|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 6, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Jack, since you ... since you ceased your activities directly in the union, you've been involved in conservation issues in many different ways and currently you're chair of the Historic Houses Trust in New South Wales. How did that come about and what do you do in that work?
Actually I was at Jim McClelland's eightieth birthday, the late Jim McClelland's eightieth birthday party and Bob Carr had just been elected even though our politics don't always coincide, Bob's and myself. I've known him for many years when he worked for the Labour Council and he was a supporter of the Green Bans actually back in the ... in the seventies. Even though he had very right wing politics at least he was progressive on environment, ecological issues: strange combination, actually, for a right winger. And anyway he asked me would I would be interested in chairing the Historic Houses and I accepted his ... his offer. So that's the way I came into it.
And what does it involve for you?
Well, it is a statutory organisation that was set up in the early years of the Wran Government by Neville Wran when he saw that places like Hyde Park Barracks, but particularly Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House, were being used by the silvertails of the eastern suburbs, and in fact the late Leo Port, who was the Lord Mayor of Sydney, wanted Elizabeth House for himself and he was going to make that the permanent residence of the Lord Mayor of Sydney, and Neville didn't quite see it that way, and I think there was a bit of animosity between the Lord Mayor and the Premier, and he moved then to get in Clive Lucas and Ian Stapleton and they really made it ... curated the place in a really good way. [DOG BARK]
... And so after these two places ... after Vaucluse House ... after Vaucluse House and ... and Elizabeth Bay House had been properly restored to their real worth, they were set up ... Historic Houses was set up to look after those places and then over the years they were so successful that Hyde Park Barracks and another eight houses in the Sydney metropolitan area, mainly in the city area, became part of the statutory body called Historic Houses and they are used for educative purposes of children - school children go to them such as Hyde Park Barracks, where there was ... of course where convicts were held and where the poor little kids from the Irish Famine were housed for years, and so it's got a real history about the nicest houses ... the old houses of Sydney including Government House now. So it's mainly looking after those and having exhibitions around environmental and heritage issues, history issues, historical issues. So it's quite interesting and it's a very good organisation that runs well. Like most of those organisations now there's a tendency for the Government to rely on private money to come in, which is of course something that is happening throughout all of the capitalist countries. [There is] more and more dependence on getting the private sector to fund what I think should be a public sector responsibility.
So how do you handle that, Jack? I mean, you're in a position where you have to preside over an organisation that's attempting to raise corporate sponsorship and that's sort of against your principles. How ... How do you deal with all that?
Well, I mean, we are restricted by the ... [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]
So I'll ask that question again. How do you deal with the conflict between your belief that these things should be publicly funded, that they should have come out of the collective purse, and the great pressure to raise money through corporate sponsorship. How do you deal with that?
Well I think that the corporatisation is ... is a reality and those of us who believe that there should be more government responsibility, have to continue to fight for a bigger share to go into areas like historic houses and other issues of public concern ... areas of public concern, but by the same token I think we've got to face up to the reality that there's going to be more need for private money. I think the main thing is to ensure that the corporations don't get control of the organisations and use them for their own purposes, and that I think is a real challenge, for anyone who believes that we've got to fight to restore government responsibility to where it was before deregulation and privatisation became the way in the early eighties and which has lasted until now. I mean, most people thought that the Thatcher - Reagan period of privatisation, deregulation was going to be a passing phase. Well unfortunately corporatisation has even [more] entrenched their position and so we go into the twenty-first century in a worse way than we did before. But I'm also confident that there will be a swing around because I think that we cannot go down this path forever. And so I think that we've got to watch the tide and try and go with it and then turn it back at a convenient time.
So in the meantime you are swimming with the tide, at the same time as trying to stop it?
Yes. When the tide changes make sure that we get away from total control of privatisation, deregulation, which has, of course, swallowed both the Labor Party and Liberal Party. In fact in all the English speaking world in particular, where there it's Democrats or Republic, whether it's Labour or Conservatives in the UK, or Labor and Liberal here, it's unfortunate that corporatism has really got too much influence within all of the political parties, as is shown by the fact that at election time some of the developers give more money than the trade unions, for example, to the Labor Party.
