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QTU: Australia's first republican union

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For the past 20 years, Glenn Davies has been a Queensland state education teacher. During this time he has held such Queensland Teachers’ Union positions as workplace delegate, branch secretary, and state conference delegate. On 27 September 2007, he was successful in organising the Queensland Teachers' Union to vote to become the first organisation in Australia to join the new Australian Republican Movement membership category - ARM Supporter.

IN 2005 I had submitted my PhD thesis on the history of Australian republicanism with a conclusion that was a challenge to the commonly held radical nationalist interpretation of Australia’s republican past, including my own previous publications. I contended the history of republicanism in Australia has been ‘misunderstood’ by being commonly characterised as a working- class, radical movement. Indeed, it has been conventionally assumed, if not argued, that Australian republicanism has its roots in the working class. I concluded the real commitment (and momentum, as far as there has been any) of republicanism in this country has been among the middle class. This was proved to some extent by the results of the 1999 referendum. It is particularly obvious for the 1850s but even in the 1890s republican ideals were more substantial within middle-class intellectual thinking as compared to working-class thinking. Republicanism in Australia, contrary to common opinion, has been a ‘middle class’ movement. In 2006 I thought it might be worth testing the level of support for republicanism within the modern union movement and seeing if my hypothesis carried into the present.

It had been long-standing Queensland Teachers’ Union policy on social issues that “The QTU supports the creation of an Australian Republic’ (Rule 8.2 (a) (iv) and Section 9 of the QTU Structures, Procedures and Services Policy). As well as their primary role of enhancing salaries and working conditions, Unions accept their responsibility to advance a range of progressive social policy issues. The QTU Social Issues policy has resolved views on a range of issues such as peace, the environment, reconciliation, civil liberties and the like, The QTU has these policies because they have been brought to the floor of Council (and Conference) by elected delegates, debated (often vigorously) and a view (policy) ultimately determined. This is representative democracy in action.

After a great deal of letter writing and lobbying of QTU Senior Executive, in July 2006 QTU State Council passed a resolution to affiliate with the Australian Republican Movement. Although the motion had come from the QTU Deputy General Secretary, Graham Moloney it was seconded by Allan Cook, ARM member and QTU State Councillor from the floor of the State Council. The motion was overwhelmingly accepted by the 200-member State Council.

Allan Cook said at the time:
“QTU members should be very proud of their forward-thinking support for an Australian citizen to be the Head of State of an Australian Republic through affiliation with the ARM”.

Once the Queensland Teachers’ Union had agreed to become an Australian Republican Movement member there was a need for policy discussion at an ARM National Council level on the process for having an association join the ARM. As a result the ARM Supporter membership was created. This form of grass root support bode well for approaching other union groups.

The very foundations of the Australian trade union movement are based on British democratic principles and early trade union leaders drew heavily on British experience in establishing their own organisations. Since the early days of the trade union movement in the nineteenth century Australian workers have contributed much to this great country. They have built the roads and railway tracks that link together communities. They have built the telecommunications and power systems, the cities and the towns. Through their involvement in the political, cultural and social life of Australia, Australian workers and their unions have helped shape and have enriched Australian democratic institutions and practices. The Australian Republican Movement has had support in the past from trade union leaders. For instance, Jennie George, Australian Council of Trade Unions president, was elected on the ARM ticket in NSW to the 1998 Constitutional Convention. Another union leader, Peter Sams, was a nominee of the Federal government. At the 1999 republic referendum the trade union movement supported the YES case. But it is fair to say that no trade unionist has yet been at the forefront of the modern republican movement, either within the ARM or elsewhere. Furthermore, it is almost certain that in 1999 only a minority of trade unionists voted YES. The YES campaign failed to win those safe Labor seats in which trade unionists predominated.

The Australian Labor Party has had a policy commitment to an Australian republic since 1991. However, when trade unions affiliated to the ALP were tested on their commitment to an Australian republic they came up wanting. In March 2008 I conducted a survey of all Queensland Council of Trade Union leaders on their policy on an Australian Head of State. The responses came from union leaders such as Greg Smith, Queensland State Secretary, AFULE:
“In reply to your policy question, the AFULE has no formal policy on an Australian Head of State. Likewise, there has been no formal request from the AFULE executive or sections of the membership for the union to consider adopting a policy on an Australian Head of State. As such, the above issue has not been on the radar in the union's policy's matters.”

Russell Carr, Queensland Branch Secretary, AMIEU stated:
“I do not believe the AMIEU has ever formulated an official position on whether Australia should be a republic. I realise this is an important issue but it is certainly not the most important issue facing our membership. Should the debate be reignited within the wider community and if our members or the Federal Executive where to debate the issue I am sure the decision would be to support Australia becoming a republic. When the time comes I am sure our Union will give support to the movement through our journal and at delegate’s conferences.”

Jillian Keane, FSU, also stated: “The Union does not currently have an endorsed policy in relation to an Australian Head of State. The Union is not closed to the idea, but we have no funds for affiliation with the Australian Republican Movement at present.”

The Queensland Nurses’ Union General Secretary, Gay Hawksworth advised they did not “have a policy with regard to the Australian Head of State. There is no request from our members at this stage for a policy. Policy such as this is determined by our delegates to annual conference.”

The only slightly positive response was from Greg Betts, District President, CFMEU:
“As a Union we have never considered our involvement in the Republican movement. I can advise that I am a supporter of a Republic as I assisted Michael Lavarch at the last Referendum, and as we both know it was always designed to fail. The Union is having its Management Committee meeting next month and I have no difficulty raising the issue of affiliation at the meeting. Could you advise of the cost of affiliation and provide any other relevant material that I can table at our meeting.”

Active republican support did not appear to be on the horizon for these union leaders and their working-class supporters. It did not seem to be an issue either that was being raised at their State Conferences (although if it had a number of unions appeared not to be actively opposed to the idea). Rather active republican support appeared to be emerging from the middle-class Queensland Teachers’ Union. Interestingly the Queensland Teachers’ Union is a union not affiliated to the Australian Labor Party.

Maybe my thesis was correct! I had argued that republicanism is a middle class idea that supported an intellectual approach to constitutional issues which did not spring from the main priorities of manual labour or production of output. Republican arguments I saw as grounded within middle-class concepts of individualism rather than the kind of collectivist ideology that has been typical of working-class belief.

Teachers labour within the workplace of the mind, within the field of ideas. The middle-class Queensland Teachers’ Union has a membership of approximately 35,000 and is the largest trade union in Queensland. This is where the real republican commitment appears to be located. Teachers play an important role in the civic education of our nation and it was a welcome moment when the Queensland Teachers’ Union entered the republican fold in 2007.

Deep down in our hearts, we all hope one day we will not need the Queen or Charles or any other British Monarch as our Head of State any more, and we can stand on our own feet and appoint or select one of our own to the Australian Head of State. The continuing support of Queensland's largest trade union is a tangible step towards this goal.

(Glenn Davies received his PhD from University of New England in 2005 on the history of Australia’s republican past. He is the Queensland State Secretary (Australian Republican Movement), a 2008-2009 Aurealis Awards Speculative Fiction Judge, and the 2009 & 2010 National Republican Short Story Competition convenor.)

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