Don McDonald was NSW secretary of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia (BWIU) and life governor of the Schizophrenia Research Institute. He was a secretary of the Eureka Youth League (EYL) and a member of the CPA before joining the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971.
“I witnessed the power of one man to change this nation.”
- Professor Cyndi Weickert
“Don McDonald was a hero. To mental health professionals he was the man who fathered funding for schizophrenia research in Australia while to building workers he was a union leader.…. Self-educated from the age of 14, he solved problems. Where others saw brick walls, Don saw possibilities.”
- Adrienne Truelove
The son of a Sydney Council cleaner and the sixth of 10 children, Donald Patrick McDonald was born in Glebe, Sydney on 15 February 1938 to a very poor working-class family. Home was a rented, derelict two-bedroom tenement. His mother Liz called the stagnant water lying under broken floorboards “a kitchen with water views”.
Don took on a carpentry apprenticeship and at 17 joined the BWIU. He became one of the officials mentored and developed by union leader, Pat Clancy. In the early 1960s Don joined the EYL and the CPA. In the EYL Don met and married Cathy Bloch, but the relationship faltered in the early 1970s. He then met and married his lifelong partner, Marilyn, and together they raised Warwick, Craig and Lara.
Don was a renowned seller of the Party paper, Tribune. As an apprentice on the construction of the State Office Block, Don sold 200 copies every week. Don became an accomplished debater and captain of the EYL’s debating team. The Young Liberals were frequent adversaries, where Don took on a young John Howard.
Don’s adoption of socialist politics wasn’t a straightforward matter. As a teenager he came under the influence of the local Catholic priest who forbade him to associate with communists; a major problem because his big brother, Tom, was a communist. Don didn’t speak to Tom for months. Finally, Tom arranged to meet the priest with Don and have it out. Tom put a proposition that the BWIU and church sponsor Don to attend the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow and let him see socialism for himself. The priest ridiculed the idea, but Don went and the trip changed his life. Don also visited China and met Chairman Mao and later studied Marxism in Moscow for 12 months where he learnt Russian.
During the Vietnam war, Prime Minister Harold Holt decided to call a snap election in 1966. The Liberal Party campaign launch was to be held in the Rockdale Town Hall. A Young Liberal, who had quietly switched allegiances and joined the EYL after listening to a debate about the Vietnam war, told Don that Liberal HQ was worried about anti-conscription demonstrations and that entry to Holt’s launch would be by invitation only. Don’s mate gave him the invitation and he had 1000 copies printed and handed out to peace activists, instructing them to dress conservatively and arrive early for a seat. At the starting time, the hall was packed with a thousand activists, with a thousand disgruntled Liberal Party faithful standing outside. The launch was a fiasco and was abandoned.
By 1974 Don was the BWIU organiser on the Warringah Mall construction site. A strike erupted after a worker was killed and Don, together with the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) delegate, negotiated an Occupational Health and Safety Code and the establishment of a workplace health and safety committee. This spread across the industry and throughout the country. The Code helped shape safety regulations introduced by the Wran Labor Government in 1983. Don’s passion and activism around workplace safety has undoubtedly saved many workers’ lives
In 1985 Don was elected BWIU NSW secretary and an executive member of the NSW Labor Council. When the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) was founded in the early 1990s, Don was elected an assistant national secretary. Former Labor Council secretary and leader of the Right, Michael Easson, remembers Don as “tough, argumentative … a man of great honour, principle and a heart of gold.”
Don led the BWIU through epic struggles including repelling the attacks of the Gyles Royal Commission into Productivity in the Building Industry in NSW; fighting the anarchy, thuggery and corruption that the BLF’s Norm Gallagher brought to the industry under the guise of militancy; and rallying tens of thousands to protest the Unsworth Government’s cuts to workers’ compensation.
