June 2021 Guest speaker, Matthew Harrison, UnionsACT

Jane welcomed Matthew Harrison (Secretary, UnionsACT) who spoke on Injured Workers.

Matt started with an overview of occupational health and safety (OH&S), a very important part of the union movement. Unfortunately the data don’t give a good picture of what’s happening. Bosses are still behaving badly and putting profits before people’s welfare. The data are hard to find, and hard to line up to make use of. [Jane: Worksafe Australia used to keep data.]

The most recent data come from 2019. Only deaths at work are counted; not deaths to and from work, or by natural causes at work, including cancers or suicide (a particular concern of the CPSU). Most deaths are men, and blue collar jobs predominate. The age group most at risk is 55-64, followed by 45-54. There were no workplace deaths in the ACT in 2019; some since. Nationally there were 43 deaths. The NT and Tasmania have low rates; NSW has the most.

Transport is the area with most deaths (including postal workers and warehousing); vehicles in general were a huge source of injuries and deaths.

There are big holes in the system: people are scared to report an injury; people are told by their boss that a report would prevent promotion; non-English-speaking people are oblivious to risk they can’t read about; there are bad OH&S practices everywhere. Injuries which keep people from work less than 5 days are not reported; but this can be a serious injury all the same. And mental stress is of course extremely under-reported.

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May 2021 Guest speaker, Amin Saikal, “Iran, the US and the Gulf”

Professor Amin Saikal is a specialist on the politics, history, political economy and international relations of the Middle East and Central Asia. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, Cambridge University and the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex), as well as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations (1983-1988). In April 2006, he was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the international community and to education, and as an author and adviser.

Jane welcomed Amin, who spoke to us in the Tradies’ Club dining room.

Amin’s summary of his talk: The US, Iran and the Gulf

The Joe Biden administration faces numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. On the external front, one of them is how to deal with Iran. Biden has indicated the reduction of tension between the two sides, which had been inflamed by Donald Trump, as a priority. Yet, both parties have serious demands, which will make the process of reaching a mutual accommodation of interests arduous, but not necessarily insurmountable.

The main points of concern for Washington are Iran’s nuclear program, missile capability and regional influence. Spurred on by these issues and by like-minded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Gulf state leaders, especially Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, Trump pursued a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and nurtured an Arab–Israeli front against Iran. He demanded a renegotiation of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), a signature achievement of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump cancelled America’s participation in the JCPOA, imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, beefed up US military deployment in the Gulf and threatened Iran with ‘obliteration’.

As could have been expected, Tehran remained totally defiant. In retaliation, it withdrew some of its commitments to the JCPOA, and accelerated its uranium enrichment.

However, Trump’s approach failed to produce any positive results. While sharing Trump’s concerns, Biden wants to de-escalate tensions with Iran. In so doing, he would remove a sore point in America’s relations with three traditional European allies and signatories to the JCPOA—Britain, France and Germany, which have strongly wished to see the continuation of the agreement—and focus more on Russia and China as the main diplomatic and strategic battlegrounds.

April 2021 Guest speaker, Dr Elizabeth Reid

Jane introduced our Guest Speaker, Dr Elizabeth Reid, who spoke on the topic “A Feminist Perspective: Trans Issues”. Elizabeth is a well-known Canberra-based feminist and academic, and a proud member of the Vintage Reds.

photo: www.abc.net.au, 2020

Her talk was followed by a lively discussion. Here is Elizabeth’s paper which was the basis for her talk:

Notes for A Feminist Perspective on Trans Issues


The relationship between feminist and transgender politics and theory is surprisingly fraught, especially in the USA and the UK.

Transgender activists may insist on the introduction of regulations governing the use of pronouns, especially in universities and government bureaucracies, demand access to women’s facilities, such as women’s toilets and changing rooms, and/or demand to participate in events organised exclusively for women (sporting, musical, etc.).

The relationship is becoming increasingly oppositional in Australia also, as can be seen, for example, on placards that read ‘Trans women ARE women’.

This is not a recent tension. As far back as 1973, Robin Morgan said in a speech:

I will not call a male ‘she’; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title ‘woman’; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.

Yet, trans women say they are women because they ‘feel female’, that they have ‘a man’s body but a woman’s brain’, because they are women ‘trapped in a man’s body’.

One trans woman said to me: ‘If men were allowed to be pretty, I probably would not have transited’.

This is how they make gendered sense of themselves.

Some of the key terms and issues in this tension will be outlined and discussed.

