|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.
Going back now to have a little further look at your childhood, which you've described to us. In a broader sense in your childhood, not just in the fact that you were brought up relaxed Catholic and you were ... What do you think were the things that you learned, the values that were inculcated in you in that childhood in Far North Queensland?
Well, I ... I guess that when I came to Sydney the thing that I missed was the beautiful terrain of the Atherton Tableland. It is one of the most beautiful parts of Australia and growing up as a little kid on a ... on a dairy farm, even though the circumstances were pretty modest, was still very refreshing when I look back on it. Swimming in the ... those beautiful clear streams and walking through a rainforest, and ... and that was just so marvellous to have the first, oh fifteen, eighteen years of my life in that area and so I was, I guess, an environmentalist from that time on. When I came to the city and ... and saw the city and how, the great difference that existed ... So I ... I learned from that. I think also the very fact that my father at least had a good idea of socialism, like he was against war, he'd opposed the First World War. He opposed conscription in that war and he made a very impact ... a big impact on me by pointing out how [there was] so much poverty before the war, both wars, and yet when the wars came they called upon the unemployed to be the main fodder for ... for those wars. And then after the wars, how things quickly recovered and the rich benefited from the wars. So I had [a] basic socialist upbringing without understanding it so much as socialist, so I've always had a feeling of ... of fair play and I think if anything I am I've always been egalitarian and ... and that has held me in good stead. I've never been tempted to take any of the bribes because I don't want much in life.
What do you want in life?
What's left of it. [Laughs] Oh well, I just want, well I still ... I'm still a ... a very enthusiastic ecological socialist and I want to do anything I can to assist that cause. I'd love to see a new political formation of ecologists and socialists coming together. I think that it would be very fine if that happened in this period of time, because of the way in which corporations have now controlled even the finer parts of capitalism. The more benign parts of capitalism are now firmly in the hands of big corporations and corporations are dictating to political parties and governments all over the world. It's frightening to think that these transnational corporations really have more power than any of the sovereign states and ... and it would appear to me that there's got to be an international movement of socialists and ecologists to combat those advantages because they using the world like a chessboard, as they move around their capital and use workers at the cheapest possible rate they can.
But at a personal level, as an individual living in this difficult world, what makes you happiest? What do you do? What do you need at a personal level to make you feel happy?
Well I don't walk on cloud nine very much, but I guess that I'm not wanting for very much. I don't desire very much and I guess ... [INTERRUPTION]
At a personal level, what do you need to be happy?
Well, in the autumn of my life I ... I don't think I want very much. The period I've got left will be devoted to doing all I can in a fairly modest way of assisting socialists and environmentalists to come together to try and be more effective in blunting the worst excesses of corporatism, which I see as very dangerous indeed. And when you consider that the workers have fought to improve conditions in new countries like Korea, where the Korean workers fought hard there, what do the transnationals do? They moved away and put their investments in Indonesia and Thailand and so, as I've said, they're using the world like a chessboard and no longer is it just enough for unions on a national basis, it's got to be ... unions have got to be connected internationally so there's more cohesion in the fight against the evils of transnational companies.
So for you when I ask about personal happiness you really can only reply in terms of political change because that's what it's become for you? Am I right?
Oh sure. I think that I've never been ... I think it's individualism if you just think about yourself all the time. I mean I think that, well of course, all people do have to do that as well in the basic sense, but I think we've got to think collectively and I've always been a collectivist in that way. I don't believe in the great person theory that individuals come along and change things. I think it's ... it's the strength of like-minded people coming together that can bring about change. Individuals can't of themselves.
I guess for a lot of people you're an individual hero. People see your activity, when you were leading the BLF, as an individual hero's victories. How does that strike you?
I think I was ... I think I was fortunate enough to be elected leader of a union at a very sensational time. The happenings came together because of all of those actions around social causes that were ... and then culminated in my life, with the Green Ban movement and so there was a whole number of people involved in that movement, and it was just fortunate that I was there as one of the leaders of that outfit.
