Union Organising in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Communities in North Queensland

A presentation by Bill Thompson to the Vintage Reds ACT on Tuesday 17 September 2019 at the Tradies Club, Dickson ACT 1

Bill acknowledged the Ngunnawal people, the custodians of this land and the land on which we met, and paid his respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples past and present.

I was appointed as the North Queensland Organiser by the Municipal Officers Association (MOA), Queensland Branch, in July 1985. The union later to merged with others to form the Australian Services Union. My area of responsibility was the northern half of Queensland, or that area above a line drawn between Birdsville inland to Bowen on the coast.

It was a difficult time to be appointed, as the South East Queensland Electricity Board industrial dispute had been raging (and that is not too strong a word) for five months, and it was the year in which great changes were occurring in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community councils, not the least in their governance. With the introduction of the Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT), a significant disruption in the administration of those councils had occurred.

Much of what follows is anecdotal and personal observations. But here I must digress.

Have you heard the joke about the bloke who went to the doctor – he had a monkey growing out of his head. Tell me said the doctor, “how did this begin?” Well, said the monkey, “it started with a spot on my bottom’. At the risk now of enraging the Queenslanders in the room, I need to set the political scene in Queensland in 1985.

“Rural, backward, racist, populist, authoritarian and corrupt”. So said Seymour Martin Lipset an American political scientist, who in the context of the USA said “every country has a South”. We in Australia have a North, in this case Queensland under the Bjelke-Petersen Government, which had been in office since 1968. The definition suited Queensland to a ‘T’, as the Liberal-Country Party (later the Liberal National Party), well entrenched both politically and within that society, was resolutely opposed to change, unless it was to the detriment of its political enemies. Queensland was to prove the political monkey on the back (not the head) of the Australian body politic for decades. No doubt, a sentiment shared by Gough Whitlam.

Now to return to the actual circumstances.

A white-collar local government union, the MOA had been eager to extend its coverage of its federal industrial award, into Queensland community councils. In one respect it was a defensive move as it feared that in its absence the Australian Workers Union (AWU), a state registered body, would try and fill the vacuum with an amendment to its state award, knowing full well the Bjelke-Peterson Government would readily concur. Both wanted a Queensland state award with the AWU respondent.

The AWU Queensland Branch had form. It had colluded with successive state governments, including Labor governments, ever since the disastrous shearers’ strike of 1891. The MOA had made application to the then federal industrial body, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, to register what was later to become the Municipal Officers Aboriginal and Islanders Community Councils Award 1985, a proposal that reflected the existing industrial circumstances elsewhere in Queensland local governments.

On the penultimate hearing day at the Federal Industrial Commission, the state government industrial advocates, who had registered as a party to the hearing, were shown a number of documents by one of the MOA representatives after the close of the hearing. The documents were not tabled and therefore off the record. Their content is unknown. We do know that on that hearing day, the lights in the Premier’s Office burned long into the night.

On the following hearing day the State Government capitulated and the case for the AWU collapsed. The MOA had a new federal award to which it was respondent. The contents of the documents have never been disclosed and as far as I am aware only one person amongst the MOA advocates knows what was divulged, and he is not telling.
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June 2019 Guest Speaker, Meredith Burgmann

Jane introduced our speaker, Dr Meredith Burgmann, an academic, unionist and feminist, who spoke about the Springbok rugby tour of Australia in 1971. The talk focused on the tour in the context of sporting boycotts in Australia and globally.

Meredith gave an acknowledgement of country and paid her respects to elders.

We were happy to have in the audience veterans of the anti-apartheid movement as well as other contemporary actions such as the BLF’s Green Bans.

The South African Nationalist party adopted apartheid in its successful election campaign in 1948. Post-war Australia was an extremely conservative place, and the common line was that white South Africans were some kind of necessary bulwark against communism. In those days the Australian parliament didn’t discuss foreign affairs much. Meredith found only Gough Whitlam and Barry Cohen to be exceptions to this rule.

In the union movement, the seamen and waterside workers traditionally had international connections, of course. During this period they boycotted South African ships and refused to load cargos.

The first anti-apartheid group in Australia was the South Africa Defence and Aid Fund, a lawyers’ group (see John Myrtle’s essay at honesthistory.net.au). Students also demonstrated sporadically against South African apartheid. The rise of the New Left and student activism, during the Vietnam war, led to involvement in other issues including apartheid.

Sydney’s Stop the Tours campaign began in 1969: Denis Freney, Meredith, and Peter MacGregor were all involved. Sekai Holland was another member (a Zimbabwean who later returned to Zimbabwe and opposed the Mugabe government). That year the Springbok rugby team toured the UK, which gave Meredith’s group some lead time for a campaign to replicate in Australia the very successful opposition to the tour which anti-apartheid groups in the UK had organised. The longer plan was to have the 1971 South African cricket tour called off (which they achieved). Continue reading

May 2019 Speaker, Greg McConville; & Harry Wall

Jane welcomed Greg McConville from the United Firefighters’ Union (ACT Branch) to the May meeting.

