A Life of Practical Ideas: Tom McDonald

“Winning superannuation for building workers transformed Australia.”1

“They went out and built a fund, and then another fund. History will record it as the union movement’s greatest construction of an economic enterprise in the entirety of our history. It could not have been done smarter. It could not have been done better. It could not have been done in a more effective way. They built a magnificent institution for workers retirement”2.

A tribute to Tom McDonald by Peter Botsman

The man who gave all Australians a more prosperous old age and a strong economic foundation for the future is not well known outside ‘the insiders’ of the labour movement. He deserves greater recognition3. His leadership and the ethos of his collective work were remarkable. Above all, Tom McDonald’s value system of integrity, trust, honesty and courage3 are a guide for us all.

It was not an accident that it was the building industry that gave all Australians the prospect of a secure and prosperous retirement. Building structures, houses, city towers, infrastructure takes a toll on the body and the mind of those who hammer the nails and weld the steel. A secure, safe, healthy retirement to reflect on a life’s productivity and, more importantly, creating a stable stream of investment in a continuous stream of work and building was a
dream. It took someone to dare to make that dream a reality. That someone was Tom McDonald.

On the corner of Francis St and Glebe Point Rd there should be a statue of Tom as a boy who had his own SP book at 9, left school to support his family at 14 with not enough money for shoes. In Sydney’s new Bennelong financial district there should be another statue of Tom as a man who was seasoned by life. Here should be the trade unionist with a twinkle in his eye, who looked beyond self-interest and was the grist and the mill that enabled industry
superannuation funds and a multi trillion-dollar investment industry to become a reality.

These two contrasting images are the beginning and end of a story of economic transformation. At the foot of each statue, Tom’s credo: ask questions, dream big and work collectively. Perhaps these statues will never be built, perhaps they are just a pipe dream and maybe Tom himself would not want them to be created. But the most important thing is for them to be there in our consciousness. For Tom McDonald’s was a life of purpose and good and inspiration that touched, as Bill Kelty has articulated so well, “every person in this country”4.

Tom McDonald’s values should not only be honoured they should guide the custodians of Australia’s multi trillion-dollar retirement savings industry as a touchstone for all the decisions they make in the future.

Tom McDonald was a life-long communist and a disciple of life’s practical lessons. Soon after I met Tom he shared an anecdote that has remained in my mind. As an earnest young communist, he sought the guidance of a senior official in one of his early trips to the Soviet Union:

“Comrade how much do you think Soviet politics is influenced by Marxist ideology and how much by personality and ego?”

Tom said the answer surprised him at first: 80 per cent personality and ego, 20 per cent ideology. That anecdote, and Tom’s understanding that a lot of trouble flows from big egos, explains a great deal about the man. It also explains why most Australians are not aware of Tom McDonald nor of the giant contributions he made to their prosperity. Tom eschewed egoism. It was one of his great strengths.

At the toughest of times Tom learned to see opportunities and he never lost his value system. To have this ability you have to have come through a cauldron of fire and to be able to do this you need love and intelligence around you. Tom’s greatest achievements were also those of his family who gave him strength at those dark hours when you have to make a conscious effort to sink or swim.

Dare to Dream: The Memoirs of Tom and Audrey McDonald written by Tom and Audrey with the support of their son Daren is a manifestation of the teamwork that separated Tom from his peers. What strikes you about the McDonalds is the enormous power of the love Tom and Audrey had for each other and which transferred to their family and that included Tom’s sisters particularly Helen Hewett and his brothers, particularly Don McDonald, both of whom were also labour movement leaders.

But there was also a spirit unique to Tom himself too. He had learned to ride the storm and from an early age it was instilled in him to be grateful for small mercies and make the most of what you have at hand. He always had a tradesman’s eye to the quality of what he did.

Speaking at his wake on Monday 9th May Peter Robson intimated that when he told a senior superannuation figure, albeit from the conservative side of politics, that he was attending Tom McDonald’s funeral, he did not have a clue who he was. You would have thought that superannuation industry representatives would be queuing at the doors of Sydney Town Hall on Monday to pay their respects. So, this is something as Peter suggested that needs some
action and it is part of the reason for this article that supplements the many other excellent contributions that have already been written about Tom’s life.

Even more than this ignorance it is important that the values behind the creation of universal superannuation are well known by all. I think those values are support a prosperous and secure retirement for working people at the end of their working lives, the strong look after the weak, no-one is left behind, invest in peace, continuously contribute working dollars into good, high quality working environments and the productivity of the economy, culture and society, look to the future and enhance our human capacity and natural environment.

