Denis Freney 1936-1995: a rebel with many causes

This obituary of Denis Freney was published under the heading 'Dynamo of left led Timor protest' in The Australian, 11 September 1995.

Denis Freney lived a life full of adventure which sprang from his passionate commitment to a better world through the political Left. His recent death from cancer at 58 has shocked many people. He was best known in Australia for his key role in organising the Campaign for an Independent East Timor and his earlier organising in the Vietnam Moratorium and the protests against the 1971 Springbok football tour.

Over 20 years he became one of Australia's most widely known and energetic left wing activists and journalists. He personified Gramsci's aphorism that to change society one need 'optimism of the will'. His life paralleled the profound changes in Australia from the Menzian era of the RSL, of short hair and conformity towards a more relaxed and liberal society.

His commitment to East Timor began well before the Indonesian invasion when he organised a trade union and community delegation to the newly liberated Portuguese colony. In this period and after the invasion he worked closely with Jose Ramos Horta and Abilio Araujo in keeping the world informed of the bruality of Indonesian rule and the Fretilin guerrilla struggle.

In the early years after the invasion he set up a much needed radio link with the Fretilin guerrillas and with the support of several Australian and East Timorese established a transmitter in a remote part of the Northern Territory. Though harassed by Australian intelligence, Telecom and police, this vital contact survived for more than 18 months.

Denis Freney's attachment to the Left began when he was attracted as a teenager to the ALP in the early 1950s, but he soon joined the Communist Party of Australia at Sydney University. But after Kruschev's secret speech on Stalin's crimes and the subsequent invasion of Hungary he joined the trotskyist movement.

His commitment to the Fourth International, as it was known, was to be the beginning of eight years of sometimes dangerous travel to promote anti-colonial rebellion and socialism. He worked in Algeria in the wake of the FLN victory and undertook an organising mission to South Africa under apartheid, among other places.

In Johannesburg in 1961 in the wake of the lifting of a State of Emergency, he made contact with the Committee for National Liberation. This mainly white group planned and carried out sabotage and prepared for guerrilla warfare against the white regime. In one memorable incident he was in car with a white and two black members of the CNL when the police pulled them up. The Afrikaans-speaking white driver dealt with the policeman, remarking later that they were lucky he had not looked in the boot: it was full of stolen detonators being used to blow up electric pylons.

In 1963 Denis travelled to newly free Algeria to work with the Algerian Press Service and with Michel Pablo, an adviser to the new FLN government of Ben Bella. With Pablo he popularsied the notion of 'self-management' -- a form of grassroots control by peasants and workers which tried to avoid the centralism and bureaucracy of Soviet-style socialism. A little later he narrowly escaped being caught up in a coup in Algeria by the conservative forces in the FLN.

After 1968 Denis lived in Australia and became a dynamo on the Left, helping organise many demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and setting up a suburban shop called 'Liberation' on Sydney's northern beaches. At this time Liberal state MP Peter Coleman denounced him as 'one of a handful of teachers committed to mobilising high school students for revolution'. As a teacher he kept his politics and job separate, except for unionism. He became the centre of a major industrial dispute when he was victimised by a compulsory transfer to another school. His position symbolised the frustration of many newly militant teachers with the bureaucracy and authoritarianism of the Education Department.

The massive campaign against the 1971 Springbok rugby tour which ended sporting contact with South Africa was in large part driven by his energy. At one point his home was raided by police who planted smokeflares under his bed and then arrested him. This was hardly necessary -- his car boot contained a dozen of the devices used to disrupt the football.

In 1970 Denis Freney rejoined the Communist Party of Australia, to the displeasure of the pro-Soviet minority. The CPA was evolving away from Stalinism and had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He promoted its further evolution during whihc it embraced the new social movements of womens liberation, gay liberation and what we now call the green movement. Denis was part of a wave of new radicals who revitalised the staid Left and detonated a chain reaction of social change which is still being felt in Australian society.

While he was organising the Campaign for an Independent East Timor and in the 1980s, Denis worked as a journalist on the CPA paper Tribune. He had begun by changing a lot of the paper's stuffiness born of the male dominated trade union world. Later he was to report on the flowering of Solidarity in the early 80s for Tribune. A decade earlier Denis wrote one of the first articles in Australia reporting the emergence of the militant Gay Liberation Movement in New York. A short time later he acknowledged his own homosexuality by coming out and becoming one of the early activists in the gay movement.

Yet for much of his life, Denis sacrified his personal life to broader goals, as he explained in his autobiography, A Map of Days (Heinemann). Yet he always had a circle of close friends with whom he shared communal houses or the hot curries for which he became famous.

He was not always an easy man to get close to and his single-mindedness occasionally drove his closest friends to distraction or laughter.

In recent years, like many today on the Left, he began to re-think the meaning of his lifelong commitment, though he never wavered from the egalitarian, humanist and secular values at the heart of his beliefs. He was a man who regretted nothing he had done and was proud of most of it. His life was a testament to the idea that committed individuals can make a big difference to the society in which they live.

Mary Alice Evatt described her late husband, Dr Evatt in a way that applies to Denis Freney. 'He would never hold himself back from things. Now the people who are not good in life or in politics or in art are those who won't give everything, hold themselves back from life, from pain and joy, both. No, he would always put all of himself into whatever he was doing. And it made life very interesting, it made it very difficult for him but still that was his nature.'

A commemoration for Denis Freney will be held at the Harold Park Hotel, Wigram Rd Glebe, on Saturday 16th September, 12.30pm.