Greg discussed the current dispute between the union and the ACT Labor Government. The issue concerns overtime payments to firefighters who worked consecutive shifts without an 8-hour break in between as required. ACT Fire and Rescue doesn’t have enough firefighters to fill a safe roster. They need more to cover those who are injured, sick, on leave, or in training.

The UFU is also proposing an updated skills training regime, better and earlier health interventions (globally, only firefighters have won pre-emptive rights in workers’ compensation: any ACT firefighter who is diagnosed with cancer is presumed to have got it through their work); as well as a number of other extra items in the enterprise agreement – many of which would save money, such as lowering workers comp premiums.

Firefighters in the ACT were offered a 10% pay rise, but rejected it, believing that the money should be invested instead in community safety.

Earlier Jane welcomed Harry Wall to the meeting, for an overview of the election result and the Vintage Reds’ volunteer effort in Gilmore. Harry is the ACTU manager of the Change the Rules campaign in Gilmore. He thanked the VRs for their work in the electorate.

The ACTU concentrated on ten seats, but only Gilmore was won, by the ALP. Its candidate, Fiona Phillips, had been door-knocking and working across the electorate for four years. The ALP primary vote dropped there by under 2%; the Mundine (Liberal) primary vote held in some areas such as Berry, but the conservative vote was split by the independent candidate, Grant Schultz, and the Nationals. Harry had looked at the numbers in individual booths across Gilmore and reckons that the Vintage Reds’ work contributed to the win.

March 2019 Guest Speaker, Harry Wall

Jane welcomed Harry Wall to the meeting.

Harry outlined the work of the Change the Rules Campaign and the imperative to vote the Coalition Government out of office in the upcoming Federal elections.

The Gilmore electorate is the focus of the efforts of VR members. This electorate is quite elongated, running from Kiama to Tuross Heads. Overall, the campaign goes back to 2007 when the ALP failed to follow up on the unions’ “Your rights at work” campaign.

The campaign aims to change public opinion on penalty rates; stress job security and the impact of the next generation of workers not being able to retire; and ensure that the campaign will not stop on election day.

The campaign is focusing its efforts in a handful of marginal seats. In New South Wales, these are Gilmore, Robertson and Flynn.

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November 2018 Guest Speaker, John Rodriguez

We welcomed John Rodriguez to talk on “Living under Franco“. John spoke of his childhood in Spain and the impact on his family and community of the Franco dictatorship.

Just by chance, today is the 43rd anniversary of Franco’s death. In Spain there was a vote in the Congress to remove his body from “El Valle de los Caidos”, the valley of the fallen. Franco did not die in the Civil War (1936-39), which this valley commemorates. His family want to rebury him in a cathedral in central Madrid, a request the Spanish government has rejected. While this stand-off continues, he lies still where he was first buried.

John reminded us that on the first Sunday of December from noon onwards, there is a picnic at Lennox Gardens to pay homage to Australians who fought in the Spanish Civil War. All are welcome to attend, and the Spanish community cooks paella.

[Lennox Gardens memorial plaque photo: Wikimedia Commons]

John spoke about his childhood in Malaga, on the south coast of Spain. Fear controlled their lives, fear of the authorities, fear that the neighbours might report the family to the authorities. His father was a Republican, and they were not religious, so there was also the fear that the local priest might report them.

John was from quite a poor family. He had 2 brothers and 3 sisters. His brother Alfonso made a transistor radio for the family so they could listen to music and official government news. They could also tune in to alternative radio stations (the Resistance) and find out what the Government was doing. The sound of trumpets was used to mask the sounds of people being beaten and tortured by the Guardia Civil, and he knew people who died at their hands.

At the age of 5 John went to school and was beaten on the first day – he had not asked permission to enter the classroom!

His father died when he was only 7 years old. He resisted the priest’s attempt to give him extreme unction, and the family had to make up a story to cover for this.

In 1961 Franco visited Malaga and John was lined up with the other students to see him, but the cars had darkened windows, and he never actually saw him. John left school at 12, but later was enrolled in a school that taught him English and French, after which he got a job in the Moro olive oil company which his father had worked for. At 17 he moved to Barcelona, and because he claimed he was an electrician, he got a job in a workshop. When they found out that he wasn’t an electrician, he was given a job in charge of the workshop. He moved back to Malaga, and eventually migrated to Australia.

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October 2018 Guest Speaker, Graham Farquhar

We welcomed Dr Graham Farquhar, the ACT and Australian Senior Citizen of the Year. He spoke on the topic, “From Burnie and Ballet to the ANU”, covering early influences in his life.

