Minto school and Communist party camp

2008
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Minto school and Communist party camp

When Commissioner John Bigge toured New South Wales in the early 1820s, he found that the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, was too loose with the public purse and too easy on the population. In some areas, such as distant Minto, escaped convicts roamed free and were employed by local farmers. One hundred and forty years later the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) found that it was not convicts but communists who had found a sanctuary out there on the steep banks of the Georges River.

The Communist Training Camp at Minto, near Campbelltown, occupied land once inhabited by the Dharug people. The complicated history of the site has put it back in Indigenous hands, and it is now owned by the Tranby Aboriginal Cooperative College.

Minto Bush Club

Founded in 1958, the Communist Party of Australia National Training School, as ASIO liked to call the Communist camp at Minto, was important to Communist education and to the culture of the Communist Party of Australia. As an educational facility it allowed long residential schools, as well as the occasional weekend seminar on Communism. Eric Aarons was the first principal of the school, using teaching methods he had learned in China. The curriculum revolved around the works of Karl Marx, and focussed on the particular problems of Australian industry and politics.

In addition to a revolutionary syllabus, the Minto Bush Club, as the Communist Party of Australia called the camp, offered a leafy retreat and a cool swim in the Georges River for communists and fellow travellers. The Eureka Youth League and the Young Communists enjoyed the odd camp at 'tropical Minto' as much as the industrial committees did. Among the gum trees of Minto, the communist camp had a very Australian feel, at a time when the press and the government were at pains to portray Communism as foreign, alien or Russian. Much to ASIO's disappointment there was no paramilitary training at Minto, although there were some vigorously contested games of volleyball.

Local alarm

The bush club caused a bit of a stir throughout the 1960s. The local branch of the Returned Services League and Councillor (later Mayor) Daley appear to have alerted the municipality to the school by putting up signs and calling the press. Who knew what the commies were up to, just across the river from the army base!

News of the communist menace hit the front page of the Campbelltown Ingleburn and District News. It had, admittedly, been another slow news decade for the local paper, so it wasn't surprising that the story was given such prominence. Indeed, it is odd that the District News soon lost interest in the camp and went back to reporting the old stories – vagrants living in sheds, telegraph poles falling on dogs and the very likely prospect of Sydney being obliterated by a nuclear bomb.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Sunday Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, and Wollongong's Mercury all featured something on the camp when they were reminded of its existence by the Returned Services League or ASIO. The most detailed material appeared in PIX, which claimed to have gone 'Inside Australia's University for Reds', publishing a two part exposé on the bush camp which featured ASIO's best research. Thereafter PIX went back to telling its readers Hollywood gossip and the press in general lost interest in the sinister plots being hatched at Minto.

ASIO lost interest too – their last file on the camp dates from the mid-1960s. In their time, though, Australia's spies had made a cottage industry of snooping around at Minto. Whenever a suspicious number of bookings were made on the Minto train, spies were there to identify the passengers and follow their families and friends home from the station. They planted moles in some schools and listened in to telephone conversations. They hid in the bushes, and even thought to snap off a few photographs when flying over Minto on their way from Sydney to Canberra.

Minto opens up

Two splits in the Communist Party of Australia, in 1963 and again in 1971, saw it become a leaner organisation with a more accommodating attitude to other groups among the new left. Minto was important to this opening of the party, hosting seminars on gay rights, feminism, radical lesbian separatism, the anti-war movement and the campaign for Aboriginal autonomy. Indeed, members of the Communist Party of Australia were already seasoned campaigners for Aboriginal equality. Key events like the planning of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy took place, in part, at Minto. Kevin Cook was frequently at Minto, as a communist and Builders Labourers Federation member, and more and more often as an Aboriginal activist. As the 1970s eased into place the camp hosted barbeques and wine bottlings, usually as an incentive for the inevitable working bees that had built the place and kept it running.

During the 1980s the Communist Party of Australia was increasingly integrated into broad-left radical movements. The party's eventual dispersal included the transfer of the Minto property to Tranby Aboriginal Cooperative College. Since then the camp has been used by high schools, primary schools, men's groups, Celtic groups, churches and witches. Most recently Minto has been the base of the Campbelltown Aboriginal Men's Group.

References

Patricia Gifford, The Communist Party of Australia Residential National School (Minto) or the Bushlovers' Club, c1958–65: Communist Education, Cultural Nationalism and Conservative Reaction, BA Honours thesis, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, 1999

Interview with Eric Aarons, 12 July 2003

'RSL tells of "Hitler camps"', Illawarra Mercury, 18 July 1962

'Bushlover's club mystified over signs', The Campbelltown Ingleburn and District News, 1 July 1958, p 1

Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1958, p 34

Sun-Herald, 29 June 1958, p 16

PIX, 13 July 1963, p 10

Notes

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