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Delcia Ivy (Delce) Kite (1923–2012)

by Rodney Cavalier

from Southern Highlands Branch ALP Newsletter

The Australian Labor Party and its Left, when there was a Left, involved Delcia Kite for more than five decades.

Delce joined the ALP in the early 1950s on the urging of Fred. In all the years ahead, Fred’s continuous support for her political involvement was crucial in what Delcia was able to do. Delce paid tribute to Fred in her Maiden Speech in the Legislative Council in 1976.

The Kites were active members of the Granville Central Branch through the 1950s. They operated a wine bar in Good Street, Granville, which became an assembly point for those who became active against the Movement and the Industrial Groups. Later in the decade, Fred teamed up with Delce’s father, Alec Smith, in a business that renovated old houses.

Granville Central was a big branch. Its control likely delivered the numbers in the preselections for the Federal seat of Reid and the State seat of Granville. Both safe Labor. They were then. Hard players from both factions were members. The Kites were in the forefront of switching Granville Central away from the Groups.

The Great Split of the 1950s is almost impossible to conceive from the perspective of Labor in 2012. Delcia and her allies — and their opponents — were driven by passion and commitment. Most of all they were driven by belief, a surfeit of it. The differences between them were uncontainable in Granville and across Australia. People fought the good fight for the soul of the Labor Movement. Every word in the sentence preceding had meaning to Delcia and her contemporaries.

The 1950s are often characterised as a decade when Australia was somnolent. The characterisation is villainous: men and women married after the War, they had little means, they brought children into the world and they found acres of time in lives hard pressed, time sufficient to be involved in ALP politics at a local level. In Granville and surrounds is the story of politics below, the story of Fred and Delce, the Urens, the Fergusons, the Flahertys, the Collins and literally hundreds of couples and families and individuals in Granville alone who committed themselves to realising a better Australia. Localised democracy made their achievements possible.

Delcia and Fred left Granville for Vaucluse in 1960. The passion for politics did not cease, it did alter. Delcia became utterly immersed in the affairs of the Steering Committee, the organisational body of the NSW Left. By the late 1960s into the 1970s, a new generation was arriving in the party and the Left, inspired not by Gough but by Jim Cairns and ending the war in Vietnam.

Delcia taught us how to make sure every ounce of support must be made to count. After the rhetoric and the mobilisation, there is the book work and signatures in the Attendance Book, the central importance of process, an impeccable set of documents. She would be ballistic when a situation set fair for victory was in ruins because of slipshod bookwork.

Delcia taught us to pay attention – one of her favourite phrases. Her knowledge worked the other way as well. Slipshod work by opponents, especially forgery, did not escape Delce. In the aftermath of the bashing of Peter Baldwin in 1980, Delcia and John Faulkner were lethal in what they did to the books of the inner-city ALP.

I could relate the many stoushes with her. The third part of my account of 1975 relates the moment when our relationship was at its nadir. We came through that tussle and were compelled to sit together on the Administrative Committee and the Steering Committee Executive. It made sense to cooperate. We came to see our respective strengths. Jack Ferguson we both revered, he liked both of us, enmity was silly. Enmity ceased. Before 1978 we were together every month 2-3 times at meetings held in the early evening. Dinner followed almost invariably. Some months we were at meetings half a dozen and more times. Dinner followed.  After 1978 one added the meals at Parliament House.

Chinese meals in Dixon Street for nearly 20 years with a revolving cast but always John Faulkner, Delce and me. And the meals in Parliament House with Jack Ferguson whom Delce collected on the way to the dining room. Jack was setting about the conscious re-creation of the King Table from the old building, hosted by the redoubtable Reg Downing for movers and shakers on the Right. Jack’s table was for the Left but not exclusively. What was verboten was bringing business to dinner. The last meal John and I had with Delce, a frail Delce, was Chinese at Rose Bay. Her choice.

Delcia was elected to the Legislative Council in 1976 in the last election by a college of the two Houses. If being an MLC is a reward for service, no person has ever been more deserving than Delcia.

The party in its wisdom did not admit MLCs to caucus until 1985 – an act that was truly the abandonment of wisdom for which the consequences are proving terminal – Delcia was imprisoned in a hopeless minority in the meetings of Labor MLCs. Silence was not her suit. She gave the Right leadership – that included Ducker and Unsworth – larry-dooley at every opportunity.

The snappy character reference was one of her strengths. I received more than most. You have to pay attention, Rodney. Pull your socks up. If you were listening, you wouldn’t have to ask. It didn’t happen, it’s not in the minutes. When copping a dressing down, never voice raised, Delce tilted her head, looked over her reading glasses, fixed you in a stare you dared not avoid and delivered her rebuke.

She had her phrases. When I was regarded as spending too much time in the company of Deirdre Grusovin and Johnno Johnson – “supping with the Groupers” was how Jack characterised it — Delcia observed: “If this continues, we’ll have to run a tape measure over you”. It continued.

When A was thought to be having an affair with B, a truly unlikely pairing, Delce decided to end the speculation by keeping her eyes open. The verdict was not long in coming. “Methinks he’s sampled the merchandise.” The verdict was also the end of it. “It’s none of our business.” Such speculations did not enter the parlance of factional and intra-factional contest, certainly not the media. Under no circumstances could such stories be permitted to reach the ears of anyone who would be hurt by the liaison.

Delcia kept notes at each meeting she attended. They were inserted in a ring binder as soon as created. I was forever urging her to lodge them with a library or give them to me. “I’ll do no such thing.” One day in her retirement she informed us she had destroyed the lot. “That’s all there is to it so don’t complain.”

