Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2020


Mundey, Mr Jack, AO

8:38 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to associate myself, too, with Senator Farrell's remarks. Not enough praise, thanks and gratitude can be sent in the direction of workers who've worked through this, particularly retail workers.

I want to make a couple of comments about the passing, over 48 hours ago, of Jack Mundey. I was driving to Canberra very early yesterday morning when I got a phone call from a colleague in the labour movement to say that Jack Mundey had died over the course of the evening. I had a long talk with Meredith Burgmann, a former president of the New South Wales Legislative Council and the author of the definitive book—one of Australia's leading labour history books about the history of the Builders Labourers Federation and Jack Mundey—Green Bans, Red Union. It caused me to reflect that some of our greatest political leaders actually never serve in this parliament or in our state parliaments.

Jack Mundey was a remarkable union leader, regarded as the father of urban environmentalism. He was a globally significant figure. Today he's owned by the whole of the labour movement, the environmentalist movement, heritage-protection activists and progressives broadly, and, indeed, well loved amongst people right across the political spectrum who care about Sydney, its architecture and its heritage. But very few of those were there supporting him when he was active. In fact, many of them directly opposed him at the time; many of them violently opposed him at the time. There should be a state funeral for Jack Mundey, if we knew what we were doing and could work across the political divisions. He's a living national treasure who is now dead.

He came through in a much less sanitised era. The son of a Queensland cane-cutting family, he came to Sydney to try out for first-grade rugby league and as a boxer. His career with Parramatta was short. It was rugby league's loss and Sydney's gain. He became a builder's labourer at a time when the Builders Labourers Federation in Sydney was a weak and supine union. His battle for democratic control of that union, funded by collections from members—and I looked at one of the $2 tickets that you could buy—was a titanic struggle for control of that union. He left a remarkable industrial legacy, but it's what he did with that and with the confidence of the members who he represented in a democratic way: green bans in The Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Glebe, Centennial Park, Kings Cross, Ultimo, the Opera House precinct, Kelly's Bush in Hunter's Hill, the State Theatre and Pitt Street Uniting Church. All of the heritage buildings in Martin Place are there because of Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation. He was opposed by developers, a corrupt Askin government and violent police. He conducted pickets and sit-ins and strikes—all democratically, all done with the support of building workers. Sydney, to a large extent, has been saved. Kids who will be born tomorrow will grow up in a Sydney that has so much amenity, is so much more beautiful and is such a great place to live, and they will not know that this bloke made such an enormous contribution.

Mundey and the BLF's achievement was to sustain those victories, to hold the line, until the election of Whitlam and the activism of Tom Uren in 1972, and then the Wran government being elected in 1976, initiating the necessary reforms to make the BLF's victories permanent. Of course, if it happened now, if Jack Mundey led those struggles now, the developers would win. The union would be fined and deregistered—BLF members fined or imprisoned, and Mundey locked up. That would be the consequence of struggling the way that Jack Mundey and the green bans union did. The current hyperregulation of industrial relations stifles our democracy.

Jack has done more remarkable things in his career. The first pink ban in support of gay and lesbian rights at Macquarie University was a world-first union activity in that area. He forced employers to employ women on building sites—all with the democratic endorsement of the members and a world-first in the building industry.

I want to pass on my condolences to Jack's wife, Judy, and to all his friends and comrades in the labour movement. He's a great Australian who will be laid to rest shortly. Vale.