Socialist roots

Observations on the Tree of Knowledge

This month one of Australia's true political icons was pronounced dead, at the ripe old age of 160. The "Tree of Knowledge" is no more, following its deliberate poisoning earlier this year.

In political folklore, it is accepted that, in 1891, the world's oldest Labour party was born under a tree - a decade before Britain's Labour Party. A group of striking shearers met under a large ghost gum tree in front of an outback railway station to plan a campaign for better pay and conditions. From that meeting was born the Labour Electoral League, which became the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

One of the striking shearers, T J Ryan, became, in 1892, the first person in the world elected to a parliament on a Labour ticket. Being the starting point of such a movement made the small outback town of Barcaldine, 500 miles north-west of Brisbane, famous across Australia, boosting the local tourist economy.

Then, this year, tragedy struck. Someone poured 30 litres of pesticide on its roots. Efforts to save the Tree of Knowledge were in vain. And yet, the tree does live on. A cutting had been taken in 1990 and last year was planted near the "father". Plans are afoot to sell seedlings from the "son" and local churches are praying for the tree's reproductive success.

The local ALP president, Pat Ogden, told Queensland's Courier-Mail that people felt the death "just like when a person dies". The party is offering a reward of A$10,000 (roughly £4,000) for information leading to the arrest of the culprit.