Speech to ACTU Congress 1995 by Jennie George, ACTU President-elect.
I am going to try not to be emotional. As you’d appreciate, it’s a great day for me and I’m so delighted I can share it with all the delegates here and my friends both inside and outside the union movement.
When I was growing up in the high rise Housing Commission flats in Surrey Hills in Sydney, of course I never dreamt that I’d be a union officer, let alone one day reach the pinnacle and be standing before you as the President-elect of the ACTU. Like most working class girls that did well at school, I think we all had two ambitions in life, either to be a nurse or a teacher. It sounds familiar doesn’t it? That of course depended on whether Mum could afford to keep me at school, and then to go on to university. As it turned out, I got a Teachers’ College scholarship which gave me a nice living allowance and I went on to train as a teacher.
My union, the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, is a great union with a great tradition, and it did a very clever thing. Thirty years ago it joined me up as a new associate member of the Trainee Teachers’ Club, and through my involvement in the Trainee Teachers’ Club I joined the Eureka Youth League and did what most girls of my age did and fell in love, and I was very lucky to fall in love with a wonderful human being by the name of Paddy George who no doubt had enormous influence on my life, particularly my politics. It’s not to say that my politics weren’t shaped by my own experiences, but certainly being married to a communist leaves some impression on one’s early political development.
My first political involvement actually was with the Seaman and Wharfies’ Union at the time, and I can remember my first demonstration being at the time of the early battles against Vietnam at the time we were just sending advisors, not the time of the mobilisations, and I think the boats were the Boonaroo and Japparett that they were refusing to load at the time. So it’s ironic, isn’t it, that the Seaman and Wharfies’ Union has maintained that strength of commitment and solidarity for so many years in this country?
I went on to teach at Bankstown Girls’ High and I was lucky that I ended up in a working class girls’ high school. Had wonderful students, some of whom I’m still in touch with, and some like Susan Jamieson, who’s very active in the Pay Equity Coalition. Says things on the radio sometimes that I don’t totally approve of, but nevertheless I think it’s wonderful to see that no one can artificially limit the aspirations of working people.
In 1973 I took up my first job as the Welfare Officer in the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation and for the next twenty-two years I’ve held a variety of positions in my own union at the national level and more recently at the ACTU, so I’m certainly not a Jenny-come-lately as my history shows. I’ve worked hard for what I’ve achieved, but I think I’ve also been very lucky-lucky to be in the right place at the right time-and no more lucky than I suppose being back in the union movement at a time when Martin decided he would go on to seek endorsement for Federal politics. And I feel now, standing before you, that I’m very privileged to be able to give something back to the movement which has been so much part of my life.
The women’s movement has had a profound influence on me. I am a feminist, and proud to be one. [long applause] But never being one for too much theory, the practical expression of my politics-which developed obviously from my relationship and marriage to Paddy and later my involvement in Vietnam and the women’s movement has been a backdrop, but I think my practical political expression has come very much from my involvement in the union movement, from the defence of workers’ entitlements, be they teachers or on a broader level. But I’ve never, I hope, in all that time, forgotten the important issues that are of concern to women. My success today, as my successes in the past, have been a shared thing. It’s not me, just me Jenny George, that’s achieved this very important position in the union movement. I see myself symbolising the aspirations of women and I know that they’ll be rejoicing in a collective sense, knowing that whatever achievements I’ve made, I’ve made it for all of us. And I’m pleased to see so many of my good friends outside the union movement who have been influential in pursuing the agenda for women both in politics and in public life being able to share this occasion with me.
I’ve been blessed with great friends, some of whom are here today and who knew me as a somewhat naive and hot-headed sixteen year-old-people like Kathie Block, Helen RexHewitt, Richard Walsh, my first union organiser, and Mavis Robertson who was very much a role model for me in my younger years. When you’ve got friends like that, you can survive all the ups and downs as I’ve had to do over the last thirty years. But there’s no one more close to me than my Mum, of course, who I love, respect and admire. She’s my best friend. [long applause] And what I love about it, when I think I’m starting to get a bit removed from the struggles that workers face on a daily basis. I know when I go back to the sixteenth floor of the high rise Housing Commission flats, I come down to earth pretty quickly and don’t forget my roots. And she’s taught me a few good lessons in life-to admit when you’re wrong, to be honest and to sleep well at night and live with your own conscience, which I’ve always tried to do.
