Remembrance of things past

Denis Fitzgerald
Vice President

As the Teachers Federation heads towards its centenary in a few years’ time it is interesting to reflect on aspects of its history.

A recent book written by Murdoch journalist and insider, Greg Sheridan, provides some candid confessions about the role of outside groups, intelligence agencies and political fringe-dwellers who have sought to interfere with the operations of the union.

It is instructive to note that the Federation has always been proudly independent of political parties over its near 100 years of existence. In that time, the union has never donated a cent or a penny to any political party, has never been affiliated with any political party and has never instructed its members how to vote.

Officers of the union, including Presidential Officers, are all paid on the teachers’ salary scale and all Officers are elected. Union leaders and officials spend all of their working day focused on members’ interests undistracted by the internal machinations and intrigues of political parties. The union has unrelentingly advocated the cause and interests of public education irrespective of which party is in power.

Many in the political class have found this culture and tradition difficult to abide.

In the early 1980s, for example, a curious alliance of elements of the labour movement, the leadership of the Labor Party and those from the extreme rightwing National Civic Council joined forces to overthrow the leadership of the Teachers Federation which had been an independent thorn in the side of the ALP government of the day. Not long before, an Annual Conference of the union had overwhelmingly rejected the idea of affiliating with the ALP.

What Sheridan reveals in his recently published When We Were Young & Foolish (Allen & Unwin, 2015) is that leaders of the ALP, joined by officers of the Labor Council (the predecessor of today’s Unions NSW) and the shadowy and religiously-inspired National Civic Council backed a team in the Federation’s presidential elections in order to change the leadership, orientation and culture of our union.

Sheridan discloses that the standard modus operandi of such capering was to gain huge donations from big business to fund union interventions such as these whilst the campaign work was carried out by unnamed operatives from the various organisations.

What happened in the 1983 union presidential elections was a massive ambush campaign in support of a presidential team which, it might be gently observed, had a modest involvement and understanding of either unionism or the needs of public education.

The key campaign intervention was the deployment of direct mail, hand-addressed correspondence to every member of the Teachers Federation. This involved approximately 50,000 letters written to union members and was preceded by the Minister for Education distributing material via the media attacking the union leadership. Sheridan also confesses to writing campaign material for the election, whilst employed as a journalist on the Packer-owned magazine, The Bulletin.

The cost of the mailing would have been in the realm of 10 times that expended by the incumbent presidential team led by Max Taylor. The time and personnel required to produce such a mailout would have been huge. As Sheridan admits, “It is immensely expensive to post campaign literature to every member.” Taylor and his colleagues were defeated in the election by a group led by Ivan Pagett.

Sheridan laments that, “Pagett was successful in that election but only served one term and was not able to change the political orientation of the union.”

Sheridan names the leader of the Labor Council at the time, Barrie Unsworth, as being instrumental in the campaign to interfere with Federation’s elections. At the end of 1983, Unsworth left the Labor Council to enter parliament and within a few years was premier of NSW. Unsworth faced his own election as premier and was humiliatingly defeated. Sheridan also singles out other ALP figures such as Bob Carr, John Ducker and Michael Easson for special praise as right-thinking operatives.

Ducker is praised as an effective go-between for wealthy businessmen and the Labor Council. “There was,” according to Sheridan, “also a great deal of corporate giving, little of which was ever disclosed. When John Ducker was boss of the Labor Council, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from business for use in union elections.” The Packer family was mentioned as being especially generous.

Other bizarre liaisons revealed by Sheridan include regular meetings between senior ALP figures and ASIO operatives, when information about trade unions was exchanged.

ASIO’s intrusion into the affairs of the Teachers Federation goes even back further than the 1980s. When I was researching a history of the union, Teachers and Their Times (University of NSW Press, 2011), I interviewed Thomas Shepherd, one of many people employed by ASIO to spy on individuals active in Federation.

After years of such work, Shepherd disappointed his ASIO minders mightily by uncovering no leftist conspiracy, no scandal, no Moscow Gold, no communist plot. Instead he reported to his superiors that, “the Teachers Federation was an organisation committed solely to the wellbeing of its members and public education”.

Our union was not the sole object of such voyeurism at the time as other groups such as the History Teachers Association (HTA) were also infiltrated and examined to detect unorthodox thoughts and tendencies influencing syllabus development. Each member of the executive of the HTA was spied upon by ASIO and records opened on them.

What Sheridan and those strange times reveal is a certain infantile McCarthyism that infected the course of history. Early on, Sheridan manifested that occasional adolescent fear of other people’s ideas. From his youth in leafy, suburban Forestville he could detect dark forces at work that justified any intervention or utterance.

Thirty years after helping to bring down a union leadership, Sheridan still seeks out conspiracies and paradoxically uncovers his own extremism. For 30 years he has worked for the Murdoch empire. In that time, he has displayed a febrile mind matched with a bellicose temperament.

He began his years in politics justifying the Vietnam War. Since then, he has barracked for every ill-considered war and hectored those that questioned military conflict. As an international correspondent for News Ltd media Sheridan has scarcely located an international complexity that could not be ameliorated by bombing and shooting.

He currently claims that President Obama is conducting an “anti-Israel jihad”. Years before he declared that George W. Bush was, “really a modern Winston Churchill” and also observed that anyone with doubts about the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were “ludicrous”.

Moving on from the Teachers Federation, he has discovered in the ABC another hotbed of sedition wherein, he has alleged, employees have praised the Soviet Union, supported apologists for Pol Pot and vilified Catholicism. Sheridan claims that the broadcaster “will go to great lengths to prosecute its endless war against the dark forces of conservative Australia”. We can expect more of Sheridan’s mutterings for eternity. His and ours.

The Teachers Federation rapidly shrugged off the “leadership” group that was the team of choice of the privileged, the rich and the fervently conspiratorial all those years ago. What sustained the union then was what sustains it now — a commitment to being a union run by members, welded to professional and industrial assertion and to the values of public education — high standards, democracy and pluralism.