In the British winter of 62/63 it was so cold that the seas froze. You could drive on the upper reaches of the Thames. That was enough for Tommy Ellis. A working class Scouser, Tommy was born and raised in a two-up, two-down terrace in Liverpool with no indoor toilet, and he’d served in the Korean War. He’d had enough of cold winters. He made up his mind: he, his wife Frances and their two young daughters, 6 and 8, would take their chances Down Under.
Australia was open to foreigners arriving on boats back then. We were so desperate to populate this vast land that we paid people to come. In exchange for assisted passage, migrants had to agree to stay for at least two years and to take any work they were offered. Tommy thought that was a fine deal. Hard work didn’t scare him.
When he and his wife had the compulsory medical, they discovered she was pregnant for the third time and their departure was delayed until after the birth. Their ship docked in Brisbane 51 years ago this month.
One of 9 siblings, Tommy’s childhood was hard. There was no health care system, no welfare safety net. His father, like most of the men he knew, worked either on the docks or on the ships. The work was physically hard and often precarious and there were too many mouths to feed. At 16, Tommy stowed away on a ship to Canada, but he was discovered and sent back on the next ship, which docked at Southampton. Considered an adult, but without a penny to his name he walked the 600 miles back to Liverpool. At 17, he was homeless, wandering the countryside and taking whatever work he could get in exchange for a bed and a meal. Australia seemed like the Promised Land to these ‘economic migrants’.
Scousers are like the Irish, always ready with a story and a song. Tommy used to tell anyone who’d listen that Brisbane was the best place in the world.
“Anything you could possibly want is within an hour’s drive of Brisbane!”
One day I challenged him.
“There’s no snow,” I said. He looked at me as if I was barking.
“Why would anyone want snow?” he replied. And that was the end of the discussion. Tommy would not hear a word against his adopted nation.
One of Tommy’s favourite stories was about how he learned about the Aussie “Fair Go”. He and his brother-in-law Mac had signed up to a road crew. It was hard, physical labour in the punishing heat of the Queensland sun. After a couple of hours on the job, the foreman left to check on another crew. With the Boss out of sight, Tommy and Mac downed tools to have a cuppa but the Aussies on the crew were having none of it.
“You don’t work for the boss”, they told them, “you work so you can get ahead”.
“In this country, you get a fair go,” they said. “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”
This wasn’t the old country, where the limit’s of a person’s fortune were set by the circumstances of his or her birth, where the bosses were in one class and the workers in another. This was an egalitarian frontier, where a man could shape his fortune through his own labour. Australia offered Tommy a deal: help us build this nation, and you and your family will prosper. The promise of a classless society lured men and women like Tommy in the tens of thousands.
Tommy held up his end of the bargain; taking whatever work was going, going wherever the work took him. He worked in the mines in Mt Isa. He built roads. He was a warden in the prison. For a long time he worked on the dredges, 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. While he was away, Frances raised their three children on her own, helped by the family who followed them out from Liverpool. She worked, too, as a cook at a nearby school. They bought a house in Brisbane Street in Bulimba. It’s still there, shaded by the jacaranda they planted when their fifth grandchild was born. Both their daughters were married in the backyard of that house.
For a while, Australian governments made sure Australia kept its promise to the men and women who came to build the nation. The taxes they paid were invested in the people: free healthcare, free education. New migrants that didn’t speak English were given free lessons. Australia prospered and so did the Ellis family. Tommy’s three children grew up, and gave him fourteen grandchildren.
Somewhere along the way that promise was forgotten. The social contract offered to Tommy and his young family has been withdrawn. Australia doesn’t present the opportunity for Tommy’s 14 grandchildren that it once did for him.
Once we believed in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, now there’s a persistent and pernicious campaign to strip workers of rights and force down wages. From the Direct Action climate “army” who are paid less than minimum wage, to allowing multinationals to import cheap labour, to workfare schemes which supply unemployed people as free labour, to attacks on unions, to campaigns against penalty rates…policy after policy undermines real wages. At the same time, housing and living costs are soaring. The simple dream of home ownership is out of reach for most young Australians. Tommy’s children were offered free education. His grandchildren have been saddled with massive debts just so they can get the qualifications to enter the job market.
It’s Tommy’s birthday this week, he’s 83. He’s in full-time residential care now and won’t note the passing of the milestone. Doctors believe his dementia is partly caused by exposure to heavy metals during his life of hard labour. He and his wife were able to get private health cover, and have a modest income on top of their pension, but when he had a fall before Christmas, his broken arm could not be treated because no one was available. Frances, also 83 this year, is often made ill by the stress of trying to navigate systems that seem to exist to prevent him getting the care he needs. Meanwhile, our government and their advisers talk of loaning people like Tommy and Frances their pension and selling their home to get the money back. They talk about preventing Frances from travelling back to Liverpool. They cut funds and services that will help keep her in the home she loves, and raise the cost of the medical services and pharmaceuticals that they rely on. After helping build this nation, the message seems to be that Tommy and Frances and the others like them are a burden.
Tommy Ellis said he loved Australia because “how well you did was based on how easily you could be educated, it didn’t depend on your class or the depth of your pockets.” Our current leaders are the same generation as Tommy’s children. Like them, they all benefited from free education and health care. Now, having used those advantages to line their pockets, they rob the elderly who funded those advantages of peace and dignity, and rob the young of the supports that would allow them to prosper. It’s baffling and tragic.
All any of us want is a fair go in life, and that was once the vision for this nation. In less than one man’s lifetime, that vision has been lost. I’m kind of glad that Tommy doesn’t know what’s happening to his adopted homeland.
 So long as they were white or, later, white-ish.