Queensland Working Class Warrior’s death sorely felt. Vale Peter Simpson
Written by: John G. on 19 October 2020
The late Electrical Trades Union Queensland and Northern Territory Branch state secretary Peter Simpson. Credit:Michelle Smith
Peter Simpson, former state Secretary of the Queensland NT ETU died in late September after a 4-year battle with Melanoma. His death came after 40 years of growing stature within the working-class movement in the north of Australia. He also had a national reputation for courage, integrity, decency, reliability and his staunch working class character and action.
Simmo’s death reverberated across the country.
He was particularly renowned for his stand against privatisation of public assets in Queensland by Premiers Anna Bligh (ALP), Bjelke-Petersen and Campbell Newman (LNP). His persistent leadership gained support of many in those and many other campaigns for the working class and other people.
An indication of the legacy he left is reflected in parts of a tribute released by his union, the Qld NT ETU:
“During his eight years as ETU Secretary from 2009-2016, Simmo campaigned fiercely for decent wages and better conditions for all ETU members, their families and their communities.
“To many he will be remembered for his enormous leadership and strategic brilliance spearheading the Not4Sale campaigns, described by many as some of Australia’s most successful union-led community campaigns. The campaigns galvanized support from Darwin to Coolangatta to protect public ownership of revenue-generating state assets, in doing so he and the ETU took on politicians from all sides. The campaign played a huge role in three elections between 2012 and 2016.
"He was a fighter for working people into his final days, campaigning for fair cancer funding and the right for people to die with dignity, his heartfelt campaign for Voluntary Assisted Dying included an emotional video.”
Peter Simpson was also an internationalist. He joined the Auckland picket lines when NZ Maritime workers were locked out. He took solidarity tours to Cuba and Venezuela with vigour.
Tributes expressing the sorrow felt flowed in from across Queensland. The acknowledgments were prominent in progressive community media, like Workers Bush Telegraph , local papers including the Cairns Post, South Burnett News, Brisbane Times, from local and national unions, the ACTU, MUA, and others. Even the capitalist Murdoch and other media recognised his standing and integrity in obituaries.
Simmo is survived by his mother, his wife Penny, their children, and grand-children, and his many comrades from the ETU and other unions and working-class organisations.
The following notes inadequately outline aspects of his life and try to give some insight into his leadership and the ETU anti-privatisation Not4Sale campaign for those unfamiliar with it. Both illuminate something of the foundations of Queensland working class attitudes to working class leadership and scepticism of Queensland Labor leaders that have resulted from hard experience over decades.
The Queensland Not 4 Sale Campaign
The “Not 4 Sale” Campaign galvanised support across the Queensland for the last decade and more, influencing the outcomes of 3 Queensland elections.
In 2010, the working class in Queensland faced a multibillion grab for public assets set up under three Labor administrations. The Goss Labor Government of the 1990s, with Peter Beattie as the key government strategic advisor, “corporatized” government enterprises including ports Electricity Generation and Queensland Rail. It established the corporate structure facilitating their handover to multinational financial interests.
The Beatie Labor Government consolidated the Goss initiatives and set up Beattie’s chosen successor Anna Bligh to complete the process by privatising the corporatized government industries.
After succeeding Beattie, “Socialist Left” Labor Premier Anna Bligh had broken Qld Rail into two arms, passenger transport and Freight rail carting coal.
Having not mentioned privatisation once during the 2009 election campaign, Anna Bligh became the first woman elected to lead an Australian state. Subsequently Bligh announced the privatisation through sale or lease of five government owned corporations in all: Queensland Motorways Limited, The Port of Brisbane Authority, Forestry Plantations Queensland, Abbot Point Coal Terminal, Coal-carrying rail lines owned by Queensland Rail.
In a familiar ordeal, more than 3,000 workers were subsequently pressed to take “voluntary” redundancies, just three months after the privatisation of QR National.
Peter Simpson and the ETU Qld NT took the Bligh Labor Government on. They declared Queensland was not for sale and established a campaign, trained shop stewards, joined with community campaigners and other unionists. The campaign was named “Not4Sale” with billboards backed by leafletting and local meetings soon garnering over 85% opposition to the government’s privatisation agenda.
Bligh persisted touting $15 billion income from privatisation was going to balance Queensland's state budget and relieve the debt burden. The reality proved to be the complete opposite as Simmo loudly predicted.
Qld Treasury’s State Finances Reports of 2008-9 , 2012-13 and 2018-19 reveal that net debt much more than doubled over the 2009-2012 period from $11,708 million to $27,662 million, while the state government’s net worth dropped from $184 billion to $162 billion, a 22 billion drop..
Just as Simmo expected, Bligh flogged assets and more than doubled the debts, the complete opposite of the predictions of this “Socialist Left” Labor leader. It wasn’t until 2018-19 that net state worth recovered to the 2008-9 level but debt had blown out further to $31,973 million.
For the Not 4 Sale campaign in 2009-10 aimed at the Bligh Labor Government, Peter was hounded by the ALP leadership, and Anna Bligh in particular. Charged with ALP rule breaches despite none being broken, and with the state executive expected to expel him from the ALP, in 2010 Simmo resigned from the ALP and the ETU disaffiliated.
