Journalist, Agitator, Organiser- Vale Darce Cassidy

By Ken Mansell

Jon (Darce) Cassidy was probably not meant to become one of the foremost left-wing agitators of his generation. Jon’s upbringing was privileged. His father Ralph Cassidy, tragically killed on RAAF service in 1942, was a barrister from a poor Irish background tinged with ‘Orange’ sectarianism. His mother Audrey Cassidy scrimped and saved to send Jon to the elitist (and anti-Catholic) Sydney Church of England Grammar School (‘Shore’). As a student Jon would drive his uncle, Sir Jack Cassidy (the right-wing Vice-President of the Liberal Party), and Sir Frank Packer to play tennis at the Royal Sydney Golf Club. Nevertheless, living in Cammeray in the fifties, in a by now downwardly-mobile middle-class family, Jon began to reject the narrow-minded ethos of both his home life and school. Symbolically perhaps, he embraced a new name – ‘Darce’.[1]

Darce Cassidy 1983 – Photo Jan Smith

Darce experienced his entry to Sydney University (as a Law student on a Repatriation Department Scholarship in 1960) as a liberation from a restricted background, and particularly enjoyed mingling with Catholics. His service (1960-63) in the Sydney University (CMF) Regiment belied his rapid evolution to the political Left. He attended his first-ever political demonstration (the Martin Place rally against the 1960 Sharpeville massacre), and joined the NSW Association for Immigration Reform, becoming a speaker against the ‘White Australia Policy’. He read the magazines DissentOutlook, and Nation; and listened enthralled to Bertrand Russell, Jim Cairns and Ted Wheelwright on television.[2] From late 1961 to 1966 Darce set the standard for committed activism as a member of the Sydney University ALP Club led by the Trotskyists Peter Templeton, Sylvia Hale, Hall Greenland and Ian McDougall.[3] It was Darce who made (from his parents’ wooden clothes line) and lit the petrol-doused ‘fiery cross’ that turned a ‘Commem Day’ prank in Wynyard Street (6 May 1964) into a sensational protest against U.S racial segregation.[4]

Darce had joined the ABC as a trainee journalist on 10 March 1964, the start of a long career in respectable journalism. In the ALP Club, he began his long parallel career in disreputable ‘guerilla journalism’, a term he coined to describe the cheeky and irreverent style he learned from Pat Mackie, whose underground ‘roneo’ machine had evaded the police at Mount Isa. Assuming the editorship of the ALP Club’s scurrilous weekly news sheet ‘Wednesday Commentary’, Darce would type the stencil in the ‘Four Corners’ office and rush to Bob Gould’s Woollahra home to use the Sydney Left’s only gestetner machine.[5] NSW Premier Askin opined: ‘It’s the filthiest thing I’ve ever seen on paper – it makes “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” look like a very modest publication indeed’.[6] In February 1965, while employed on ‘Four Corners’, Darce and his tape recorder joined the ‘Freedom Ride’ to Walgett and Moree, organised by Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). (He soon found the ABC only wanted to bury his tapes, meaning his now famous ‘Freedom Ride’ documentary was not aired until 1978). Darce later returned to Walgett, conducting organising work at great personal risk.

Darce was transferred to Melbourne by the ABC in September 1966 and worked on ‘This Day Tonight’. A chance meeting with Monash Labor Club President Dave Nadel, who Darce had first met at an Australian Student Labour Federation Conference (Adelaide, May 1966), prompted the establishment of ‘Jasmine Street’, an off-campus political and social centre for the Labor Club in Caulfield, with Darce as front man with the landlord, and genial host at Friday night parties and Sunday night dinners.[7] Darce enrolled part-time at Monash and his influence was soon apparent. The outrageous style that had marked ‘Wednesday Commentary’ began intruding into ‘Print’, the Labor Club’s re-named news sheet with Darce’s phrase ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gestetner’ emblazoned on its masthead. Nadel and Cassidy (the editor) were soon called before the Vice-Chancellor. When the Labor Club satirised the award of a Monash doctorate to Premier Bolte, the students, with Darce officiating as MC, conferred the degree on a pig. The ABC transferred Darce temporarily to Canberra in mid-1967. He completed his ‘Politics’ unit at ANU and joined its Labor Club, then engaged in collecting aid to the NLF.[8]

Darce returned to Melbourne in February 1968 and bought No. 1 Shirley Grove, East St Kilda which doubled as the de facto headquarters of the Monash Labor Club throughout the heady year of 1968, the gestetner in the laundry being used for both ‘Print’ and the High School ‘underground’ leaflets of ‘Students in Dissent’ (SID).[9] Darce was instrumental in establishing ‘The Bakery’, a political centre in Greville Street Prahran catering for the Monash Labor Club and the ‘Revolutionary Socialists’ organisation, and thereafter (1969-71) held the show together, collecting the rent, fronting the landlord, organising the meetings, editing ‘Half-Baked’. He was active in the Vietnam Moratorium of 1970-71, an organiser of the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) formed at ‘The Bakery’ in 1970, Production Manager of WSA’s organ ‘Struggle’, a member of the clandestine Young Communist League (YCL), a member of Red Eureka Movement, a pioneer of Community Radio (3CR), and one of the principal organisers of the six busloads that undertook the 1974 ‘Long March’ to North West Cape. Darce received death threats when his name and address appeared on a leaflet celebrating the throwing of Nazis in the Yarra, and WSA members guarded the house.[10]