Another cry of the media, at that time, was that you personally, as well as the union, had too much power. How do you feel about power and when this plane goes I'll ask ...
There was a cry from the media at the time that you personally had too much power and that the union had too much power. In your life how have you experienced power and what do you think about the exercise of it? [INTERRUPTION]
Did you feel when you were leader of the union that you had too much power?
Never too much power. I mean that allegation was made naturally by the opponents but of course we had power in the sense that we had a lot of strength by stopping jobs. We could change the course of events but I think we used it pretty wisely and we always had a lot of consultation with our members before we went into it. So the very fact that those members of the Builders' Labourers stayed with Owens and Pringle and myself was an indication that we handled that power intelligently in the eyes of the ordinary workers.
Did you think about it at that time? I mean it must have been exciting, Jack, to be in the situation where you did have the power to change things in ways that you wanted them to be changed. Did that ... you know, did you feel a sense of excitement about the exercise of power?
Oh they were exciting times. It'd be something strange with a person if they weren't influenced by being able to stop the destruction of rainforests in north Queensland, which was one of the things that we carried out on a big developer down here. Of course they were, they were terrific. You felt that you were doing something that you actually believed in and you were doing it with the assistance of those who you represented. So not only were you fighting for their wages and conditions but you were also fighting for really good issues as well, so naturally it was a certain elation in being able to do this. But at the same time, your feet never left the ground too far because you always had a hostile opponent. You always had in our case a very conservative and ... and corrupt government under Askin, wanting very much to destroy us, and trying to hard to do so, and also developers, likewise, in tandem with those conservative politicians. So you know we had to be ... we had to watch our back all the time.
Did you also have to watch your head that it didn't get a bit swelled? I mean you were a bit the darling of ... of ... of the trendy Left. Patrick White even put you in a play as a ... as a romantic hero. I mean was there ever any danger that your success might have spoiled you? [INTERRUPTION]
We were talking about how exciting the times were and how much you became the darling of the Left at the time.
Well I wouldn't put it that way.
You were given tremendous star billing. I mean there was a tremendous excitement around what you were up to and what you were doing. Did you have any problems with that? How did you work it out with yourself and keep your natural modesty?
What are you laughing at. [Laughs] Well, look, of course it has some effect on the individual but the counter veiling forces were there and we were aware of the strength of those people. So I mean to get too much, as I said, to have your feet leaving the ground too much - the opponents were always there and you had to watch your back. So I think there was ... there wasn't any possibility of becoming absolutely enthralled with your own importance and your own actions. But it was very gratifying to know you could do something to assist resident action groups and to save the environment. That was terrific. Easy ... easily the most exciting part of my life and was ... it was a great feeling to be able to do something and truly believe in it, and so whereas on the one hand you might have been proud of what you were doing, you also were aware of the potential opponents that you had there.
Now I want to go back to discuss throughout your life your education, how you've been educated and, and what it's meant to you and what your attitude to education is, and I thought I'd begin by ... You mentioned to us in telling us this story of your life that you weren't much for school really when you were a kid. Did you ever wag school? Did you ever hive off and get out of school?
I think ... I think all kids in the country wag school or most of them.
Do you remember any incidents where you wagged?
Oh my brother and I had a great ... a number of days we were down by the riverside, just having a few days off, but I wasn't a great wagger, but talking about my education generally, I ... I was always pretty good. I only really went to primary school because I left my first year at secondary school when I was at the Marist Brothers boarding school ... when I left it very suddenly. So you could say that I only had a primary school [education] but because of the circumstances I related about my father moving from farm to farm and so on, I went to many one teacher schools and so the continuity of my education was disrupted and often at a one teacher school you'd be in one class and you'd go to another school and you'd have to be in a different grade or a different class. So it was ... I didn't have the continuity there. But I was an average student, or probably a bit better than an average student. But I always had a lot of interest in, particularly history and geography from the time I was very small and that's continued right through. But I guess I'd say that through my socialist beliefs I have had a lot of self-education and one of ... one of the positive things of being in the Communist Party was that we had a lot of schools and studied political economy, philosophy, etcetera, and so I participated very, very much in those ... in those education processes. And so, I've read widely, and so I'd have to put myself down in old age as a fairly successful, self-educated person.