Graham is a plant scientist, and works on the sustainable physiology of plants, “bioelectricity” in plants, and stomatal physiology. His work has led him to look at the impact of climate change and the capacity of plants to evolve and adapt. [Photo: ANU]

Graham was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2015 and the Kyoto Prize for science in 2017. This Japanese prize is designed to honour those fields which are not covered by the Nobel committee’s prizes.

Graham has also studied classical ballet and was instrumental in establishing the Canberra Dance Theatre, a community-based organisation.

Graham gave a hugely entertaining talk, accepted his Vintage Red mug graciously, and joined us for lunch afterwards.

August 2018 Guest Speaker, Deborah Veness

We were delighted to welcome Deborah to talk to the Vintage Reds on the topic of “Funding and Ethics: the Ramsay Foundation Case Study”.

Deborah is currently the manager of the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences Student and Education Office. She is an NTEU member and is a former ANU Council member. She is also from Bob Katter’s electorate, from a family with generations of teachers, publicans and police officers.

Universities are either academic (such as the ANU) or vocational. The academic ones teach critical thinking, which is naturally not the same as course content. The term “customers” for tertiary students doesn’t really apply, as they are not there to buy a product or a service, but instead get the opportunity to learn in a scholarly environment. Continue reading

July 2018 Guest Speaker, Roxley Foley

The Vintage Reds welcomed our guest speaker, Roxley Foley.

Roxley is currently the Fire-Keeper at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Old Parliament House, Canberra. He is a young Gumbaynggirr man and activist from Adelaide.

[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Roxley presented a wide ranging analysis of actions and policies by government and business which are having an adverse impact on aboriginal groups, and which undermine the possibility of a treaty based on mutual respect and good will. Mining and the sale of land and assets are particularly problematic: Roxley mentioned fracking, the loss of food basins, and government manipulation of Land Councils.

Given that the prime minister had rejected the Uluru Statement of May 2017, the audience was interested to hear Roxley’s comments. He said that the convention’s process had been taken over and compromised by bureaucrats. He was critical of the large number of participants who were hand-picked and not elected delegates. Some aboriginal groups withdrew, unhappy about the final negotiations at Uluru. There were echoes of the now-defunct “Recognise” campaign which had a lot of corporate support but not so much at grassroots level. Roxley is opposed to any move which sees aboriginal people give up rights to sovereignty or the possibility of a treaty, only to be absorbed into a constitutional system. The Constitution is racist and gives no protection for aboriginal law and land. But he also rejects black nationalism or an island of black inside Australia. He wants a movement that brings everyone along with it. Continue reading

June 2018 Guest Speaker, Melanie Nolan

Our speaker was Melanie Nolan, the general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Here is a short version of her talk, including her answers to questions from the floor. [Photo: ANU School of History]

Melanie began with an acknowledgement of country.

The ADB began in 1957, led by Keith Hancock, with the aim of establishing a federal dictionary project. Hancock had a history of involvement with the UK Dictionary of National Biography. The ADB’s first employee was Ann Moyal. Her work duties included driving round in her car, all over Australia organising working parties and drumming up support for the dictionary project. Douglas Pike was appointed as first editor, not Ann, in 1962. In 2006 the dictionary went online, free. It now gets 60 million hits a year. So far there are 13,000 articles. The ANU continues to be a strong supporter. Files not yet online are all available to be consulted at the ANU archives. The current crop of biographies includes people who died between 1991 and 2000; it will be a decade’s work. Once the articles go online, and then taking into account any feedback, they will be published in book form. Continue reading

May 2018 Guest speaker, Richard Tanter

Richard is an academic and a member of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. His topic was “How do we get to abolition?“.

Richard opened his talk with an acknowledgement that we met on aboriginal land, and paid respects to Aboriginal custodians and elders past and present.

He acknowledged the work of Dr Sue Wareham and ICAN, which started ten years ago in Melbourne. Richard has been a member for 5 years and is currently a Board member. He was also the Director of the Nautilus Institute in Australia where he was involved in peace and security issues including work on abolishing nuclear weapons.

Richard outlined the history behind the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which passed the UN vote on 7 July 2017) and lead to the ICAN Nobel Peace Prize. It was notably not signed by Australia and the USA among others. The world now has 15,000 nuclear weapons and these are being modernised at the moment at a cost of $1 trillion. Richard spoke about the outcome for the entire world if, for example, a local war between India and Pakistan resulted in a nuclear attack – apart for the “local” destruction, there would be decades of increased atmospheric carbon leading to widespread environmental destruction and famine. He argued that the idea of “deterrence” is dangerous as there is every likelihood of these weapons being used in some circumstances. There are now 9 countries with nuclear weapons.
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