In 1971 Darce was the subject of a sustained attack by ‘News Weekly’ and Maxwell Newton’s ‘Melbourne Observer’ accusing him (and WSA) of ‘terrorism’. A DLP question in the Senate led to an in-house ABC investigation and his eventual exoneration (ironically by ASIO).[11] Darce led the 1977-1982 campaign to wrest control of the ABC Staff Association from the right-wing.[12] In 1989 he was appointed South Australian State Manager (Radio). After retiring, he acted as spokesperson for both ‘Save Our SBS’ and ‘Friends of ABC’, and was on the board of Ethnic Radio 3ZZZ.

In his last years, before succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Darce Cassidy joined the Australian Greens and fought for the rights of refugees. He was the man with the silver pen and the heart of gold. He is survived by his wife Jan Smith, their son Michael, and his daughter Anna (with Julie Rigg). R.I.P Darce.


[1] Audrey Cassidy later re-married. Darce did not get along with his stepfather, and has described him as a narrow-minded ‘Babbitt’ (after the ‘hero’ of the Sinclair Lewis novel).

[2] Cairns and Wheelwright regularly appeared on Channel Seven’s ‘Talking Point’ (circa 1959-1960). Max Harris’s monthly ‘Mary Martin booklist’ was another early influence.

[3] June McDougall, Paddy McGuinness, Lyndall Ryan, David Haworth, and Aiden Foy were other prominent figures in the ALP Club. Darce’s very first political article, entitled ‘White Australia – Why?’, was published in the ALP Club’s journal ‘Rebel’. Influenced by the U.S ‘Free University’ movement, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, Darce stood for the SRC and the University Senate. Darce was also influenced at this time by ‘Oz’ magazine, early (1964) issues of ‘The Australian’, and the style of ‘Century’, the Langite newspaper.

[4] The issue, more particularly, was the Southern states’ filibuster against Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. Fifty arrests resulted from the police response to the fiery cross.

[5] The gestetner appears to have belonged to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in which Gould and Alan Roberts (both Trotskyists) were active. The gestetner, like the ‘roneo’ machine, was accessible, portable, and represented ‘freedom of the press’. Leaflets distributed at the University took advantage of a captive audience.

[6] Darce also wrote regularly for ‘Comment’, a leftish magazine loosely associated with the ALP Club through Roger Barnes and Sylvia Hale who had established Southwood Press. Darce was a shareholder in ‘Comment’ and donated his printing press to it.

[7] Upon arrival in Melbourne, before his contact with the Monash Left, Darce lived at Bob Ellis’s place in Andrew Street Prahran. At the invitation of Janey Stone, he edited several issues of ‘Shop’, the news sheet of Melbourne University Labour Club. It was at Jasmine Street parties, and then later and more regularly at Shirley Grove parties, that Darce honed his skills as a disc jockey, playing over and over the records he had acquired from Bob Gould in Sydney – Irish rebel songs, songs of the Spanish Civil War, union songs by the Almanac Singers. Darce’s initial interest in folk music was sparked by Pete Seeger and Gary Shearston’s Sydney TV program.

[8] Darce travelled to Canberra in the winter of 1967 with Jill Scannell, a Monash Labor Club member who he had first met in 1966 when she was living at Trevor Ashton’s home (118 Orrong Road). Jill and Darce married in Canberra but split up in early 1970.

[9] As an indication of Darce’s deepening Maoist proclivities, the cat at Shirley Grove was named ‘Chairman Meow’. Darce, denied re-entry as a ‘non-serious student’, was effectively expelled from Monash in 1968.

[10] ‘Struggle’ was printed at Shirley Grove after the Bakery printing press was moved there (circa early 1971). There were actually two clandestine YCL’s. The first, in early 1969, met in Fawkner Park to avoid ASIO bugging. The second, solidly Maoist if not Stalinist, was formed in early 1970. Darce’s YCL identity was ‘Len Esdaile’ – the name he also used on 3CR’s Breakfast Show. WSA split between REM (Red Eureka) and the Australian Independence Movement (AIM) circa 1976.

[11] The DLP senator enquired as to whether the ABC ‘employed a terrorist named Cassidy?’ ASIO’s taps on Darce’s phone revealed he was ‘not a terrorist but a ‘revolutionary Marxist’. A photo of Darce graces the front cover of ‘News Weekly’, August 25, 1971.

[12] Terry Lane and Jan Smith were the first from the ABC Left faction (led by Darce) in Melbourne to get elected to the union in 1977.

Reprinted from Labour History Melbourne

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