|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.
So could you tell me about your involvement in the conservation movement generally and what you joined and the whole ... that whole movement, as it evolved for you out of the Green Bans.
Well because of the Builders' Labourers activity in the environment movement, I was asked to come on the ... the executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and ... and I accepted that. Subsequently I stood for election and was re-elected and the Australian Conservation Foundation, as you probably know, is the main environment movement in the country. It's elected and five delegates from each state. I thought the interesting thing ... and because there was a lot of support for the Builders' Labourers in the environment movement, because they saw it as a real shot in the arm, particularly around the urban environment ... And when I first went there I was impressed with the number of academics and [the] number of university people who were involved. And of the thirty-five delegates, who went along to make up the Australian Conservation Foundation national leadership, I was the only worker. I was the only industrial worker, which gives you an indication of just how middle class and academia oriented was the environment movement, and almost all of them were engaged in nature conservation issues. And so I think that we were ... I was able to introduce both a working class attitude and also on ... and raise the neglect of the urban environment in the thinking of the broader environment movement. As I said before, the fact that we are such an urbanised society despite the ... the ... the size of the land. And we were able to over the years then get a group of people who were urban environmentalists into it and so I think that the Green Ban movement's lasting testimony is that it changed ... it changed in part the thinking of the environment movement, the total environment movement, more towards appreciating both an urban as well as nature conservation considerations.
And did you stay with the ACF?
Yes, I was there for over ... over twenty years as a ... and I'm a life member. I stood down in the belief that I should make way for younger people and [clears throat] I stood down after twenty years and was made a life member of the ... of the ACF.
What other environmental associations have you been involved with?
Countless others, but I ... I've been involved all over Australia, involved in mainly urban environment issues. I try and concentrate on those. Firstly because my background and experience and because I think it still remains a neglected area and so my main concentration has been, over the years, towards the question of heightening the environment movement around the cities, and I was also very active in an organisation here in Sydney called the Urban Environment Coalition, a coalition of environment groups who are fighting for open bushland, more open bushland, who are fighting for more control over the building codes, fighting for ... mainly for public participation in the decision making process and trying to make councils and other bodies ... regulatory bodies more accountable to ordinary people, and more ... make these other organisations more approachable, which is a tall order because whereas in the Green Ban days the developers were openly corrupt, now we find that the developers are working in other ways such as heavily financing both the main political parties to buy favours, and so you find different things being worked out, different attitudes being worked out. I think at the same time you find a lack of legal aid, a lack of any assistance, legal assistance to ... to people opposing councils or opposing developers, so it's a very difficult period to go through.
Is the Urban Environment Coalition still working?
It still exists but it has lost a lot of its sting. We've never recovered. We've never got back to the position we were in, in the late seventies and early eighties. That was when ... during the seventies and you might say until the early eighties, the ... the urban environment organisations had some real punch but that's fallen away, I'd have to say in the last decade. Certainly in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, the developers have got the upper hand.
Why is that?
Well because both sides of government have gone along with the development saga and ... and with the ... they wax lyrical about how many jobs will be created. It's always an exaggeration of how many, quote, 'jobs will be developed if they ... if we allow this or that development to go ahead', and of course they're greatly ... So it's an attempt to say, 'Well, you can't oppose this because it's going to create employment'. That's the main thrust they put.
So ordinary people feel a bit disempowered, a bit helpless in the face of all that?
Oh yes, and the Land and Environment Court has been taken over by the pro-development area, although they've ...
By means of the appointments of judges you mean?
