paid less.

1c With a partner, practise reading your speeches aloud. Your teacher will ask some class members to deliver their speeches to the class.

1d As a class, discuss the issues raised. Are you more convinced by the arguments put by the pastoralists in your class or by those put by the unionists? Contribute your views to the class.

Activity 2: A day in the life of a union organiser

2a Look at the diary extract of a day in the life of Melanie Chang, a union organiser. Although Melanie is not a real person, her diary shows you a typical day in the life of a union organiser today.

Definitions for the words in italics are given at the end of the diary extract.

A day in the life of a union organiser

Melanie Chang is a 26-year-old Finance Sector Union (FSU) organiser. This union has about 100,000 members across Australia in banks, credit unions, insurance companies and other finance companies. Melanie is responsible for FSU members in one of Australia’s largest banks.

She completed secondary school and worked in a bank herself for four years before getting a job with the FSU. She is studying part-time for a university degree.

8.00 am Left home
8.30 am Meeting with Georgina, a union member

Georgina has been told by the bank that she is to be sacked or demoted. The bank says she is not doing her job properly. We discussed the situation and I helped her write a letter explaining her behaviour and saying why she should keep her old job.

10.00 am Meeting with Georgina and her boss

We presented the letter to Georgina’s boss, and talked about it. Georgina is under a lot of pressure. She wanted me to be at this meeting so that she would not feel alone and because she felt I could help her explain herself clearly. I was pleased to be at the meeting. Felt it was important for Georgina’s boss to know that the Union is taking an interest. Her boss listened and said that the bank would make a decision tomorrow.

12.00 noon Visiting another workplace

Union members at a suburban bank branch have asked for help. At this branch, almost all workers are members of the Union. Management has said that some workers will have to work fewer hours per week, meaning that they will be paid less. Workers are angry because this has not been discussed with them and they have not been given a chance to have a say in which workers have to work fewer hours. Talked about how they can approach management and what else they can do. They decided that they will take industrial action if management does not listen.

2.30 pm Visiting another workplace

On way back to the Union office stopped at another bank branch. Spoke to them about the Union’s campaign against branch closures and reduced numbers of staff. Some workers are not members of the Union. Talked to them about the advantages of being in the Union and gave them some leaflets to read. One non-member joined the Union on the spot.

3.30 pm Answering phone messages

Back at the Union office, answered about ten phone messages from Union members. Most of them wanted information or advice about things that were happening in their workplaces. One is about to retire and wanted advice about superannuation.

4.15 pm Organising visits to workplaces

The Union is doing a survey of what the members need and want. Made arrangements to visit two large workplaces to talk about the survey and allow members to fill it in.

4.45 pm Preparing evidence

A case is going to the Industrial Relations Commission about a member who has been sacked. The Union is defending the worker, claiming that the sacking was unfair. I prepared some of the evidence that the Union will give to the Industrial Relations Commission.

6.30 pm Went home

2b What kind of person must Melanie be? What must she be good at? What must she know about? Look through these words and phrases and think about which could describe her.

works well with other people
good at running meetings
a good writer
knows about parliamentary politics  
good in an argument
a good leader
knows about superannuation laws
good at making decisions dependable
can read quickly
knows about employment laws
knows how to deal with employers  
works well under pressure
a keen art fan
keeps calm
has definite attitudes
a good listener
thinks logically
good at making speeches
a good negotiator
understands employees’ difficulties
knows how unions work
a good mechanic
good at sport

2c Copy a larger version of the table below into your workbook and work with a partner to sort the words and phrases into the columns. Add more words or phrases of your own if you can.

What is Melanie Chang like?

Definitely ...
Probably ...
Probably not ...
Definitely not ...
Not sure











2d Your teacher will help you organise a class discussion about your work. Be prepared to explain why you placed the words and phrases in the way you did.

Activity 3: Achievements and personal qualities, skills and knowledge

List three of William Spence’s life experiences and describe how you think they would have helped him in his job as a union leader. Think about the personal qualities, skills and knowledge that these experiences might have helped him to develop. Draw on your discussions of Melanie Chang and her work to help you with your conclusions.

