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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 61

Mr MELHAM (4:21 PM) —I rise today to remember John Walliss, who passed away on 24 March this year. As this parliament debates the workplace relations bills, I am reminded of the many discussions I had with John over the years about what being a union member really means to workers and their families. He would be appalled at what is happening in this country today. John was a lifelong union member and activist. He reflected the best values of the union movement: honour, commitment, courage and integrity.

John’s personal history reflects many of the injustices that unions have fought to eliminate over the last century in Australia. When John finished his time as an apprentice fitter and turner, his boss informed him that he would be on lower wages. This unfairness so incensed him that John left the job. Through a series of circumstances, he experienced the real meaning of the union movement. An AMWU organiser helped him find another job. That was the beginning of John’s relationship with the union, where he found like-minded people who loathed unfairness and injustice.

Later in his career he found out that the company was putting workers off on a ‘last on, first off’ basis. John’s shop steward intervened and John was found an alternative position. John regarded this moment as pivotal to his working life—he became a convert to the values of the union movement. For the remainder of his life, until his illness intervened, John represented the union and its workers as a shop steward, as a delegate and as an advocate. John was a key player in negotiating the 35-hour week for the glass industry. He became a full time union organiser in 1978.

John epitomised the best of the Australian character. His working life reflected many of the misfortunes of being an Australian worker. John’s health suffered and he had his first heart attack at age 44, then his second at age 55. He was diagnosed with asbestosis, which is the disease that ultimately took his life. He and his family observed the progress of the Hardie case and applauded the CFMEU for making it happen. How anyone can say that unions have no place in our society is beyond me. Hardie have only been called to account because of the union commitment to making it happen.

John’s passion for social justice, born of the union movement, led him to become a member of the Labor Party. He was a member of the Padstow branch of the ALP. He was a valued supporter and friend. John worked tirelessly for his beliefs through his steadfast commitment to equity, justice and fairness. He fought for anyone who had been wronged. It was with immense pride that, at his funeral, his casket was draped with the Eureka flag and the service concluded with the great union song Solidarity Forever.

We will miss him in the fight which is facing those of us committed to the labour movement. In remembering John, I also mourn for the workers of this country. This government is moving along a pathway which will ultimately destroy the rights of our working people. The government’s agenda is clearly obsessed with crushing the union movement. The approach of confrontation so aptly demonstrated on the waterfront and in the building and construction industry is now being extended to workers in every industry.

The right to organise is a deep-seated part of our way of life. For attempting to form a union in Britain, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to seven years transportation in 1834. In sentencing, the judge told them that, if workmen were permitted to organise, the results would be that unions would ‘ruin masters, cause stagnation in trade and destroy property’. These could easily be the words of the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, though perhaps he would prefer to move further back into history and reintroduce the 1828 New South Wales Masters and Servants Act.

At his funeral, John Walliss’s son, Stephen, recalled a comment John made when he heard the findings of the Cole royal commission. John refused to mourn this attack on unions and said he was of the view that: ‘This may be one of the best things to happen to the workers of this country, because Australians will cop it for so long; then, when they realise that they are being done over, they will come together and do something about it.’ I share John’s optimism because Australians will only cop it for so long before they realise they are being done over.

I wish to acknowledge the passing of a great Australian and a great unionist but most of all a great family man. I share the grief of his passing with his wife, Jan; his children, Stephen, Jane and Joanne; his daughter-in-law, Janine; his sons-in-law, Kevin and Steven; and his beloved grandchildren, Ashleigh, James, Sam, Daniel and Jessie. Most of the family are present in the gallery today.

This government must not underestimate the Australian people. Our work force is full of men and women like John Walliss who will continue to stand up and fight for what is right. This country faces the most concentrated attack on organised labour that it has seen over the past 100 years. Australian workers will not stand for the radical and vindictive overhaul of the workplace. What this government proposes is an outright attack on the rights of Australian workers and it diminishes all that we have fought for and won. We will stand united. John would expect nothing less. It worries me that we have a government that does not pay due attention to the John Wallisses of this world. There are committed unionists who are great Australians, who believe that the wealth should be shared and who believe in the right to organise.

John was a very special person. He was one of those blokes whom I can never recall complaining about his lot being worse than the next person’s lot. His whole life was devoted to making it easier for his fellow citizens, to making it better for his fellow citizens. His value system was one to behold. I can remember, when I first sought preselection for the Labor Party, meeting him in Padstow. And since I have been the member, for over 15 years, he was a solid supporter and a good sounding board. He was not an embittered person. His values were values that shone through, and his family are an adornment to him. He has basically left a legacy in his wife, his children and his grandchildren, and it is a legacy to behold. Our country is littered with John Wallisses, but what we are going to see in the next little while is conflict that is unnecessary. At a time when Australia has record employment levels, the government is ideologically bent in its introduction of its workplace relations legislation and is going to see the souring of relations right across this country at a shopfront and a community level. It is all so unnecessary.

I valued John’s friendship. I valued his support over the years. He was always there for me. I never had to look over my shoulder in relation to him, whereas in politics we lose many friends. We make very few friends in this business. Both in the parliament and at a local and branch level, in many respects there is a lot of cynicism. In John’s dealings with me, there was never cynicism. I certainly will miss him, but I will continue to remember him and what he stood for. His values are things that will guide me in terms of decisions that I make well into the future, because they were decent values. They were not about himself: he was a giver, not a taker.