Tom McDonald the communist union leader and his labour movement colleagues created many fundamental rights that most Australians take for granted: a strong minimum wage with the ideal that no person has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet like they have to in London or New York or Djakarta, no-one is left behind when they go to work; every person has dignity and is valued5; safety, if you want to know the difference between scaffolding on building sites in Sydney and Dubai, the answer is “Tom McDonald/BWIU”. “It was not just identifying an injustice, not leading the strike to end it, but the organisation and detail of the solution was crucial”68, Dave Noonan told us at Tom’s funeral.

It was Tom McDonald that led the general strike for full accident pay in the 1970s, the biggest strike in the history of Australia’s building industry. It was that dispute that won a right that flowed to millions of workers across Australia. Bill Kelty described Tom as the “father of industry superannuation” with employer-funded retirement savings delivering greater dignity to workers in their retirement. These are all giant strides for Australian civilization.

Tom was one of the greatest union leaders of the post-war era. That is saying a lot, and he wouldn’t agree, and it is not just because there is not a single living Australian who does not today benefit from his work. Tom embodied a value system of integrity, trust, honesty and courage that was acknowledged by his friends and foes alike. He also had remarkable instincts, foresight and problem-solving abilities. Peter Robson likened Tom to the great
Rugby League player Arthur Beetson. Like Beetson, ‘Tom would take the ball under his arm with three or four players hanging off him and he would always deliver the ball perfectly for
a winning try’7. Kelty called it ‘militancy for a purpose’, the strong delivered for the weak time after time8.

Tom never tired of thinking about labor strategy from the Pat Clancy era to Australia Reconstructed in 1986 to the work of the Evatt Foundation in the early 1990s on unions, superannuation and international affairs. Underscoring this, Tom mentored thousands of young union organisers after his retirement. He just never stopped giving or thinking. There is a great pantheon of post war union leaders Laurie Carmichael, Big Jim Healy, Charlie Fitzgibbon, Tas Bull, Jack Mundey, and many others - all had outstanding qualities and abilities. Some, like the wharfies, had to face the greatest industry transformations ever faced by organised Labor. So, it is impossible to compare them. But Tom was special. You can see it in the twinkle in his eye at the 1985 ACTU Congress at Sydney Town Hall. He embodied humility and collective work. The union movement he famously said was about “we not I”.

True to his communist convictions, Tom believed that nothing can be achieved by a person working on their own, no matter how talented they were. In a movement full of great egos, Tom would always humbly step sideways1 and refer back to the rank-and-file union members who gave him his authority and capacity. When you have this conviction of collectivism then you have ways of involving people on projects. Tom had this ability.
There was no such thing as ‘non-union members’ for Tom, there were the ‘organised’ and those ‘yet to be organised’. But in his later life he came to understand that the organised labour movement may well be a permanent, informed minority of the labour force – this for him was a strategic realisation rather than an acknowledgement of weakness.

One of the things Tom hid was his prowess with numbers. He was a mathematical wizard who could do complex calculations in his head. He ran his own SP book at age 9 and it was important to him that his ability with numbers was never used to hoodwink others, something that was clearly brought home to him very early on. But his love and knowledge of parimutuel book-making remained with him all his life. Saturday morning was his time for keeping his own book and betting on the horses. This was his down time for relaxation, away from the rigours of labour politics. I wonder also whether he might in another life had a mathematical career.

Growing up in poverty, in the bad old days of inner-city Glebe, when pub brawls would spill out into the streets, Tom left school in Grade 7 and it was the Communist Party that gave him his life’s foundation and strength. He was a true believer in the very best sense of the word. He educated himself far beyond his carpentry apprenticeship and had an unceasing quest for knowledge. Tom was forged from strong steel.

Michael Easson has written a very valuable tribute to Tom in Labor History that discusses the bitter internal cold war battles within the labour movement but also the micro changes to building sites such as safe, external scaffolding that were hard won. As a young student working as a builders’ labourer in Melbourne and Sydney, I remember how haphazard it was working on high multi-story buildings pushing barrows with concrete. The difference between then and now is like night and day. As Easson writes ‘the BWIU leaders’ Pat Clancy and Tom McDonald’s were respected, their word was their bond and they were hard working, principled and honest.

When I once asked Tom about his 22 year long period as Pat Clancy’s lieutenant he always said, that being the leader was not important, and it wasn’t for Tom. Tom had the skill of being able to discuss issues and decisions in a way that influenced outcomes without ever being imposing or assertive or having to be the boss. As Michael O’Connor of the CFMEU told us, Tom asked a series of questions that encouraged people to think about issues9. He was influential without imposing his views on everyone who had the good fortune to meet him. When he was leader and in a leadership position he favoured a discursive atmosphere in which all aspects of a problem were examined and all points of view considered. It was only after discussion that he made his decision often after meticulously going through why and how he reached his position.

