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Speech: Joe Owens and Arthur Murray

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 10 Oct 2012

Adjournment debate, Wednesday 10 October 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:18): Tonight I wish to pay tribute to Joe Owens and Arthur Murray. Joe Owens was a former leader of the Builders' Labourers Federation and also a great leader of the green ban movements. He dedicated his life to working and fighting for workers, for the disadvantaged—anyone doing it tough. His life is one to be celebrated. Just three weeks before he died he was again on a picket at the Barangaroo development site in Sydney—a site that is becoming quite infamous as part of a new wave of overdevelopment in Sydney—picketing with many workers for a site allowance. A site allowance is something that when he was an active union member in the Builders' Labourers Federation and later a union official he put great effort into with his colleagues and they were successful in winning this site allowance. To Joe's credit and to the credit of people he was campaigning with just before his death, this was another win that he clocked up for working people and construction workers in New South Wales that has certainly set a precedent in lifting standards around the country.

The last time I heard Joe speak was at a public celebration for Jack Mundey. Jack was invited to Leichhardt Town Hall. Hundreds of people turned up to celebrate his huge contribution. Joe was always a tremendous speaker. He was very clear in the points of view he put forward, winning people over with an incredible turn of phrase. The green ban movement that he was part of leading, with Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle, achieved some fantastic outcomes, laying down a style of work that has become integral to green and progressive politics in terms of bringing together diverse forces, particularly local resident groups and community organisations working together with unions, student groups and environment groups to protect the environment—the built environment, the natural environment and heritage.

I pay tribute to Joe, and to Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle and that whole movement because I am very much aware that their contribution was very instrumental in bringing forward in the late 1970s—it was 1979, actually—the new planning laws and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. While that act has been an enormously weakened, unfortunately, by more recent Labor and coalition governments, at the time it was world class.

Joe's work contributed to that, along with some very important green bans that helped protect the Royal Botanic Gardens from being turned into a car park for the Sydney Opera House, and also Kelly's Bush. Green bans were even put on Macquarie University when a young gay student was expelled from that university. They were extraordinary times and extraordinary achievements and I certainly pay tribute to that side of Joe's work.

I also want to acknowledge the work that he undertook within the union over industrial conditions. It was at a time when construction workers went to work and there was no amenities block and often they would have to go and find a public toilet to use. There was no shed where they could get changed. These might seem trivial to some of the people in this place but Joe was always out there working hard for decent working conditions. It became particularly challenging for Joe when, in the early 1970s, Jack Mundey resigned, because the Builders' Labourers Federation had limited tenure, and Joe became the secretary after Jack. This was a very difficult period because it was when Norm Gallagher, who was in the federal division, came in to take over the New South Wales branch. Unfortunately, Norm Gallagher was conspiring with the then New South Wales Premier, Bob Askin, and the Master Builders Association and it was a very challenging time. To Joe's credit he continued to work and organise and unite the members. The outcome of that was that, while Joe ended up losing his job as secretary and then faced black bans at a very difficult time for getting work in his own industry, eventually Norm Gallagher was convicted of corruption. I do acknowledge the fantastic contribution and groundbreaking work that Joe achieved throughout his life and send my condolences to his family.

Tonight I also acknowledge the work of another great Australian, Arthur Murray. He is not really well known within Australia amongst some communities but for many his name resonates over the deaths in custody struggle that was such a big part of our progressive movement in recent decades. Arthur Murray's son, Eddie, was one of those young Aboriginal men who lost their lives when they were in custody. In his case it was only for a very short time. John Pilger, speaking about Arthur Murray, said:

When I last saw Arthur, we walked down to the Namoi riverbank and he told me how the police in Wee Waa were still frightened to go into the cell where Eddie had died and had pleaded with him to "smoke out" Eddie's spirit. "No bloody way!" Arthur told them.

Peace to all their spirits; justice to all their people.

Those remarks very much sum up Arthur. Arthur and his wife, Leila, worked for many years for a proper investigation into the tragedy that overtook their family when they lost their young son and also to have a full royal commission into deaths in custody. It is worth acknowledging and detailing some of the history because it came to be such a big part of Arthur's life as he worked so hard to win justice, given what was happening to many Aboriginal people, and to have a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Eddie's death.

It was in 1981 that his son was detained and 50 minutes later was found dead in the cell. There was a whole number of concerning circumstances that led to the family's growing suspicions about how his death had occurred. Just the following day, after Eddie had died, suspicions were rising because the clothes that Eddie was wearing when his body was presented to the family were not his own. The photos that were taken after Eddie's death were not standard, and this was eventually acknowledged. The requests that the family was making for more information fell on deaf ears. In December of the year that Eddie died, the coroner brought down an open finding. He said that Eddie died by his own hand or by the hand of a person or persons unknown. He described Officer Fitzgerald as an unreliable witness. Again, what we see here is the gradual accumulation of material that Leila and Arthur pulled together over many years. I find it quite extraordinary when I read about it. It must have been so painful because they would have been reliving the circumstances of their son's death. The information that they collated played a critical role in pushing the government to set up the royal commission into deaths in custody.

It was actually in 1987 that there was another tragic death in custody. Lloyd Boney was found dead in the police cell in Brewarrina, north-western New South Wales. His was the 16th Aboriginal death in custody that year. So we had these six years of the Murray family, with many supporters, calling for a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths. Following the death of Lloyd Boney, there was a riot at Brewarrina and Arthur was actually charged and imprisoned there. However, interestingly, the charges were quashed some years later. This was all adding to the pressure on the government to have a full inquiry with a royal commission. While that royal commission did bring down some significant findings, it certainly added to the frustration of the family. I did meet Arthur and Leila briefly in the early 2000s and I pay tribute to the enormous work that they did. I celebrate the life of Arthur Murray and acknowledge the loss to his community and send my best wishes to his family.

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