Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/union-leader-guided-by-principles-20130114-2cpma.html#ixzz31CDYJf4X
Michael O’Sullivan was leader of the Federated Clerks Union, a superannuation pioneer and a corporate governance advocate. He was the chair of the $7 billion CareSuper fund (a director from 1996 to 2012) and president for a decade to 2011 of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors.
He was a man of integrity and sought influence through understanding different points of view, building coalitions and trying, wherever possible, to do the right thing. Within the industry and like-minded super funds internationally, he was vocal for transparency and good governance.
Michael John O’Sullivan was born on November 25, 1941, and educated at Xavier College, Kew, Melbourne. After winning a Commonwealth scholarship, he enrolled in a bachelor of agricultural science degree at Melbourne University.
His curiosity led him far from discussions on farm economics and modern agricultural techniques. When he was in his early 20s, the Vatican Council-inspired concept of taking God’s word to the world to defend and promote good causes aroused his idealism. He joined the Federated Clerks Union and, in 1966, became an official of the Victorian branch. In 1981 he attended the ACTU conference in Sydney and, by then, his knowledge was encyclopaedic on personalities of the hundreds of unions present, from ship divers in Western Australia to miners’ delegates in Newcastle.
He mostly knew who would be voting for whom: who should be spoken to, who might really, secretly, be with whom. No vote, no delegate would be left to chance. He tried to gauge the floor and the ballots later in the week for ACTU executive members.
O’Sullivan was a man of measured and sober judgment. Despite opposing the communist leadership in every way, he respected many of the wharf, building and other union leaders, for the good they often did, despite their politics.
After Bob Hawke became prime minister, O’Sullivan creatively articulated and advocated among his colleagues the case for those unions exiled from mainstream Labor in the 1950s split to rejoin.
To the hisses, spits and, famously, rotten red tomato throwing by the extreme left, with Jim Maher of the “Shoppies” (the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association), O’Sullivan led the four unions, including the Clerks, Ironworkers and Carpenters, into the Coburg Town Hall in 1985, thus officially ending the ALP split in Victoria.
He was deputy president of the Clerks up to 1988, when he was defeated by Lindsay Tanner for state secretary.
Eventually, in a “peace deal”, O’Sullivan transferred to the national office as president, in which role he won respect from across the political spectrum, particularly from Tanner.
Intriguingly, as his old enemies came to know him, they respected his energy, talent and dedication and wanted this put to good effect. He fostered the formation of the Australian Services Union and was its inaugural president in 1993.
In the 46 years from when he made his decision to join the broad labour movement, he kept true to his vocation. Never destined to be famous, he influenced, trained and inspired many to consider a life of commitment in dark days and bright. Driven by Christian principles, he was not sectarian or prejudiced in some narrow way to those who did not share his faith. He loved to talk about sport, politics and ideas. He was an interesting man.
No one was more embarrassed by praise, as those who saw his reaction in 2011 to being publicly named the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees trustee of the year can testify.
Six months ago, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, but giving up with a whimper was not the O’Sullivan way.
Before Christmas, the cancer had spread. For the last time, he watched the cricket at the MCG on Boxing Day, as he had done since he was 7.
Michael O’Sullivan is survived by his wife, Lynn, and children, Elissa and Damon, their partners, Ian and Donna, and his grandchildren Mabel, Spencer and Clementine.
Michael O’Sullivan’s funeral is at 10am on Wednesday, at St Dominic’s, 818 Riverside Road, Camberwell East, Victoria.
The first ACTU Congress I ever attended was held in the Sydney Town Hall in September 1981. Barrie Unsworth introduced me to Michael O’Sullivan and privately told me to compare notes – that is, to compare what O’Sullivan thought how the votes would go compared to our tally. “Our tally” being that of the Labor Council officers.
I sat next to him during much of the Congress. We chatted about the issues and fault lines dividing the delegates.
Prior to then I had never really understood the NCC-inspired perspective on the labour movement in Australia. O’Sullivan was a big wheel in their operations which were then beginning to unravel. He taught me to understand their tradition, why it mattered, and how difficult it was to rejoin the ALP in Victoria. In the 1960s, perversely, in various policy stances they took, in alliances and ‘common front’ activities with communists, the Victorian ALP hard left wanted to make it as unappealing as possible for moderates to rejoin. I learnt that O’Sullivan wrote under a pseudonym for the Bulletin magazine on union elections in the mid 1960s onwards. After the attempted coup in Indonesia in 1965 Benny (Leonardus Benjamin) Moerdani (1932-2004), an army and intelligence officer (from 1983 to 1988, as General Moerdani, Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces), through Catholic connections wanted assistance in explaining communism to army officers and government officials. Bob Santamaria sent O’Sullivan to assist.
When the old leadership’s grip on the Victorian Branch of the Federated Clerks Union (FCU) began to loosen, with Lindsay Tanner from the ALP Left elected Victorian Assistant Secretary in 1987, then Secretary from 1988 to 1993 (until he was elected to the Federal Parliament), O’Sullivan and Tanner came to see me at my office in the Labor Council of NSW, to ask if I would agree to become FCU full-time National President and help oversee several amalgamations (into what ultimately became the Australian Services Union, ASU). They saw me as a person who could unite the factions. I politely declined. I saw the approach in positive terms, however. As antagonists within the union got to know and understand each other, most came to respect one another and work together. O’Sullivan subsequently helped steer the ASU away from the hard left.
O’Sullivan’s history is partly sketched in several books, including Greg Sheridan’s When We Were Young and Foolish (2015), Lindsay Tanner’s The Last Battle (1996), and Frank Mount’s Wrestling with Asia, A Memoir (2012).