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Two more books, on an important union, and on climate change

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 8 December 2016

This essay is a discussion about two books, widely different in their story. Each was given to me by its author, a friend. They are both excellent accounts, and I recommend them to readers. The first, by Dr John O’Brien, is about a trade union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). O’Brien is an academic who was also an office-bearer in the NTEU. The second is about climate change, and was written by a geologist, Dr Howard Brady, who has some distinctions which flowed from his work, notably about the past climate history of Antarctica.

O’Brien’s book, National Tertiary Education Union. A Most Unlikely Union, is at its heart an account of the birth and first couple of decades of the union. There was no NTEU when I was a young academic. I was a member of the local staff association, and it was affiliated with the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations (FAUSA).

As a young professor at Macquarie in the early 1970s I thought I ought to be active in the staff association, and found myself elected as Vice-President. Almost at once I had to deal with a difficult matter. In one part of the university a woman academic, of a certain age, discovered that those more senior to her were acting to have her moved into retirement. She had no wish to do this at all. It was claimed that she was a poor teacher. She said that was news to her.


I had to go and discuss the issue with the vice-chancellor, a nice man, who plainly thought I must be out of my mind representing her, me a professor and the head of another discipline. He was not encouraging. I went back to the executive and suggested that we get a lot of student testimonials to the woman’s teaching ability. That was easier said than done, but we got a few, and we sent a message around to all staff saying what was being proposed, without mentioning names or disciplines. In the end, after some agitation, she kept her place, and left the university when she reached retiring age. I had no help from her faculty thereafter, whatever it was that I was suggesting. People in universities have long memories.

None of this would be any surprise to John O’Brien. Nor would he have been surprised at one of the  sequels. At an end-of-year drinks in Sydney I chanced to be telling this story to Ken Buckley, a civil libertarian and coincidentally one of the founders of the staff association at Sydney University. He gave me some useful advice. ‘Don, three in four of those whom we take up the cudgels for are more or less dodgy. But you have to do your best for them. Otherwise, the place would be a shambles.’

Eric Fry, who taught me history at UNE, wrote a thesis in unions in Victoria in the 19th century. He showed that in some places it was the bosses who set up the union. If you had a thousand workers, you needed to have a small group to talk to. At the University of Canberra I had a thousand staff. If there hadn’t been a union I would have set about organising one.

John O’Brien was one of the thousand at UC. He was a strong unionist with persistence and patience, and a somewhat acerbic sense of humour. Those qualities shine through his book. In retrospect that the NTEU came to exist at all was, to understate it, rather surprising. There were so many previous groups, and not simply those in higher education, so many different goals, so many warring personalities. I knew a few of the leading ones quite well, and appreciated O’Brien’s tact and restraint in writing about what happened.

The NTEU was pushed into life by the reform agenda of John Dawkins in the late 1980s, the ramifications of which almost demanded a single and powerful national union. Twenty-five years later, it is as though it has always been there. O’Brien’s book comes with references, a list of the leading actors and a decent index. If unions interest you, this book is an absorbing read. Oh, and while academics may see the NTEU as a great big octopus-like national union, O’Brien shows that it is fact quite small, though it seems to be most effective within the ACTU.

An absorbing read is also a good description of Howard Brady’s Mirrors and Mazes. A guide through the climate change debate. Sceptics about the approaching doom from global warming will find much of Brady’s book familiar. Indeed, much of its message is in my Perspective of Climate Change on this website. But it took me several years to be able to set it all down, for I am not a laboratory scientist. Brady, however, is, and he has more than a hundred references to back up his much richer take on the debate.


The mirrors, I presume, are those than confuse the seeker after truth as he or she goes through the maze of the debate. Wherever you go you’ll find confident statements by apparently sensible scientists that can hardly be more than speculation. Yet they are put forward by the media as statements of complete truth. I hardly bother with them any more. There is a religious sound to them, and I am reminded of the ‘end of the world’ sketch in Beyond the Fringe. The last few moments of the sketch go like this:

Jon: Shall we compose ourselves, then?
Peter : Good plan, Brother Pithy. Prepare for the End of the World! Fifteen seconds…
Alan : Have we got the tinned food?
Dudley : Yes.
Peter : Ten seconds…
Jon : And the tin-opener?
Dudley : Yes.
Peter : Five – four – three – two – one – Zero!
Omnes : (Chanting) Now is the end – Perish The World!
A pause.
Peter :It was GMT, wasn’t it?

Jon : Yes.
Peter : Well, it’s not quite the conflagration I’d been banking on. Never mind, lads, same time tomorrow… we must get a winner one day.

Brady has a fascinating penultimate chapter where he lists the latest IPCC Report’s Summary for Policy Makers in 2014. He lists the claims therein, and gives them a score as to their accuracy. He starts with a number of statements that he says are true or probably true, but they turn out to apply to all or most previous warming periods. Then come a larger number of statements which he scores as either ‘Speculation’ or simply ‘False’. Some were clear to me when I was writing about that IPCC report some time ago, but Brady’s nailing of these statements is precise and destructive.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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