Activity 4: Job description

Use your work about Melanie Chang and William Spence to help you write a job description for a union organiser. Write a paragraph under each of the following headings:

Activity 5: Jessie Street and equal rights for women

5a Read the biography of Jessie Street at the end of Activity 6.

5b Copy the table below into your workbook. Study Jessie Street’s arguments for equal pay in the section ‘Beliefs and aims’ and complete the second column of the table.

Jessie Street’s arguments

Why it is wrong that women are paid less than men
Why it is wrong that only one woman is in the 1936 Olympic Games Team
Reason 1    
Reason 2    
Reason 3    
Reason 4    

5c You will notice that Street also successfully argued for more women to be included in the 1936 Olympic Games team. With a partner, discuss the arguments she might have used and write your ideas in the third column of the table.

5d Write the letter that Street could have sent to a newspaper, to persuade people that more women should be in the Olympic Games team. You can use the ‘Beliefs and aims’ section of the biography as a model.

Activity 6: Gibbs and Nicholls

6a Read the biographies of Pearl Gibbs and Douglas Nicholls which follow the biographies of Spence and Street at the end of Activity 6. In your workbook, draw a timeline like the one following.

A timeline of the lives of Pearl Gibbs and Douglas Nicholls

A timeline of the lives of Pearl Gibbs and Douglas Nicholls

6b Mark important dates associated with Gibbs above the line and important dates associated with Nicholls below the line. Use a red pen for political activities and a different colour for other events.

6c Imagine that it is 1980, close to the end of the lives of both Gibbs and Nicholls. One of you should be Gibbs, the other Nichols. Write a conversation about:

  • things they had done that made them feel proud
  • the political strategies they used.

To get you started here are some possible questions and the beginnings of some possible responses.

Nicholls: Pearl, what made you angry when you were young?


Nicholls: Something that made me angry was that

Gibbs: You remember, in the 1950s Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to ...

Assessment task

Work in groups of five to prepare questions and answers for a television interview program. One person is to be the interviewer and the other four take the roles of Spence, Street, Gibbs and Nicholls.

The Assessment task for Focus question 2 lists examples of the kinds of questions you could ask. Make sure that:

  • some of your questions are about what happened to Spence, Street, Gibbs and Nicholls in their lives
  • some of your questions are about what is happening today. (You could choose to write some questions about the political activities on the poster you made at the beginning of this unit.)

Perform your television interview for the rest of the class, using a video if one is available.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

Biographies of four Australians who were politically active outside parliament

Definitions for words in italics are given at the end of the biography.

William Spence 1846-1926

Some major achievements
  • Australia’s first full-time trade union organiser
  • Secretary of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association, 1882-91
  • Founder and President of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union, 1886-93
  • Founder, Secretary and President of the Australian Workers’ Union, 1894-1917

Memorials or monuments
  • Spence, Canberra suburb
  • Plaque on the site of his parents’ house, Creswick Victoria

WG Spence

WG Spence, President of the Australian Workers Union, c. 1915

Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Background and experience

William Spence was born in Scotland and he spent his childhood on the goldfields near Creswick, Victoria. In November 1854, there was a day he would never forget. A miner came to Creswick from Ballarat, asking the diggers to support their mates in Ballarat who were protesting about the cost of miners’ licences and bad treatment by police.

These protests led to the famous Eureka Stockade at Ballarat, where soldiers defeated the miners on 3 December 1854. Within five years, however, the Victorian Government had given in to most of the miners’ demands and had granted them the right to vote.

Although there was no local school, Spence learned to read and write. By the time he was 14, he had his own miner’s licence and was looking for gold. But he soon became interested in the needs of other miners and founded the Creswick Miners’ Union.

Spence realised that all miners had similar needs, whether they were mining silver, gold or copper. They were all concerned about their pay and working conditions. So he founded the Amalgamated Miners’ Association. His idea was that all miners could benefit from getting together to negotiate their pay and working conditions with mine owners.