No-one has put Tom McDonald’s role in winning superannuation better than Michael Easson10, who at one time might have been regarded as one of Tom’s non-Communist, catholic adversaries within the labour movement. Easson acknowledges: ‘Winning superannuation for building workers transformed Australia. In 1983, the building unions conducted a campaign for a wage increase. The employers agreed to a $9.00 weekly allowance being paid. But when the matter went before the court, the claim was rejected as a breach of wage-indexation guidelines. Bill Kelty and Garry Weaven, the then Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the ACTU respectively, proposed: “Why don’t we seek to develop a campaign for superannuation – a weekly contribution superannuation scheme?” At first, McDonald saw numerous complications: “... my mind boggled about all the problems ... in trying to establish throughout Australia a central scheme [with] ... big builders with modern, administrative systems down to a small employer [who] ... uses the glove box of his ‘ute’ as his office ... I walked back from down the other end of the city to the office, and I thought, Well, if ever we’re going to get superannuation ... this was the moment’.” The industry fund Tom founded, CBUS, now manages over $70 billion in members’ money.

The important thing to recognise here, as Dave Noonan told those gathered at Tom’s funeral, is that many of those who achieved that superannuation beach head by losing wages while striking for super never gained what future workers will gain from superannuation. It was their gift to the future and their ability to put aside short-term interests for the greater long term good. Could it have been achieved anywhere else by anyone else? I think not. For Tom
McDonald and other post war union leaders like Charlie Fitzgibbon and Laurie Carmichael, were Bill Kelty’s great foundation when the ACTU achieved the three great pillars of our modern Australian safety bet – universal healthcare, universal super and the best minimum wage system in the world.

I first met Tom in 1990 a critical year in the evolution of world communism. As Director of the Evatt Foundation, I invited Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief economist Abel Agenbegyan to address a conference in September 1990 in Sydney entitled Labour Movement Strategies for the 21st Century. The conference was remarkable. It brought together union activists from New Zealand, Sweden, USA, Fiji, Bougainville, the UK. Tom did not speak. But he was one of two people14 who lobbied me very hard to have a personal meeting with Aganbegyan. Tom got his meeting and it was my first encounter with his tight and disciplined reasoning. We did not know what to make of each other at first. What impressed me was Tom’s determination to get to the heart of what was going on under Gorbachev. I had a further opportunity to find out more when I visited Aganbegyan’s Economic Academy in Moscow in early 1991. Thirty-one years later I now understand how fortunate my family and I were not to have been caught up in the imbroglio that followed in Moscow. Gorbachev and Aganbegyan were on the side of the angels, but the devils, egos and greed were about to explode in a tragedy that has carried on in the form of Putin’s rule.

Tom became part of the collective board group that I valued most at the Evatt Foundation that included Peter Robson, Faith Bandler, Joan Kirner, Wendy Caird, Helen Twohill, and David Haynes. Tom in particular drove our priorities around union development and post accord politics and superannuation. In particular, he put his signature on two important projects: Unions 200111 or what should have been called Unions in the Twenty-First Century
and Superannuation 200012 or Superannuation in the Twenty First Century12. In those two projects we tried to go beyond the practicalities of everyday politics and focus on a long-term strategic vision.

Unions 2001 took up the concept of strategic unionism. As Tom wrote: “Change is not new to the union movement but for the most of the twentieth century there has been a long period of stable industrial institutions and relations. This left the union movement ideologically and organisationally ill-prepared for the massive changes that have occurred since the 1970s. The Accord, was in many ways, a saviour and respite. Without redefining what unions stand for in this constantly changing world, we will go backwards not forwards”13.

In my view Australia Reconstructed14, which Tom had been a part of, was and is, not only one of the greatest labour movement reports every produced, it is one of the one of the greatest Australian economic development blueprints ever produced. Many of the things that had not been taken up from Australia Reconstructed were taken up in Unions 2001 but from a strictly union perspective. What could be the role of the newly amalgamated super unions?
What was the union role in actually delivering the social wage that had been so well articulated in Australia Reconstructed? AR had moved beyond the old model of wages, safety and working conditions, not that unions could ever do that, but on top of this basic union foundation stone, it articulated “strategic unionism” that is involvement in developing economic policy, industry policy and the social wage.