In relation to that problem that, you know, everybody talks about the fact that the major parties have come together and they have very similar policies, have you ever at a political level attempted to do something about maybe forming some other political organisation since the demise of the Communist Party?
Well the convergence ... It's ... it's sort of fashionable to accept that the conversion ... that the convergence of both the ... both the main political parties is inevitable and ongoing. I'm not sure of that. I think there can be a turn around, given certain circumstances changing. But yes, since ... When the Communist Party wound up in '91, and having in mind as I said before that I think the last thirty years of the Communist Party, it was in fact one of the most progressive communist parties in the world, but it couldn't' carry the weight of the tragedies that occurred under the name of socialism in practically all of the so-called socialist countries. I think that's a reality, but it was going to be returned to ecological forms of socialism which I think are ... well, are a possibility because of the ravaging of the planet by capitalism. If there's going to be, well, I think it will be a very different sort of socialism and a very different value system than what we had before. But, you know, I think that there's the need to look at different political organisations. For example, when the Communist Party wound up, in the next decade there were attempts to get up another party going called the New Left Party [clears throat], precisely because we felt that the Labor Party was drifting too far away from its former principles. That did not really get off the ground. There was a lot of enthusiasm but I believe most people saw it as a rerun of the Communist Party. I was one of those that travelled round various parts of Australia and all the media and at the meetings, the questions that come up, well, who are the people in your new party? And of course they were mainly former communists, so it was ... it was considered by the population generally or those interested in politics as a ... as another communist party run.
Were you still a member of the Communist Party? [DOG BARK] Were you a member of the Communist Party at the time that it wound up?
At the time?
... At the time that it wound up?
Oh yes, of course.
So tell me about that time and how you felt?
Well because ... because, as I've said a few times in this interview ... as I've said a few times, the ... I was aware that the albatross was too heavy and that despite a belief the Communist Party of Australia was open and taking up all the issues that I thought were really important, nevertheless the name communist and what had happened under Stalinism, what had happened with Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Ceausescu in Romania, were just too heavy to have that name and to attract Australians to what I thought were very good policies, and therefore I went along with the need for a new political party and thought there was a possibility, though not a probability, that it would succeed. And then as I travelled round the country I realised that most people ... It didn't attract the Labor Party Left, for example. [They] didn't come into the party. It attracted some other Trotskyist grouping and some other anarchist groupings, some other non-aligned Left people, who weren't in political parties, but it didn't build a base, and I myself think that any possibility of building it will be a Green-Left arrangement, where those who believe in socialism and those who believe in ecological actions, like the Greens, come together. In some ways I think that the Greens have got great policies but they're a bit naive in many of the realities in the strength of capitalism. Whereas of course we haven't got any of that naivety, those of us who come through the trade union movement and have seen the brutality - of how capitalism can be brutal. Well we haven't got that naivety about us, so I think that [in] the future, there is a possibility of ... of ... of what I'd call a Green-Red future of a socialism with a human face and an ecological heart coming together with the more concerned environmentalists, because one thing that I am absolutely certain about is that we cannot continue to ravage the planet in the way that we have in the last fifty years and all forms, even the most benign form of capitalism, is still rapacious. It's still based on blind economic growth. It talks about the possibility of sustainability but it doesn't do anything about it. It's growth for growth's sake. And so I think that the need to link economics, each economic decision with ecological decisions are imperative, but there has got to be a complete new approach to the linking of economics and ecology and I can't see any capitalist party doing that.
In the course of your own political development and your experience over, you know, a lifetime, how ...
Not all a lifetime. I'm still going.
... How ... how have your political views changed?
Well I suppose, I came into the movement as a militant trade unionist fighting around trade union principles and the experience I had and the education I received in the Communist Party was very, very valuable to me and made me more a confirmed Marxist and I think that it's remarkable that Marx's general ideas have still got so much validity 150 years after he wrote the Communist... he and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. And so there are people like myself who - I call myself an ecological Marxist ... who believe that it's that way, that the future is that way. Of course nobody can confidently ... There have been so many enormous upsets in my life by what has happened in the world that you'd only be a fool if you're going to say you can confidently predict anything, but if there is one thing that I can predict it is that capitalism cannot continue in the way it has done, particularly in ... in the period I've been so active in ... in the ... in the political movements in the last say half century, there is no way that it is going to continue for the next half century [PLANE] in the same manner.