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March 2021 Guest speaker, Dr Anita Chan

Dr Anita Chan kindly agreed to speak to us on “Hong Kong’s New Trade Union Movement”. Anita is an active member of the Vintage Reds. She is a labour sociologist and a visiting fellow at the ANU.

photo: Bell School, Australian National University

We include here a summary of Anita’s published article by the same title, as provided by the journal International Union Rights, no.4, vol.27, 2020.


Hong Kong’s New Trade Union Movement

For a whole year from mid-2019 to mid-2020, Hong Kong was rocked by mass demonstrations and street violence.

At its height, two million out of Hong Kong’s population of seven million marched in a huge demonstration against a proposed extradition bill. The international press heavily covered the mass protests; but what the press has not covered is the birth of a new trade union movement from within this political and social movement.

The protests, and the new unions, were led by a generation born a few years before and after 1997, the year when China gained sovereignty over Hong Kong, a British colony for 150 years. Hong Kong was to be governed by a constitution known as the Basic Law, which guaranteed that for the next fifty years Hong Kong’s neoliberal capitalist system and civil liberties would not be tampered with by China’s authoritarian regime.

It did not turn out this way. In the past two decades China gradually began to intervene in Hong Kong politically, instigating increasing resistance from the Hong Kong populace in the form of mass rallies. This led to the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 in which the central business district was occupied for months by protestors. When it was suppressed, the protesters left behind a huge banner declaring “We’ll Be Back!”

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February 2021 Guest Speaker, John Merritt

“A Brief History of Labour History”

John is a retired ANU history department academic whose PhD was a history of the Federated Ironworkers Association. He was a foundation member of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. He has written on the AWU and on the topic of Strikes; and a more recent work is Losing Ground: Grazing in the Snowy Mountains, 1944-1969.

In the 1950s and 1960s, all Australian universities taught labour history. But by the early 1970s, this was no longer true. Why had it been so popular? Why did it then decline?

A few things should be mentioned about the popularity of labour history in these years.

In 1930 W.K. Hancock wrote a short history of Australia, in which he characterised Labor parties as parties of “initiative”, and conservative parties as parties of “resistance”. In the 1940s and 1950s, Labor was seen to be leading the way into the future.

Secondly, Robin Gollan arrived at the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences [in 1953], an ex-Communist Party member; and later the author of Radical & Working Class Politics (1960). Lots of students wanted to work with him.

And thirdly, Robert Menzies established Commonwealth Scholarships [in 1951], which enabled a lot of people to go to university who might not have been able to otherwise. For people of working-class background, labour history was partly their own family history.

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November 2020 Guest speaker, Marie Coleman

Our guest speaker was the excellent Marie Coleman, speaking on the “Gender Lens on the Budget“, an annual review conducted by the National Foundation of Australian Women, of which Marie was a foundation member. Among her long, long list of work done and positions held, Marie was:

… the first woman in Australia to head a statutory authority when she chaired the Whitlam Government’s Social Welfare Commission in 1973.

(text and photo from NFAW website)

The NFAW’s Gender Lens documents pick apart the federal government’s 2020 Budget, revealing how different groups in the community have been affected. Older women, for example:

Overall, …the 2020 Budget is a missed opportunity to improve the lives of older women who face the greatest difficulties: single, older renters totally reliant on JobSeeker or pension payments; those who are homeless; a significant proportion of those on the long waiting list for home care packages; and those locked out of employment.

It is also another missed opportunity to begin resetting policy to disrupt the structural accumulation of poverty across the life course that reaches its peak with disastrous consequences for so many women in later life.


October 2020 Guest speaker, Bill Bush, Families & Friends for Drug Law Reform

Families and Friends for Drug law Reform began in March 1995 following the death by overdose of 8 young people in Canberra. Following contact with Michael Moore, then Independent Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly, a meeting was called to include families who had been affected. Forty people attended this first meeting which was the beginning of FFDLR. All in attendance believed that the drug laws were more the problem than the solution and called for change. They wanted laws and policies that caused less harm. They wanted addiction to be treated as a health and social issue not a law enforcement one. They believed that the huge profits made by the illegal trade made drugs more available to their kids.

One of the first successes of this group was influencing the non-attendance of police at overdoses unless violence or death were involved. This meant that friends would not be afraid of police involvement and were more likely to call an ambulance if a friend was in trouble. [from FFDLR website]

Bill has been with this organisation for some time, and spoke on the topic of “Why Drug Law Reform?” He outlined the history of the group and the many campaigns they have undertaken to reform our outdated and ineffective drug laws. He provided much data and information about the history of illicit drug taking, and the impact of newer drugs on the mental health of users. He outlined the programs that have been successfully implemented in more progressive countries – ones that Australia could learn from.

