A day at Trades Hall

I’ve been at Trades Hall in Melbourne today, attending the Australian Fabians public forum “Progressive Reform Ideas for Labor’s 2015 National Conference”. There’s an article about Penny Wong’s opening address here (I’m not sure that I totally agree with her- I’m very, very wary of TPP, the influence of US corporations on the ‘agreement’, and the secrecy with which it is being drawn up).

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Very good speakers. The first session dealt with Economics and Inequality with two MPs  Claire O’Neil and Andrew Leigh MPs, John Daley from the Grattan Institute (hmmm) and Peter Malinauskas from the SDA (another even longer hmmm over their sell-out of casual retail workers in their latest enterprise agreement with the big supermarkets.)  A very tasty lunch catered by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, then a session on Social Democracy. Andrew Scott, who wrote Northern Lights (which I shall review when I’ve read it) spoke about social democracy in Scandinavian countries; Nick Dyrenfurth was controversial about the future of the ALP, Senator Jenny McAllister (outgoing President of the ALP)  gave one of the best thumbnail sketches of social democracy that I’ve ever heard  and Luke Hilakari (Secretary of Trades Hall Council) gave a spirited and rousing presentation about unions and election campaigns. A quick afternoon tea, then the final session on Refugee Policy with Robert Manne, Serina McDuff from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, and Brad Chilcott from Welcome to Australia.  Oh what a fraught, toxic policy problem it all is.

Brad Chilcott (Welcome to Australia), Serina McDuff (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre) and Robert Manne (La Trobe University)

Brad Chilcott (Welcome to Australia), Serina McDuff (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre) and Robert Manne (La Trobe University)

Anyway, the other highlight of the day for me was the opportunity to have a poke around Trades Hall.  It’s a grand building on the corner of Lygon Streets and Victoria Streets, consciously constructed as a “Worker’s Parliament”  to respond to Parliament House not far away.  Wikipedia says that it’s the oldest trade union building in the world, and it’s certainly Australia’s oldest.  The first Trades Hall building was constructed on the northern end of the site in 1859, just three years after the successful Eight Hour Day campaign of 1856.  It was a modest timber structure with a galvanized-iron roof, with the distinction of being the first building in the world to be constructed specifically for trade union business. This original structure was removed around 1917 to make way for extensions to the current building.

The current Trades Hall was constructed in ten stages between 1875 and 1925.  There’s a picture of Trades Hall from the early 20th century which really emphasizes its dominance here.

In the foyer there are beautifully painted frescoes marking the appointment of various union members to different philanthropic bodies (e.g. Eye and Ear Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Homeopathic Hospital ) on the Anniversary of The Eight Hour Day.  I suspect that it was the fiftieth anniversary.  The foyer was restored a number of years ago, but it’s starting to look a little faded.

As you go up the well-worn granite stairs, there’s an honour board commemorating the men who worked on the Eight Hour Day campaign, led by stonemasons working on Melbourne University in 1856.

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Upstairs there are the Old Council Room and the New Council Room.  The Old Council room is in very poor condition but scheduled for restoration when funds are available.  You can almost hear the shouting voices and smell the clouds of tobacco smoke.

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The ‘New’ Council Rooms need about fifty years to become worthy of preservation. At the moment, they’re just tacky.  Give it time.

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There are interesting little snippets of earlier days and old bitternesses still scattered around the place.

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They’re raising money for the restoration appeal here.

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