Michael Gunner is the Labor member for Fannie Bay in the Northern Territory and holds a couple of shadow portfolios.
This condolence motion speech was made in the NT legislative Assembly on 3 December 2013.
Not only was Brian Manning an indelible part of the story of the Northern Territory, he was a great teller of the stories of those parts of our history he contributed to.
Some years ago he supplied a major oral history of his life to the National Library of Australia’s Oral History Collection, more recently he gave a long series of interviews to Aboriginal artist, Brenda Croft, and it is anticipated these will provide lively accounts for researchers as well as ordinary Territorians.
Ms Croft, an old friend of Brian’s and a member of the Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra groups, I understand is determined that Brian’s story is to be told into the future, and I look forward to the work she produces.
He lived a rich and varied life here in the Territory, and we have heard about much of that in the course of this Condolence Motion.
While others have spoken of his time in the Territory, I would like to talk about what made the man: from a dirt poor childhood living on the fringes of a tiny Queensland town, to his life as an advocate of human rights here in the Territory and overseas.
I thank Chips Mackinolty for his help in putting my words together today. They only provide a glimpse into the life of Brian.
Brian was a man very much born on the wrong side of the track, in Mundubberra, 270 km northwest of Brisbane in country Queensland. His father William he described as not very well educated, though he could read and write. His mother, Lily he said was “quite cultured” and a very talented pianist.
Life was hard, according to Brian, “slap bang in the middle of the depression”:
” … in Mundubbera we weren’t a part of the upper set. We were really fringe dwellers because our family were dirt poor.
My parents were dirt poor. My first recollections as a child was living rough with some Hessian around some poles whilst my father was Bigelow Bashing, or clearing a patch of five acres of land where he’d cleared, ploughed with a single furrowed horse drawn plough and planted five acres of cotton on a share farm basis, from which he got a first year dividend of 90 pounds with which he built a very modest little one bed-roomed house out of corrugated iron and timber, timber floor.
My father had built this house on land that belonged to the Schaeffer’s … they had a dairy and then there was a small paddock where they kept a few cows and they planted potatoes and stuff. And then they had a little dairy that supplied milk to Mundubbera, to the little township.
And I recall at the early days walking barefoot in winter up through the bloody prickles and the stinging nettles to get a billy of milk from the dairy, stepping, standing in wet cow dung to keep my feet warm, all of those little things …
Eventually my father managed to get a driver’s licence by borrowing a car, and nearly wrecking it, but he managed to get a licence. And he got a job on the council. The other thing that he used to do was, he was a member of the local Light Horse Brigade and they used to practice tent pegging in the stock ground in front of our house. So when the war started, he volunteered and he went to Brisbane.
That was in 1939. In 1941 Brian’s mother decided to move to Brisbane to be closer to her husband who, although unfit for combat, served as an army cook, in Brian’s words:
His experience in cooking was in the bush, boiling a bit of corn beef in the billy … but he knew how to crack an egg and he became very good as a cook, in fact a mid chef.
However, shortly after arriving to live in Taringa in Brisbane, his father serving in Tenterfield, Brian recalled a traumatic series of incidents as a nine year old in which his mother nearly died of a miscarriage:
One night I could hear my mother calling out … “Come quick.” So I woke up and came out. And she said, “Brian, you’ll have to call an ambulance, I’ll have to go to hospital.”
I’d never used the telephone. I remember going down to the phone …. And I called, I think, it was Triple 0 or something. There was a legend up on the board, up on the wall, and I got the ambulance and I said, “My mother will have to go to hospital.” And I told them as much as I could. And they said, “Well, what’s the address?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t even know the address. They said, “Well you’re in a phone box are you?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “What’s the number of in the phone box?” So I gave the number of the phone box and they said, “Wait there, we’ll come and pick you up.” So they picked me up. By this time my mother was drifting into unconsciousness, and they took her away.
And the next thing I knew was about six weeks later we got rounded up by the police, because as it turned out my mother was gravely ill. She’d lapsed into a coma. And it wasn’t until she came out of the coma that she enquired, she said, “How are my children?” And the hospital said, “Have you got children?” She said, “Yes, who’s looking after them?” So we all got rounded up by a bunch of detectives.
And they took us to the Wooloowin State (Children’s) Home where I only stayed a week because by the time a week was up, they considered my mother could go home.
I was bloody glad to get out of the place. It was a horrible place. Imagine waking children up at four o’clock in the morning, every morning and cold shower … I really identified with Oliver Twist, you know, at meal times … you know, this old lady setting up a big cauldron of stew and doling it out. And if you wanted some more, you had to go up and ask and they’d look at you.
And anyway, I was glad to get home … (with) my mother in bed. When she felt strong enough, we went down to the Post Office to collect her Army allotments that hadn’t been collected and pay all the bills that I’d run up for food.
Because one of the first things that she did when she arrived was establish accounts. That’s what you did in those days. So we had an account at the Grocer and we had an account at the Bakers, an account at the Butchers.
So of course I used to just go down and buy stuff and book it down and nobody questioned me about it but I became a cook and that’s where I learnt my cooking skills.
By the time my mother had come back, she was absolutely astounded that I could knock up a macaroni cheese …
And after about the first week, I got this brainwave, mum’s recipe book. She had a recipe book in the drawer and all I had to do was read the recipe books, go and buy the ingredients and cook stuff up. We had some successes and some duds but we ate it all.
