Citizen Love – teacher, activist, scholar, and friend

By Julie Kimber


Our dear friend Peter Love is no more.

His involvement with the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History spans fifty years – and countless meetings, conferences, symposia, editing and printing of newsletters and journals, and so much more. For the last thirty-five of those years, Peter has been president of its Melbourne Branch.

Peter Love leading the cemetery tour during the 2015 ASSLH conference.
Peter Love leading the cemetery tour during the 2015 ASSLH conference.

His dedication to the Society personified his belief in active republican citizenship and represented just one of the many civic engagements of his life. Another that he was especially proud of was as a Trustee of the Trades Hall and Literary Institute, Melbourne.

Peter was born in 1947, at a time of acute housing shortages. His earliest memories were of the crowded but happy living arrangements at his grandmother’s house in Newstead Street, Maribyrnong.

His father had been in the air force with John Gorton during the war, and his admiration for and interest in that generation ‘that copped the lot’ was key to his later scholarship.

As a young man, Peter was perpetually on the move, a sometimes mug lair, keen sportsman, and passionate musician. His working-class origins and keen eye and ear for the condescension around him provided the spur to his radicalisation in the 1960s.

Trained as a primary school teacher, Peter spent several years as a chalkie and several more as a bureaucrat in the Education Department. A period of soul-searching while reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and a chance meeting during a smoke break while on a lobbying trip in Canberra would prove decisive.

That chance meeting was with a young, spirited Joan Kirner. Their ‘fellowship of the fag’ led to an animated discussion of the rorting of education funding by Bjelke Petersen’s government. Sufficiently enraged, they conspired to make a public statement against this when their meeting resumed. Their intervention embarrassed Peter’s boss, whose opprobrium – coupled with Peter’s fear of becoming one of the ‘grey cardigans’ of the Department ­– was the final straw. Peter walked away from the job and into postgraduate study.

Peter Love c1976
Peter Love in Yan Yean. Photo by Phillip Deery. Circa 1976.

At La Trobe University, Peter found refuge, as others had done, in the ‘great encourager’ Peter Cook, and inspiration from La Trobe’s innovative narrative approach to history championed by Rhys Isaac, Inga Clendinnen, and Greg Dening.

Peter’s ‘galloping interest’ in radical political economy led to the publication of Labour and the Money Power: Australian Labour Populism 1890-1950 – and this scholarship of left-wing populism in Australia propelled his shift to the Australian National University, where he undertook a biographical study of Frank Anstey (1865-1940) under the supervision of Eric Fry and Les Louis. Anstey’s role as a ‘popular theorist’ most engaged Peter, especially his influence on the Chifley government’s attempts to nationalise the banks. Here we come back to Peter’s preoccupation with citizenship and political economy and how his father’s generation tried to reimagine a new Australian polity.

Peter’s biographical study of Anstey was almost derailed by a flood that saw his work float from the house he shared with his second wife and the love of his life, Susanne Provis. Supported by his best mate, Andrew Moore, and with the aid of John Arnold from the National Centre for Research and Development at Monash University, Peter managed to piece his research back together.

Simon Kneebone's wonderful cartoon of Peter Love when president of the Swinburne Branch of the NTEU.
Simon Kneebone’s wonderful cartoon of Peter Love when he was President of the Swinburne Branch of the NTEU.

By 1990, when Peter submitted his thesis, he was ensconced in the then-supportive environment of Swinburne University. His contributions to the university during his twenty-seven-year career are too many to list, but include his history, Practical Measures: 100 Years at Swinburne, his long-term union activism – including a stint as President of the Swinburne Branch of the NTEU between 1994-1997 – and his legendary status as a teacher. He set a high bar for himself and those silly enough to try and emulate him. Frequently proclaiming that ‘notes are for amateurs’, he was delighted that he delivered his last lecture without one.

After his retirement in 2015, Peter lamented the direction of the university as it shifted away from its early collegiality into its current diminished form. It was this collegiality that set Peter apart. His disdain for personal promotion made him a generous and supportive colleague, and his capacity to engage and nurture the curiosity – and crap detectors – of a generation of students was renowned. His capacity to listen, what he called his ‘good ear trick’, made him a go-to person for students and colleagues alike.

Peter Love at his last lecture.

Throughout his career, Peter continually honed his thoughts about citizenship and what it meant to be an Australian. He railed against the greed-is-good mantra of the Kennett years and the public choice theorists who viewed us all as ‘egoistic, rational, utility maximisers’. The connections between these obsessions, his vision of what a good public education could do, and his fascination with the Chifley government’s aims of building a ‘new Jerusalem in Australia’ tell us much about the man and his mission.

It also helps to understand why Peter dedicated fifty years to an association that, from its inception, characterised much of what Peter embodied. The society’s aims to be a bridge between the academy and the labour movement, which later – thanks to the efforts of Ann Curthoys, Susan Magarey, Lyndall Ryan, Rae Frances, Carmel Shute, Janet McCalman, among many others – expanded its remit to incorporate the home and social history, were ideals that he practised in his own life, as a worker, activist, fundraiser, volunteer, citizen, academic, and a great encourager.

Peter Love and Susanne Provis.
Peter Love and Susanne Provis.

Above all else, Peter personified his own ‘communitarian civic ideal’. His description of what that embodies can be equally applied to Peter with his ‘unassuming nationalism, simple decency and a willingness to place the public good before private benefit’. Befitting a man who operated according to the ‘Old Mates Act’ and practised noncontractual reciprocity, his friendship circles were large. He will be sorely missed. We send our heartfelt condolences to Peter’s wife, Susanne, and his extended family and friends, and we grieve with them in their loss.

A public celebration of Peter’s life will be held on Thursday 22 June at Trades Hall, from 5 pm.

4 thoughts on “Citizen Love – teacher, activist, scholar, and friend

  1. Sarah Brown says:

    A Renaissance Man in his reach, talents and interests and remembered with admiration and fondness by me for his steadfast support of libraries and archives. Peter wrote so many eloquent tributes to departed comrades. Thank you Julie for acquitting this sad task for him so beautifully.


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