Don built unionism in the NSW building industry to unprecedented numbers, not matched before or since. He also built an army of activists and workplace delegates and it was not uncommon for him to address meetings of over 500 union delegates. When the NSW Government cut workers’ compensation benefits in the 1980s, workers downed tools and tens of thousands marched up Sydney’s George Street from Circular Quay and down George Street from Haymarket. When the two armies converged at Park Street a massive roar went up as they united behind Don to march on Parliament House. This was Don at his best and a demonstration of mass action as only he could do.
Don’s elder brother, Tom, a former BWIU federal secretary and ACTU vice-president, says Don was “an ideas man who was clear-headed with an unparalleled ability to solve complex problems and who was at his best in a crisis. He was a plain speaker and powerful debater and if there was a flaw in your argument Don would find it.” As a mass campaigner and master tactician, Tom says that there was no one better than Don.
Don taught and mentored union delegates and officials about how to organise and campaign. He explained to activists how capitalism worked and the need to replace it with a more just society. Former CFMEU national secretary, John Sutton, recalls that “thousands of building workers were trained in Don’s book, Five Rough Lectures on Marxism,” something that attracted the ire of the Royal Commissioner.
Don cared about people all over the world. Together with Stan Sharkey, in 1984 he raised $30,000 that the BWIU donated as seed funding to establish Union Aid Abroad APHEDA.
In 1995 Don left the union movement to devote more time to his family, especially his son, Warwick, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This started a new phase of his life where he took up the cause of mental illness sufferers to redress the paucity of funding for mental health research. At his father’s memorial service, Warwick said that “when I became sick with schizophrenia, I was 15. Instead of stigmatising it, Dad did the opposite ….
Don developed a national alliance of families, doctors, union and business leaders which convinced the Federal government to commit $5 million to develop an Australian Network of Brain Research into Mental Disorder. He also negotiated major funding from the NSW Labor Government for mental health research.
In 2000, he cold-called Professor Christine Bennett, Dean of Medicine at Notre Dame University, Sydney. “Don said he needed to come and see me urgently, and would tomorrow at 2 pm suit? The result was a voluntary partnership pairing the medical needs of schizophrenia research in Australia, with the skills and passions of a seasoned union warrior,” she says.
Between 2001 and 2004, Don made over 400 presentations to over 40,000 people: unions, business, government and anyone who would listen. He was the driving force in raising a further $4 million for biomedical research into mental health. By 2006 his advocacy and fund-raising had helped to establish the Chair of Schizophrenia Research in the Neuroscience Research Australia Foundation at the Prince of Wales Hospital.
Professor Bennett says “Don was unique – a true Aussie hero. He changed the shape of mental health in Australia.” She recalls the ring of authenticity in his voice: “It came from the gut.” Reflecting on Don’s advocacy, she adds “I was in awe of Don’s determination, creativity, single-mindedness – and sometimes sheer gall. He could talk to anyone - and he did. His powers of persuasion and presence were second to none.” Professor David Copolov says that Don was “the most effective, results-oriented advocate who has ever come to the aid of psychiatric research [in Australia]”.
Don was a finalist for Senior Australian of the Year in 2008 and in 2010 was awarded the Order of Australia for his contribution to mental health research and trade unionism. His elder brother, Tom, and younger sister, Helen Hewett, are also recipients of the Order – three siblings from a poor working-class family who survived the Depression on a garbage collector’s wage, who rose to the highest honours in the land for their service to working people and those in need. Their parents would be mighty proud. Don McDonald died on 5 January 2018.
The CFMEU remembers Don by continuing to fund mental health research by the NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) Foundation.
Daren McDonald is a lifelong activist and socialist and was Don McDonald’s nephew. He acknowledges Helen and Rex Hewett, John Sutton, Tom McDonald and Don’s children for their stories and memories which have assisted in the writing of this biography.
NeuRA, “NeuRA celebrates the life of Donald Patrick McDonald”,
15 January 2018.
Truelove, A., “Campaigner for workers' rights and mental health”, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July2018 https://www.smh.com.au/national/campaigner-for-workers-rights-and-mental-health-20180621-p4zmxv.html.