Since 1983, as Bill’s indicated, I’ve been a member of the ACTU Executive. It wasn’t easy in those days being the only woman in a very male-dominated culture, but I did have the support of good people along the way, good men, and I hope that some of my influences and commitments have rubbed off on them over those years. And what I’m really proud about the trade union movement, unlike other institutions, that we have an affirmative action policy and it’s a policy that’s working and we see the emergence of so many capable and talented women in their own unions and at the peak union level. This week we’ll achieve our target of 30% and by the end of this decade 50%, so if we can do it, there is no excuse for others not to.
In 1991 became the first woman officer of the ACTU. My time at the ACTU has been incredibly stimulating, demanding, but very fulfilling and satisfying. I’ve learnt a lot, and I hope I’ve matured in the process of that learning. I do feel confident about my capacity to take on this position and to meet the enormous challenges ahead of us, and I know that I’ll have your support in those endeavours.
Today I have to say goodbye to two close friends who’ve shared time with me on the ACTU Executive. Peter Robson, who has been a close friend, political ally, colleague, someone who’s shoulder I could cry on when I needed to, and Anna Booth. I think Anna’s talents will be sadly missed by the labour movement, but we wish her well in the future and I thank both of them for the tremendous support and friendship and camaraderie that I’ve had from them over the years. And I could I say that one thing about the ACTU, despite whatever weaknesses Bill or I or the other officers might have, we’ve got a fantastic team of people-fantastic industrial staff, fantastic research staff, and great support staff, clerical and secretarial staff-and in that regard my own secretary, Danny, who’s here today, thank you very much for putting up with all the stresses and strains that sometimes come in my job. They’re highly talented people, they’re committed people and as I say, if there’s anything lacking they’re always there to assist and to help out at a time of need. I think as a movement we owe them a great deal.
What can I say about being the President-elect. I don’t have a blueprint and I think each of us learns along the way. It’s going to be a very steep learning curve for me, because my experience has predominantly been in the white collar areas in the public sector in the education industry, but I assure all of you that I do want to get out and to learn and to make up for the lack of knowledge that I have about some areas of industry where the people that we represent in fact work, and I’ve already started on that. I think to be a good effective spokesperson for the union movement, I have to understand how people are feeling, what they’re living through, what their aspirations are, what their expectation of the union movement is. So a lot of my time over the next two years will be spent on what might appear to some to be very mundane issues, but to me the fundamental issues that will decide our strength into the future. I’ll be very involved in the recruitment campaign, I’ll be very involved in workplace organisation issues and, as I say, I’ll be very involved with affiliates, spending time with you and your members and seeing at first hand the diversity of the jobs that are undertaken by our people.
No doubt, as Martin has said, there is a tremendously important ideological agenda that we have to defeat, and we’ve already seen in the last few weeks the intensity of that debate, and our members and colleagues in Western Australia are now living through the most anti-democratic piece of legislation that this nation has ever seen in terms of its attack on the fundamental collective representation of workers’ interests. I do intend also to seek formal negotiations with the Democrats. Cheryl is here today. Cheryl and I are both active members, as is Margaret Reynolds of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council. We’ve developed a close bond and friendship though that. So I won’t use today, Cheryl, to make your life more difficult – you’re here to enjoy the occasion-but I intend to come and seek understandings with both the Democrats and the Greens and other minor parties that may be in the Senate, to ensure that they clearly understand the reason why we feel so strongly about the need to protect the award system as the safety net for all Australian workers, and to expose this rhetoric of choice. What a nonsense! As if employers and workers are on a level playing field. We know where the power lies, and it lies with employers, and all the bleatings about choice and people can stay under the award system, means nothing in real life when an employer say “Well here is your contract of employment. If you don’t like it, well look for a job somewhere else”. We know that and we have to make sure that message, and the rhetoric of choice, is clearly exposed for what it is.
I want to say something about the Labor Party. I think we cannot escape, nor should we, the historical and important relationship between the industrial base and the political party and the expression of that at the moment in a Labor Government. That’s not to say that at all times we agree with the government, and at the moment, as you know, we still have a major outstanding issue in relation to ANL. But I think it is in the government’s interest for the union movement to be forthright, independent and honest in its dealings with Labor, because more of often than not what we are putting to the government is the genuine expression of working people. And I regret sometimes there are some politicians who take great delight in the efforts that are made by union members to secure their re-election and then next time you see them, or come along and want to negotiate with them, suddenly, you know, all that is forgotten. Labor cannot forget that it is there in power politically to represent primarily the interests of Australian workers in their huge diversity.
