A union stalwart stands down but his conservative views continue to influence Australian social policy. By Mike Seccombe.

Shoppies boss Joe de Bruyn bows out

John Howard had a unique talent for identifying issues that would wedge political opponents. In August 2000, he came up with a beaut. He would amend the Sex Discrimination Act so that single women and lesbians could be discriminated against when it came to accessing IVF. 

The then prime minister did the rounds of radio to drive home the wedge, expressing his certainty that a lot of “traditional” Labor voters would approve. After all, he was simply defending the right of children to be brought up in two-parent, heterosexual households.

And yet, Howard affected a degree of puzzlement in his conversation with Sydney shock jock Stan Zemanek. “I haven’t heard from Mr Beazley yet,” he said.

A thousand kilometres to the south, in Hobart, Kim Beazley was already having a tough time at his party’s national conference. Now, Howard had effectively sooled onto him Joe de Bruyn, secretary of the country’s largest union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union.

Labor’s most fearsome conservative social warrior privately lobbied Beazley and others at the conference to go along with Howard, or at least allow parliamentarians a conscience vote on the issue. But he got nowhere.

So eight days after Howard’s appearance on the Zemanek show, de Bruyn himself hit the airwaves, backing Howard on the ABC’s AM program. Beazley’s decision, he said, “perhaps did not involve as much consideration as might have been desirable”. He hoped that “upon mature reflection”, Beazley would see there ought to be a conscience vote.

De Bruyn spoke of a leadership void in Labor. “I just think that leadership needs to be given to those people who do believe that the family is the fundamental institution in society and that what we ought to do is to promote and enhance the family unit, not pass laws which have the effect of tearing it down.”

He marshalled his forces in the parliamentary party to push in caucus for a conscience vote. That failed. He used his position on the ALP’s national executive to convene a special meeting in the hope of overturning Beazley. That failed, too. He tried every trick he could to help Howard stop those lesbians from having IVF babies.

He infuriated many of his colleagues. And also provided Gough Whitlam with one of his more memorable one-liners: in a speech to a union gathering a few years later, Whitlam described the Netherlands-born de Bruyn as “a Dutchman who hates dykes”.

The point to the whole story, though, isn’t that de Bruyn lost. The point is that he is implacable. For 30 years he has led a kind of moral fifth column within the Labor Party. A right-wing Catholic in a largely secular Centre Left party. A loyal soldier on industrial matters, but a loose cannon on social issues such as fertility control, stem cell research and gay rights.

He is a living reminder of the sectarian and ideological tensions that split the labour movement almost 60 years ago. In his time he has figured large in the calculations of multiple political leaders, from Bob Hawke to Julia Gillard. There is even a case to be made that he is in part responsible for Tony Abbott. 

And now, after more than four decades with the Shoppies – 36 years as their leader – he’s preparing to move on. At his own pace, of course: methodically, by stages, in a way that will preserve his influence as much as possible.

And what influence he’s had.

Former ACTU secretary and long-serving Labor minister Martin Ferguson has known de Bruyn since the mid-1970s, a decade before the Shoppies reaffiliated with the ALP following the long, hostile period after the party split.

“He entered the Labor Party in controversial terms, as part of the decision to bring in the four unions associated with the National Civic Council and DLP,” says Ferguson. “Joe was very close to [B.A. “Bob”] Santamaria. I also remember Joe at Sydney University, and active in the Democrat Club, which was the DLP club. And, if I remember correctly, so was Tony Abbott.”

A more precise account comes from David Marr’s 2012 Quarterly Essay on Abbott’s formative years, ‘‘Political Animal’’, which records that in early 1976, Abbott “tagged along” uninvited to a peace and freedom weekend at which he was recruited for Bob Santamaria’s movement. One of the speakers who inspired him to get involved was Joe de Bruyn. Marr cites Abbott’s own writings, about the thrill of meeting people of influence and authority in public life, as corroboration.

De Bruyn denies any recollection of meeting Abbott at that time. But what a delicious irony: the older DLP man who recruits the younger, before he moves on to Labor, while the acolyte moves on to lead the Liberal Party.

Those were strange political times, the late 1970s and early 1980s. The DLP was dying, and its people had to make decisions balancing principle and pragmatism. Prime minister Bob Hawke pragmatically decided to push for the re-admission of the old DLP-dominated unions into Labor, on the basis that it would shore up the numbers for the Right faction.

The fact they ended up in the Labor camp did not mean the likes of de Bruyn were much different on social issues from their fellows who ended up on the other side. Just as Beazley found out on the IVF issue, and as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard later found out on the issue of same-sex marriage.

If you have ever wondered why Labor, allegedly the more progressive of the major parties, lagged so far behind public opinion on the matter, de Bruyn is a significant part of the answer.

Various sources have suggested part of the price of the Right’s support for Gillard’s leadership coup was a commitment not to push same-sex marriage. Of course, she denies this. Certainly her resistance seems to sit oddly with her other generally progressive positions. And there are credible gay activists who insist Rudd told them Gillard had done a deal with de Bruyn and the Australian Christian Lobby. But circumstance and hearsay are not proof. De Bruyn also denies it.

So too he denies any part in engineering the weird compromise on gay marriage adopted at Gillard’s behest by the 2011 ALP national conference – a policy to support same-sex marriage that  also allowed individual parliamentarians to vote according to their conscience. This, of course, was exactly the formulation he tried to force on the hapless Beazley a decade earlier.

The ultimate irony is that de Bruyn is not helping anyone on his side of politics with his views. Most progressive voters support same-sex marriage. The polls tell us a majority of conservative voters support it. And while we can’t be sure of the views of the 218,000 members of his union, their demographic profile – disproportionately young and female – suggests they don’t support his stance either.

But even his critics within the party have to respect him on industrial matters. He runs the biggest union in the country and each year signs up about  70,000 new members.

That he’s now moving on must give Labor’s progressive forces cause for hope, right? For a start, de Bruyn will continue in his role as senior vice- president of the ACTU until May 2015, and his position on the ALP national executive will continue until July 2015.

And although he plans to step down as national secretary of the Shoppies in October, he will become  honorary president. These moves nominally require elections, of course, but given de Bruyn’s history, you have to figure it will go to script.

Bottom line, de Bruyn’s influence on politics is not about to end. The DLP lives on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 8, 2014 as "Moral guardian: Joe de Bruyn".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.