Tom and Audrey McDonald: Dare to Dream: the Memoirs of Tom and Audrey McDonald

Ian Milliss

‘Australian values’ is a term tainted by misuse, ‘mateship’ has now been appropriated by militarists and racists and ‘the fair go’ has almost completely disappeared, best not mentioned. The Right has put enormous effort into redefining ‘Australian values’ as something much closer to militaristic and individualistic right-wing American values – so much effort that you have to wonder what they are trying to hide.

It’s pretty simple really. They are trying to hide the fact that the progressive values that made Australia one of the world’s leading democracies for most of the twentieth century in fact originated in the late nineteenth-century trade union movement.

Even when that history surfaces, we rarely get the personal stories of those involved: of entire lives devoted to the nitty-gritty of meetings, alliances, friendships, conflicts and deal making that brings about change. That is why Dare to Dream: the memoirs of Tom and Audrey McDonald is so important; it tells it all from the inside, and interwoven through it is an amazing love story of two people who find the energy to care for others while also loving and caring for each other.

In his foreword, Bill Kelty says that Tom and Audrey were two people seemingly at the edge of Australia’s political life but, in reality, at its very core. That’s a common fact about people who create change. Although both came to occupy influential, even powerful positions, they were not the sort of positions that attracted unrelenting media attention. Rather, they just happened to be positions from which you could trigger the actions that eventually swell into mass movements.

All the issues Audrey and Tom pursued were vilified at the time by the media as crazy radicalism, when they were really about common decency, a demand that all people be heard and treated with respect.

That decency originated in their upbringings, Tom in working-class Glebe and Audrey on a marginal farm at Sandy Flat near Tenterfield. Poverty should never be romanticised, but it does create solidarity and compassion in those who share it, two characteristics Tom and Audrey have in abundance, together with enough humour and larrikinism to ensure neither was ever intimidated by authority. I must say I was delighted to discover that the pre-teen Tom was arrested for SP bookmaking; if that didn’t show early leadership qualities, then nothing did!

There is so much in this beautiful book to appreciate. The book’s structure itself says something about equality in relationships: each topic is addressed twice, with the lead alternating between Audrey and Tom.

The wealth of detail gives a sense of daily life that will make this book a gold mine for future researchers: the evocative description of the 1960s Maroubra housing commission estate (where Tom and Audrey were to live for thirty years), for instance. The wind and sand, the walks to the shops, the men at the pub after work while the lonely women waited resentfully at home hints at the unease that exploded into the feminism of the 1970s. I spent my teen years in the 1960s only a few streets away in housing-commission Matraville, and I found that chapter, like Proust’s madeleine, brought back a flood of memories.

Their lives were far from ordinary. From her teens, Audrey was active in her union, the Hotel Club and Restaurant Union (HCRU), then the anti-Vietnam war and peace movements, and the anti-apartheid movement. Most important was her role in the Union of Australian Women (UAW), doing the hard yards in work for women that predated the second wave of feminism. She played an increasingly significant role at the national and international level, building broader recognition of International Women’s Day and promoting the UN Decade of Women. Tom was actively involved in the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) even as an apprentice, beginning the long slow climb to the top of the union movement. Prominent leaders like Jim Healy and Pat Clancy appear, but the book also provides vivid thumbnail sketches of many lesser-known organisers, demonstrating how change is a collaboration of many people.

And there is nothing doctrinaire here. Despite their life long involvement in communism, they speak frankly of the apathy and stagnation that they saw on visits to the USSR, for instance. Their focus is always on what would produce practical results, whether it is Audrey fighting for child care centres and equal wages for women, or Tom fighting for pie warmers as well as mandatory livable minimum wages, that unglamorous foundation of civil society.

In the mid-1980s Tom, together with other key leaders of the union movement, was one of the architects of the Prices and Incomes Accord, an innovative strategy that sought to make the trade union movement a legitimate stakeholder in the process of government, with the potential for enormous practical improvements in workers’ lives. While subsequent conservative governments had some success in rolling back the achievements of the Accord, the vision, courage, and political ability of its architects must be recognised. In particular, Tom’s lasting memorial must be universal superannuation. The story of how an unratified $9 building industry wage increase led to the founding of Construction and Building Industry Superannuation (CBUS) that then flowed on to become a revolutionary new system of superannuation for all Australian workers is a highlight of the book.

There is also a potential television series in the maneuverings around the corrupt Builders Labourers’ leader Norm Gallagher and his cohorts. I was cheering each new blow struck against him, booing each of his acts of sabotage and his criminal shenanigans. It was one of the highlights for me.

Judge Jim Macken said of this book that: “It ought to be compulsory reading for union activists and students of labour history who won’t understand the history of today without knowledge of these stirring times”and I can only agree. 

For more information about Dare to Dream and how to obtain your copy please go to Gleebooks or see