So they were difficult periods but I think that experience, for me, sort of is the period when I started to grow up.
Madam Speaker, that surely is an understatement!
Brian did his schooling at Taringa State School, an education much interrupted by having to look after the family.
At sixteen he got a job as a junior clerk at Caltex, for 3 pounds 6 shillings a week. He was fired after being told to wear a suit in the office, and “cheekily” demanding in response that the company would first need to buy him a suit as he could not afford one.
It wouldn’t be the first time he would argue for work clothing allowances with the bosses!
He then found a job at Peter’s ice cream, where his younger brother Jack worked for 20 pounds a week as a driver. However, he was relegated to the office for only 5 pounds a week. He soon left this job and decided to tell future employers that he was twenty rather than seventeen, which ensured that his salary as a shop assistant (his next job) increased to around 18 pounds a week.
For the next half dozen years or so, Brian worked many jobs between Brisbane and Mundubberra: carpenter, spray painter, panel beater. All of it was learnt on the job in an era of few apprenticeships and formal qualifications:
I developed skills as a carpenter… I never did an apprenticeship. I just was taught by other carpenters and I was fortunate in Brisbane to be an offsider with a Master Builder who didn’t want a labourer, he wanted somebody who could use a hammer and a saw, and he taught me all the fundamentals, how to read a framing square, how to even hold a hammer. When I first rocked up, he said, get rid of that bloody toy. I had a 16 ounce hammer and he gave me a 24 ounce hammer. He said, and don’t choke it up there, you hold it back here at the end of the handle.
And it was as a spraypainter, in Mundubbera of all places, he first met Sam Brent, a member of the Communist Party, who worked as a boilermaker in the navy in the War. It was Sam that helped Brian get to Darwin in 1956 to begin a new chapter in his life, and the beginning of his Territory life.
But Brian had a double life during this time, as a dancer and musician.
In Brisbane he and a mate attended dancing classes, and as he said: “I was one of those young people who were looking to meet girls and had my eye on somebody and so you’d go to the parish dance. And I couldn’t dance. So you’d be standing by the door.”
By the time he got back to Mundubbera he was an accomplished dancer. A self taught saxophone player, he started playing successfully at dances with his sister Margaret on piano and a mate on drums, but ran into the problem that very few people could dance.
So he decided to set up dance classes at the local RSL Hall. To his shock, 200 kids turned up to the first lesson. As he told it:
Well honestly, it (was) just so bloody rewarding. I’d never really envisaged just what this was going to look like in six months time. But as it happened, the next time my sister and I played at the bloody Shire Hall, there was nobody standing in the doorway. She said, they’re all dancing. I said, yeah, I taught them.
His sister didn’t believe him. After a while, he got sick of teaching, and stopped, but was recruited one more time:
I think it must’ve been a year/18 months later the Country Women’s Association approached me and they said, Mr Manning, I wonder if you would start your dancing classes again. I said, oh, I don’t know. I said, I’m thinking of leaving. And I was, I was in the process of looking at leaving. She said, we’ve got a batch of debs, debutantes, that was the thing in the bush towns, girls that were younger but now they were going to be presented.
Which he did, to great success: “I was absolutely gobsmacked. Here I was a bloody choreographer. Everybody on that floor was doing this dance as I’d taught them.”
The idea of a man just starting to be interested in the works of Karl Marx, and who would later be reviled as a member of the Communist Party, being first recruited by the Mundubbera Country Women’s Association to help on a Debutantes Ball is surely one of the sweetest memories we can hold of this extraordinary man!
Brian went on to continue playing music in Darwin for many years, only quitting professionally as he felt it would be seen as moonlighting if he were to do it while being employed as a union official—though he played for occasional benefits such as for the victims of the Italian earthquake in 1980.
Before closing, I would like to touch on two events in his life after he arrived here, and two of the principles Brian always stood by.
They are no small things, and they are principles all Territorians should hold dear.
The first was his fundamental opposition to racism.
The White Australia policy that was still with us in the early ’60s, led to the campaign to prevent the deportation of two Malaysian men from Darwin.
The campaign was largely instigated by him with the backing of NT News Editor Jim Bowditch. It quickly gathered massive support among the people of the Territory including, among others, Bernie Kilgarrif, later to be a CLP Senator, Dick Ward, and Dawn Lawrie—later to be an independent member of this Assembly.
The second was his absolute commitment to political freedom.
After the 1967 congress of his party, and following the Prague Spring the following year, he stood rock solid in opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He did that at some personal cost, as the majority of waterside workers around the country fell into line with Moscow. Brian was not some narrow ideologue, but a passionate defender of human rights, themes he was to take up later that year with his support for the Gurindji strikers, and less than a decade later in defence of the people of East Timor.
Madam Speaker, as a small footnote to history, the Malaysians were hidden from police raids in the Darwin rural area; and it was the Darwin rural area that hosted the illegal radio links with the East Timorese resistance. Yourself and the Member for Nelson share a geographic link with the life’s work of this former Senior Territorian of the Year.
Madam Speaker, Brian Manning didn’t come from a background of privilege, but I think we can agree that he enriched the lives of many Territorians over the 56 years he lived here.
Vale Brian, his passion and legacy will live on with his family and friends.
You can see my previous tributes to Brian Manning here, here and here. You can read more of Michael Gunner’s writing at his fanniebay ~ words of a local labor member blog, including some of his fascinating family histories.