Jack Mundey is a man made famous by saving The Rocks from developers, but his full story runs deeper than that. He gets the vote as #AussieMaverick number three.
When Australian writer Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, the government was quick to also make him Australian of the Year. White, who was famously cranky and unpredictable, used his acceptance speech to tell the powers-that-be that the prize should have gone to somebody else. The person White had in mind was Jack Mundey, an “Australian Maverick”, an “exceptional Australian”, as the writer said. Patrick White was normally a great hater of people, but Jack Mundey was a man he admired. He even wrote a play, Big Toys, that centred around a character based on Mundey, and thought that Australia could do a lot worse than choose Mundey for PM. So I think Patrick White wouldn’t mind if I nominated Jack Mundey as Australian Maverick Number Three.
It was the early 1970s when Jack Mundey (1929, Atherton Tablelands) became a household name: hero to some, public enemy number one to others. Mundey had been elected secretary of the NSW Builder’s Labourers Federation in 1968. Earlier that decade, the union had been “in collusion with the builders”, as Mundey would later say. Working conditions were appalling and dangerous. In 1962 alone, 14 men died in building industry accidents, but neither the employers nor the union did much about it. “Militant workers” like Mundey, who tried to change this, were blacklisted on job, and in 1963, Mundey was sacked 17 times for trying to organise the men. But because there was a building boom going on, every man was needed and strikes were a powerful tool. During the 1960s, Mundey and some of his colleagues first cleaned up the union and then advocated to the members that “broader community actions” were needed to help out other working people in need. Soon the BLF was mobilising against the Vietnam War and openly supporting the Indigenous stockmen who had walked off the job in the Northern Territory, asking for land rights.
In the early seventies, the union took up the feminist cause. When female students of Sydney University were forbidden to set up a course on women’s rights, they asked the union to support them by stopping building work that was taking place on campus. It was interesting, Mundey would later say, an “all male union taking up a women’s cause”, but the members voted to help out and the university capitulated within days. A week later, Macquarie University, that had kicked out a student because he was gay, would get the same treatment. With the same result. Then came 1971, with the tour of the all-white South African rugby team the Springboks. There were protests everywhere in the country, but Mundey’s union colleague Bob Pringle contributed to the merriment by cutting the goal posts down with a hacksaw in the middle of the night. He was arrested and ordered to pay a hefty fine. Mundey himself also made the trip to the cop shop often: “I have to look up my ASIO security file .”
Mundey’s tenure in the BLF ended in late 1974. Undeterred, he went on a world tour to “spread the Green Ban gospel”, giving talks and teaching activists how to counter even the most conservative and authoritarian of governments.
Then came the first step in a process that would make Jack Mundey famous inside and outside Australia. For years, a group of women had been trying to save Kelly’s Bush, the last remaining bushland on the Parramatta River. Although there was an Aboriginal midden on the site and it had been recognised as environmentally and historically valuable, the Askin government, almost as corrupt as Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, wanted to turn the 12 acres over to developers. The women had tried everything in their power, but failed. Then they asked the BLF for help. Mundey put a black ban on the job, rebranding it a Green Ban, as a symbol that this action was for broader environmental and community reasons. Askin himself was furious: “Who they think they are? They are mere labourers.”
But the union won and this opened the floodgates. Within three years, 5000 million dollars worth of development would be stopped by the members of the BLF. Citizens all over Australia turned to the union for help. In total 43 Green Bans were invoked in Sydney, 25 in Melbourne, four in Perth, three in Adelaide, two in Brisbane, two in Hobart and one in Birmingham in the UK. This last one was because of a coincidence: Spike Milligan, the comedian, was visiting his mother in Sydney in 1973 when he realised what Mundey was achieving in Australia. Back home, he took that knowledge to help save the Birmingham Post Office. It would be Mundey’s furthest Green Ban, but not its most influential. Without the Green Bans, the Rocks would have been bulldozed, Centennial Park turned into a giant sports stadium, a good part of the Botanic Gardens made into a car park and the best parts of Kings Cross demolished.
Obviously, there was a price to pay. Especially in the case of Kings Cross, Mundey was threatened by people calling to tell him they would “cut your kid’s throat” and “bomb your car”. For a brief period, the secretary of the action group disappeared and Mundey had to go to the media to tell the abductors that if anybody were killed, there wouldn’t be anything built in the Cross ever. Although this worked, it could not prevent the murder of Juanita Nielsen, an independent journalist and publisher, who had taken up the cause of the Green Bans and had to pay for that with her life. Mundey himself was roughed up a few times, but because he had been a rugby league player for Parramatta in his young years, and a schoolboy boxer before that, people were usually careful before they took him on.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Aussie mavericks: Faith Bandler – Trailblazer for Indigenous rights
- Aussie mavericks: Zelda D’Aprano – The pioneer for equal pay
Mundey’s tenure in the BLF ended in late 1974. Employers had tried everything to get rid of him: bribes, threats, spreading false stories in the newspapers. But nothing had worked. Then the Master Builders Association made a deal with the Federal union leadership and managed to de-register the NSW Branch and expel Mundey. They also saw to it that he never got to work in the industry again. Mundey, undeterred, went on a world tour to “spread the Green Ban gospel”, giving talks and teaching activists how to counter even the most conservative and authoritarian of governments. In 1978, when Neville Wran took over NSW, his government introduced quite a number of the improvements Mundey and his union had been advocating for: a Land and Environment Court, which enabled citizens to fight (with legal aid) both governments and developers. Wran also brought in the NSW Heritage Act, and Tom Uren, Whitlam’s Minister for Urban Development, saved Glebe and Woolloomooloo for posterity.
In 2007, part of Argyle Street in the Rocks was renamed Jack Mundey Place, in recognition of the unionist’s efforts. But Jack Mundey isn’t done yet. At 87, he is still involved in the battle to save the Sirius Apartments. He also keeps a close eye on the developments at Barangaroo.
Once a maverick, always a maverick. Who says you can’t change the world? $5,000 million dollars says you can.