Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.

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Issue #1488      9  February 2011


Desmond (Des) Melrose Donley

(Photo: Anna Pha)

Veteran communist Des Donley passed away quietly in a nursing home on Friday February 4 at the age of 95. His early years were marked by severe hardship and injustice, his later years as a fighter for justice as a staunch unionist and member of the Communist Party. In his youth he was shown no warmth or affection, his schooling was rudimentary. He often commented that he received his education in the Party.

The injustice began at birth, when Des was taken off his “half-caste” Aboriginal mother (kidnapped as Des would say) by the authorities. He was one of many victims of state genocidal policies designed to “assimilate” Aboriginal people into the broader population – today known as the Stolen Generations.

Repeated efforts, later in life, to track his parents were constantly thwarted by government bureaucracies and the Salvation Army. Having white skin, he was not aware of his Aboriginality until, in his 70s, he finally tracked down who his parents were. Sadly, his mother passed away only two weeks before he discovered her whereabouts. He did meet his nephew and other members of his Aboriginal family. The loss of his mother’s love and the grief she felt at her loss were often on his mind.

Des had been in seven or eight foster homes before being handed over to a Salvation Army orphanage in Brisbane and then at 15, placed in virtual slavery on a farm.

“All I got was a primary education. I couldn’t read or write when I left school,” Des told The Guardian, in an interview in 2003, when speaking about the importance of education. “The Salvation Army home was an education – scrubbing floors on my knees, a slave to them.”

The children were marched to school each day to the beat of a drum. “Oh, that used to annoy me, like we was a sideshow or somethin’. The Sally [Salvation Army] rally of raggy orphans.” At school they were given a number and no one knew their names. The teachers had no time for the kids from the home who were subjected to incredible brutality.

Des would recall the thrashings and punishment meted out to an Aboriginal boy, Billy Gordon. “He not only received countless beatings but spent days at a time locked in the washroom with food slid round the door as if he were a wild dog.” They were not allowed to be children, instead subjected to a daily regime of labour and never-ending prayers thanking the Lord for what they were about to receive.

At 14 Des was hired out by the state to a dairy farm at Ipswich. There he slaved under the most appalling conditions from 3.30am to 9pm, sleeping in a shed on a prickly hay bag for a mattress. He slaved day and night, was never paid one penny, never offered any warmth or care.

The state took his wages and up to the time of his death he was still fighting for them. The Queensland government was using a technicality to avoid repayment – it had agreed to pay compensation to Aboriginals under the Aboriginal Protection (sic) Act but Des had been taken from his mother under some other legislation!

At 18, he was free from the care of the state, and took off to find work. He moved from job to job, scraping a living from day to day during the Great Depression. He was sacked more than once for asking for a pay rise or standing up for a fellow worker.

The first person who ever stood up for him, who showed any humanity was a Communist trade unionist. This led to Des becoming a staunch unionist and Communist. He was a union delegate on a number of jobs, and fought fearlessly for fellow workers. Many of his observations and experiences are very relevant to today. Des had no doubts that he would have finished up on the scrap heap if it were not for the unions and the Party.

One of the highlights of his life was in his 80s when he visited Cuba as a member of the Southern Cross Brigade. Des spent some of his later and happy years on the NSW Central Coast where he was warmly welcomed as an Elder of the Darkinjung Tribe.

Des was an ardent reader and supporter of The Guardian and committed Communist. He continued his struggle for justice as long as his health permitted, determined that future generations should have a better life than his and could live in peace.

Des’s biography Slipped Though The Net by Elly Inta is available at Shop@CPA.

The Guardian conveys its sympathy to Des’ family, friends and comrades.  

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