A tribute to Peter Simpson, lifelong activist with the Electrical Trades Union and Queensland state secretary 2009-2016
He’s left us in dejection now,
Our hearts with him are roving.
It’s dull on this selection now,
Since Andy went a droving.
Who now shall wear the cheerful face
In times when things are slackest?
And who shall whistle round the place
When Fortune frowns her blackest?
And may good angels send the rain
On desert stretches sandy,
And when the summer comes again
God grant ‘twill bring us Andy.
To me, these three verses from Andy’s Gone With Cattle, penned by the incomparable Henry Lawson, speak volumes of the type of man Peter Simpson was and the qualities that made him a genuine working-class legend.
Pete was laconic, a larrikin, a working-class leader. He was both a brilliant tactician and strategist; he had a heart of gold and was a loving dad and husband. Peter, I am also so proud to say, was my mate and comrade, my brother in the struggle for a better life for workers.
In this piece I will touch briefly on three areas where our belief in working-class solidarity intersected.
The first was the 2012 Queensland Children’s Hospital Dispute, an EBA [Enterprise Bargaining Agreement] dispute between the C&G division of the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union] and Abi Group (later merged into the Lendlease empire). I was asked by the leadership of the C&G [Construction and General] division [of the CFMEU] to take over the day-to-day running of the picket from day 18 onwards, as the organisers had been hit with injunctions and could not carry on without leaving the union open to massive fines. After discussions with the C&G leadership (and with undertakings given) I took over leading the dispute at the site as a community activist.
For the next 45 days I restructured the entire protest and we were in fact stronger on day 63 than day 18. The reorganisation of how we ran the dispute was based on clear lines of responsibilities, weekly meetings at the Serbian Community Hall, and enforcing the fact that as each day passed we got stronger.
The ETU played a central role in the success of this dispute. The ETU organiser, comrade Chris Lynch, was quietly spoken but a man with an iron will. The Electrical Contractor for this site had a fully compliant, up-to-date EBA but in one of the finest displays of solidarity I have ever witnessed, every day for 63 days the ETU members refused to cross the picket line, although they too were faced with the sack, suspensions and fines.
During these days I often spoke to Peter Simpson. Not once did he waver in his commitment to supporting the CFMEU members, although the financial cost to his union for standing by a fundamental trade union principle was a small fortune. I asked Peter about this and he said, ‘Bob, you can’t put a price on standing up for what is right.’
After 63 days of struggle Abi caved and an EBA was reached. I was off to the federal court on 54 charges of criminal contempt but that’s another story.
In August 2015 Hutchison’s Ports, which at the time was the largest container operator in the world, declared war on the Maritime Union of Australia and sacked 50 per cent of its workforce via text. I had been elected, quite unexpectedly, as the Queensland Branch Secretary of the MUA only five weeks earlier. The assistance given to our branch by the ETU during this dispute was simply phenomenal. The ETU’s BBQ and information van driven by organiser Wendel Moloney nearly beat the MUA members to kickstart the picket line. Peter Simpson said to us, "whenever you need assistance, give us a bell and it will be there". I can’t mention all the ETU officials who lent us a hand because everyone did. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. After 134 days of being locked out, a satisfactory settlement was reached with the company.
Without doubt the greatest campaign led by Peter Simpson was the truly historic and unparalleled 2010 to 2015 "Not for Sale" campaign. It was a struggle that saw Peter Simpson and Stu Trail expelled from the ALP [Australian Labor Party] in 2011, only to be reinstated at the 2014 ALP State Conference. The ETU was simply fighting for a basic right that in Queensland, the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity should stay in the hands of the people of Queensland.
The ALP was crushed at the 2012 election. The scale of their defeat is sometimes lost on people. No Social Democratic party anywhere in the world had ever suffered such a massive drubbing at the ballot box. The writing was on the wall that the Campbell conservatives would sell the prized electricity assets. But the ETU under Peter was determined and confident that their campaign against privatisation would prevail. At that stage the only group that believed the ETU could win was the ETU itself. Even a broken-down leftie like myself had my doubts, if I’m being honest.
Peter and his wonderful ETU team of organisers, delegates and supporters put together without doubt the finest union / political campaign in Australia in my lifetime, and I’m 60, so work it out from there. From the ashes of 2012 the Labor Party won the 2015 election and the sale of the electricity industry was off the table. This was a DIRECT consequence of the ‘Not for Sale’ campaign.
Peter passed away in September 2020 after a huge battle with melanoma. His wonderfully courageous wife Penny was at his side throughout. During a period of lucidness in fighting this dreadful disease, Peter was visited by the Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and the ALP Secretary, and justly awarded life membership of the Labor Party. Peter saw this as acknowledgment for the battles he undertook within the ALP for his members and the working-class generally.
During his illness, Peter and the ETU began a campaign for voluntary assisted dying legislation. If Peter, with Henry Lawson and Andy, is looking down at us, he’d be happy to see the progress being made on this legislation. He would also be delighted to see the wonderful union he gave so much of his life to going from strength to strength under Peter Ong’s leadership. And he would be able to take pride in the positive and lasting impressions he made on so many of us in the working-class movement.
When you leave this life, you leave but memories. Pete, you have left me and so many others with such wonderful ones. Keep a cold beer ready for all of us Simmo, for as sure as paying taxes, one day we will be joining you.