Well, often the assessors that they appoint to the Land and Environment Court, haven't got the experience, but it's mainly because the Court itself has lost the openness it first had. When the resident action group and the union forced the Wran Government to bring in the Land and Environment Court, it was enormously popular with the people as a whole, but with the passage of time and good decisions being made, we found that the Conservatives within society started to pressurise both Liberal and Labor to weaken the position of the Land and Environment Court. And in fact it's one of the reasons that Jim McClelland, even when Wran was there - Wran was there for a decade - but even near the end of his term, he and McClelland fell out and a lot of it was over Wran interfering with McClelland's decisions in the Land and Environment Court, and also the then Attorney-General and Minister for the Environment, Paul Landa, the late Paul Landa. So even ... even within the course of the first decade, it was experiencing trouble. Since that time, of course under both the Greiner and Fahey Government, and then under the Carr Government, the developers have ... Their position has been strengthened against the rights of ordinary citizens and the protest movement. And I think that the environment movement has to find a way within the urban environments to ... to have a renewal and that's where people like the Urban Environment Coalition are the ones that could do it, but again, I think there has to be another period like the seventies, where you had the resident action group. Of course the resident action group was assisted enormously by the ... by the Builders' Labourers. That gave the real power to the resident action groups of the seventies. But I think that again you want that sort of action. But on the horizon there is not ... there doesn't appear to be a union like the Builders' Labourers, or is prepared to do the things because I think it's a matter of will, but there are a couple of signs. The very fact that when McDonald's wanted to build in Centennial Park last year the CMFEU put a ban on it, and stopped them. So I mean I think there is still the potential there for unions, if they've got the desire, if they've the will, to play a positive role, and it would seem to me that there is so much concern in the ... in most of the areas that are experiencing big developments within the city area, because of the pressure on that extra million that's going to come into this country, into Sydney before ... in the next fifteen - twenty years. Well, I think that urban ... There's a real need for an urban environment coalition to be active.
Why do you think it was that the union movement as a whole, with that marvellous example in front of them of the power of labour in direct action to do something, that won enormous amount of popular support and morale for the workers and so on, why do you think they ceased in the eighties to be at all interested in joining with other people to affect these changes?
Well, I think most unions didn't do it in the seventies. I mean after all the Builders' Labourers were pretty exceptional and I think, as I've explained rather painstakingly, there was a whole number of reasons for it. That is, it was the excitement at the time. There was the number of social [and] environment actions taking place that gave a lot of education to workers and to unions. I ought to say that the union movement generally is a conservative movement. The union movement, all too often, is only concerned with wages and conditions, and while I don't for a moment denigrate that, I think of course that's important, but increasingly I think that unions have got to look wider than that. I can't give an answer as to why there hasn't been a repeat of the Builders' Labourer's Green Bans because now there is almost universal acceptance of them, you know. When ... you've only got to look at the case of myself, when I was vilified in the seventies, you know, public enemy number one, and twenty years on, you come here, and you are spending a day and a half talking to me. I'm almost respectable. But I mean people now applaud what happened then, but of course they weren't applauding it then, were they? They were condemning it and were prepared to smash that union. So I'm not saying that it's going to be an easy task to repeat it. But I think that the unions, if they broadened their vision and became more involved in these things, would enhance the union movement and in fact they are withering on the vine, the number of you know ... And so I think that they've got to do two things. They've got to take Reith on, head on. I mean unions have got to become much more militant even if it means that unionists go to gaol but they've got to take them on. At the same time they've got to become more involved in ecological and social issues out there so as you will attract a wider audience than just looking at the hip pocket nerve.
So in order for an urban environment movement to really take off, what do you think are the ingredients that are necessary?
Well, first of all you want an active public, you want the public to do it. Secondly to forge links with the rest of the union movement. I mean a lot of the union movement will not ... will never become involved in wider issues. But the more Left or militant section of the union movement can become involved and I'm sure that as ... as I've seen happen already around the McDonald's issue, it can build a lot of support amongst the public at large for unions, who take that action, so as unions can see that people who are not unionists, but who are concerned about other issues, will come on side and applaud the union. And I'm sure just on this issue of what happened at Centennial Park [coughs], excuse me, that that action by the, the Construction Workers' Union, that gave a lot of support to it. It got a lot of kudos out of taking a stand. The number of middle class people from around that area who said, 'Look we fought for Centennial Park back in the seventies and thirty years later we've got to fight again for it', you know. So I mean that ... and I can see other unions doing that, it would impress ... It would do great things for the union movement.
One of the things that you were interested in, as I understand it, when you were a leader in the BLF was a closer cooperation and even amalgamation with other building unions. What ... You weren't successful in that objective at the time. Why was that it? What prevented it?