Have they changed at all?
Well I suppose I came in as a person who had just left the Catholic church and came in with my eyes wide open to the ideas of socialism in my time. In fact people of my age ... older people then when I was a young man, used to say, 'Oh well, I won't see socialism but you'll certainly see it', so this was a belief in the inevitability of socialism, that capitalism wouldn't last. Well, of course, I came in then as a militant trade unionist. I suppose the changes that occurred to me is the ecological side of my development which I ... which is ... which is the stronger one of the two, that I'm more an ecologist now than what I am just a militant trade unionist. So I suppose that has been a change, but I still strongly believe of course that while ever the system exists there's a need for ordinary people, from the lower echelon, working class and others, to organise. I mean I think that's absolutely vital to any future of avoiding the destruction of the ordinary people and of course you've only got to look at the richest country in the world now to see the gaps between the few with enormous, enormous wealth at the top, and then the great bulk of people. Even though it's so prosperous and such a rich country, there's so many living in poverty, so many in gaol, and [there are] the terrible differences between the rich and the poor.
Looking back at the period when you were most active through the sixties and seventies, just looking at the old newspaper cuttings and so on, one of the things that is striking is that big argument and the fear that was expressed by people and reflected in the media at the time ... was that the communist leadership of unions and especially yours, when it was under attack, were dedicated to the destruction of the system and would therefore use excuses, like environmental issues and so on, to bring down the system, that it was an attack on the capitalist system, that strikes were called wantonly to just simply bring the system to its knees. That was a very strong belief in the community during that time. How did you deal with it? How did you try to persuade people that that wasn't the case? In other words, how did you use the media to counteract that view?
I think that philosophically capitalism has ... From the time that socialism came into existence, or even was promoted in the nineteenth century, late nineteenth century it has always ... [DOG BARK]
I was making the point there was ... just flicking back through the papers about the degree to which the notion was that any communist action, any communist inspired action was just a generalised attempt to make nothing work, you know, to prevent activity succeeding in any way, and so I was asking you about how you dealt with that, when you actually had to speak to the media and so on.
I think that capitalism has always used the bogus idea of Reds attacking everyone to bring down capitalism. You've only got to look at the way in which the main paper here, the Sydney Morning Herald, in 160 years, it has never endorsed any strike or any pay rise or any advance by trade unions, and so you get some indication of the hostility by the media and by the capitalists to anyone trying to better themselves, particularly the bottom of the ... the lower echelon trying - so that's always been part of it, and of course the communists being militant in trade unions and fighting for those things have been singled out. [INTERRUPTION]
So I think the way the communists ... The claim is of course that everything that happened, every strike that's on, it's always communist led and so I think that, you know, that you just had to wear that and with the passage of time, well, we became capable of answering it and also putting forward how it was in the interests of the wider section of the people, that what we were doing it wasn't just the Communist Party.
Did you form a strategy for dealing with the media? Did you have a sort of set of principles you operated by?
Well I think the main ... the most important single thing was to tell the truth and be direct, and having in mind whenever particularly with the electronic media, I found out early in the piece that it ... it's no good rabbitting on with long winded explanations. It's better to make your point clearly and concisely and it's more difficult then for it to be manipulated and twisted. And I think we stood by the actions we were taking. I mean particularly on the environmental issue, the reason we were able to outstay our position was that we attracted people who were normally not our supporters. Many of them who were very conservative section of society, on the ecological and environmental issues, were on side with us, and so we were able to split those who would normally be opposed to the trade union movement.
Can I ask you a little bit about the road not travelled. Some of the decisions that you took at certain key points in your life, where you might have chosen differently and what might have happened then. For example, at the time that you decided to join the Communist Party, what do you think would have happened? How would things have been different in your life had you joined the ALP then?
