By Geoff Armstrong
It has been a great privilege to be able to research and write the centenary history of the Police Association of NSW. I confess that my fear when I started was that the story might be a little dry, but with the help of Dorothy Straesser, the long-time Association librarian, I have discovered that this is a tale with a remarkable cast of characters who have found themselves in many intriguing and often controversial situations.
This was true from day one, when a tireless, persistent, loyal and sometimes provocative former constable named Bert Fortescue was the first General Secretary and Sergeant Tom Pauling from Newtown, a former New Zealand rugby international and a Test referee, was the foundation president. So dedicated were Fortescue (secretary from 1920 to 1932) and his successor Charlie Cosgrove (1932–1946), they both worked themselves to death.
For much of the Association’s first 100 years, its primary focus has been on three things: pay, pensions and promotions. A fourth subject — appeal rights, relating to discipline and/or promotions — have raised hackles at different times. Other issues, most notably police strength, have also risen to prominence, without ever usurping the ‘three Ps’. Gradually, to some degree from the 1970s but much more so from the 1980s, a fourth frontline issue — the mental health of officers — has emerged, to the point that in the 21st century the mental wellbeing of the force is just about paramount.
Trying to identify five moments or events that capture the essence of the Association, its objectives and aspirations, is not easy, given its rich history. But perhaps these episodes provide a picture of what the Association is all about.
APPEAL RIGHTS IN 1924
The right of police to appeal against disciplinary decisions, not least the transfer of officers for disciplinary reasons, had long been an ambition of police.
Following the Association’s founding in 1920 and before the inaugural conference in February 1921, the Chief Secretary, James Dooley, had promised to ‘give the police an appeal board on proper lines so that they will have the right of appeal against unjust decisions’.
It wasn’t until the start of 1924 that such a tribunal was established, and in truth its powers were less than all the Association had desired, but it remained a huge advance for the fledgling union.
THE MASS TRANSFER OF THE EXECUTIVE IN 1942
This will be always be the lead story in the Association’s folklore.
By the start of 1942, the relationship between the Association and Commissioner William MacKay was broken beyond repair, to the point that MacKay abruptly announced late on a Friday afternoon that all Executive members, and citybased proxies for country Executive members, were to be transferred to the bush, effective immediately.
The way the leadership responded, seeking the help of sympathetic members of the recently elected Labor government and some of the state’s biggest unions, was the stuff of legend.
The loyalty of the members was critical throughout this drama, as it has been during many a controversy — hence the centenary history’s title: Unity and Strength. Premier Bill McKell instructed MacKay to rescind the transfers and recall the men back to Sydney, and then moved the Commissioner temporarily to a position with the federal government.
Twenty-years after its inaugural annual conference, MacKay’s foiled transfers represented the Association’s ‘coming of age’.
THE 1997 PAY INCREASE
The Association has enjoyed several successful salary negotiations in its first 100 years, not least the increases in the late 1940s that followed the police finally gaining access to the Arbitration Court.
The Sydney Morning Herald of 28 June 1946 noted that this access had come ‘After agitating for 26 years [by] the New South Wales Police Association’. But perhaps no wage negotiation generated more emotion that the 22 per cent increase (over three-and-a-half years, on top of a 6.1 per cent interim rise that had been granted a year earlier) in late 1997, which was achieved in the wake of the Wood Royal Commission, and months after another bitter dispute between the government, the department and the Association over appeal rights.
The ‘Last Drinks’ campaign, which began after a suite of measures to reduce alcohol related violence were successfully introduced in Newcastle in 2008, showed the Association at its finest.
It was a long and sometimes acrimonious battle, jointly run by the Association, the Health Services Union, the NSW Nurses’ Association and the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, and with the support of many frontline workers who all had stories of dealing with such violence.
In 2014, some of the long-sought restrictions were finally implemented in parts of Sydney, and though these measures have since been relaxed, there remains a sense that things have improved as a result of the campaign.
‘Will it go back to the old days?’ I asked Scott Weber, Association president from 2010 to 2018.
‘I don’t think so,’ he replied. ‘I would like to see the restrictions in place, but I still think of Last Drinks as a triumph. People today are more responsible. Behaviours have changed.’
NSW POLICE LEGACY
Police Legacy came to life in 1987. It was the brainchild of Deputy Commissioner Barney Ross, who approached Association president Lloyd Taylor with the concept.
The two men went to see then Minister for Police George Paciullo, who put up $50,000, senior vice-president Geoff Green drew up the rules and Phil Holder, then an Association trustee and later a deputy president, became chairman.
The rise of NSW Police Legacy has shown the Association at its finest. I asked Phil Holder what Police Legacy meant to all those it supported. ‘That they’re not alone,’ he said, capturing something of the ethos that has spurred the Association for a century. ‘It wasn’t that, before Legacy, that the police didn’t worry about families, but often they just slipped away. It was a great honour to be able to say, don’t worry, we’ll look after them.’
Unity and Strength: the 100 year history of the Police Association of NSW by Geoff Armstrong and Dorothy Straesser will be released later this year.