None-the-less the standing of Peter Simpson continued to grow immensely throughout Queensland and interstate. His status as a union leader in Central and North Queensland as well as in the South-east reflected his unyeilding principles, determination and tireless activity until his health let him down. His growth in stature accompanied and in some regards happened because of persistent attacks upon him.
Anna Blight set out to drive Simmo out of the ALP and wider public activity. By that time she had established herself within the ALP as one of Labor’s shining lights and pathbreakers. She served as National ALP President in 2010-2011. It is ironic she was preceded in that position by the notorious Health Services Union NSW Boss, Michael Williamson, recently released from 5 years gaol for pilfering union funds to the tune of $5 million and more.
At the same time she was being credited with good leadership of the response to massive floods Brisbane experienced in 2010-11. At the 2012 election she faced facing an opposition leader not even in parliament, but Anna Bligh led the Queensland ALP to a landslide defeat by the conservative LNP led by reactionary pit-bull Campbell Newman. The loss of all but 7 seats, after going into the election holding 51, was the worst ever election result for a sitting Queensland government. All but 3 Brisbane seats, previously a Labor bastion, were lost.
The Labor government’s privatisation campaign was blamed for the loss of public support. Anna Bligh resigned from parliament after the 2012 election and found private sector employment with the YMCA as the organisation’s boss. It seems fitting that her credentials and experience were so highly valued in financial circles that in 2017 she was appointed CEO of the Australian Bankers Association. There is no doubt which of Peter Simpson and Anna Bligh will be remembered by the working class with affection and respect and who will be remembered with contempt.
After the 2012 election, the Campbell Newman government picked up where Bligh Labor had been cut off, launching a $37bn privatisation plan including targeting the state’s electricity system and sacked 14,000 public servants.
Campbell Newman undoubtedly made the miscalculation that the ETU and other unions were isolated from the Labor Party and would be easy meat, completely underestimating the strategic nouse and standing of Peter Simpson and the ETU.
Simmo took on Newman and again gained enormous public support. Not4Sale also garnered support from many other unions in this period including the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Transport Workers Union and Maritime Union of Australia.
In 2016 the LNP lost government in another landslide as Labor’s Anastacia Palaszczuk gained office. Again the assaults on the public sector workforce and assets were at the centre of a sitting government’s landslide defeat.
The history of the Not 4 Sale Campaign provides some insight into Queensland’s working-class scepticism of Labor’s leadership. It also charted the folly of turning to reactionaries for solutions. The anti-working class nature of the political-corporate elite, including the Labor leaders in Queensland, not only threatens the working class but undermines working class leadership among other sections like small business and independent tradespeople.
The Palaszczuk government now faces an election in which the experience of Queensland Labor leaders actions sits uncomfortably with Queenslanders to say the least.
Simmo learnt his trade as an apprentice trainee linesman in Young in NSW, as a teenager, moving a few times before getting a linesman job with SEQEB at Stafford Qld in 1991, moving to Beenleigh Depot the next year.
He learnt his politics from his experience on the job. With much ETU experience in NSW, the ACT, and Queensland in that time being focussed on both job issues and constant threats of privatisation. It was also a period of successive union leaders in NSW, Qld and at the ACTU often conniving to sell out on privatisation and wages.
After arriving in Queensland, he learnt from stalwarts who survived the infamous SEQEB dispute when the leaders of the ETU sold out 1,007 members in the workforce of the South East Queensland Electricity Board. The dispute over contracting out in 1985 threatened to derail the Hawke-Keating government’s “Prices and Incomes Accord” and free up workers and their unions to take up the cudgels to save jobs, and break out of the shackles on struggle, imposed by the Accord.
Simmo never forgot how the union’s and Labor Party leaders exposed the membership to the full fury of the Bjelke-Petersen government. The 1,007 were sacked and blacklisted despite support of workers all over Queensland and the country.
Simmo saw the washup of treachery with fellow sparkies and their families driven into penury, forced to pursue sustenance by whatever means they could. Many left Queensland. Others went bush, onto building sites, and into other industries with the support of local workers. Some started their own small-scale businesses in the trade, running cafes and shops. Whatever means to get some income to keep themselves and their families going. Some families grew stronger. Others broke down.
After 17 years on the tools including 5 years as a Qld shop steward helping to rebuild the union after the SEQEB dispute, Simmo became an organiser in 1997. Over time his strength of character, his commitment to serving the working class, and leadership in working class politics led to him being elected to the position of Assistant Secretary in 2004 and then Secretary of the union in 2009, just as then Labor Premier Anna Bligh was setting out privatise Qld Rail. He held the position until he resigned in 2016 as his health cut into his ability to continue his strenuous service to the union members and the working class in that position.
Simmo’s service was not restricted to narrow conceptions of trade union business. He campaigned hard against the nuclear industry, he was a champion for Indigenous rights, despised discrimination on the basis of race, sex or sexual orientation, supported workers internationally, and warned against the rise of white supremacy.
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