|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, in the seventies - the sixties and the seventies - there was a whole movement that was ... that stood for all sorts of principles and it's the sorts of puzzlement that all of those things that were won then - like there are women now working in the building industry, that I'm aware of, am I right?
No, a few are still working in the building industry, but nothing ... not in great numbers, no. They've won the right to work and that's important.
And that remains?
What I'm interested in is the sort of thing that a lot of the things that were striven for in the seventies and people thought they were winning, suddenly those ideas that, you know, life should be a more complete picture, that we should be thinking about the quality of the whole of our lives and so on, that were upheld at that time, suddenly it all turned into the eighties and people were working longer hours and everything in ... in the ideals of that period were all just turned on their heads. How do you think that happened?
Very difficult question but I think it has its genesis in ... in again Thatcherism and Reaganism and that what I'd call economic fundamentalism that engulfed the English speaking world in particular and the whole rich world, in the main, in general, and it's lasted twenty years. And I think it cannot be permanent and there will be a swing the other way. But it is true. It's difficult for those who were so heartened by all the progressive issues that were tackled in the sixties and seventies, then to find that for two decades a complete reverse with privatisation, deregulation and economic fundamentalism changing our very lives and all the goals that we had, have vanished as more and more people work harder with more and more stress, with greater gap between rich and poor, and all the things that are against anyone who believes in a fairer and more decent world. And I believe that that is only temporary. I think that this nightmare cannot continue and there will be a return to the sort of civilised attitudes that were there ... were prominent in that period in the three quarter mark of the twentieth century.
A lot of the individuals who were involved in those struggles changed at a personal level their ideals and their goals. You didn't, you stuck with yours. Why? Was there any point that you thought that you might abandon them and go with the flow? Why have you kept your idealistic outlook?
Well, I don't know whether it's idealistic or whether it's very, very practical or whether it's both: idealistic and practical. But I think if one genuinely believes in human society, in a civil society, in a civic society, well then you can't get away from it. You've got to continue while ever you can breathe. You've got to continue to work for that. And that's why I still have confidence, despite what has happened in the last twenty years, that there will be a return to those sort of values because I don't believe that the values that exist now will maintain themselves, and that's why I retain confidence that there will be a return those values of decency, of egalitarianism, of ecological sanity.
What does it mean to you to be Australian?
Well, I used to say that I was a globalist twenty years ago, thinking how to think globally, but of course the globalisation has been destroyed by the multinational - the transnational companies, using that very word, globalisation, so it's come to be somewhat of a dirty word, shall we say. But I believe in a global society where there is genuine respect between all the peoples of the world and I think we're in the stage now where there is a need - people like myself, those of the Left or those who are ecologists, haven't got any alternative but to be internationalists because no longer can we just be concerned about our own country. Of course we've got to think locally and act globally on issues of environmentalism and all other questions of equity, but I mean I think that more and more we've got to think about everybody in the world and not just ourselves.
Do you think that being an Australian has given you any particular perspective that you wouldn't have had otherwise?
Well being an Australian has changed greatly, hasn't it? I mean after all the White Australia was nothing very great about White Australia. There was nothing very great about the way we treated Aborigines. I suppose Australia has become enriched with multiculturalism. There's no doubt that the ... the hundreds of different nationalities and races that have come to Australia in the post-war years has really enriched it and gave a lot more tolerance to what existed when we were really virtually an Anglo-Saxon country with a lot of hostility to other races, and of course our terrible on our treatment of our own indigenous people. So I think we have come a long way. We've improved, but there is a lot of room for improvement still.
But despite all of the setbacks that you've had in your political objectives, and also all the difficulties and tragedies that you've experienced in your personal life, you remain optimistic. What is your hope for the future?
