Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People by David Day

‘Maurice Blackburn: a modest man who had devoted his life to the betterment of his fellow Australians.’

Maurice McCrae Blackburn (19 November 1880 – 31 March 1944) was an Australian lawyer and politician.  He founded the legal firm known as Maurice Blackburn in 1919 and served in state and federal parliaments (for various periods between 1914 and 1943).

In this biography, Mr Day writes of a man driven by a sense of responsibility, committed to social change.  In an era when the labour movement was defined by blue collar trade unionism, Maurice Blackburn was the first barrister elected to parliament as a Labor MP.

While I had heard of the legal firm, I knew nothing about Maurice Blackburn himself. I recognise some of the history: the Conscription debates in (in 1916 and 1917, and again from 1939); the treatment of Egon Kisch in 1934; and paranoia about the influence of the Communist Party. Maurice Blackburn was a man of principle: expelled from the Labor Party twice because of his stance over conscription.   I found this book fascinating.  I read about a man who went to work as a law clerk in 1896, to support his mother and siblings. I read about a man who didn’t graduate in law until 1908 and was admitted to practise in 1910.  A man with a social conscience, who struggled financially.  A man whose ideals were not comprised.

For me, the most valuable aspect of this biography was the social context.  The Australian Commonwealth came into existence as Maurice Blackburn reached adulthood, he lived in Melbourne (at the time when Melbourne provided the temporary home of the Australian Parliament), he lived through the upheaval caused by two world wars separated by the Great Depression.  Maurice Blackburn was a conscience of the labour movement, he consistently defended underprivileged groups and civil liberties.  In politics, Maurice Blackburn also had to deal with preselection issues and the impact of the business interests of the infamous John Wren.  Of course, on a purely personal note, I now want to reread Frank Hardy’s novel, ‘Power Without Glory’, and I wish I could discuss the consequences of membership of the Australian Communist Party with certain members of my family who were members during this period.

On 31 March 1944, Maurice Blackburn died.  He was survived by his wife, Doris (who served in the House of Representatives between 1946 and 1949), two sons and a daughter.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Australian labour movement, in Australian political history during the first forty-four years of the twentieth century, and (or) in reading about a man of principle.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith