Community activist paid price for political ideals




23-10-1929 19-10-2012


AN ASIO file six centimetres thick attests to Jack Svendsen's description of himself as "an activist first and foremost".

Born on the eve of the Great Depression and raised around Pascoe Vale, Jack's childhood was great fun - with skinny-dipping in the creeks and shanghai fights - but his family was poor, particularly after his father Fred died during war service in 1942.

There were numerous evictions, one just days after his mother Mae suffered a miscarriage. Jack recalls riding his tricycle as Mae pushed his younger brothers in the pram five kilometres to the council depot for a "susso" handout of vegetables.

These experiences shaped Jack's values, commitment to social justice and political beliefs. Studying engineering at the University of Melbourne in the 1950s, he became engrossed in student politics: the ALP Club, the Labour Club, the university branch of the Communist Party and the Eureka Youth League (the "Young Communists").

He went to the movement's country base, Camp Eureka at Yarra Junction, with his brothers Ken and Laurie. There he met the camp nurse, Nora Deery, who he later married and with whom he had three daughters, Kirsten, Ingrid and Helga.

In an era of Cold War paranoia, his political associations were of interest to ASIO, with ramifications beyond student life. In his final year of university Jack worked part-time with PMG Research Laboratories. He always suspected politics cost him a permanent position. Recently, Helga obtained his ASIO file, which confirms that Jack was deemed a security risk and unfit for government employment.

The thick, heavily redacted file has notes and photos of public and private activities. ASIO operatives infiltrated even small meetings held in family and friends' homes to discuss such seditious matters as world peace.

Jack qualified as an electrical engineer and in the 1970s he

and Nora (Natasha) moved to Diamond Creek. Jack built an Alistair Knox-designed mud-brick house and carved a native garden from a tough bush block.

He became active in community life the progress association, organisation of the town fair,

a community school, a food

co-operative, the local Country

Fire Authority and school council.

Jack and Natasha joined local parents in lobbying for a new primary school, and for girls to attend the town's secondary school, a tech.

He was also involved in local politics and worked on the federal election campaigns of friends David McKenzie, Peter Staples and Pete Steedman.

After his retirement in the 1990s, Jack moved back to Pascoe Vale and joined environment group Friends of the Merri Creek, volunteering in the office and attending planting days.

He participated in a planting three days before the stroke that took his life just a few days short of his 83rd birthday.

Jack also became a passionate bushwalker. CAEX Bushwalking Club friends recall someone who liked to chat, laugh and share a glass of wine, and who used his precise engineer's brain to help map walks.

Jack will be remembered as a generous and supportive man, someone who inspired and encouraged social justice and political and community activism. He is survived by his three daughters, their mother Natasha and a grandson, Dane.

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