Senate debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Statements by Senators

Carmichael, Mr Laurie

12:55 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to one of the giants of the Australian trade union movement, Laurie Carmichael, who passed away on Queensland's Sunshine Coast on 18 August at the age of 93. I'd like to give my condolences to Laurie Jr and to his daughter-in-law, Kerri, who did so much to look after Laurie in his later years.

During Laurie's lifetime he made an unparalleled contribution to the working class of Australia. He made an unparalleled contribution to the trade union movement, the peace movement, the education system and, particularly, the vocational education system. Laurie was the single most influential union official in the establishment of the Accord process that delivered the concept of the social wage, as he understood that reliance on industrial action and wage increases alone was insufficient to allow workers to participate in a fair and equitable way in society. Laurie worked with the Hawke and Keating governments and Bill Kelty at the ACTU to deliver universal health care and to increase access to education opportunities for all Australians. Anne Harding, in a report on Laurie in TheNational Times in 1979, described Laurie as:

The chief force behind the nation's most radical and active union, a symbol of industrial tyranny for the commercial classes with an absorbing passion for classical music …

In recent years he has shifted his allegiance from Beethoven to become deeply engrossed in the music of late 19th century Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

There appear to be interesting similarities between Carmichael and his favourite composer.

Mahler is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica

remember, this was some time ago—

as a creative personality and fanatical idealist, who drove himself and those who watched him "with a ruthless energy that proved a continual inspiration and with a complete disregard for personal considerations that won him many enemies".

Bill Kelty told me last week that when he told Paul Keating that he should meet with Laurie, Paul expressed some concerns, but when they eventually met Bill couldn't get a word in as Paul and Laurie discussed the merits of various classical composers. I think Laurie had a collection of some 10,000 classical CDs. That meeting with Paul Keating laid the groundwork for much of Laurie's work in education reform in Australia. When I last saw Laurie about a month ago, in a nursing home on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, he was still listening to classical music. He was still engaging with the issues that were important for working class Australians.

His influence in the AMWU made it the most influential union in the country, resulting in former Prime Minister Billy McMahon describing Laurie as 'one of the most evil men in the trade union movement'. It hasn't changed much, has it, Senator Cash? The Liberal Party haven't really changed since the sixties. Their twisted assessment of trade union officials who dedicate their careers to looking after working people in this country is just crazy.

Laurie was a working-class intellectual who started his working life as an apprentice fitter at a can-making factory in Victoria, where he was appalled at the conditions suffered by the production workers, who were mainly female workers. He became an activist in the Amalgamated Engineering Union and, ultimately, assistant secretary of the AMWU before being elected as assistant secretary of the ACTU. Following his career in the union movement, he was instrumental in improving the vocational education system, influencing policy, writing reports and arguing for constructive change.

Laurie was passionate about union education. AMWU delegates were encouraged and trained to understand economics, history and politics from a working-class perspective, and they had to be good public speakers. It was the influence of union education that equipped so many union activists to bargain effectively with their employer. I don't think either I or Senator Urquhart would be in the Senate without the influence and support of Laurie Carmichael, who asked me to read widely, study politics, and be an activist in the workshop and in the community. When I first asked Laurie, 'What should do I to be a good union delegate?' he gave me a list of about 10 books to read, and that was the position he took—that you had to be educated and you had to understand the issues.

The influence of the Depression, worker exploitation and the power and privilege held by the elite caused Laurie to gravitate to joining the Communist Party of Australia. Laurie was a past president of the Communist Party. He believed the essence of Marxism was the promotion of revolutionary change from a capitalist, exploiting society to socialism in the most democratic way. He viewed Marx's concept of socialism as being one that would create the most democratic type of society known to mankind. Laurie was very disappointed and, like many Australian communists, disavowed what happened in the Soviet Union some years ago. In my view, Laurie never wavered from his view that capitalism needed to change.

Laurie played a major role in defeating the Liberal Party's penal powers, and he was active in coordinating the trade union movement's response to the jailing of Clarrie O'Shea. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and spoke at the Melbourne moratorium rallies in front of hundreds of thousands of concerned Australians. Laurie's son, Laurie Jr, was a conscientious objector and became the focus of the anticonscription movement in Australia. Both Laurie and his wife, Val, were arrested when they were actively supporting their son at a demonstration outside Williamstown court, and I think Val was injured by the aggressive position the police took. Laurie was also arrested in Western Australia when the conservative government introduced laws designed to stop workers coming together to demonstrate or organise against employer excesses. None of this would stop Laurie from continuing his campaigns on behalf of working-class Australians.

Bert Evans, the legendary employer advocate and leader of the Metal Trades Industry Association, said that the Accord would not have been delivered without the ability of Laurie Carmichael to deliver on commitments that unions would no longer pursue extra claims. Evans said that doing a handshake deal with Laurie Carmichael was enough. Former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty described Laurie Carmichael as an exceptional human being whose actions had a massive impact on Australia's industrial relations landscape. He went on to say:

There is hardly a condition of employment that was not affected by the campaigns that he led …

He is to Australian trade unionism what Mozart was to music, Pharlap to horse racing, Wally Lewis to Rugby League, John Coleman to Essendon supporters and now Barack Obama to people throughout the world - simply an inspiration!

Laurie Carmichael was one of the most intelligent, hardworking, active human beings I had ever met. We owe Laurie Carmichael a lot. Working people in this country owe Laurie Carmichael a lot. I think Laurie was appalled at the situation working people find themselves in now, with no capacity to bargain effectively and no capacity to increase their wages and conditions under a coalition government. Laurie Carmichael did great things for this country and great things for working people, and 10 minutes is nowhere near enough to recognise the achievements of this great Australian.