The first real industrial round

When Bob Hawke took the reins at the ACTU, Australia’s industrial relations reporting was changed forever, reflects Barry Donovan.

Judy Hughes’ recent article in The Walkley Magazine on “the life and times of the industrial round” concentrates on the period from 1980 on, but left me longing for a history of the round in the crucial years between 1970 and 1980.

ACTU President Bob Hawke gives an impassioned speech on uranium mining at the ACTU Congress, 15 September 1979. Photo: Michael Rayner, The Age (courtesy Fairfax Photos).

It’s rather like writing about the Australian Labor Party post-war dramas and leaving out Gough Whitlam and 1972–75. The major transformation in the relationships between the ACTU and the Australian media certainly occurred in that ten year period, from the day Bob Hawke began his reign as Australian Council of Trade Unions President in January, 1970.

Judy Hughes quoted Shaun Carney, who covered the industrial round for the old Melbourne Herald from 1980 to 1985, as saying “nobody ever has an interest in the industrial round until they’re told they have to do it”.

That was also the case in 1969, when serious papers like The Age considered the industrial round, or Trades Hall, as a good place to send its bright young reporters for six months before moving them to national politics in Canberra and later to foreign postings.

The ACTU President of that era was Albert Monk, a former Londoner whose idea of media relations was to have a twice weekly chat with Jim Davies, the veteran Trades Hall reporter for the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial. The basic information was exchanged, but Mr Monk was not inclined to linger a minute longer than was necessary with other industrial reporters.

This all made it necessary for the excellent national writers based in Melbourne — John Hurst of The Australian and Geoff Gleghorn of the Australian Financial Review — to go searching for other contacts and sources to keep their readers up to date with the major developing news stories of the day.

This ACTU-press relationship, such as it was, all began to change one day in September 1969, at the ACTU Congress at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney. The Congress met every four years and at Paddington, crucially, it was due to elect a new ACTU president. Albert Monk may have been careful and retiring in his presidential role, but he had been very astute in offering a new research/advocate position to a young West Australian law graduate recently returned from Oxford in 1959.

Bob Hawke had intended working at the Australian National University but then accepted a brand new role, which included representing the union movement in cases at the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Now with ten years’ experience and numerous national wage cases behind him, he was running to be ACTU number one against Harold Souter, the conservative sitting ACTU secretary.

After a very active campaign on all sides, Hawke defeated Souter by just 399 votes to 350, and the ACTU Congress and its presidential election received massive news coverage.

The Paddington pubs, including the RSL over the road, were jumping all week, and so it was with Bob Hawke and the ACTU for the next ten years.

Except the pub of choice, for Hawke and the industrial round, became the John Curtin Hotel, in Lygon Street, Carlton.

Once established at the ACTU office in Lygon Street, opposite the Victorian Trades Hall and coincidentally next door to the John Curtin, Hawke began regular daily contact with the industrial round reporters who by then had their own office space in the Trades Hall overlooking Victoria Street. Although the ABC, for a long time serviced by Ken Hickey and Barrie Cassidy, had a special recording bolthole of its own.

With Hawke at the helm, supported in his innovative efforts by the new union graduate crowd of the 70s including Simon Crean and Bill Kelty, the ACTU became super-active. Their national campaigns included the issue of retail sales price maintenance after the ACTU entered into a joint store venture with Bourke’s.

Suddenly Lygon Street, Carlton, was on the national news lists for the major papers in Australia. The morning papers all wanted to know what that “Bloody Bob” Hawke had got up to that day. It did mean, regrettably, that the local industrial round and star reporters from interstate had to park themselves in the John Curtin from late afternoon when the big stories were running.

Peter Bowers of the Sydney Morning Herald managed to endure the Melbourne beer, and the colourful Owen Thompson, of The Australian and the raucous laugh, usually had a spare shirt stuffed into his suit pocket in case he had to stay overnight. They were both happy to give Hawke the benefit of their NSW insights at the press conference before departing.

For the working journalists covering Hawke, and Simon Crean and Bill Landeryou at the Storemen and Packers Union, and Norm Gallagher at the Builders Laborers Federation (competing with his NSW secretary Jack Mundey on green bans), the added interest was observing how the new industrial movement of the 70s was changing the union and business landscape. The old status quo working relationships, especially in Melbourne, were facing new pressures and new positive benefit schemes such as union superannuation arose for the first time.

It was also a time when many Melbourne industrial journalists became involved directly in industrial disputes with their own newspapers. At one classic meeting of the Australian Journalists’ Association members a federal official from Sydney said that local journalists would be “whistling past the graveyard” if they took strike action. Some Melbourne “Curtin specialists” objected to this line and the meeting supported action. It was successful.

There have been many Melbourne industrial journalists of course who later moved into key senior media positions as newspaper editors, radio hosts, and senior national commentators. They include Neil Mitchell, who has been a newspaper editor and continues as the top-rating radio 3AW host, and many more: Bruce Guthrie, Shaun Carney, Gerard Noonan, Michael Gordon, Vincent Basile, and Barrie Cassidy. After covering the industrial round for ten years for the Melbourne Age and then the Sun News-Pictorial I established my own media consultancy in 1979 and subsequently advised both Bob Hawke and John Cain in government.

I became the first media manager at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s, have written four books on Australian politics, and am proud to be an honorary life member of MEAA. Looking back, I like to think that the change in Australian industrial and political life and the media relationships that began to take place back in the Paddington Town Hall has been highly positive.

OK, Bob, it’s my round.

Barry Donovan is a writer, author and communicator. His daughter Brigid Donovan is now executive producer of ABC TV’s Back Roads, and son Patrick is now CEO of Music Victoria after being music writer at The Age.

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