Political life and times

Before the 1880s, most Australian workers had to work for long hours, in bad conditions, for little money. Any workers who complained could lose their jobs, because there were always other people ready to take their places. Although skilled craftspeople (such as furniture makers) had ‘craft unions’, other workers had no support or protection.

In the early 1880s, Australia’s economy was growing. In the cities there was a building boom. In the country there were new mines, and more wool and wheat was being produced than ever before. Jobs were getting easier to find and workers were starting to ask for higher pay and better working conditions.

Workers were able to form trade unions to bargain with mine owners and pastoralists. The workers found that being in a union gave them ‘strength in numbers’ - they could get a better deal from their employers. They could even go on strike to put more pressure on their employers.

After his success in organising miners’ unions, Spence began to work with shearers and other rural workers who were complaining about their pay and working and living conditions. He established the Australian Shearers’ Union in 1886. Four years later, most shearers in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were members of the union, and about 85 per cent of shearing sheds were closed shops.

Spence was a clever union organiser and negotiated skilfully with employers. He changed Australian trade unionism by creating large and powerful groups of workers.

Beliefs and aims

The accommodation provided for the workers at shearing time was something awful. Mostly it was unfit to put human beings into, and consisted of long draughty buildings without windows ... The cooking was done in a huge fireplace at one end, with the oven at its side ... the smell of the burning fat filling the hut where the men had to dress and undress, eat and sleep, all in the one room. The bunks for sleeping in were made of rough boards, neither mattresses nor even straw being provided ...

Unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion. It came bringing salvation from years of tyranny. It had in it that feeling of mateship which he understood already, and which always characterised the action of one ‘white man’ to another. Unionism extended the idea, so a man’s character was gauged by whether he stood true to Union rules, or scabbed it on his fellows ... The lowest term of reproach is to call a man a scab ... Unionists have starved rather than accept work under other conditions.

Spence, WG 1909, Australia’s Awakening: Thirty years in the life of an Australian agitator, The Worker Trustees, Sydney, pp 78 & 79.

Challenges and responses

As a union leader, Spence was involved in organising major strikes which could involve thousands of workers and last for long periods. When this happened, it caused great problems for pastoralists and other employers.

In 1891, some pastoralists in Queensland had an agreement with the Shearers’ Union to improve working conditions in the shearing sheds. When the pastoralists tried to change the agreement and cut shearers’ pay, 8,000 shearers went on strike for six months.

The pastoralists employed non-union workers to shear the sheep. Eventually, with the help of the Queensland Government, the pastoralists defeated the shearers and their union. Some union officials were jailed for three years, and Shearers’ Union members had to agree to work with men who had been ‘scabs’.

A cartoonist’s version of the situation in Queensland during the shearers’ strike of 1891

A cartoonist’s version of the situation in Queensland during the shearers’ strike of 1891: soldiers protect a ‘scab’ worker against striking shearers, Bulletin, 21/2/1891

Courtesy National Library of Australia.

In the 1890s there was increasing unemployment and other strikes also failed. As a result, fewer people joined unions. Spence and other union leaders decided that workers would never win good working conditions and pay until they had a strong voice in parliament.

They decided that workers should have their own political party, and formed the Australian Labor Party. In 1901, Spence himself was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party. He stayed in the Parliament until 1917.

Jessie Street 1889-1970

Some major achievements
  • Founder and President of the United Association of Women, 1929
  • Only female member of the Australian delegation to the conference that set up the United Nations, 1945
  • Drafter of the petition for a referendum to remove from the Australian Constitution the clauses that discriminated against Aboriginal people, 1964

Memorials and monuments
  • Jessie Street Women’s Library, Sydney
  • Jessie Street Garden, Sydney

Lady Jessie Street

Lady Jessie Street

Photograph by Falk. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Background and experience

Jessie Lillingston came from a family of wealthy landowners in northern New South Wales. When she was a girl she loved horse riding but she did not like the fact that she was expected to ride side-saddle. So when nobody was looking, Jessie would swing her leg across the horse and ride the same way men did. All her life she behaved in ways that people from her background were not expected to behave.