Unions 2001 hinted at a model in which unions were involved in all aspects of working life, whether or not there was an employer or a job. AR had established that unions with high levels of membership in international contexts had direct involvement in providing unemployment benefits. This was something that was overlooked in the Hawke-Keating years and maybe can be taken up now by a future Albanese government as part of getting the rorts and contracting out of employment services. Who better than unions to place workers in employment and to help fill labour shortages? Linked to Laurie Carmichael’s concept of lifelong training a union would be the primary vehicle for providing unemployment relief, employment placement, education and training, personal and professional development and retirement.

In many ways the biggest unions now, the Nurses and the Teachers, have this capacity to move beyond the old industrial model. They are professional associations and as time goes on they will move ever farther beyond a narrow concept of employers and jobs and towards a concept of work, profession and even life advocacy. What was the point of the amalgamated super unions if they could not achieve super and extraordinary things for their members? All this as Bill Kelty said in the foreword to that book was meant to create debate. That of course was Tom’s way. Think broadly and discuss avidly. Unions 2001 was written prior to Tom and Audrey’s decades long post retirement
involvement with Organizing Works. There I think another model of unions as vanguard labour movement organisations started to evolve. Tom started to think about unions as a permanent minority within the workforce that led the way towards better wages and conditions in much the same way as the older time great unionists had done in the post war period. But there still remains much to be done from even far back as Australia Reconstructed and Unions 2001.

The overhanging question from Unions 2001 for me is the question of whether unions can be independent of the traditional and now increasingly non-existent life-long workplace and follow their members from school through part time work, unemployment, training, professional and family leave over the course of their lives. The implicit concept running through Australia Reconstructed and Unions 2001 was the idea of a new organic involvement of unions with rank-and-file members as they moved through their working life. I can hear Tom saying but “what is the practical dialectic?” How does this idea become more than an idea but something directly relevant and part of working-class peoples’ lives?

Unions 2001 created the momentum for the Moving Forward conference of September 1992. The conference led to the creation of a “new visions’ group of key peak councils working together: the ACTU, Australian Council of Social Services, the National Women’s Consultative Committee, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations and Church representatives. It was important for real representatives of people outside of government bureaucracy to have a permanent and ongoing voice. Again, it was an idea championed byTom that was ahead of its time but is now worthy of revival.

The Super 2000 conference held in November 1994 was one of the best conferences I have ever been involved in. Bill Kelty’s opening address called “Super Achievements” was one of his greatest. It was Kelty on fire with enthusiasm and drive. He said superannuation was one of the labour movements greatest and most selfless achievements: “Nobody thought we would do it.. we will look back on it as one of the great points in our lives. We achieved….
democratic and universal superannuation for everybody”15.

‘Dream the impossible dream’ was Tom’s theme song; it is up to us now to continue to ask more impossible questions and to dare to dream.


1. Michael Easson, “The Union Leader Who Dared to Dream”, Labor History, May 2022   https://labourhistorymelbourne.org/2022/04/27/the-union-leader-who- dared-to-dream/

2. Bill Kelty, Eulogy, Sydney Town Hall, May 9, 2022

3. Peter Robson, former federal secretary CPSU, Celebration of Tom McDonald’s Life, 9 May, 2022

4. Dare to Dream The Memoirs of Tom and Audrey McDonald Stories of Struggle and Hope (2016) p 426

5. Tom Mc Donald helped us to create the Australian minimum wage system – the highest minimum wage system in the world”. Bill Kelty, Sydney Town Hall, 9 May, 2022

6. Dave Noonan, “Making workers’ lives better”, Tom McDonald 1926-2022 The Soul Departs the Dream Remains, May 9, 2022, p. 17

7. Peter Robson, Celebration of Tom McDonald’s Life, 9 May, 2022

8. Dare to Dream, p.x

9. Michael O’Connor, Celebration of Tom McDonald’s Life, 9 May 2022

10. Michael Easson, “The Union Leader Who Dared to Dream”, Labor History, May 2022   https://labourhistorymelbourne.org/2022/04/27/the-union-leader-who- dared-to-dream/

11. Unions 2001 A Blueprint for Trade Union Activism, Evatt Foundation, 2000

12. Super 2000 Investing in the Community, An International Labour Forum on Superannuation & Pension Funds’ Investment Strategies, Organised by the Evatt Foundation for the ACTU, 24/25
     November 1994, ANA Hotel, Sydney

13. Unions 2001 A Blueprint for Trade Union Activism, Evatt Foundation, 2000, p. 2

14. Australia Reconstructed ACTU/TDC Mission to Western Europe, A Report by the Mission Members to the ACTU and the TDC, AGPS, Canberra, 1987, 220pp

15. Bill Kelty, “Super Achievements”, Opening Speech, Super 2000, p. 11

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