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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ernest William (Ernie) Campbell (1909–1985)

by Pete Thomas

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Ernie [Ernest William] Campbell, who died in Sydney during the night of August 24-25 at the age of 72, was a communist from the early 1930s.

He was one who not only studied marxism and passed on knowledge of it to very many, but was a down-to-earth practical practitioner of it — as a CPA leader and organiser, as a prolific and probing writer and, for a period in the 1950s, as what I regard as my ideal of a Tribune editor.

With all that, he was a thoroughly delightful person to know, a spirited and cheerful companion for any occasion.

In his early years, Ernie Campbell was an apprentice tiler in Sydney. In the week that he completed his apprenticeship and became entitled to tradesman's pay, he was sacked and he never again worked at that trade.

In the late 1930s, Ernie Campbell was in Townsville for a time as the second editor (Fred Paterson was the first) of the North Queensland Guardian, a virile communist weekly which had a circulation of thousands until the Menzies government in 1940 outlawed it, together, with other communist newspapers throughout Australia.

Evan Phillips (who retired in 1977 as Miners Federation general president) remembers Ernie Campbell as having worked with the Orr-Nelson miners' national leadership which, having been elected in the 1930s as Militant Minority Movement candidates, galvanised the Miners Federation into a solidly militant organisation, creating the basis for the Federation's stature and achievements of subsequent years.

Ernie Campbell filled many positions in the CPA leadership. He was a member of the Central Committee and its Political Committee for many years; Marx School director; with Jack Hughes and others in the leadership of the NSW State Committee and, for a period, being with Jack Hughes the party's acting national secretariat. There would be other things too, which I didn't know of or have forgotten.

My own direct association with Ernie Campbell began when he was Tribune editor for some years around the mid-1950s, It was a model situation of an editor who trusted and respected the capabilities of those on the staff, and a staff who trusted and respected his qualities of editorship.

There was a highly competent staff; those who were on Tribune for all or part of Ernie's period there included the amazingly versatile and delightful Bill Wood (Rhodes scholar, Oxford graduate), Paul Mortier, Rex Chiplin, Joyce Tattersall (daughter of former Commonwealth Arbitration Chief Judge Beeby), Henry McCarthy, Kath Thomas and John McIsaac.

Ernie Campbell let them do their work with a minimum of interference but, whenever a problem arose, Ernie was ready to listen, to discuss and to help find an answer.

If a difficult article had to be written, he was happy if someone volunteered to do it. He was equally happy to do it himself.

His way of writing an article was to dig out a stump of pencil and, methodically and steadily, write away in long-hand on a sheaf of small pieces of paper; then, from that pencilled script, he'd peck it out on the typewriter. And, once Ernie had typed it, read it over and handed it over to whoever was subediting — it would never need a change in so much as a comma. It was a completed, concise, simply-stated, logical and profound presentation.

Those qualities of simplicity combined with depth characterised also the almost-innumerable E. W. Campbell pamphlets and booklets over the years — the history of the Australian labor movement, the case for public enterprise, The Sixty Families Who Own Australia (the merit of which was acknowledged by the Business Review Weekly in the last week of Ernie's life) and all the others.

Some of these are on current university-course reading lists. If any of them go now unread, then that is the loss of today's generation.

As a person, Ernie was a delight. I never saw him ruffled or ill-tempered, never heard him speak venomously about a person. He spoke and wrote with incisive bite — but about issues, not about individuals.

Below average height, he had an impish and mischievous sense of fun. To some of us he was known as "Jaunty", named from a highly unorthodox Tribune short story of that time (the authorship of it being a loosely-guarded secret) entitled Jaunty and the Magic Keg.

Some were censorious about occasional bohemian-style outbreaks in Ernie's ways. In the Tribune years, any such occasions didn't worry us. We had no desire — and some of us, even less qualification — ever to be pious. We knew it to be part of Ernie's enthusiastic enjoyment of life, amid all that he himself was doing towards the communist aim of seeking to improve the lives of all.

After he had later worked with Quality Press, a stroke forced Ernie to spend the last years of his life in a nursing home. The stroke and a subsequent bone-breaking fall affected him physically but not mentally. He was philosophic and uncomplaining about his situation.

He relished the visits and talking and laughing with those who went to see him: people such as Max Thomas in particular (himself the hero of the Thomas-Ratliff hunger strike to defy internment during the CPA's illegal period in the early 1940s), Judy Mundey, Denise Steele, Henry and Audrey McCarthy, Meredith Burgman and others.

Now Ernie Campbell has died. Those who knew him, and those who knew his writings, grieve at the loss. But, if Ernie Campbell's qualities and contributions serve as an effective example, then that legacy would mitigate the loss.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Pete Thomas, 'Campbell, Ernest William (Ernie) (1909–1985)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012