When she was a schoolgirl, Jessie met members of the suffragette movement in England and, on a visit to New York in 1915, she volunteered to help in a reception centre for young women arrested as prostitutes.

In 1916, Jessie married Kenneth Street, who later became the highest judge in New South Wales. When he was knighted, she became Lady Jessie Street.

Political life and times

Street used her wealth and influence to help her work for political change, but many of the causes she supported were very unpopular at the time.

In 1929 she founded the United Associations of Women, which campaigned for women’s rights, and she was a leader of the Equal Pay for Women movement in the 1930s. When only one woman was included in the 1936 Australian Olympic team, the United Associations of Women ran a campaign in the newspapers and, as a result, more women were included in the team.

Married women teachers were threatened with the sack in the 1930s, when there was high unemployment. Some people thought that married women should not have jobs if their husbands were working but Street spoke out against this idea.

She made speeches, wrote letters to newspapers and talked to politicians, and also offered practical help to women. In the 1930s, she started a cooperative farm for unemployed women at Glenfield, New South Wales. At the time, the government was giving some help to unemployed men but was not helping unemployed women.

During the Cold War, Australians generally regarded the United States of America as a powerful friend and people feared a war against communist countries, such as Russia. At this time, Street visited Russia and was a member of a number of organisations that wanted friendship with Russia. Some people accused her of being a communist herself.

In the 1950s, Street visited Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory and Western Australia and was shocked by the discrimination she saw against Aboriginal people. She then started working with Aboriginal groups that were aiming to change the Australian Constitution so that Aboriginal people were not discriminated against.

Street stood as a candidate for Commonwealth Parliament in 1943 and 1949, but she was not elected. She was criticised for being involved in controversial issues and some people said that the way she behaved was not what they expected of the wife of an important judge. But Jessie Street continued to fight for the rights of women, Aboriginal people and other disadvantaged people.

Beliefs and aims

The women’s Basic Wage has just been declared at 1.17.6 and the men’s at 3.8.6 ... It is most reprehensible that women should have to work the same hours as men and get paid a little more than half the amount men are paid.

The result of this inequitable system brings injustice all round. Firstly it is unjust to the woman worker as she does not get the same value for her work as a man gets; secondly it places the woman worker in the invidious position of being regarded as ‘cheap labour’ with the resultant loss of dignity and status; thirdly it is a system which is responsible for much unemployment amongst men since women can be employed to do just as effective work as men for a little more than half the cost; a fourth injustice is that it brings great hardship to families where the woman is the breadwinner.

From a letter to the editor by Jessie Street, Sydney Morning Herald, 18/4/1933. Reproduced with permission of Sir Laurence Street, Trustee of the Estate of Jessie Street.

Challenges and responses

During the 1930s and 1940s, there were periods of very high unemployment and a World War. In times like these, people often worry more about themselves than about whether other people are being treated fairly. So Street was often fighting for unpopular causes.

She believed that everyone in the workplace should have a fair go. Although she did not have to work for a living herself, she fought for equal pay, equal training and equal employment opportunities for men and women.

Some politicians and employers did not agree with her ideas. They said she was too idealistic and that, anyway, her ideas were too expensive to put into practice.

Street also disagreed with some unionists, even though they all wanted better pay and conditions for workers. She believed that housework, child rearing and other unpaid work should be included in the debate about minimum wages. But some unionists wanted to concentrate on people in paid jobs.

Pearl Gibbs 1901-83

Some major achievements
  • Co-organised the Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 1938
  • Co-founded a cooperative association of Aborigines and other Australians: the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, 1956
  • Pressured New South Wales governments to improve the miserable conditions of Aboriginal people living on reserves, and of young Aboriginal women working as domestic servants, 1920s-1950s

Memorials or monuments
  • Poem about her by Kevin Gilbert

Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Gibbs, an organiser and public speaker in the Aboriginal protest campaigns of the 1930s. This photo was taken in 1954.

Lipman/The Fairfax Photo Library.

Background and experience

When Pearl Brown’s mother took her to the state school at Cowra, New South Wales, they were told, ‘Sorry, no blacks allowed’. After that, Pearl went to a Catholic school in Yass.

When she was 16, Pearl went to Sydney to work as a cook. There she met other Aboriginal girls who had been taken away from their families and sent to do household work for white families. Many of these Aboriginal girls were treated badly. Pearl later spoke up for them to the Aborigines Protection Board.

She was married in the 1920s and became Mrs Gibbs. When she separated from her husband she had to bring up her three children by herself.

In the 1930s, she organised strikes by Aboriginal women pea-pickers, who were expected to work in very bad conditions, and they achieved some improvements. She also organised a boycott of a cinema to protest against segregation of Aboriginal people.

Sir Douglas Nicholls 1906-88

Some major achievements
  • Member of the British Empire (MBE), 1957
  • Co-founder of the Victorian Aborigines’ League of Advancement, 1969-74
  • Knighted for ‘distinguished services to the advancement of Aboriginal people’, 1972
  • Governor of South Australia, 1976

Memorials and monuments
  • Nicholls, Canberra suburb
  • The Sir Douglas Nicholls Reserve, Northcote Victoria (part of the Aboriginal Advancement League Centre)

Sir Douglas Nicholls

Sir Douglas Nicholls at the time of his appointment as Governor of South Australia, May 1976

Australian Information Service Photograph. National Library of Australia.

Background and experience

Doug Nicholls was born in an Aboriginal settlement at Cumeroogunga, on the Murray River in New South Wales. He did not have much schooling but he was very good at sport. In 1929, he won the Warracknabeal and Nyah gifts, which were important sprint races. He also played Australian Rules football for Fitzroy and represented Victoria in 1935.

But in 1937 Nicholls gave up his sporting career to become a minister with the Church of Christ. He became a pastor in 1947 and helped to establish the Churches of Christ Aborigines’ Mission in Melbourne.

After that, he worked to improve conditions for Aboriginal people. In 1976 he was made Governor of South Australia.

Political life and times

In 1957 Nicholls was a foundation member of the Victorian Aborigines’ Welfare Board and he stayed on the Board until 1963. He was also involved in other groups which were fighting for equality for Aboriginal people.

For example, in 1963 he was a member of one of the first Aboriginal deputations to be received officially by an Australian prime minister. The prime minister was Robert Menzies and the deputation was supporting changes to the two parts of the Constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal people.

Together with Doris Blackburn, Nicholls also established and led the Aborigines’ League of Advancement in Victoria. The League was set up to work to achieve a better deal for Aboriginal people.

At the time, governments wanted Aboriginal people to live like white people. This was called ‘assimilation’. It meant Aboriginal people giving up their language, their religious beliefs and their land. Governments might have thought that this would help Aboriginal people but Nicholls knew that it did not and tried to stop it.

Unit assessment task 1: Crossword puzzle

Use the definitions in your personal glossary to design a crossword puzzle. Then make copies of your work and ask other students to try the puzzle.

Unit assessment task 2: Letter to a friend

Imagine that you have a friend who wants to get involved in a political issue. Your friend knows you have studied this unit and writes a letter to you, asking for your advice. Think about what advice you should give.


a Your teacher will arrange for you to see the Discovering Democracy Secondary Video. Before you watch it, copy a larger version of the grid below into your workbook. Make notes about the people interviewed on the video.

A framework for taking notes

Heather Mitchell
Michael Krocken-berger
Kate Lundy
Michael Ronaldson
What are their aims?        
What personal qualities are needed in politics?        
What must they be good at?        
What knowledge do they need?        
What political strategies do they use?        
What other people should they work with?        
What are their strengths and weaknesses?        

b Write the letter advising your friend. In your letter you should:

Make sure you cover the points listed in the grid in your letter. (If you like, you can write one paragraph about each point.) Also consider:

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:



ESL activities

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