A Personal Tribute to Mavis Robertson, a Labor Activist

Ann Symonds

Mavis Womens Lib 1975

Mavis Robertson, who died in Melbourne on 17 February 2015, was a most remarkable woman whose achievements for Australian society and her influence on global issues were based on her commitment to the ideals of socialism and feminism. She worked creatively to eliminate violence through her campaigns for peace and nuclear disarmament, and advocating action to combat the suffering of women experiencing domestic violence.

Mavis’s political activism continued her conviction about the goal of a just and decent society for Australia, which was expressed in theory and action by leadership from Jessie Street and Faith Bandler (and Bert Evatt). Their successful campaign for the recognition of aboriginal people in the 1967 referendum was an example of a strategic challenge to racism and injustice, a model for action to achieve change.

To recognise and continue Jessie’s work, Mavis convened a committee to establish the Annual Jessie Street lunch at which invited speakers reminded us of the objectives of peace and equality and human rights. Each year, some funding is given to an organisation pursuing change for eliminating violence and exploitation, and promoting equity.

My close involvement with Mavis began during the UN International Year of Peace, when the NSW Minister for Transport made a bus available for us to take a “Driving for Disarmament” Peace Bus around the country to provide public education on the global nuclear weapons proliferation threatening our destruction. That bus, which was highly decorated and well visited, is now in the Museum of Canberra.

There was more action for peace through the Palm Sunday Rallies during the 1980s, where the people called on our national leaders to work to reduce weapons – the demand of the marchers’ banner was ‘No Nuclear Weapons East or West’.

During this time the anti-war movement was very strong, supported by leading ALP members, churches, professionals, artists and thousands of concerned citizens. I believe this form of public expression of the desire for peace collapsed when millions across the world marched to oppose the war in Iraq, and were ignored.

When Mavis moved to Melbourne to further her work on superannuation with CBUS, she made the greatest impact on workers’ entitlements to retirement support. The financial world acknowledged the manner in which she established this not-for-profit funding model in the best interests of working men and women. To give special emphasis to women’s needs, she established “Women in Super”, and promoted women to work in this sector.

After visiting New York City one year, where she saw a women’s march to raise funds for Breast Cancer Research, she returned to Melbourne, and with her friend Linda, set up the Mothers’ Day Walk/Run for Breast Cancer Research. This became a national event and has so far raised $24M.

While we treasure her contribution to Australian society, we must also acknowledge the international organisations she initiated to pursue good government.

The focus of the Corporate Governance Group was to promote models of ethical management practice in business and government relations. The Global Dialogue group was a means to bring leaders together to discuss threats to our well-being – like climate change – and I treasure the friendship I had with Mavis, who was still amusing me, and advising me, when I last spoke to her in hospital on Wednesday 11 February 2015.

My dear friend was creative, strategic, courageous, loyal, warm, generous, and entertaining. Her loss to the Labor Party and our traditional objectives is immense.

Australia must have a biography of this extraordinary woman: a national and international activist.

The Peace Bus c1980
Mavis Robertson (kneeling) L-R Heather Kaldis, Jim kaldis, Win Childs, Ann Symonds, unknown, Tessa Mallos, Jeannette McHugh