I make no secret, as you would know, of my huge admiration for Paul Keating. Paul Keating is a leader of vision. I have enormous regard for his efforts, particularly in the area of issues of genuine concern to our indigenous people. I think he has a vision for the future which encompasses a republican and hopefully a more just and fair society. So let me say that I think we have an obligation not just to be independent and to voice our concerns when they are genuine, but also to be proud of the achievements of the Labor Government in power. Without Labor in power we would not have a national superannuation scheme. Without Labor in power we would not have had the family allowances, we would not have had Medicare, we would not have had child care cash rebates, we would not have had the child care relief system, and we won’t have next year the introduction for the first time of a paid maternity benefit. So there are very significant things that Labor has done for working people, and I hope this afternoon the Prime Minister reassures the people gathered here today that Labor has at hear the interests of workers and will continue to govern with a vision that puts them at the forefront of their concerns.
As President of the ACTU, I also have a commitment to maintaining my links and broadening an extending those with other community groups. We have natural allies, particularly with the welfare organisations – with organisations like ACOSS, the Brotherhood, with the Catholic Social Justice Commission, and I’m very pleased, Father Cappo, that you could be here with us today. I think the churches will have a very significant role to play in protecting those without a voice from the worst excesses fo the kind of conservative ideology that will impact very severely on them. So I intend to continue my work, particularly in the area of Aboriginal reconciliation, believing that the union movement has an obligation to ensure that we also extend a supporting hand to people who are often in worst situations than even the most vulnerable amongst our ranks. And in that regard I think we need to do even more about the issue of youth unemployment, and maybe we can look, a a movement, to establishing some kind of organisation that allows unemployed people a voice, because I think they feel, as they tell me, very powerless – that there’s nobody in society that has a voice on their behalf.
Well in conclusion I say that I wish Martin very well in his endeavours. It’s going to be a hard task to fill the shoes of the President-elect of the ACTU. Martin has been an extraordinarily tireless worker for the union movement. I know how hard the job is, how many hours it takes, and what sacrifices Trish and the family have had to endure to enable Martin to be our public spokesperson and our President. But I’m going to be mightily pleased to have people like Martin, and Martin in particular, in the Federal Parliament, because we need people there who have a genuine understanding of the issues of the union movement and of the interests and aspirations of working people.
Well, Bill. Bill and I of course will be working very closely together. Bill is a special person for me. He’s not just a colleague, part of the team, but he’s also a very good and close personal friend. I’ve learnt a lot from him and I thank him for that, and I hope in return, as I say, some of my commitments and values have hopefully rubbed off on him as well. I think we have different but complementary skills which I know the two of us will put to the best effect on behalf of the union movement. I’m really looking forward to the job, I’m looking forward to your support, and I’m feeling very confident that we can emerge through the next two years as a union movement that’s vibrant, that’s dynamic, that stands up for the rights of workers, that defeats the kind of rampant right wing crazy ideologies that bear no relationship to the real world and how workers live and work. I know I’m going to make some mistakes, I’ll tell you that now, and I think it’s better that I admit that like you, I’m human, I’m fallible. I’m going to make some errors but they’ll be honestly made. I’m not by nature a devious type of person. I know the expectations are very hight. I’m going to work enormously hard to live up to at least half the expectations some of you have about me.
What I want to say to all the unions, you know where my commitments lie. They are solidly of the left and I will never walk away from that, but I can assure all of you that as President-elect I have no interest in factional games and neither do the members whom we are elected to represent. I don’t think quite frankly they care where we stand politically providing we do the job and deliver the benefits that they all expect from being a member of the union. So I’d like to say to all unions, I thank you most sincerely for the trust and confidence you’ve placed in me and, as I say, I hope I will live up at least to half the expectations.
In conclusion can I thank all my friends who’ve come along to share this special moment, both inside and outside the union movement. I thank them for their personal support. And last, but most importantly, I thank Mum for making it all possible, for make the sacrifices to give me a great good quality public education. I thank her for her love and support and I think she’s very proud that the opportunities this country gave me and her will be put to good effect. Thank you.
Speech to ACTU Congress by Jennie George, ACTU President-elect, on 27 September 1995