Well, I ... When you say I remain optimistic, I'm not ... you know, I'm certainly not a pessimist and it's not good of being cynical. I mean there's plenty of reason for people to become more and more cynical about society. I'm certainly sceptical. I think that's good to be sceptical but I think it's counter-productive to be totally cynical and say it's hopeless. So I ... I retain confidence on the basic belief that human beings can be good or bad, but human beings can be moved to a better position and I think there is so much integrity in the ideas of ecologically sustainable society that there isn't any place for another society, and all forms of the existing society, of capitalism, are predatory, are acquisitive and are destructive to the natural environment, and increasingly to the built environment with the greed of the developers. So I see the sheer logic of ecological ... the sheer logic or the sanity of ecology as the main springboard for the future - as the great strength. I think that's the great strength. And I see all forms of capitalism, no matter how they dress it up for a fairer system etcetera, etcetera, are destructive - are destructive to the ecology, and that's why I think they're defeated in the end. But of course, if capitalism remains for a long time and economic plundering of the planet continues, if for example the warming of the planet continues at the rate it has in the last twenty years, then we are going to be in dire ... human beings and other species, who we scarcely think about, are going to be in dire straits this coming century. There's no doubt about that because I'm absolutely convinced through my activities in ... in the environment that this society cannot continue to ignore nature in the way it has, particularly in the ... in the last half century and ... and the enormous changes that I've seen since I've become politically involved until now, I do not believe that that pace can continue into the twenty-first century without dire effects on human beings and all other species that exist.
Jack, what would you like to be remembered for after you've gone?
I wasn't thinking about it, actually. [Laughs] No, I don't think a lot about what you would be remembered about. I suppose I will be remembered for the Green Bans and that rich period of my life. I mean ... I mean that's the thing that is most satisfying is that to be, you know ... It's just a pleasure to be involved with like-minded people right across the political economic circle, right across the divide, around such an important issue as environment, ecology. They're the ... they're the ... they the things that I'm happiest about and proud about. But it doesn't worry me much how I'll be remembered, but I take it I'll be remembered because of my involvement in that which has been easily the most exciting part of my life.
As you say, that was very much a collective effort. What do you think was your most important individual contribution to that collective effort to make those Green Bans worked?
I think being involved in it and giving it some direction, and then I suppose hitting upon the idea of calling it Green Bans as against black bans, certainly assisted one of those rare shifts that occur where we could attract more people to it. I mean I think that that was to me the most important thing that I've done personally. But as you've said, I mean I think that the whole ... the strength of the Green Ban movement was its collectivism. It wasn't great in inverted commas, leaders, but of course you had leaders and I was one of the best known leaders, so I'm saying in that sense I'm sincerely proud to be part of it but I've always been aware of not letting it run to your head too much and that the strength of the movement was ... Even though they tried at times to say it was a power drunk trip by the leaders, I think we justified all our actions by the collective approach we had, whether it was [being paid] the same wage as workers on the job, or all engaging in the same sort of action, or stepping down from real power positions. I think our evidence shows that we were very egalitarian in the way we went about it and that, to me, was the proudest thing. But I think that Green Bans certainly was the highlight of my life. [INTERRUPTION]
In making the contribution that you've made to all the causes you've been involved within your life, what was your greatest weakness do you think? What ... Was there any characteristic ...
Of allowing you to interview me. [Laughs]
Did you have any sort of ... anything that you had to battle with or work with to ... to do better?
Yeah, a lack of confidence. I was more introverted as a ... as a younger person, I consider myself. Others would dispute this probably, but I was more introverted than extroverted and I think that when I commenced in the ... as ... in the union I was very nervous speaker. I was ... I was reluctant to speak. I used to worry about speaking and it was only through the years that I got ... I gained some confidence there, so I was ... I was a pretty shy, even though it might be hard to believe now. I was a pretty shy person when I first became active in the union movement and it was just in the hard battle of life that ... that I overcame a lot of that, so it was ... it was weakness in the first part. I used to stammer a lot and I used to find it difficult to express myself when I first became involved.
So how do you think ... How do you think you became a very clear, succinct speaker now? You don't waste words. How did that happen?
Well, I think if ... I always believed that if you're long-winded you tend to put people to sleep or they turn off and I always felt that, probably from the first time of being interviewed in television because that's the thing that really brought me out because you had no alternative. If the cameras are on you and you're in the height of a battle, you've got to make your points and I learnt early not to rabbit on because they'll pick out the least important issues or ones they can twist and turn and use against you if they are hostile. So I learnt in the first place to be more salient, to make the ... the most important, to get the answers out and so it makes it more difficult for them to ... to twist and turn them and use them for other purposes. So I guess that I've always striven then to ... to try and be precise and concise and get your points across.
Do you have anything that you've done in your life that you wish you'd done differently?
