House of Representatives Speech- Mr Jim Maher AO

I rise today to speak about Jim Maher AO, a man who was a true giant of the trade union movement and one of the most influential figures in building the largest union in Australia—the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, known affectionately as ‘the Shoppies’. Jim was born in East Melbourne in 1927, the eldest child of Irish immigrants Michael Patrick and Bridget Mary, and sadly passed away in December, aged 82. He was a cherished member of the union and Labor Party community.

I rise today to speak about Jim Maher AO, a man who was a true giant of the trade union movement and one of the most influential figures in building the largest union in Australia—the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, known affectionately as ‘the Shoppies’. Jim was born in East Melbourne in 1927, the eldest child of Irish immigrants Michael Patrick and Bridget Mary, and sadly passed away in December, aged 82. He was a cherished member of the union and Labor Party community.

He lived much of his life in Bonbeach, in my electorate. I had a bit to do with Jim in the last years of his life, because he kept up his involvement with the Labor Party well after his retirement from formal positions with the SDA, including serving on the Victorian ALP disputes tribunal.

After attending Sacred Heart Good Samaritans Convent School and then Christian Brothers in Clifton Hill, Jim was so impressive in his job at the Munitions Department that then federal Minister for Munitions, the Hon. Norman Makin, put him on his personal staff at the tender age of 16. This was in 1943. While he was a junior member of the minister’s staff in Melbourne and Canberra, Jim excelled and often attended football games with his boss and Prime Minister John Curtin, who would share intimate knowledge about the war and the strain of national leadership. To Jim’s credit, even six decades on, he kept John Curtin’s confidence and would not make those discussions public, despite repeated requests from several Curtin biographers.

After the war Jim became a shop assistant and immediately joined the Shop Assistants Union. In 1948 he was elected the union’s delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and four years later he was the first rank-and-file union member to be elected to the state council of the Shop Assistants Union. Jim turned down a job offer from the union in 1953, but three years later he took up the position as country organiser, a position he held for nearly 13 years before being elected as the assistant state secretary of the Shoppies.

In 1970 Jim took over as national president of the union, and in 1973 he became the secretary of the Victorian branch. Such was his effectiveness and passion, Jim served as state secretary of the SDA for 18 years and was national president for a quarter of a century, finally leaving his post in 1995. He also served as vice-president of the ACTU for 11 years, retiring as senior vice-president in 1991.

Jim achieved many, often groundbreaking advances for the SDA and vulnerable retail workers. As Senator Don Farrell, who is present in the chamber—together with Michael Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports—said in 2008:

Jim Maher has improved the lives of millions of working Australians through better wages and conditions.

To Jim, no achievement was more significant than the national membership agreement the Shoppies struck with major retailers in 1971, which saw retailers actively encourage employees to join the union and automatically deduct union fees from their pay. This led to the SDA’s membership rising from around 57,000 in 1971 to almost 250,000 when Jim retired as national president in 1995, making the Shoppies the strongest union in the country.

Jim was instrumental in mending the rifts left over from the Labor split in 1955 and led the Shoppies back into the fold of the ALP in the mid-eighties, helping make the Labor Party a stronger and more representative political force. At last year’s launch of the SDA’s centenary history, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke described Jim’s contribution to the union movement, both in Victoria and nationally, as ‘profound and enduring’.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Jim’s role in ensuring compulsory superannuation was introduced for retail workers in the late eighties. In 2008, Jim was still a trustee of the giant retail industry super fund REST, which he helped found and which now manages more than $14 billion of members’ funds. In 1988 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to the trade union movement both within Australia and internationally; and, more remarkably, Jim was awarded the Polish Commander’s Cross, then Poland’s highest civilian award, for his efforts in assisting the Polish Solidarity movement.

Jim is survived by his wife Fran and his extended family. He will be greatly missed in the local community, at St Joseph’s in Chelsea, by the union movement and by the Labor Party. He will be particularly missed by the many people he mentored, influenced and left an indelible mark on. A fitting note to end on is Bob Hawke’s glowing tribute made just before Jim’s death:

I say this quite genuinely: there was no unionist I dealt with that I admired more than Jim Maher. We had our differences on political and social issues but there was never any doubt about the total commitment of Jim personally and the dedicated leadership he provided.