Well, actually, I'm glad you asked that because we were ... We believed in industrial union, that is in our day we had eleven unions in the building industry. Like the painters had a union, the plasterers had a union, the plumbers had a union, the carpenters had a union, carpenters and bricklayers, the builders' labourers had a union, so it was all of these unions. Seeing as we were in one union ... one industry, we felt it should be an industrial union, and that was a policy of the ACTU since 1921. But Australia unionism followed British unionism, so at one stage you had something like 300 unions based on the craft background of old Britain, of old England. Unfortunately in the 'eighties there were forced amalgamations under the Kelty leadership. They forced unions to amalgamate and so for example in the construction workers you got CMFEU, construction, mining, forestry, energy, all together, and some of those unions are not natural allies, and yet they were sort of signed together. And so what this did, it, you know, shotgun marriages of all these unions that were often hostile to each other and Kelty at the top level. But that was part of the eighties because of the ... One of the biggest blunders in my opinion was the Accord, in which wheeling and dealing was done at a top level, when Hawke and Keating were leading and Kelty was the ... the leader of the ACTU. Wheeling and dealing was done at a top level without any consultation with the workers below and this led to stagnation. It led to a lack of confidence and the union movement went down in numbers during that period. [clears throat] So unless the union movement always maintains its independence regardless of whether Labor is in power or the ... or the more Conservatives are in power ... There should be an independence by the trade union movement. Of course the union movement will most likely support Labor more than they would the Conservatives, or should I say the more Conservatives, but you know that ... that will be the position. But I mean, I think that the union movement must keep its independence, and the Accord is a classic example of that because actually the wages of the workers declined during that period and yet you had a Labor Government. Well, why do you elect a Labor Government? You had the Hawke and Keating Government from ... right from the early eighties to the ... to the mid nineties and yet in many instances the plight of the workers were not improved and yet capital gained enormously during that whole period. And also the Labor ... the whole question of deregulation, privatisation, doing away with the Commonwealth Bank, etcetera, really were carrying out the policies of the Conservatives and the union lost a lot of confidence in the Labor Party during that period, which is still going on. So I mean, I think we've got a lot to learn from those periods. So I think that forced amalgamations are wrong, but by the same token I think amalgamations within each industry is ... is positive. Though when you look back at it, had we been one union then, we would never have achieved the things we have because we would have been a minority in the building unions and the more conservative unions of the carpenters, bricklayers and that, would have put the kibosh on us, would have stopped us. So it's hard to look at everything as positive, but if I look at now what's going on and the way in which the union movement has been diminished, it's clear that it has to have more militancy and with the Reith period and the period of Howard, the unions have been restricted still further, unlike in '69 when I said that over a million workers stopped work when they took on the penal powers, I think there's got to be something like that against the worst of the Reith legislation. There's got to be at times ... there is a need of confrontation.
Now talking of that, in the course of your time in the union, you were offered bribes. Were you ever threatened?
Oh yes. There were many times when we were threatened, particularly in the Green Ban period. Things like using a telephone, a telephone call saying, 'I'll cut your kid's throat', 'There's a bomb in the car', and other similar [threats] were made all the time. There were threats. In fact I went to the Special Branch of the police and complained bitterly. They said, 'Get a silent number'. I said, 'I'm the elected secretary of the union. There's no way I'm going to get a silent number. You can harass people at the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and with our other actions we take, in the union movement. I want you to take action and get in there and find out who it is'. So those sort of threats were made. Many were made, but they never ever, ever arrested anyone.
Did the police do anything?
Well not ... well they said they did. They followed it through but they never ... There was never any satisfaction as far as I was concerned. No.
Was your life ... Was your life ever directly threatened?
Well, I mean, Painters and Dockers had connections ... allegedly had connections with the underworld and they rang me up to say that they'd heard that there was a commission out on me and also out on the other leaders of the Builders' Labourers, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. I've got no doubt that they would have thought about doing away with us, but at one time when ... when the secretary of the Kings Cross, of the Victoria Street action group vanished, was put in a car and taken away, we had a press conference, the people in Victoria, the squatters of Victoria Street and ourselves, and we said, 'Let it be a warning that if anyone is killed there will be no settlement, that what will happen is that there won't be any building in Victoria Street at all'. And so I think that sort of approach made them think again about whether it would be fruitful for them to kill any individual in the Builders' Labourers, that it would bring a doubling up of the Builders' Labourers effort to prevent further development taking place.
