Hon. John (jock) Kilday Jock Ferguson MLC

15th January 1946 - 13th February 2010

Jock Ferguson. Source WA Parliament

It is recognised by all who knew Jock Ferguson what a strong, cheeky and vibrant character he was. He was known for standing up for what he believed in – and doing so courageously.

It may have been the nature of his character – but it was clearly demanded from him at a young age as demonstrated by when at just 14 years of age he was sent by his Grandfather to protect the Catholic church’s statue of the Virgin Mary from the local Orangemen on their annual confrontational march through Catholic areas complete with brass band.

In the industrial city of Glasgow he began his career in the trade union movement as a fitter’s apprentice delegate on his first job at age 17. His first foray into industrial strategy took place when he and the boilermaker’s apprentice delegate took the apprentices out on strike with the intention of staying out until they got their share of a new pay deal.

As Jock recounted in his first speech to the WA Parliament the strike

‘lasted only long enough for me to be summoned to the yard manager’s office and informed that, as apprentices, our indentures did not allow us to take strike action, and that every one of the nearly 200 apprentices in the yard would be sacked.’

Fortunately for the young delegate, his Grandfather, convenor of the Boilermakers Union and member of the Communist Party, ‘conspired’ with the yard manager to save his skin and avert the crisis.

Jock grew up in the working class area of Possilpark in Glasgow, a place which the industrial revolution of the 1880s saw it become a vibrant manufacturing area, with a foundry, engineering and other manufacturing works. But in the 1960s the foundry was shut down, taking with it thousands of jobs and many more jobs in associated industries. From this Jock Ferguson saw firsthand what a life without opportunities meant—high crime, drugs, violence, low life expectancy, malnutrition and poverty.

His Glaswegian origins can be seen to have shaped his political endeavour.

But there is much more to Jock’s story and his political leadership than working-class struggle. He was born to an unwed Catholic woman. He was raised by his grandparents, believing that they were his parents. He had no idea that in fact his ‘sister’ was his mother. He only found out some eight years ago that he had a sister who was adopted outside of the family.

Jock and his sister Monica were born to Protestant and Catholic parents who were forbidden to marry. Jock’s sister spent many years looking for her family and eventually she found her brother, Jock. As Jock said in his first speech to the WA parliament, when he told his story:

“… I relate this part of my history … because it is a very human story, steeped in prejudice and secrets that had tragic consequences for my family.”

He went on to say:

“Of all my life experiences, the discovery of my sister and parentage has highlighted the truly cataclysmic effect that ignorance and discrimination can have on the everyday lives and experiences of families and individuals. My sister was robbed of ever meeting her mother and we were separated from each other for over 50 years.”

These experiences also defined Jock’s inclusive politics. As a factional leader within the ALP he brought together a diverse array of party activists and parliamentarians, from the blue collar to feminists, environmentalists and gay rights activists.

He said when elected to parliament that he intended to work hard as a law-maker towards breaking down some of the barriers and prejudices that exclude people and their families from fully participating in our society and achieving personal fulfilment.

He worked very hard to make sure that people from all walks of life were included, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. This was not something that was always easy in a blue-collar union. He worked hard to give people from diverse backgrounds a political leg-up. His life experiences taught him never to make room for prejudice or discrimination.

Jock was the very embodiment of the fact that the labour movement is about a lot more than protecting workers. He fought for environmental sustainability and against the Iraq war. He fought for human rights and against discrimination. Jock knew that people come together in unions not just because they want to get a fair deal for themselves and their families but because they want a fair deal for everybody.

So it is little wonder he became a political leader well known for standing up for what he believed in, but also one who understood celebrated and embodied working class traditions.

He was a strong leader, whose leadership style was underpinned by strong values.

He fought tooth and nail against individual workplace agreements as an organiser and later leader of the AMWU. Agreements that sought to destroy union representation and protection in Western Australia’s north-west. He worked to see smaller companies given the opportunity to bid for work in major projects, by lobbying companies to break down their work into pieces that local firms could bid for.

He campaigned against the importation of foreign labour when there were local workers who could do the job, but he also worked hard to protect 457 visa workers from exploitation. He was dedicated to the development of training opportunities for young Western Australians.

He was a fighter for Western Australian jobs and opportunities for Western Australians. He campaigned for WA jobs by tackling companies that brought in from overseas or components for big industrial projects. He strove to see WA develop its potential, working with government and industry to see the Jervoise Bay project and the Australian Marine Complex get off the ground. Jock Ferguson could be a militant unionist but, as was highlighted by those contributing to his eulogy, he was not a mindless militant; he was thoughtful and strategic.

Jock’s partner, Tina, his children and all those who were close to Jock should take comfort in the legacy he left and the knowledge that the love and affection from family and friends that surrounded him underpinned his capacity to give service to others.

He had a disarming and often shockingly rude sense of humour and was a great and cheeky wit. He had a great love and compassion for people from all walks of life.

The Western Australian union movement and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union were very fortunate that he made Western Australia his home and put his leadership talents to work there.

Jock’s time in parliament was short. However, his political legacy lives on in both his achievements and those he inspired, mentored and supported with his substantial influence to pursue political and social goals.