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Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Page: 7281

Senator FARRELL (11:00 PM) —I rise on this historic day, when Labor has introduced legislation to end Work Choices, to pay tribute to the working life of an exceptional and outstanding Australian, Mr Jim Maher AO. Jim recently retired from his role as Director of the REST Superannuation fund, thereby bringing to an end a working career serving retail workers which spanned 52 years. His leadership, wisdom and sound advice have been acknowledged in the maiden speeches of many senators and members of parliament in both state and federal governments. Senator Jacinta Collins, who is here in the chamber tonight, Mark Bishop and indeed the President of this chamber have all acknowledged Jim’s contribution in their maiden speeches, as have I. For those who knew Jim Maher, it would come as no surprise that so many senators and MPs have credited Jim for some of their success. I feel that it is important to bring to the attention of the house the remarkable achievements of such an exceptional Australian and stalwart friend of the Labor movement.

James Bernard Maher was born on 20 August 1927. He was educated at the Christian Brothers College in Clifton Hill, Victoria. As a young man working for Norman Makin, the great South Australian member of parliament, he would sometimes relax with former Prime Minister John Curtin, whom he considered a close friend, by watching Collingwood play football. In 1946, Norman Makin left parliament to become Australia’s ambassador to the United States. Public Service rules at the time prevented Jim from joining Norman in Washington, so Jim became a shop assistant. His decade of experience on the shop floor means that Jim has a unique knowledge of the pressures that retail workers face.

Jim began his involvement with the SDA on 1 January 1956 as an organiser. It was a role he genuinely enjoyed, as it provided him with the opportunity to work directly with shop assistants to resolve the difficulties and issues that they faced. Between 1968 and 1971 he served as the assistant secretary of the Victorian branch and in 1971 became the secretary of the Victorian branch, a position that he held for 20 years. In 1970, Jim Maher became the National President of the SDA, which, at the time, had only 57,000 members Australia wide. Today, the union has grown to have a 220,000-strong membership base, and it is the largest single affiliate of the ACTU. Jim Maher’s leadership was a key factor in the success of the SDA. During the Labor split in the 1950s, Jim Maher was firmly on the side of the anticommunists. He continued to help lead the fight to retain the integrity and direction of the union in the face of numerous disruptive forces within the union over many years.

I first met Jim in 1976 at a national meeting of the SDA held at the Travelodge on South Terrace in Adelaide, just up the road from where I now have my office. Ever vigilant, when I first met Jim he suspected that I was a Barry Egan supporter and promptly asked me to leave the meeting. I was pretty green and young in those days, so I rapidly left with my tail between my legs! I think it demonstrated his vigilance in maintaining the focus of the union on the issues that matter most to its membership. Jim served as the President of the SDA for 25 years, until he left in 1995. I took over the role from Jim—who by now knew that I was far from being an Egan man—and I can assure everyone that he was an extremely hard act to follow.

He was a man of action. He knew how to go from A to B without inventing letters between them and realised that the best way out of a problem was to crash through it. Two of the most significant industrial achievements that occurred under his leadership were the winning of the first five-day week for shop assistants in Australia in 1971 and the achievement of equal pay for work of equal value for women in the retail industry. Consider the remarkably high turnover of workers in the retail industry. There are hundreds of thousands of shop assistants who enter and leave the retail industry every year. If you then consider the significant improvement in conditions and wages for retail workers that Jim helped achieve, it would not be outlandish to say that Jim Maher, over some decades, directly improved the lives of millions of Australian workers.

In addition to his extensive involvement with the SDA, Jim Maher was a key figure in the leadership of the ACTU. He served as an executive member of the ACTU between 1980 and 1993, serving five of those years as vice-president. During his time as a union official, Jim witnessed some of the most dramatic changes to ever occur in industrial relations, from closed shops to the accord, to Work Choices, and finally a return to some form of equilibrium, currently being proposed by the Labor government.

Jim was also passionate about the savings and long-term future of retail workers. He was a director of REST Superannuation, the superannuation fund for retail workers, from its inception. While super returns have dropped recently due to the world economic crisis, REST Superannuation has produced excellent returns for its members right from its beginning, and Jim’s prudent and measured leadership contributed much to REST’s success.

Another of Jim’s outstanding achievements was representing the SDA at the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees from 1976 to 1995—a role he filled with great enthusiasm and diligence.

Jim’s passion for his country was also demonstrated by his participation in many organisations that have helped define what it means to be an Australian. Jim was a member of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, which was founded to develop and coordinate projects that promoted Australia’s cultural heritage for the bicentenary in 1988. He has also been a director of the National Australia Day Committee and was a member of the Advance Australia Foundation in the early 1990s. His commitment to retail workers and the nation was total, and he was formally recognised in Australia’s bicentennial year when he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, an award that I know gave him a great deal of pleasure—in his own quiet way, for Jim was never one to brag.

As I said earlier in my speech, Jim Maher has improved the lives of millions of working Australians through better wages and conditions. His contributions to the hundreds of thousands of retail workers throughout Australia cannot be understated. The fact that many of these workers would have no idea who Jim Maher is is not something that he would worry about. That is because Jim derives satisfaction from helping others. It has been his life’s work, and he has done a magnificent job.

Throughout all of these achievements Jim was loyally supported by his wife, Fran. Jim was a great example of the old saying: ‘The difficulties of life are intended to make us better, not bitter.’ As he fought for the rights of shop assistants he never sought a lighter load but simply sought to have broader shoulders.

Finally, I am sure that Jim will discover that the trouble with retirement is that he will never get a day off and that a man’s retirement becomes a wife’s full-time job!