And yet Juanita Nielsen still disappeared.
Yes, but I mean I think that you've got to look at it in a different way. They would say that she was expendable. She was a loner, who ran a newspaper, who with her partner, ran the newspaper and got the ads from around the Cross and she was lured into going to a place and [was] never seen again. But they ... She was writing of the bans after Gallagher came in and lifted ... and lifted the Green Ban on ... on Victoria Street. But other unions came in and supported it, so you had the Water Board Union and the Plumbers' keeping the ban on, so Gallagher ... so bringing Gallagher in and getting the Green Ban lifted was futile and I think they were very desperate then, and her little newspaper, which was delivered round the Cross ... She continued to put that out and it was her who I think got the Water Board Union on side. So they ... they were very angry at that. And of course she was expendable because she was a loner, because they were certainly thinking about knocking off the leadership of the union. I've got no doubt about that but they thought of the repercussions if they did, and you know, it wouldn't help their cause so they didn't. It didn't happen but there were many [threats]. The threats were almost continual during that period and as I said before, we were holding up five thousand million dollars' worth of development. Well you've got some pretty angry developers out there who would come at ... who would stop at nothing to get their way, so it's, yeah ... I think it ... you know, the leaders of the Builders' Labourers were a bit fortunate to get through unscathed and there's no doubt that she was killed for that reason and ... and there's never been a really, a satisfactory police investigation into it. There's a feeling that the police definitely didn't do a thorough job on that. Tony Reeves, a leading journalist, did some very good work on that and he's absolutely convinced that the police did not really go after that to find out the real ... even though they had long investigation which came to ... to very little.
Can I ask you now to do one of those nice summing's up that you do, one of those sort of ... because I'd like to be clear about when it was that you were ... ceased to be able to work on the building sites and when you got back to do that and then what happened to you because I'm not quite clear how long you were a builders' labourer after you left your, you know, position, after Gallagher took over in that and that intervention occurred. Can you sort of straighten that out for us?
Take me an hour or two but well ... Well I finished up on All Saints' Day in 1973 and Joe Owens became secretary. In '74, in the October of '74, Gallagher made ... and I went back to work on St. Vincent's Hospital. I was back in the rank and file [as a] worker.
What was it like going back after having been in the office for that time? Did you find, sort of, shovelling cement a bit hard after sitting pushing a pen?
No, no, I kept ... kept reasonably fit at the time. I was ... I used to run every morning. I was pretty fit. I was reasonably fit and also, of course, some of my people criticised the fact that I didn't spend much time back on the job because I was still on the executive and ... and I had speaking engagements and the agreement I reached with Civil and Civic, who was employing me, was that I'd be paid for the time I was there, so I still went to meetings of the union and because it was still a pretty volatile ... or very volatile period and also because of the speaking engagements generated because of our activity, and I thought it was necessary to keep those sort of contacts up. So in '73, I went back on the job and then in ... a year later, in October of the following year, Gallagher moved and that's when Gallagher ... or should I say Gallagher and the developers moved together, and then in '75 they expelled - sorry late '74, they expelled all the leaders from the union. In '75, we made the decision, as I said before, to go into Gallagher's outfit. Gallagher in turn had then pushed us out and pushed others, as well, out. So from that time on, from '74 we were out until '78. In '78, the union and the Master Builders agreed that the union would be reregistered. The employers went along with Gallagher and they got reregistered. We then applied ... the banned workers, to go back into the union. We succeeded. The court instructed Gallagher to give us our tickets back. Gallagher thumbed his nose at that and we were still frozen. So then in '79 ... so you've gone now from '74 through five years [to] '79, we did not go ahead and put Gallagher in the clink which we had the right to do, so he just thumbed his nose and together with the collusion with the developers still kept us out. So we had the legal right to work but the developers said, 'No, we can't employ you because Gallagher will come in'. That's the excuse they used, so we were still out. So then in the early eighties, '82 we applied once more and got our tickets back. We were then determined to go all the way Gallagher by that time. So really from '74 to '82 - it's almost a decade that we were denied the right to work in the industry [clears throat]. In '82 we still got our tickets back but they still had control of the union and wouldn't allow us back in, so that was the end. By that time Gallagher was running into trouble himself because of the allegations of secret commissions and the union was falling apart. In '84 the ACTU let the Builders' Labourers hands go and the Builders' Labourers went into extinction about '85 or '86. So for that decade, between when we went out in '74 until when the union was finally driven out of existence by the ACTU, we were denied the right to work in the industry of our choice - right through that period.