How did you chose what you'd read?
Well, influenced by my socialist and communist beliefs, so most of the readings were on those sort of subjects or shall I say, sociology or political issues, and that domino question of peace and war - all of those things. They're the organisations that I've been in and I've read about most of those things.
Did you ever think of going and doing some formal education like your wife did?
Didn't have time: engaged in the battle. [Laughs] No, I ... not really because I guess from the time that I was in the union movement, well it's been one of activism [which] has dominated my life and up to now, I mean, I've always been an activist and I suppose I've been at most universities in ... in England, many in the United States and here. I think I've spoken at every university in Australia a number of times. So I've been around universities but ...
And the universities have recognised the level of education and the contribution that you've made?
To a certain extent. [Laughs] No, yes, that's right. In ... in recent years I've got a number of honorary degrees from ... not that I put them in my CV, but nevertheless it's a recognition of ... of the union and the people and the environment I was ... environmentalists I was involved with.
At the time that you were using a pick and shovel on the job, did you ever imagine then how life might ... might evolve for you so that you would be someone, who would be in the future sought after as a lecturer, a speaker and a thinker in these areas?
No, actually it didn't cross my mind then. [Laughs] Of course not. No, I mean, there wasn't a great forward thinking on issues such as that because I was pretty much involved in the day to day struggle, first of all to keep your job so a boss wouldn't sack you, and then to organise the workers to bring about change, so most of the mental energy and physical energy went into those activities.
The history in your own life of your relationship with religion ... Could you tell me how that started out and how you feel about religion now?
You sound like Caroline Jones, search for meaning ... [Laughs]
Well, the transition from being a Catholic to being a communist is a very common one. A lot of people of your generation experienced that ... that move, and I suppose, you know, how you were brought up ... You said you were a relaxed Catholic ...
My father was a relaxed Catholic. I was even more relaxed.
What did you think of religion when you were a kid?
What did I think of religion?
Yeah, when you were a kid.
Well, I told you about ... It frightened to buggery out of me when I was ... mortal sin and venial sins and all this sort of stuff.
And then as you evolved, when ... you know, how did you really sort of ... When did religion leave your life?
I guess that the contradiction set in in my early twenties, when I came to Sydney. First of all I was never a terribly devout Catholic and when I saw that the Catholic countries didn't play a very good role in the ... in things ... like Pope Pius during the Second World War was in many ways pro-Nazi and the Spanish Civil War, again the church did not play a very positive role. So it's failure to align itself with the poor people or the hierarchy: Pope John XXIII was ... I could almost make a come back with him, but ... but other than that most of the hierarchy [were] very conservative and were against my ideas of socialism and equality and egalitarianism, so I wasn't attracted to the performance of the hierarchy of the Catholic church and I found it increasingly difficult to believe in the hereafter and ... and that. I believe that I became more and more an atheist in my philosophical thinking.
Has the church left its mark on you in any way that you can discern?
Well they say that every ... every Catholic that goes through it, it leaves a mark. I know when ... when I joined the Communist Party the, the joke was that the central committee of the Communist Party of Australia always had a majority of ex-Micks, ex-Irish Catholics on its ... its central committee, and you're right what you say that so many former Catholics were attracted to the radicalism of the Communist Party.
... Or you could say from one authoritarian organisation to another?
Right, but we were trying to make it less authoritarian, at least it was on this planet that we were trying to change it, not the next one.
Do you think that you'll be calling for a priest on your deathbed?
