Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

MLC and Unionist shares his views on the workplace and government

Andrew Santucci (Left) presenting The Honourable Greg Donnelly MLC (Right) the vote of thanks

NSW Legislative Council member and former Secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association NSW Branch (Shop Assistants Union), The Honourable Greg Donnelly MLC, gave Warrane residents an insight into participating in public office and the importance of personal values when he spoke at the College on 8 August 2012.

Mr Donnelly said his decision to become involved in the union movement was based partly on a desire to assist others who were not in a good position to represent themselves. He said he had become convinced that individuals, by themselves, could do very little to protect and advance their interests with a large employer. However, through collective organisation unions had a capacity to bring about fairness at the workplace.

Mr Donnelly has been a member of the NSW Legislative Council since February 2005 and sits on three parliamentary committees – Social Issues, General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5 and Committee on Children and Young People.

Commencing in 1986 as a full-time union official, he has worked in a number of roles including branch secretary for nine years. He is still president of the union in NSW.

He said his views on unionism had been strongly influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. The well known encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum had been a significant “marker in the ground” in terms of articulating the rights of workers and the role of trade unionism. He had also been inspired by the founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Frédéric Ozanam, who had written extensively on the “labour question”.

He said that he rejected the radical Marxist view of unionism that pits workers against employers. Such unionism he noted was authoritarian, as we saw in Australia during the 1930s and 1940s. There were union officials back then who believed it was their role to openly challenge and if possible overturn the decisions of democratically elected governments. These union officials saw themselves as revolutionaries who were leading a class struggle. Their ambition was to overthrow the existing political order.

On the question of working with people, honesty and integrity were fundamentally important. You cannot fudge on these things; people will sooner or later see through you. “At the end of the day, if you do not endeavour to operate with these values, at some point in time it will all end in tears”, he said.

Acknowledging that many of the students he was speaking to would eventually be working in large companies, he said it was important for them to remember to treat people with dignity and respect – not as mere payroll numbers.

He said it was also important for people in management roles not to pretend they know more than they do.

“You really can’t pretend you know things and to be the font of all knowledge”, he said, “Particularly if you have moved quickly to a senior position…”

Mr Donnelly said that today people tend to be overloaded with information to the point where they really don’t know what is important and what is not.

He also expressed the view that successful organisations have a “genuine relationship” with their employees. “That relationship – not just an employer-employee relationship – is worth something”, he said. “They look after their employees’ interests in the workplace.”

“Communications is a challenge, but human relationships are not easy to replace… Common sense, reason and patience generally will prevail when you are dealing with people, but you have to be prepared to put time in to persuade the person.”

Turning his attention to politics, Mr Donnelly said that being in parliament was a privilege. “Our parliaments make laws and individuals can play a pivotal role in the political process, either by themselves or with others.”

“It is the people inside our parliaments who decide whether or not a bill becomes law”, he said. We live in a pluralist democracy where the rule of law applies. What goes on inside our parliaments is very, very important.”

During a question-and-answer session, Mr Donnelly expressed his concerns about the growing tendency towards relativism in Australia political life. Such a tendency displayed an innate scepticism towards claims about truth. In the end, all opinions or views are seen as equally valid. To even speak against another person’s point of view is labelled by some as an act of intolerance.

“In fact it is not uncommon to find individuals in parliament who claim that there are no absolutes; no firm positions that mean certain actions are necessarily right or wrong”, he said.

“A secular humanism continues to manifest itself in our legislatures and this is best illustrated by the emerging political influence of The Greens. They are a political force that needs to be reckoned with.”

Mr Donnelly said that everybody should make it their business to show an interest in politics – local, state and federal. It was important to have good people involved in politics at all levels. Only with such involvement can we ensure that our democracy continues to flourish and that our legislatures create laws that serve the common good.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]