Through the 1980s, when John Faulkner, was Assistant General Secretary, Delcia stationed herself in John’s office for the duration of each election campaign. Of which there were seven. Head Office moved a desk in for her and a phone. Each day she brought John beautiful morning and afternoon teas.

John was in charge of all printing. Delcia possessed the patience to be a proof reader. Printing the how-to-votes required booking not fewer than three printing houses. Big jobs in which timing and quick delivery was of the essence. For the 99 Legislative Assembly seats, the 50 House seats, table cloths for the Council and Senate, sheets of paper rich in names and numbers, proof-reading required an eye that did not skip, an eye that avoided the bane of all proofs – your eye sees what it knows should be there but isn’t. Any error had to be corrected at great expense. Not in all those contests. Tens of thousands of names and numbers.

She performed the same task for Annual Conference and NSW Council. The Left’s ticket – the Left used to prove its existence by contesting all positions on offer – required the same attention. On one occasion, one only, Delcia slipped. For the Sport and Recreation Committee she failed to pick up a number repeating. The informal vote shot past 30 per cent. The Right elected all of its candidates and its reserves. Your Editor is the only person in the history of the faction placed number 2 to miss a place in a proportional ballot for nine positions.

Any Conference delegate, not totally committed to the Right, received a letter from the Left, each envelope written with calligraphic care by Delcia. She was a qualified tracer of every stroke and curl. I will not go into how useful that can be.

Delcia did not play the female card. She offered a quiet encouragement to women coming through. Never the loud and strident. Labor Women’s Committee switched from Right control as a result of the feminist radicalisation.

The most telling discrimination against ALP women in the 1950s and 1960s was self-inflicted. Delcia could have been the Member for Granville. Deirdre Grusovin née Brereton could have entered parliament instead of her brother. Could have. Neither gave that possibility a thought. They were totally occupied raising children. Parliament was not for them. When they were ready, they entered parliament because of their efforts and standing, not as a result of male patronage. Bemusing that the arrival of women in large numbers is wholly dependent on male patronage and fixing the result. The arrival of women in the early 2000s was at the price of democracy, a killing of participation for which the party will pay a forever price. Delcia was contemptuous of women who invented the aura of martyrdom to mask their lack of support in local branches.

Jack Ferguson was her hero. The Delcia who once took orders from Arthur Gietzelt without question ceased to be by the 1980s.

After 1988, deliberately cutting myself off from associations which reminded me of a finer, fonder past, I was unavailable for years for any sort of reunion or get-together. Threat of closure of Windsor Public School in 1990 caused the P&C Association to contact me. I received a phone call from a Maureen Davis. “I’m Delcia Kite’s daughter.” I had first met Maureen on the Sunday after the 1973 NSW Election when Labor had suffered what we thought was a heavy defeat and I was seriously upset.

My friend Cathie Butler (aka Kate Butler of Rats in the Ranks) mentioned to Delcia I had taken it badly. Delcia invited us both to her home in Vaucluse for consoling. In the loungeroom Maureen was at full stretch in a red bikini, a sight most welcome and most unexpected. Entirely unconcerned about her impact, Maureen offered a dissertation on why her mother loved politics so much. “You’ve met my baby then,” Delcia noted. That night I met Fred who assured me that Labor will come back. The people always work out the Libs.

Maureen took her activism in Windsor Public into the wider affairs of the P&C Federation where she encountered Sally Ray, then at the full stretch of her demonic energy. Maureen and Sally hit it off of the instant. Sally mentioned that she had met Maureen of Windsor who knew me. “That’s Delcia Kite’s daughter,” I noted and explained context. For a good while I knew Maureen as Delcia’s daughter.

We were invited to stay at Windsor in a nineteenth century home next to the court house. Fred and Delcia were staying as well. That was the reason for the invitation. Ten under the roof – those Smith genes run deep. Bliss it was to talk to Delcia after years of denying myself the company of a generation. Thanks to Maureen and Sally, Delcia returned to my life. Sally and Maureen became each other’s best friend. Millie as a baby visited the Kite home in Vaucluse with the Kite grandchildren. A photo of Mill went on the mantelpiece along with her other adopted grandchildren – Bonnie and Lachlan Faulkner.

Delcia placed her family pre-eminent. I noted at the funeral to the family assembled from all over Australia that we had cause to resent them. So often, crisis approaching, Delce would declare: “I won’t be there. Maureen and her husband are . . . and I will be looking after the grandchildren”. Meeting dates might be set with a smart alec remark from me “subject to grandmother duties”. Delcia’s look was withering.

Delcia lived a life in balance. A life in which Delcia did it all. Jack Ferguson and Delcia were such fine examples of what was possible by dint of hard work, honest effort, unending application. Meals with Delce, Jack and John take on a sense of perfection which, I note, felt like that at the time.

I am so grateful that our difficulties were in the early years of our relationship. My worst thrashings came early. There followed a deep friendship and absolute trust. She later backed me in all my adventures. It was unwise to criticise Delcia in my presence. Delcia did not miss a Southern Highlands Branch garden party.

She was disgusted by what the Labor Party became. When the Socialist Left purported to hold a celebration of 50 years since the founding of the Steering Committee, Delcia did not so much as decline to attend as not gave a moment’s thought to embracing such a falsehood. Not even with John Faulkner playing his Stan Laurel act as a Leftwinger.

The Split generation is passing from our midst. One by one the party is losing its links to a past that was bitter and harsh because people believed in what they believed and organised to achieve an outcome. 

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Citation details

Rodney Cavalier, 'Kite, Delcia Ivy (Delce) (1923–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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