Remembering Bruce Childs

13 June 2023

Senator AYRES (New South Wales—Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing)

(15:38): by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 4 May 2023, of Bruce Kenneth Childs, former senator for New South Wales, places on record its gratitude for his service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Bruce Childs was a giant of the labour movement and of the left, a prominent trade unionist, a senator and a lifelong advocate for equality, peace and social justice. On a personal note, he was a friend, a comrade and a mentor to many in the labour movement, including me. It was with deep regret that I couldn't attend his funeral service, which took place late last week in Sydney, because I was overseas on government business.

My colleague education minister Tanya Plibersek, who I think will join us in the chamber today, worked for Bruce in her early 20s. She was right to say last week:

He was defined by his thoughtfulness, kindness, strategic brain and inexhaustible patience.

Theirs was a special relationship. Bruce saw the qualities in young Tanya that we all see in contemporary Tanya. Like with many other young people, he took the time to mentor her, foster her talent and promote her. He was a rarity inside the Australian parliament and outside these walls: someone who was respected by all sides of Australian politics. He was known for his kindness and even temperament and as a deeply principled person. I'm sincerely thankful to Steve Childs, Tanya Plibersek and former senator John Faulkner, whose speeches at Bruce's service last Friday I have borrowed heavily from.

Bruce was born in Mascot in 1934, was raised by his parents, Ern and Millie Childs, and was the eldest of two children. Ern worked as a carriage-maker and, like many, lost his job when the Great Depression hit. He later retrained as a baker. Before Bruce was born, Millie worked at the WD & HO Wills tobacco factory. Around the time Bruce was a toddler, the family moved to what his children described as a rundown World War I soldiers home in Earlwood. It would become their family home for decades to come. As a young child, his interest in politics is said to have been sparked by listening to then Prime Minister Ben Chifley, Eddie Ward and Doc Evatt on radio in his home. At that point, his personal and political life intensified and became interconnected.

Upon leaving school he took up an apprenticeship in etching at the age of 16—and so began a Labor life, from the shop floor to the Australian Senate. He went on to work in the printing industry for many years, including at Fairfax newspapers. And, of course, his first task, when he went to work for Fairfax newspapers, was to join the Amalgamated Printing Trades Employees Union of Australia. Two years into the job, he was what was then known in the union as 'Father of the Chapel'—the senior representative of the unions at the Fairfax workplace. Bruce would joke that, being Father of the Chapel at the age of 18, most of the people he represented were old enough to be his father or indeed his grandfather. At the ripe age of 18, he led his first strike.

His ascension to the top ranks of the union movement was swift. By 19 he was a member of his union's board of management, by 23 he had become a full-time organiser of the union and by 29 he was elected the federal assistant secretary of the APTEUA. By 30 he was the union state secretary in New South Wales—an extraordinary trajectory of union leadership for someone so young, in a union that at that time valued structure and seniority in terms of its political processes. Printers, compositors and etchers were artisans as well as tradespeople. The printer's union at the time was a gentleman's union—very courteous and very thoughtful. Members were often found in three-piece suits, right through until the 1980s and 1990s. By the mid-1960s it was clear to Bruce and another union leaders that the amalgamation of the two printing unions, despite their previous bitter rivalry, made sense and was in the best interests of the members and the labour movement more broadly. Bruce was a skilful negotiator of the amalgamation agreement reached in 1966 to form the Printing and Kindred Industries Union. The amalgamation was a success. The PKIU would go on to become the printing section of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union—my old union, in fact.

His election as assistant general secretary of the Labor Party was a seminal moment in his career and in New South Wales Labor history. It was a tough race, which Bruce won by a mere 19 votes. It was the first salaried position for a left-winger in the New South Wales branch's history. This marked the start of power sharing in the Labor Party, after the bitter decades through the 1950s, and an intimidating start to his political career. The snubs and slights he endured in Sussex Street are well documented. What I think is remarkable is not the cold shoulders that he was often dealt but the way in which he confronted them with bravery, stoicism and the courage of his convictions—and with calmness, not hyperfactionalism.

Bruce Childs, in his period in office in the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, laid the foundations for future Labor victories. Including all perspectives in the Labor Party and the labour movement has made us stronger, more effective campaigners and kept the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party focused on the broad interests of the labour movement and indeed the country. In doing so he paved the way for others who served in that role, including John Faulkner and now Prime Minister Albanese.

Placed second on Labor's New South Wales Senate ticket at the election in October 1980, Bruce was elected as a New South Wales senator. He took his seat, after a long wait, in July 1981. He was re-elected five times as a senator before retiring in 1997. Within two years of his election to the Senate, Bruce held the position of national Left convener, a role which he would hold for much of his time in parliament and for the entire duration of the Hawke and Keating governments. This speaks to his expert ability to negotiate and to put forward the case for the progressive movement more broadly at times that weren't always politically convenient.

As Faulkner noted in his contribution, both inside and outside the Australian parliament Bruce was a lifelong advocate in the peace movement. He opposed the use of atomic weapons and was a driving force behind the national and international peace movements from the 1950s all the way to the early 2000s. He was the dedicated convener of the Nuclear Disarmament Co-ordinating Committee. He was a key in Sydney to the success of the Palm Sunday Sydney peace rallies, which still occur every year in no small part due to Bruce's contribution. In 1986 he challenged the Hawke government's decision to export uranium to France, breaking from party ranks. In 1991 he abstained from a Senate vote endorsing Australian involvement in the Gulf War—in fact, he was censured by Labor's national executive.

His contribution to the peace movement cannot be overstated. Bruce was unwavering in his commitment to peace, social justice, equality, human rights and democracy. I worked closely with Bruce in the movement to oppose the decision of the Howard government to commit troops to Iraq. Leading that rally and the organisation of that movement was a diverse group of unions, churches, health groups, diverse ethnic community groups and some very disparate political outlooks—Trotskyites and all sorts of characters—and Bruce showed much more patience than what could be reasonably expected from any other person. I learnt many things from former senator Bruce Childs, and that patience was not one of them. It was a remarkable effort. It meant that 250,000 people were on the streets in one of the most important displays of civic action and determination. It is in fact a pity that the Howard government didn't pay much more attention to that enormous movement of Australian people for peace.

He took that passion for political activism into his post-parliamentary life in his role in the Evatt Foundation. As President of the Evatt Foundation for eight years, he continued the legacy of Doc Evatt, the man he listened to as a little boy on the radio at night in the home in Earlwood. That was no doubt in between the races in Perth, boxing matches and everything else that was on the radio in those days. Bruce would often talk about how closely he listened to parliamentary debates.

Bruce Childs was married three times. The first time was to Winifred, known to all of us as Win, with whom he had his son, Steve, and his daughter, Bet. He also has two grandchildren, Michael and Anna. He then married Judy Larkin. After Judy's death he wed Yola Lucire. When his health deteriorated in his last years he stayed home in Yola's care. Yola and Bruce shared many years of love and happiness together. The last six years of Bruce's illness and care were the greatest act of love from Yola. When I visited, Bruce would be propped up on his bed, which was relocated into their light-filled ground-floor lounge room, looking as happy as Larry. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year Yola's care for Bruce was a testament to their love and to her decency. Despite the cruel ravages of disease, Bruce never lost his essence: his kindness, his decency and his gentleness.

It is the passing of an era. Bruce Childs, Tom Uren and Arthur Gietzelt were lions of the New South Wales Left, of the Labor Party, of the labour movement and of the Australian parliament. They all made a massive contribution to the building of modern Australia, and I and my colleagues deeply regret Bruce's passing.