A possibility but not a probability. [Laughs] No, no, I don't think so. I don't think that'll happen.
What do you think about the afterlife now?
There's none. This is it.
Better make the most of it.
Make the most it, in the autumn, that's why I say. I'll always use the autumn of my life not the twilight of my life because autumn's a bit longer.
Especially at certain times of the year.
In your ... in the course of your life you've had relationships with some very intelligent and interesting women, and some of those have publicly acknowledged the tremendous support and encouragement and influence you've had on them. What sort of influence have women had on you? Have you learnt from women, specifically, that you mightn't have got from your male colleagues? What ... what has the development of women and women individually done for you in your life?
Well, I think collectively the women's movement, of course, was one of the great movements of the twentieth century and that occurred at the same time as the Green Ban movement was ... was happening, and there was a lot of cross currents in that. In fact the women's movement played a part in helping the leadership of the Builders' Labourers because the women came into the leadership of the Builders' Labourers. There's a whole number of people that came in and played a part there. So I was influenced very much by the women's movement and of course educated, and the worst of my male chauvinism, worst of it, was broken down in those years. So it was one of the big influences on my life. [INTERRUPTION]
Have the women that you've known changed you very much, Jack?
Oh I think so, certainly. I mean I ... the ... Any thinking male couldn't go through the sixties and the seventies without being changed by the strength of the women's movement and particularly in the union that I was in, because you had many of these women directly involved in the leadership of that union. People like Lyn Syme and Stella Nord were the leaders of the Builders' Labourers and played as important a part as many of the males in that union and the union before was an all male enclave. So ... and in the broader movement, with my wife and many other women in the Communist Party and the Labor Party and I, of course, had a lot to do with the women's social liberation movement.
What were some of the more extreme aspects of your male chauvinism that were changed by your association with women at a personal level?
That was quickly blunted and it stayed at the memory.
You don't have any left?
Well, it would be ... it would be boastful of me to say that I haven't got some remnants of it left but as far as I know it's just about evaporated.
Are there any of the personal associations that you've had with women that have really changed the way that you've ... or that you've learned things from or, how ...
No, I think all of them played a part. All of the women, that I've been impressed with, have played a part in convincing me on the correctness of women's social liberation.
And was that a long way to travel? What were your attitudes when you were younger?
What were your attitudes when you were younger? Did you have travel a long to get to that position where you were convinced?
I don't' think so because I was the fourth of a family of ... of five and so my three ... the three older children were all women and so I had the value of that relationship and I think that if you've got a good family relationship and you appreciate individuals ... I appreciated those sisters and particularly in the case of my eldest sister, Josie, who really took over the role of a mother in a very difficult period of ... of deprivation really in ... in the thirties. So I've ... I've got tremendous respect for Josie, my eldest sister - one of the most selfless people I've ever met. And so I had that ... I had that rich background as well. And not having had a mother who ... Well, I loved my mother but I was only six when she died and I had a terrific sister, who took over the role in extremely difficult circumstances, so I think I got away to a pretty good start, but I was never ... I always had respect for women and I think my track record of respect for women is ... is pretty good.
Do you have any little incident that you remember from your mother, when she was alive and taking care of you? Is there any memory that you've got there that ...
No, my three sisters tended to look upon me as a bit of a sook of a kid and ... and I was very much a mother's boy - never left her. And ... but of course when you're so young ... I mean I've only got a few memories that remain with me of always being with her when she visited people and when she was playing the piano at some of the functions. I was right near her and so on. So they're ... and of course with the advancing years they fade a lot, but the few memories I've got are very, very pleasurable.
So you've always really liked women, Jack?
Well, yourself: yeah, no. [Laughs] Oh yes, yeah, I get on well with women. In many ways a lot of quality women are much better than men, in a general sense. Maybe because I fought for the underdogs in ... in what was originally a male union, I can see the ... the way in which women, of the two sexes have been exploited more than men and so I've got that appreciation about the role of women. Yes.
