The original “political football” turns 125

17 Jun 2010

The Community and Public Sector Union (Victoria) turns 125 today. Dustin Halse traces a sometimes stormy history

ONE HUNDRED and twenty five years ago to the day, a daring group of colonial public servants gathered at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre for the inaugural meeting of the Victorian Public Service Association – the organisation we now call the Community and Public Sector Union. Today the CPSU returns to the Athenaeum to mark this historic occasion and remember the many victories (and some defeats) that have defined its existence.

The longevity of the union is unique. Few unions had formed in Australia prior to 1885 and most of those that emerged over the next decade and a half have fallen by the wayside or sought protection by amalgamating with other unions.

Unlike many unions, the CPSU operates entirely within the complex and often misunderstood Victorian public sector. Its members are guided by strict codes of conduct that disallow any public comment on government policy or departmental operation. In this respect little has changed in 125 years.

The formation of the union came after years of mass public service retrenchments. Burned into the memories of public servants were the events of 8 January 1878 – which became known as Black Wednesday – when Premier Graham Berry sacked many public servants, together with county court judges, coroners and police magistrates. Berry’s enemies in the Legislative Council had refused to pass the government’s budget and this was the premier’s dramatic response.

Conservative society was outraged. Rumours abounded that further government decisions, tantamount to revolution in some eyes, were imminent. One sacked crown prosecutor cabled the British government to stop the “anarchy”. These unprecedented events highlighted how the public service could be used as a pawn in the political game and proved to be the catalyst for the union’s formation.

On that June day all those years ago public servants were acutely aware of their tenuous bargaining position and anxious to avoid accusations of narrow self-interest. The very first motion recorded was the sober statement that the union “had nothing to conceal, and their object was not only to help themselves but to help the state and their immediate supervisor’s.” Nevertheless, both the Age and the Argus described the scene as one of irrepressible enthusiasm and excitement. A boisterous crowd of 1000 people turned up not only to hear, but also to participate in the proceedings.

At one point a leading bureaucrat, Mr Rusden from the Chief Secretary’s office, moved a motion to have the meeting adjourned because no department heads were present. The crowd was suspicious of Rusden’s motives, and one vocal member exclaimed, “We don’t want them, Jack’s as good as his master here.” The union was born.

In the years since then the CPSU has been at the centre of many of Victoria’s political controversies. In 1903, Premier William Irvine – known to his critics as “Iceberg” Irvine – acted to preclude permanent public servants, policemen and railway employees from voting in ordinary electorates. Instead, to reduce their electoral influence, they would vote in special seats. Irvine was blunt about his reasons: “Their vote is like a wedge in every constituency. They occupy, in many instances, the balance of power, exercised, not in the interests of the community but solely in their own particular interests.”

Soon these measures were revoked and, in 1916,  the union went on to win expanded political rights, ensuring that it was no longer a criminal offence for public employees to chair and speak out at meetings, ask questions of political candidates or join a political party.

The union also became the breeding ground for a number of Victoria’s political luminaries. Between 1925 and 1949 two formidable Labor Party characters charted the union’s course: Arthur Calwell and Stan Keon, both of whom simultaneously held positions in the union and the party. The experience helped propel Calwell first into the presidency of the state party, later into federal parliament and later still into the leadership of the federal opposition. Keon, who by 1939 had become the youngest union secretary in history, won the blue-ribbon state seat of Richmond in 1945 and the federal seat of Yarra in 1949.

Although the union wasn’t a Labor Party affiliate, in the lead-up to the 1943 state election it took its most partisan position yet. Referring to Premier Albert Dunstan’s proposed Independent Public Service Board, Keon wrote, “it is more than a joke; in effect, it is a declaration of war on the service.” He advised members to exercise both their vote and influence to prevent “a further term of Dunstanism.” Despite Keon’s efforts, Dunstan was returned.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century the union campaigned on the politics of equal pay, workplace safety, and conditions such as sick leave, annual leave and maternity leave. Even its critics would concede that many of these measures were necessary, and we now tend to take them for granted.

Interestingly, the recent history of the CPSU closely mirrors the issues that defined the public service before Federation. In the 1990s Premier Jeff Kennett outsourced important parts of the public sector and in the process slashed 80,000 jobs. During this time the union only barely managed to avoid near annihilation in the face of numerous legal, political and industrial challenges.

But survive it did to celebrate its 125th anniversary in the very building where it was founded. For the CPSU it must feel very much like déjà vu.

Dustin Halse is a member of the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University. He is currently writing a history of the CPSU.

Photo: The Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne

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