Or even the Liberals. [Laughs] Well, I was idealistic when I joined the Communist Party and ... and socialism was just around the corner, or not too far away anyway, maybe a couple of corners, and I was convinced that capitalism was a very unfair system. I'm still convinced of that. And so we have right on our side. The only thing was some of the actions of the socialist countries were pretty hard to defend. We were defending the indefensible, on occasion. But the theory of socialism was as good as ever, with me. It's as sound as ever. It's in the implementation that, of course, is important. So I ... I ... Well of course had I joined the Labor Party, who's to know. You'd have to move a lot of ground. You'd have to sink a lot of principles. There are a very few in the Labor Party Left that I think you can say have done that. They have moved a lot of ground, changed a lot of principles. And some of my best friends are on the Labor Party Left but I think that the Labor Party Left, particularly since the demise of the Communist Party, has been greatly weakened because, particularly in the trade union movement, the vigour of the movement in those years we're talking about, the sixties, seventies and part of the eighties came about because of the influence of the [people] on the left wing of the Labor Party, which gave them more direction, if I may say so. You don't find that now. The downturn in militancy is partly a response because there isn't an organised Left that took the fight up as we did in that period. And we took a lot of the workers who were non-aligned or workers who weren't in any political party, came on ... on side with many of the things we did. Thus you have from the thirties on all of the main unions, all of the most progressive unions, who were at the forefront of making change, of bringing change, of better wages and conditions, whether it's the maritime unions, whether it's the mining union, the building unions, the metal unions, they were led by communists.
Supposing ... [INTERRUPTION] Patrick White thought that if you hadn't been a communist, you might have been Prime Minister. What do you reckon?
Oh I don't remember him saying it. Patrick White was a very good friend of mine. I mean, he was a great supporter of the Builders' Labourers, particularly around environmental issues, and so he might have been a bit biased, but I think he was attracted to the sincerity of the Builders' Labourers in being able to fight issues, and in a non-opportunistic way. You know, I think they're the things that attracted Patrick White to what the Builders' Labourers were doing in the Green Ban period.
You were able to take up these social issues and these environmental issues and you've said it was because there was a sort of educative process that the workers went through, which a lot of the rest of the community missed out on, that got them to the point where they could accept that those principles were worth fighting for. How had you, Jack, with your background, got to that position, because you got there ahead of most people? What was it in your experience that have made you have these progressive attitudes to women, gays and all the other social issues, particularly the environment, that you have been involved with?
I was impressed very much by Paul Erlich's book, The Population Bomb in the early seventies, late sixties actually, '67, and together with Suzuki and Barry Commoner, a Marxist environmentalist, I became convinced that capitalism in its brutal form was heading down hill and I also believed that a form of socialism was possible that could bridge the ecological barrier, though of course the forms of socialism of the twentieth century were also pretty hopeless on ecological issues. But nevertheless it seemed to me with the theory of Marx that you could blend in economics and ecology, and I became convinced of that. And I think it was just fortuitous that the opportunities came about in the Builders' Labourers Union and I said before, there was no great thinking on the part of the leaders of the Builders' Labourers to advance the way we did in the ecological issues, but we learnt on the way and we were convinced of the possibilities through it. And myself, I was absolutely convinced that unions could play a ... a very different role if they were involved in these sort of issues. We did not - looking back, reflecting back ... We did not take other unions with us sufficiently. We were way out in front, but the positive thing about it historically is that it did occur. So we were not as though we were just theorising about what unions could do or what an advanced section of the people could do on environmental issues. It's actually there. It did happen. [The fact that] a varied cross section of people [with] very little in common, could come together and bring about such changes, really, changes that have remained because almost everyone now that think about environmental issues, applaud the Green Ban action ... And yet at the time we were vilified and attacked and, in fact, driven out of work for well nigh a decade. And so it is refreshing to look back and say well, we were vilified then, but we've been well and truly vindicated. But it wasn't, and I repeat, it wasn't as though Mundey, Owens, Pringle and the other men and women who led the Builders' Labourers were somehow different. It was just that we struck a chord and we were able to use our industrial muscle effectively and we had such support from other sections of the community. If we didn't have the support of the more enlightened middle upper class, we would have been absolutely destroyed because there were many in the union movement, the right wing of Labor Party and of course Askin and all his cronies, who would have loved to have seen the Builders' Labourers Union destroyed and the very fact we weren't destroyed was partly the way we conducted ourselves and the vigorous manner in which we defended our action, but also the fact that other sections of society, who would normally against Labor, let alone against communists, came on side in our actions on the ... on the correctness of our actions we took.
