Commemorating 150 years of the Seamens Union

A September 21 2022 address at the commemoration to mark 150 years since the Seamens Union was founded

Today I want to talk about five people who represent what the Seamens Union and its successor bodies have stood for.

First, George Sangster. He was the first Labor councillor elected to Port Melbourne Council. He was also the first Labor member of Parliament for the Victorian seat of Port Melbourne.

He also voted against sending of troops to South Africa in 1899 – beginning a long line of MUA officials ready to take unpopular stands against the many wars Australia has become enmeshed in.

He was also the first secretary of the Seamen’s Union and was known as ‘the Australian Plimsoll’ who did much to improve working conditions for seamen and safety standards for shipping.

Second, Alan Whittaker who was shot in 1928 at Princes Pier by police protecting scabs working on the docks. Three other unionists were also shot but, unlike Alan Whitaker who died from his wounds on 26 January 1929, survived.

Three of the four were World War One Anzacs and Whittaker, who was one of the first Anzacs ashore at Gallipoli, was wounded there.

I think it tragic that the site of his fatal wounding was Princes Pier – named after the Nazi-sympathiser, the Prince of Wales, who later abdicated and had to be sent to Jamaica to stop him from collaborating with the enemy.

In the event of a Nazi victory over England Edward would almost certainly have been installed as a puppet king.

Port Melbourne must now be one of the few places left on earth where he is honoured.

Third, Bunna Walsh. Bunna became a waterside worker in 1954. He joined the Labor Party in 1960, was WWF official from 1965 to 1979. In 1970 he was elected to the Legislative Council but his election was declared void later that year because of an old criminal conviction in the Children’s Court.

Eventually this outrageous discriminatory legislation was repealed and in 1979 Bunna was elected to the Seat of Albert Park. He was government whip from 1982 to 1985 and then moved to the frontbench, holding the portfolios of Public Works (1985–87), Housing and Construction (1987–88), Property and Services (1988–90) and Water Resources (1988–90).

This may well be one of the most outstanding political achievements of a Port boy.

Fourth Perce White. Perce is vivid in our memory for many things – his time on Council, his foundation of the Whittaker Memorial Committee, his commitment to the study and commemoration of Port’s history.

I don’t think I can tell anyone here anything new about him. But I do want to stress one thing. When Perce joined the Port Council it had a very white male appearance and attitude.

It would be fair to say Perce was the first Mayor to embrace and celebrate our multicultural community and support the first female councillor Anna Robieson and her successors.

That exemplified his political and the MUA approach.

Fifth, Thomas Mayor – a wharfie for 16 years and now an MUA official – and the only non-local in my list.

But he is there for a very important and urgent contemporary reason.

Thomas is now famous for his participation in the crafting of the Uluru Statement, his books and his relentless work in publicising the Uluru Statement around Australia – a campaign funded by the MUA.

Anyone who has heard him recite the Statement from memory can only be moved and inspired.

This MUA commitment to First Nations rights is not new. The MUA has over decades expressed its solidarity with liberation movements around the world and in 1960 hosted the magnificent bass baritone, Paul Robeson at a time when he was being persecuted by the Americans and Australia’s Government forbade him from doing anything other than performing at arranged concerts.

Robeson defied the Government to give open air concerts for Sydney’s wharfies and the construction workers the Opera House site.

From 150 years ago the MUA and its predecessors have been fighting for justice here and around the world.

Today they are fighting for one of Australia’s most urgent national priorities – the confrontation of our racist past, the recognition of the Frontier Wars in the Australian War and supporting the next big political fights we must undertake for the Voice, Treaty and Truth Telling.

What better way to commemorate 150 years of history?