Have you got another hour or two? [Laughs] Oh, of course, there'd be a hell of a lot of things but there's no ... I mean, I'm the sort of person to ... to dwell on what went wrong and what might have been and wasn't, doesn't worry me at all. I mean it's not much good going into that because to me I've been pretty happy with being able to be involved in some of the exciting issues that I've been involved in and so ... I end up in the ... in the autumn of my life happier than less happy with what ... what has occurred.
Now I want to do a pick up of something we missed because of one of the planes, a vital bit of the story, so we're back in narrative mode now. You were telling us about the story of Kelly's Bush and you explained how important it was to you and the union at the time to get evidence of the whole community being behind something and you were just explaining that to us when a plane went over and so we missed out on the Town Hall meeting and so on. So could you just tell that, starting with ... just tell the story again, starting with the fact of why the union considered it important.
When ... when we were approached by the women from Kelly's Bush, it was on the basis that they had heard that the Builders' Labourers, myself and others had said that in a modern society it's not much use winning higher wages and better conditions alone if we live in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees, that the whole fabric should be of concern to workers, not just their workaday life. That the quality of life stretched about where people lived, the question of transportation. The quality of life was not a cliché, it was a reality. And the women from Kelly's Bush came to us because they'd heard that we were sympathetic to environmental causes and they had exhausted the normal channels of protest. They'd been to their Local Member, Peter Coleman, the right wing Liberal Party politician. They'd been to see the Premier, Sir Robert Askin. They'd been to see the Minister for Planning, Mr Morton [?], so they'd exhausted all those and as a last resort they came to the Builders' Labourers Union. [clears throat] They addressed the union executive and the union executive when the women left ... and asked us to give assistance. They really asked us to allow them more time to put a ban on so as they could negotiate from a position of strength with the other ... with the Ministers and other people. When the women had departed the executive had a discussion and having in mind that the executive and the union had been involved in issues like the blacks and against the Vietnam War, so they were very politicised group of people ... But of course one immediately said, 'Jesus, what we are doing? We haven't got one member at Kelly's Bush, in Hunter's Hill. You know, we haven't got a member there. What are we doing here?' Others argued then, 'Well, if we're fair dinkum about urban bushland, whether it's Hunters Hill or whether it's Liverpool or whether it's anywhere else, we've got to be consistent', and that won the argument. So we said ... when we contacted the women from Kelly's Bush, we said, 'Look, if you can demonstrate that it's the feeling of the people in the area and not just those adjacent to the Kelly's Bush - that's it a feeling of the people in the community we will accord to your request. We'll accede to your request and impose a ban so as to give you more chance to negotiate', and that was carried. We then told the women. The meeting was held in a nearby park to Kelly's Bush. Many hundreds of people came to the meeting and we made that announcement. We said, 'Well we will go along. We will ... we will put a ban on, to allow you to continue negotiations'. What happened then to really enliven that was that A.V. Jennings, the Melbourne millionaire company that was building, or was going to build the luxurious homes for the fortunate few when the bush was destroyed, said, 'Oh we won't worry about that, we'll use non-union labour'. At the time, because of the struggle to improve the union, wages and conditions, we had about 90 to 95 per cent of the workers in union, so on a big job in North Sydney, on an A.V. Jennings job, the workers stopped work and 150 workers made a decision that if one blade of grass or one tree was touched in Kelly's Bush, that half completed building would remain half completed forever as a monument to Kelly's Bush and I think that was ... that was a match that lit the bush fire and they went off their head. Askin came out with language like, 'Who do they think they are? They're mere labourers. Do they think they're urban town planners?' And Jennings of course really ran for cover then because he knew that he had a unionised force. He then quickly backed down and said they would not use labour ... they would not use scab labour and went on to negotiate, so the women then negotiated with A.V. Jennings with us in attendance, to just let them know ... And of course that was the turn of the tide because they, they realised then they couldn't go ahead with it and that we'd really virtually won the day even though it took another fifteen years before Wran finally said, 'Well, that's it. We're going to keep it forever', and then, even when Greiner Government came in, they put a plaque over in there saying that they too agree with Kelly's Bush being kept. It took many years later to be actually convincingly proven and won forever. Nevertheless it was in that turning point that brought about the change. And that was the manner in which we conduced all the Green Bans. One of the reasons that the Green Bans were so successful, even though our opponents were painting a picture that here were the leaders, you know, puffing out their chest and arrogantly imposing bans willy nilly, we always adopted the position that it had to be people, the residents, coming to the union, the union discussing it, either at executive level or at a branch level, so as all the workers were involved and then those workers making a decision to impose a ban. Some bans were imposed for a limited amount of time to allow negotiation. Other bans were imposed forever, such as Centennial Park. The bans on The Rocks, for example, wasn't against all destruction of buildings in The Rocks. We believed that there were some dilapidated buildings, but it was against the idea of putting all high rise up, so the bans differed from one to the other but they all had their commencing point in people coming to the union and not the union making arbitrary measures. And in fact we never imposed a ban if the residents couldn't back it up with numbers of people at a meeting.
