A battler for the environment

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

Hall Greenland pays tribute to an old comrade.

Jack Carnegie, who died in September, will be forever immortalised as the leader of the campaign that led to Green Bans Park in Erskineville (pictured). His role in that battle is recognised with a plaque at the entrance to the park.

Another successful battle was the preservation of the public housing in Erskineville when it was threatened with a private/public makeover. Of course, he wasn’t always successful the Erskineville Post Office was sold, for instance, despite local opposition in which Jack played a key role. But, whatever the outcome, you could always depend on Jack Carnegie whenever it was an issue of social justice or protecting the environment.

Jack was born and raised in Rozelle — his father worked as a wharfie, his mother as cleaner. After the death of his mother when he was 15 he ran away to sea. His spell in the navy came to a relatively quick end when he was de-rated for bringing alcohol on to the base in Western Australia.

After a series of odd jobs in Sydney Jack travelled to London in 1973. He returned to Sydney in the fateful November of 1975 determined to live a radical life. He gravitated to Annandale, living in shared or ‘communal’ houses as they were called then, and joined the Annandale branch of the Labor party — then arguably the most leftwing and activist branch in Australia.

He met me, Margaret Eliot and Tony Harris who introduced him to the legendary Balmain councillors Nick Origlass and Issy Wyner. He was inspired by their ideas of participatory democracy and quickly became a practitioner of their style of community and direct-action campaigning.

Expelled from the Labor party in 1984 for his support of Origlass and Wyner and opposition to uranium mining, Jack was part of the trio who organised the public meeting in Glebe Town Hall in August 1984 that launched the Greens in Australia as a registered political party.

Jack’s great gift was that he always managed to combine his critical support for the Greens with an ability to work with people from across the centre-left spectrum in community and industrial campaigns. Some of those people were notoriously difficult to work with, but Jack’s un-sectarian charm and democratic instincts worked a treat.

Almost all his jobs were with community organisations — including a comms and organiser job with his union, the Australian Services Union. “Jack Carnegie is a legend of the ASU and much-loved part of our ASU family,” Natalie Lang, the current NSW secretary, said on learning of his death. “Jack’s commitment to fighting for justice was unwavering, as a member, as a staff member, as a life member and as a troublemaker.”

Jack’s politics may have been based in the inner city but his concerns were global. He was a strong supporter of the rights of Palestinians and democratic insurgencies wherever they arose — Hong Kong, Bangkok, Minneapolis, Chile, Kashmir or Kurdistan.

As a founder of the Greens he was naturally a climate justice activist. He often went to Newcastle to participate in the coal blockades and help the Bulga community in the Hunter resist the extension of the open-cut coal mine that threatens their valley. Despite a certain pessimism about whether humanity can rise to the challenge of curbing climate change, Jack drew much hope from Greta Thunberg and the school student climate strikes of the past two years.

In his last months, suffering from an advanced case of cancer, it was typical of Jack that he proposed travelling to Glasgow to join the protests around the COP26 climate change conference in November. Right to the end, his life was a political one, in the best sense of the word, in the service of fellow human beings and the planet.

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