You were vilified for your environmental action. What did they do with the fact that you got the union involved in cultural activity? You had theatre-on-the-job and so on. Your interest in the arts and how that got going with the union - what ... what ... what did the media make of that? They were a bit rude, weren't they?
Yeah, but I think that ... Oh well, of course, there was a lot of ... like in fact some of the unions, some of the right wing unions say, oh ... and the media were saying, 'Oh they're darling of the ... quote, the Builders' Labourers are the darling of the trendies', whereas of course we argued that it was ... it was quite a natural thing. If a union's involved in environmental issues as we were, in the Kelly's Bush and then the Rocks, Centennial Park, well it's a very natural thing for those who were fighting to save the live theatre to come to that union because they go together. As I said at the time when some of the commentators, some of the right wing commentators in the media, said, 'What do the Builders' Labourers know about the theatre?' you know, as though there'd be total ignorance on the part of the ... and I said, 'They've got ... they've got the right. The builders' labourers are not all, you know, galloping opera first nighters, but they've got an understanding of the theatre as well'. It's well to remember that we took The Chocolate Frog of Jim McNeil's ... The Chocolate Frogaround the jobs and we took the Q ... Warburton's ... Dorian Warburton's Q Theatre. Again we took them round the jobs, promoting live plays. So there was this connection there and from the time that Paul Robeson sang at the Opera House, there was a feeling that the ... the ordinary workers are not ignoramuses, that they have also got culture and culture isn't something just for the silvertails of the eastern suburbs or the northern suburbs. The culture is for all people. It has many different levels.
Jack, what do you think would have happened if you had been less principled about not having tenure of office and you had stayed as secretary of ... of the union? Do you think that the union might have withstood some of the pressures that came against it?
I think it's highly unlikely. Unless we had built bridges with other unions and got other unions involved in similar action, I think it was more or less inevitable. From the time that Gallagher took the three card trick and went with the developers and with the business, well I think the dye was cast because it meant that he had the power of all the other states and of course the employers lined up completely with him. So in that sense we would have to have more support from other unions and whereas we had a lot of support from rank and file members of other unions, the leadership of other unions were not as ... as keen and I think because of the way in which limited tenure of office and women working in leadership of ... of what was an all male enclave, wasn't popular with other building unions and some of the other building unions would not have been unhappy to see the demise of ourselves. That's the reality I think because of political differences etcetera. So it ... it ... I think we would have had more chance had I stayed on as secretary because of the ... not because ... Joe Owens was one of the finest union leaders, but just because of the continuity, that if there was to be anything settled, I might have been able to do it. But I think it's idle to think too much about that. I think the main thing was whether union is introducing the sort of advanced actions and we were doing. Well, I guess it's got a ... a shorter term life than a longer term life possibility.
It's an interesting issue because it brought a sort of principle in conflict with practicality, and I mean that's been one of the issues, hasn't it, for the whole movement of the Left? Where do you stick to your principles through thick and thin and where do you yield for pragmatism, for practical reasons?
Yeah. Well it's probably a never-ending ... There's no complete answer to what has been raised. I think the main thing is to look at the positive things that have ... that occurred and try and build bridges with other unions now. I mean ...
I suppose would you ... would you, if you had your time over again have stayed in that position and not fought so hard for people to have the renewal and the change, or would you still uphold that principle?
Well I was committed to it so there was no going back on it and probably had I stayed there and ... and did ... you know, made deals, I would have sunk down the way that most other people do. So, no, I don't have any regrets about what happened and I guess that it's not much good thinking about what might have happened. I'm just so pleased that the things that did occur were so positive and in many ways I think that they've set the benchmark for enlightened unions of the future.
[end of tape]