What would happen today if a residents' action group went to seek the help of the Builders' Union now that represents ... represents your old membership?
Well, in the past, in that period when our bans were imposed we had just smashed the penal powers of the arbitration act. That was '69. The Green Bans occurred in '71 to '75 so we didn't have the penalty powers of the Arbitration Court on us. Now because of the reactionary regime of Reith and co., they've now got secondary boycotts and so, legally speaking, they'd be running a risk of a secondary boycott where they can't ... if it's not directly concerned with the narrow confines of wages, conditions, a union can be fined for imposing secondary boycotts, and that could happen. Now when the CMFEU put the ban on the McDonald's thing, that didn't happen because I think that even the conservative Government could see that it'd be unpopular to take the union on on that issue, but no doubt they would take the union on on certain other issues. But I think that in the smashing the penalty powers of the Arbitration Court, the same thing about secondary boycotts, it's only when workers will take enough strong action that you'll defeat the secondary boycott. Unions shouldn't be hampered with secondary boycotts, if a union wants to take an action over something for the community's good, for the good of all the people. But it's unlikely that will happen now because of the more restrictive attitudes that the Reith Government ... that the Howard Government has put on the union movement.
And the lack of full union membership must also make it difficult?
Yes, it has. It has a role to play, but conversely I think that if unions showed more activity around wider social issues they would redress that and you'd find more people wanting to be in unions. So I think it's a double edged sword that you've got to take that risk and have a go to win back new members who are not in the union now, because union movements have always been at their best in militant periods. It's when unions are doing things that they attract attention from non-unionists.
Right I think that was the only pick up.
It's sort of like an attitude of keep politics out of union business and then, we'd say at the Arbitration Court, how can you have ... When the Arbitration Court is bringing down anti-union decisions, how can you keep politics out of unions because you've got to discuss ... the very court that refused to grant you money is a political institution. And they're saying, 'Oh no, it's nothing to do with us - we're industrial'. It seemed a very weak argument. That was the sort of the DLP attitude of the fifties and ... and the backward element of the union movement. And it was precisely the communists and left wing Labor that took that on, and said, 'Everything is politics, everything is politics. You can't divide industrial and politics. It's all political'.
So why did you as a union decide that you were going to have an open door policy to people like students and artists and even congregationalists, who were all sort of welcome in your office?
Well, I think after the initial success of ... of the environment movement we found other organisations like in the ... in the question of the arts, of the actors' equity that wanted to keep a live theatre, the last of the live theatres or the longest running live theatre, and so we responded. So it was really a response by a thoughtful, intelligent union to other people, so as to have an inclusive policy and to assist where we can, while never getting away from our central position of looking after members' wages and conditions, but also saying that a union in a modern society has to have a wider vision and even more so now. I think one of the reasons why the union movement is contracting is first of all because of the Accord of the Labor Party in the eighties, that was all top wheeling and dealing and no involvement of rank and file in decision making, that was one of the things and the other thing is it's not inclusive. It's not taking on the other issues that it should be taking on. And in many ways, while we were applauded for so doing, in many ways also it allowed, in the case of the Builders' Labourers and the Green Bans, allowed hostile elements either from the Right, or in the case of Gallagher, from the Left, to use as an excuse this inclusive policy to claim, I think improperly, that the union was getting too involved with ... to use some of the language that they used, poofters and ... and gays - not ... poofters and lesbians and getting involved in all these wider things and neglecting the union which of course was a lie, because we'd fought the fight to get the highest wages and conditions. So I think that it was that sort of thing that was the most important element in the Builders' Labourers history, that it went wider and the Green Bans were only a part of it, the main part, but the Green Bans' success then meant that we had all these other people who had problems coming to the union and seeing the union as a beacon that will try and assist them in their struggles.
[end of interview]