The view from Billinudgel

Vale, comrade
Jack Mundey left the world a far better place than he found it

Jack Mundey in 1972. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and courtesy of SEARCH Foundation

It is impossible to overstate the legacy of Jack Mundey.

The long life of the brilliant but humble trade unionist was one of integrity, decency and vision. He changed Australia forever, and his influence extended around the civilised world.

He brought a new term into our vocabulary – green bans – which led to the formation of a revolutionary Greens party in Germany, and then in many other countries. At home, he transformed the progressive parties in Australia – not only the eponymous Greens, but also the now defunct Democrats and the still evolving left in the ALP.

His were not abstract ideas, or matters for discussion over chardonnay or lattes. The results of the activism he initiated saw vast areas of Sydney saved from the wrecking balls that were being wielded by ruthless developers, egged on by the corrupt premier Robert Askin.

And this activism did not come easily: at times there was something like open warfare in the streets, as the thugs who were paid to remove the protesters enforced their muscle. At least one brave warrior, Juanita Nielsen, was murdered in the conflict.

Mundey was, for much of his career, a communist – in later years he joined the Greens. But he was anything but doctrinaire; his first foray into environmental activism was in 1971 on behalf of “13 bloody housewives” of leafy Hunters Hill as they tried to preserve what remained of their parkland.

In an unlikely alliance, Mundey led his Builders Labourers Federation to the barricades and on to victory in what became known as the first of the green bans. The movement embraced other suburbs, most of them working class, and its concerns went far wider than heritage – the rights of women, Aboriginal people and the gay community also benefitted from the embargos Mundey led.

In three short years, the whole culture of Sydney had been renewed – and much of the rest of the country followed. The political reformers of the time, notably Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam, made the environment a mainstream issue, and their successors kept up much of the momentum. Malcolm Fraser ended whaling and saved Fraser Island, Bob Hawke stopped the Franklin dam, Bob Carr implemented a network of national parks.

Mundey was not directly involved in those breakthrough moments, but it was his diligent groundwork that made support for them politically possible. And even after he left the BLF hierarchy – he believed in a turnover of leadership to keep the bastards honest – he was always there when his guiding hand could be useful.

Mundey was that rare species: an honest, unselfish and unassuming politician who always knew that the outcome, not the credit, was what was important. There have been many other green pioneers – people like Milo Dunphy, Bob Brown, Ian Kiernan and John Sinclair, to name but a handful. All have their places on the honour board.   

But Mundey was the spearhead, the great achiever. And it can be truly said that he left the world a far better place than he found it. Many have said – rightly – that Mundey deserves a state funeral, but he would have hated the idea of such pomp and egotism. So, let us just be grateful for his brilliant career. Vale, old comrade.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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