And in '85 - '86 what happened to people who were working in those jobs traditionally covered by the BLF? What union was available to them then?
It was the BWIU, which are carpenters and bricklayers, the old Tradesmen Union. It extended its influence and draft to bring in the labourers into the union and that was the period, as I said before, when the ACTU then was encouraging and directing unions to amalgamate and so not only were the builders' labourers and carpenters brought together but so were mining, engine, which is Engine Drivers and Forestry all came under the umbrella which is now called the CMFEU, which is a combination of the old BWIU, the old Builders' Labourers, the Engine Drivers, the Forestry workers and the Miners, all in one outfit.
And did you ever return to work in the building industry again?
No, no, I didn't. On, well in '84 I ... I got elected to the Sydney City Council and so I was there then for that period as a ... in local government.
And tell me about that period that you were on the City Council.
Well I was encouraged to stand for the ward that covers The Rocks and I was elected and ... and became head of the ... or chair of the planning committee and ... and ... and held that position then for a couple of years. Caught up in a number of ... again, in development of opposition to the monorail, which is running through Sydney, because we had supported an idea that bring light rail, bring a tram system back through the streets of Sydney and that got a lot of support from some of the companies such as Transfield, but unfortunately the power of the ... of Peter Abeles and ... and some of the other big companies was such that they wanted a monorail and so Transfield were overridden and a monorail was erected, despite the fact that there were up to 10,000 people marched through the streets of Sydney against it, a thing running overhead all through the middle of Sydney. So we were involved in that. We were also involved in ...
Jack, why did they want the monorail so much? That's what's always puzzled me about that.
Yeah, because it hasn't made any money. It's been such a flop but it was ... anyway, it was a scheme at the time ...
They thought it was going to make money?
Yeah, and Bereton, who was the Minister, was all for it and together with TNT, who then had the late Sir Peter Abeles running it, they gave full support to it, and ... and therefore Transfield was really stopped from doing that and Transfield went along with that. Transfield very keen on a light rail system. And I believe the pay back for Transfield dropping off was that they got the harbour tunnel because Kumagai, the Japanese company, and Transfield got the tunnel and I believe that it was a pay-off ... was that, well you drop off Peter Abeles getting the monorail and you'll get the inside rail run for the harbour tunnel. So because of my anti-development again, I didn't please too many people in the ... in the Council. When I say anti-development, anti-overdevelopment and I was keen to keep the cars out of the city. I think that I was opposed to those buildings, high rise buildings, being built in Sydney with more and more cars being parked underneath. A lot of things could have been avoided had we stopped in those years - twenty years ago or fifteen years ago - if we'd stopped building those high rise buildings with ... with eight and ten and twelve layers of car parking spaces underneath, cluttering up and strangling the city. So had the ... In 1985, the Independents were gaining the control of the Sydney Council and the Liberals and Labor came together, uniting in 1987 and the Council was abolished by a combination of Liberal and Labor in Macquarie Street and not only was the Council sacked but three rich ... two of them knights ... were put in as commissionaires to run the city and that was by a Labor Government. The Unsworth Government sacked the council five months before an election. An election was due to take place in the September of 1987 and the prediction was, because of the failure of Labor and Liberal to really perform, that the Independents with Sartor and Moore, myself, Brian McGahan, and many other people, would have won control of the city and the one thing they didn't ... didn't want was an environmentally orientated Council in a bicentenary year of 1988. So they sacked the Council on the flimsy reason the meetings were taking too long. And Crosio - Janice Crosio, who was the Minister for Local Government, put forward that as the reason for the sacking of the Council. So when you consider that they received scant money, if they wanted to sit until two o'clock well so be it, but they were sacked on ... that shows you they had no real reason to sack the Council but they sacked the Council on the flimsy reason, that the meetings were taking too long.
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