SMH: Seafarer and Trade Union Leader Helped Shape Australia as a Country of 'the Fair Go'

This obituary by Diane Kirkby, author of Voice From the Ships: Australia's Seafarers and Research Professor (Emeritus) of History, La Trobe University appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Fairfax websites today. Originally published here

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PATRICK GERAGHTY 1928-2016

Patrick Geraghty was not quite 20 when he won his first confrontation with the skipper of a British ship.Up on the hatch cover, with the rest of the crew around him, according to the newspaper report, he calmly picked 97 maggots one by one from food served to the crew before the skipper admitted there was something wrong with it. It was the precursor to a lifetime spent in the fight for better conditions at sea. Patrick Geraghty spent his life making a difference to the lives of others. The opportunity to do so was the reason he became a union official in 1967. It was the principle he pursued as federal secretary of the Seamen's Union of Australia from 1978 until he retired in 1993.

Driven by great compassion, and endowed with wisdom and political good sense, he understood that justice and fairness was something that had to be fought for. He had clear principles guiding his actions and a skill in negotiating which earned him the respect and admiration of friends in and outside the labour movement and among political adversaries alike. Always braced with a mischievous sense of humour, his chuckle was as characteristic as his red hair turned white, his honesty and genuine humility.

Vale Pat Geraghty began life in difficult times in the inner suburbs of Sydney. He was born into a Catholic working class family in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. His father had returned from World War One, like many thousands of diggers, with tuberculosis. He died when Pat was 10 years old. Pat grew up in Balmain's waterfront community, and was schooled by the Christian Brothers. His demonstrated gift for mathematics won him a scholarship to study accountancy but served him less well when he indulged his fondness for betting on the horses.

Geraghty knew from his own childhood the harshness of poverty and struggle that working people faced. He saw it again when he went to sea as a deckhand in 1947, in an industry that was characterised by casual opportunity, lack of training, long periods of time at sea and no repatriation home. Seafarers lived in the poorest parts of towns around the world. As a young man he joined the Communist Party and later the Socialist Party of Australia though he was never an ideologue. He was too much of a humanist and a pragmatist. Communism was the means to envision a different future, and to effect meaningful change. It was the the political star to steer by but it was the membership who ran the union.

In South Africa he was outraged at the injustice and cruelty he observed of the racial system of apartheid. Opposing the Menzies government's policy of 'non-interference' on South Africa, Australia's maritime unionists were among the first in the world to respond to the United Nations' condemnation and join the international protest movement. In the mid-1980s Geraghty led the SUA into a new international organisation, Maritime Unions Against Apartheid, to enforce the UN's oil embargo. He was there to welcome Nelson Mandela a decade later when apartheid was finally brought to an end.

Geraghty again showed how opposition to government could achieve justice and fairness for ordinary people during the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. He led the SUA in supporting and funding young Australian athletes wanting to participate despite the boycott imposed by the Fraser government. He brought a similar commitment to working for the rights of Australia's indigenous people. At the International Labour Organisation he campaigned against the unsafe and exploitative practice of unregulated 'Flag of Convenience' shipping.

As an official in 1969 he enabled ordinary seafarers to speak directly and honestly of their conditions to Justice Gallagher of the Industrial Arbitration Commission. The result was that under his guidance seafarers won conditions – a guaranteed annual wage, severance pay, leave arrangements and later superannuation – that enabled them to live more regular lives, to obtain loans to purchase homes and labour-saving appliances, spend time with their families, to retire and grow old in small comfort. Geraghty knew well the importance of making this difference. He was himself a husband and a father of three boys who was too often away from home.

Geraghty's life is an illustration of the very positive part that unions and their leaders have played in Australia's political and economic history. Australia is the fourth largest shipping nation in the world. Geraghty was strongly supportive of bipartisan political support for shipping and worked with both Labor and Coalition governments in securing effective shipping legislation. The 1980s restructure of the maritime workforce and waterfront industries has been described by one expert as an 'exemplary' model. It stands today as a highpoint of what unions can deliver when governments are willing and able to recognise their vital role. He established, through co-operative industry leadership, the first funded training for seafaring ratings. He sat on the boards of the Government-owned shipping line ANL, and the Seafarers' Retirement Fund, which he helped establish.

He was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to the shipping industry.

As an official Geraghty was broad-minded and internationalist in outlook. Geraghty's leadership of the SUA instilled ideas of practical action and political effectiveness. He showed by example how to confront challenges and how to talk to opponents to negotiate a deal. In a training school, and through participation in union meetings and elections, younger seafarers learnt the principles and possibilities of democracy. They learnt they had responsibilities, how to speak up, act on behalf of others, that discipline was needed, problems were solved by negotiating conflict, and members in debate could decide policies.

Most importantly he had a huge heart, a sharp mind, and an unwavering strength of belief in the good that people could achieve by working together as 'we, not I'. He never trumpeted his own achievements, and never sought wealth or glory from personal ambition. 'Good people share' was his motto.

He was of a tradition which has played an important role in shaping Australia as the country of 'the fair go'. He had undaunted faith in this philosophy and maintained an optimism that it could still be true for the future.  He stood tall as representative of the calibre of leadership the Australian union movement can and has produced.

He died following heart problems aged 87, a loving family man survived by his wife Tess, two sons Matthew and Christopher, and seven grandchildren.