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Issue #1618      November 13, 2013

Obituary

Brian Manning

A life given to the struggle

It was with great sadness that the Communist Party of Australia received the news of the passing of legendary activist and communist Brian Manning on November 3 at the age of 81. It is not an easy thing to summarise the life’s work of such an energetic and capable communist over long decades of struggle.

Brian Manning

The names of the battles he weighed into are etched in the annals of the labour movement of this country – the Wave Hill Walk-Off that opened the way to so many gains for the Aboriginal people, wage equality for Aboriginal workers, multiculturalism, the independence struggles of the people of Vietnam, Timor-Leste, West Papua and the Palestinians, the Green Bans movement of the Builders Labourers’ Federation, opposition to the export of uranium from Australian ports and much more.

Brian was born in south-east country Queensland and attended Brisbane State High School until the age of 17. His first job was as a junior clerk. But over the next 17 years he worked in a range of jobs until finding his niche as a wharfie. He moved to the Northern Territory in 1956.

He was proud to be made a life member of the Maritime Union of Australia, successor organisation to the Waterside Workers’ Federation that he served as secretary in Darwin with drive and militancy.

Following his retirement as a wharfie in 2002, he remained active in the union movement for the remainder of his life. He was also co-founder of the NT Trades and Labour Council and was on the Board of Inquiry that in 1984 laid out the foundations for workers’ compensation for Territorians.

He became interested in politics and joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1959, which led him to take up the struggle for Aboriginal rights. He was a co-founder of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Rights Council in 1961 and played a leading role in the struggle against racism and for award wages for Aboriginal people. One of these was the struggle for award conditions for Aboriginal stock workers.

In 1965, the North Australian Workers Union (wharfies were then a section of that union), with the backing of the ACTU, applied to the Federal Arbitration Commission for full award pay and conditions for Aboriginal stock workers. The pastoralists were represented by John Kerr QC – the same Kerr who later sacked the Whitlam government.

Kerr argued that Aborigines, despite being the backbone of the industry’s workforce for generations, still needed training because “a significant proportion … is retarded by tribal and cultural reasons from appreciation in full the concept of work.”

The Commission accepted many of Kerr’s racist claims, stating in part: “From the wealth of material presented to us by pastoralists, both in oral and written evidence, we conclude that at least a significant proportion of the aborigines employed on cattle stations in the Northern Territory is retarded by tribal and cultural reasons from appreciating in full the concept of work. The great majority are unable to work in a way which employers would expect of white employees.” (07-03-1968)

None-the-less, the Commission, under considerable public pressure to award justice to Aboriginal stock workers whose work and skills were highly regarded, concluded that it had no option but to award equal pay: “There must be one industrial law, similarly applied to all Australians aboriginal or not.” It did defer commencement until December 1, 1968.

Brian is widely recognised for his role during the Wave Hill Walk-Off. In 1966 a group of Aboriginal people led by Vincent Lingiari walked off the job at Wave Hill Station, 600 kilometres south of Darwin, in protest over wages and conditions.

This action, supported by the trade union, was central in paving the way for Aboriginal land rights. The struggle lasted for nine years until in 1975, the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, handed over a parcel of land to the local Gurindji people.

During this struggle, Brian and his J Series Bedford Truck, which is now heritage listed, supported the striking workers camped at Wattie Creek (Daguragu) by running supplies to and from Darwin.

On the 40th Anniversary of the Walk-Off Brian told the ABC: “I loaded this little Bedford with about three tonne of stuff. God, it took nearly two days. I think we had to camp half way. The roads were shocking – there were no bitumen roads, there were diversions all around the place … you know and there was great exhilaration by these people that help had arrived in respect of food.”

The slogan Mumkurla-nginyi-ma parrngalinyparla was selected by the Gurindji people involved in the 2000 Gurindji Freedom Day Banner Project, and has been translated into Tetum to honour Brian’s work in the liberation of East Timor. Image from Brenda Croft, a Namawajirkiwajirki poster.

Solidarity struggles

Brian also used his truck to erect an antenna to establish communications with the underground movement (the Fretilin) in East Timor in the early days of the Indonesian invasion. He campaigned strongly for East Timorese self-determination.

At the 2011 Fretilin Congress, Brian was applauded by 700 Fretilin members for coordinating the establishment of the communications in difficult conditions. He was still greatly loved and revered by the East Timorese people. He was unable to attend the Congress due to his ailing health.

He was recognised for his hard work by becoming a Territory finalist for Australian Senior of the year in 2010. In the same year he was Darwin Senior Citizen of the Year, and accepted his award wearing a Morning Star tie in support of the West Papuans’ independence struggle.

One of his most recent achievements was relocating and refurbishing the Seafarer’s Centre at Darwin while he was voluntary chair of the Darwin Port Welfare Committee.

When he received the NT Senior Citizen of the Year award in 2010, Brian made a commitment. “I will spend my remaining energies opposing American imperialism and the lack of an independent foreign policy by the Australian governments that encourages the establishment of foreign bases on Australian soil.”

A life given over to the struggle to his dying day for the betterment of the lives of people around the world. That’s the legacy and inspiration left by comrade Brian to future generations.

The Guardian conveys its sincerest condolences to Brian’s family, comrades and friends.

Vale Brian Manning   

 

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