ACTU secretary earned wide respect




14-6-1934 24-7-2012

PETER Nolan, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1979, was in the running to succeed Bob Hawke as president. But he received an acutely embarrassing and unnerving accolade.

After he skilfully negotiated a resolution that pulled the country back from serious industrial disruption, then prime minister Malcolm Fraser said it was a delight to work with him after the abrasiveness of Hawke he said Nolan would be his choice for the next ACTU president.

Nolan, who has died of heart failure at home in Paynesville in Gippsland, aged 78, was entrusted with positions that required a broad view of the world, including with Telstra, the Reserve Bank, the International Labour Organisation, Australia-Japan Foundation, the Bicentennial Authority and the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

On Nolan's appointment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Bryan Noakes, representing employers, said: "He had earned the respect and confidence of all employers he had dealt with, while at the same time not abandoning or compromising the ideals in which he believes."

Bill Kelty, who succeeded Nolan as ACTU secretary, said his ability to compromise and rationalise helped lay "the basis for which a trade union movement could look to the next generation".

Nolan was born in Brisbane, the fourth son of a linotype mechanic, Charles Nolan, and his wife, Thelma (nee Sexton). He attended Ascot State School but left aged about 15 to take up a printing apprenticeship. He joined the Printing and Kindred Industries Union and, while on a holiday in Hobart, took a job on The Mercury newspaper.

In 1958, he married an accounts clerk, Jan Gregory, and by age 25 Nolan was father of the chapel at The Mercury. He then left the paper and became Tasmanian branch secretary of the PKIU. He declined an invitation to stand for the Senate.

Then came an embarrassing quirk of fate. Very busy with his new job, he forgot to pay his union dues and, rules being rules, was out of a job. Moving to Melbourne, he came to the attention of the Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary, Ken Stone, who in 1970 gave him a job as a research officer. He became part of a successful campaign for long service leave for building workers.

In 1971, Nolan became the ACTU's assistant secretary, and in 1975 first assistant secretary. He was a strong supporter of trade union training and helped to establish Clyde Cameron College in Albury-Wodonga. However, the pressure of his work affected his marriage he and Jan separated and divorced.

In 1977, Nolan succeeded Harold Souter as ACTU secretary. He described himself as left of centre, but added: "I don't see myself as a great radical."

A strong supporter of Hawke, Nolan was a junior vice-president of the Victorian ALP but there were too many demands on his time and he stepped down from the political job. In 1979, he married Sophie Neef, a production co-ordinator with Crawford Productions. That year, he had to steer the ACTU ship through a period of industrial turmoil, in the absence of Hawke, and had to negotiate directly with Fraser.

After intense closed-door negotiations, he announced that a blockade of goods to Western Australia and a proposal to ban exports from that state were off.

Nolan's career with the ACTU was not plain sailing, either externally or internally. In 1982, renovation of the ACTU's headquarters in Melbourne went way over budget and, though there was no criticism of him, he resigned and conceded that overspending had been a factor. The Victorian Labor government immediately offered him a job as an industrial relations adviser and personal adviser to the Victorian minister for labour and industry, Bill Landeryou.

In 1984, the Hawke government appointed Nolan to the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, a position he held until 1997, when he retired. He moved with his wife to East Gippsland where, among other things, he became secretary of the Lions Club. In that capacity, he drove firefighters during the bushfires of 2006.

In retirement his interests included playing the trumpet, fishing, and doing The Age crosswords each day religiously. "I knew he was sick the day he stopped doing the crosswords," his wife, Sophie, said.

Nolan is survived by Sophie, his children from his first marriage, Mark, Kinta and Peta Jan, and five grandchildren.

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