Jane thanked Bill for his presentation and presented him with a VR coffee mug in appreciation.

A postscript: A week after Bill’s talk the FFDLR’s 25th annual remembrance ceremony was held at Weston Park, under the flowering black locust tree which is a symbol of hope.

A second postscript: Two years later in October 2022, it was reported that the ACT government had decriminalised possession of small amounts of commonly used illicit drugs, becoming the first jurisdiction to do so in the country.

September 2020 Guest speaker, Bernard Collaery

We were happy to welcome Bernard Collaery, who spoke on the moral drift of this government, beginning with the Children Overboard scandal; massive Australian foreign policy blunders in the Pacific; and the government’s extraordinary case against him and Witness K over East Timor.

Bernard’s book, Oil Under Troubled Water: Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue, was published by Melbourne University Publishing earlier in the year. Here is MUP’s blurb:

Charged, with Witness K, for allegedly breaching the Intelligence Services Act, Bernard Collaery provides the whole sordid backstory to Australian politics’ biggest scandal’.

In May 2018 Bernard Collaery, a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and long-term legal counsel to the government of East Timor, was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act 2001. He was forbidden from talking about the charges against him, but under parliamentary privilege independent MP Andrew Wilkie revealed what has since been described as ‘Australian politics’ biggest scandal’.

Five years earlier, after ASIO officers raided Collaery’s home and office, Collaery told journalists that ASIS had been bugging the East Timorese government during negotiations over Timor Sea oil. He was about to represent East Timor; as well as calling the evidence of a former senior ASIS agent known publicly only as Witness K, at The Hague in a case against the Australian government.

Oil Under Troubled Water relates the sordid history of Australian government dealings with Eat Timor, and how the actions of both major political parties have enriched Australia and its corporate allies at the expense of its tiny neighbour and wartime ally, one of the poorest nations in the world.

August 2020 Guest Speakers, Kasey Tomkins and Matthew Harrison

Kasey Tomkins, UnionsACT campaign manager; and Josh Thornton, AMWU, spoke about the UnionsACT 2020 territory elections campaign. The strategy is to “back candidates who back workers” and the campaign is not party-specific. The candidates are being asked to sign a pledge supporting the unions’ six core values. It is not until the candidates return the pledge that UnionsACT will know which candidates they will be supporting. Election campaigning is restricted, with limited resources and social distancing rules in place, though social media and letterboxing continue.

Matthew Harrison, the new Secretary of UnionsACT, introduced himself to the Vintage Reds and spoke about his settling in time and plans for the future. The Territory elections are his first real project in the new job. The plans for the future include:

- a new injured worker network, including mental health, to cover those who don’t fit the system, and those in smaller unions unable to help.

- a gender violence project, especially welcomed by nurses and hospo workers.

- the young workers’ centre. The “summer patrol” in operation in Canberra has already been renamed the “safety patrol”. Many young workers have been very badly affected by the corona pandemic.

July 2020 Guest Speaker, Rachel Burgess: Young Workers Centre

Rachel Burgess is the Young Workers Organiser at UnionsACT.

There were plans for a big wage-boost campaign based at the ANU, but of course the corona virus led to the university’s closure. The YWC reached out to JobKeeper activists and they have picked up the “No worker left behind” campaign. Videos were made of difficulties many workers were experiencing.

photo: Vintage Reds sausage sizzle for YWC, 2019

Rachel reported that there are two campaigns running, the first with ACT government involvement, a survey of under-25s, closing on 7 August, with 300 completed so far; and the second, Covid-19 health and safety training. The ACT government agreed to be involved with this campaign but have not moved so far. The AUWU has picked up the slack and will keep campaigning.

Rachel also spoke about the YWC’s Summer Patrol, canvassing hospitality workers etc. This turned out to be an even bigger problem than expected. Reports of employers not contributing to superannuation accounts are numerous; young workers had to approach the tax office for resolution, with the inevitable months of delay. This is wage theft.

The Summer Patrol takes a break in Garema Place (photo, UnionsACT)

Women are particularly taken advantage of; also migrants and international students who are less likely to report this kind of thing because of fears of being deported.

The meeting thanked Rachel for her report and indicated that the VR were appalled by how bad working conditions had become for young workers.