Phyllis Johnson

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Phyllis Johnson was a campaigner of substance, and on many fronts. She campaigned for “Liberty Loans” to raise funds to wage World War II, against the prime minister, Robert Menzies, in his attempts to ban the Communist Party, for women’s refuges and equal pay and, most famously, against rising prices.

During the war she ran a weekly program on Radio 2KY, Women for Victory. On her way to Glen Davis, in northern NSW, to advocate the Liberty Loan, she was stopped by the flooded Capertee River. Johnson swam the river, walked into town and was greeted by a large crowd, one of whom shouted: “We didn’t come to hear you speak. We came to see the woman who swam the Capertee River."

Johnson was jailed for speaking out against conscription for war and twice thrown out of the NSW Parliament, becoming known as “the girl in the green hat”. At the age of 90 she set up a table and chair at her local shopping centre to get signatures on a petition for the Your Rights at Work Campaign. She spoke at last years International Women’s Day function in Lawson.

Phyllis Sarah Johnson, who has died at 92, was one of five children born in Albany, Western Australia, to Millie Stewart and her husband, Washington Mather, a coal lumper and wharf labourer who became a prominent trade union leader. She went to school in Albany, then to high school in Melbourne, joining her father there after he had left home. Father and daughter moved to Sydney during the Depression in 1933.

She found work as a clerk in a small business in Woolloomooloo, joined the clerks’ union and soon began campaigning for decent working conditions. She joined the anti-eviction movement and made her first protest in parliament, calling for a moratorium on evictions.

She joined the Communist Party in 1937, attended her first International Women’s Day the same year, joined the campaign against fascism and the Spanish Civil War, became involved in the New Theatre and, in 1939, married John Johnson, a violin maker and communist.

After the war the Johnsons adopted three children, and Phyllis continued campaigning. She also continued her membership of the Communist Party, even after many comrades left and the split in Australia between those who followed Moscow and those who supported a Beijing line.

The Communist Party of Australia had about 23,000 members in 1945 but dissolved itself in 1992. The Socialist Party of Australia, which Johnson had joined, took up the CPA title in 1996, and she remained a member until her death.

Johnson came to public prominence in 1970 when she set up the Campaign Against Rising Prices with other women from around Bankstown. They blamed multinational groups for forcing up prices, often of food, and their campaign gained an international profile.

Protesting against the soap makers, Johnson made her own at home in kerosene tins, and requests for recipes came from Afghanistan and Mexico. She arranged "sit-ins" outside supermarkets that sold what she regarded as rancid butter and fetid bacon to unsuspecting shoppers. When some supermarkets started checking shoppers’ bags, the campaign members filled their handbags with rat traps and fake spiders.

In 1973, having repeatedly failed to meet the premier, Sir Robert Askin, the Campaign Against Rising Prices members protested from the public gallery in the Legislative Assembly, calling for control of prices. Attendants had to forcibly remove her after the speaker, Sir Kevin Ellis, adjourned the House.

However, after the Wran Labor government came to power in 1976, Johnson worked more happily with Syd Einfeld, the minister for consumer affairs. They were sometimes called “Mr and Mrs Prices”.

In 1975 she opened the doors of Betsy Women’s Refuge in Bankstown, to which she and several other woman had allocated funds from their housekeeping money.

She loved poetry, especially Australian bush poetry, and often recited it. She spoke of herself as "the last of the red Matildas".

Her honours include a medal in the Order of Australia in 1989, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), Bankstown Woman of the Year (1977) , the Syd Einfeld Award (1993), the Centenary Medal (2001) and the Eureka Medal (2008).

Phyllis Johnson is survived by her son Peter and daughter Alice. John Johnson died in 2003, and her son Ralph predeceased her.