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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1194


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (19:39): Tonight I pay tribute to a dear friend and mentor of mine and many in the Western Australian labour movement: Neil Byrne, who passed away on 13 July. He was a well-respected and much-loved member of the union movement and the Labor Party in Western Australia. He was a progressive thinker so much ahead of his time. He was a passionate advocate for equal rights, particularly for equal pay and for women. He had dedicated his life to the working and living conditions of all Australians.

He started his apprenticeship as a fitter at the East Perth power station back in the early 1950s. More recently, in a history project on the East Perth power station, Neil was recounting the feeling of the time and place as it was. He spoke of it being dirty, dusty, hot, wet and cold but he also said how proud they were to have worked there. He spoke of how there was a sense of responsibility for keeping the lights on even when they thought they needed to take industrial action.

He joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1956, which is now the AMWU. He became a well-known and very much-loved figure in the union. He began working for the union, becoming its education officer and occupational health officer until his retirement in 1997. Following his retirement, Neil was dedicated to preserving the history of working people in Western Australia. He served as the president of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in WA for more than 20 years. He was particularly passionate about the history of East Perth and its power station and the Midland Railway Workshops.

He's been honoured a number of times. In 1996, he received the AMWU's highest honour, the Gold Award of Merit, and was awarded a life membership of the Australian Labor Party back in 1999. Friends within the AMWU got together and set up a library a number of years ago named after him to honour his commitment to education. He worked tirelessly for the Labor Party, working on the same booth at every election as booth captain at Nollamara Primary School for more than 30 years. He was active in the development of policy and served as a delegate to the Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia and the ALP state conferences and executive.

He did all this but throughout this—and it was wonderful to hear his family speak at his funeral—he was also very much a family man. They never felt neglected by his activism. He was absolutely dedicated to his wife, Maureen; his four daughters, Dorelle, Jenni, Wendy and Sheridan; and his nine grandchildren. Many of us in the labour movement hold an enormous gratitude of debt to Neil and his family. I'd like to thank Neil's family for sharing him with us. We are so fortunate that he had a passion for labour history, bringing alive the voices, activism and lives of working people in the state of Western Australia—voices that might otherwise have been lost.

When I last spoke to him, I reminded him that he has been a big part of bringing forward new generations inside the labour movement, that so many of us stand on his strong but slight shoulders and that he helped so many of us commit to a bigger cause by being an example, by talking about issues and ideas, by sharing labour history and by always being there. Vale Neil Byrne.