Now, going ... staying with that time, a lot of men who lose their wives and are in that situation turn to alcohol. Was your father a drinker?
Well, not a bad drinker, but ... Oh no, I think ... I think I was ...
I mean was your father a drinker after your mother died?
Well, he wouldn't have a great chance of drinking on ... on a poverty stricken farm, milking cows twice a day. He wasn't ... Things were very ... During the early period after our mother died, things were very poor indeed and we were stuck out of the main town. He drank a little bit but he wasn't a huge drinker. And my background in football and ... and ... and in working class, well you tend to ... I think most working class people tend to drink too much, and I'd include myself in that category. I like the camaraderie of ... of workers and relaxing and a few drinks. Yeah. As I mix with the middle class more I've been twisted to wine a bit. [Laughs]
You'd better watch it. Stick with the beer or you'll lose your working class credentials.
I will: Hunters Hill people and everything. [INTERRUPTION]
One of the things ...
I think we've got enough.
No, we've got a few more things to do. One of the things that the Builders' Labourers were very much accused of, was violence. There was always this sort of part of the story, always ... was that you were a violent union. Can I ask you from your own perspective, whether there was any truth in that? Whether you did in fact use violence as a method ever?
I think the answer to that is I remember being on a Monday conference with ... with the ABC and Peter Coleman, an arch right winger, former editor of Quadrant and a Member of Parliament [and he] made that allegation that, well you've got to admit we were violent, and of course I challenged him to have an investigation into the building industry and find out just who were the violent ones, because ... And of course they cheated that. They wouldn't have an inquiry. They wouldn't have a Royal Commission into the building industry, and of course as was proven later on, it was the very big developers who bribed Gallagher, and of course they were the ones that were corrupt. They were the ones that were violent. There was ... We challenged them all the time to prove any violence on the building sites. We said we abhor violence, we were against it. There's a very different thing being a militant trade union to being violent, and so they never made any attempt to prove their point. It was just a wild summary of just saying, 'Oh they're violent, Builders' Labourers', because we were militant builders' labourers. A very big difference.
You did destroy some property, though, didn't you?
We ... When you say property, we had made decisions to stop scabs from working. We had made a democratic decision of ... that we were on strike. If the employers deliberately tried to provoke a strike by using scab labour, we said we would peacefully occupy the site and carry out the will of the majority, which was the fact that we were on strike. And so in the ... in the operation ... in the occupation of building, some minor damage occurred. It was exaggerated greatly by the media, particularly by the Telegraph at the time, but really it was insignificant, the amount of damage done. We were a very disciplined union and that's why we were so successful.
You said that there were some semi criminal elements always in unskilled work, that hung about and were in fact used by Gallagher and by other union officials ...
Well they were mainly used in the first place by the right wing leadership when we took control. They were used in that historical sequence of events in the ... when we took over in the late fifties, early sixties, they used it, but after that, well, no, that's not ... And even Gallagher didn't. Gallagher, in his early years, Gallagher was quite a militant union official that organised workers and that's ... that wouldn't be one of things. He fell ... As I said before, he fell for the bribe with the employers, but he ... he wasn't guilty either of using ... unless, right near the very end, when he took over the New South Wales, he attracted some unseemly types, but before that the union wasn't really a ... had that element in it.
You say that you abhor violence. Can you see any circumstances in which it might be used?
No, I don't think so. I mean I think, well, in fact any violence I saw was perpetrated by the employers when they used scabs to try and break a strike, or in the case of Askin when in the marches to ... against the Vietnam War and in support of our own blacks and against apartheid, it was the police that used violence and that was proven, you can ...
But could you see any situation in which violence might have a place, just in general?
Not really. I mean I ... I could imagine it happening. It could happen, but I think if a union conducts itself properly there wouldn't be any role for trade unions to engage in violence.
[end of tape]