Monica Harte: ‘Community-union campaigns are catalysts for change’

Monica Harte. Photo: Chloe DS

Experienced labour and community activist Monica Harte is standing as part of the Sue Bolton Moreland Team for the Moreland City Council elections. Sue Bolton asked her about her motivations to run for council.

You led a tram strike in the early 1990s and were a big part of the campaign to stop the closure of the Upfield Line. Can you give us a little more information about your community activism?

It began in North Queensland in the 1970s. I was involved in many community and political issues. It was a wonderful beginning to my late teenage years. Then, I lived in Ireland for a period, including during the hunger strikes.

When I came to Melbourne I became involved in the tramways union. For maybe 12 years, I worked as a conductor, a bus driver, a tram driver and for the union. That was the 1980s, when there were lot of attempts to remove train lines — incredible when you even think about it. It was high on the agenda of each state government coming to power.

I wasn’t living in Moreland at that time, but I was part of the union. I’ve been an active delegate and then worked as an organiser and president when the John Cain Labor government launched an enormous attack on conductors, station staff and guards.

They also wanted to eradicate a number of train lines, and the Upfield line was one of them.

That was a very deliberate attempt to crush the public transport unions.

The strength of those campaigns was the community-union organisation: that was the catalyst to push back.

In the Upfield line campaign, activists organised the leaflets alongside the train drivers: there was a great unity.

We also organised some great marches along Sydney Road. I was working in the union office at the time. I can remember the person who headed up the Public Transport Users Association who, I don’t think necessarily started out being sympathetic to unions, ended making the union office his second home.

What was wonderful was the acknowledgement of differences, but with an ability to work for a common goal and unity between the community and unions.

That is sometimes challenging for unions to do that because some are fearful of community activism as it can threaten their sense of control.

Tell us about your involvement in workers’ struggles? I’m guessing that your experiences in Ireland helped form your approach.

It is about putting “community” into a wider context. When you’ve got strong community, when you’ve got strong activists understanding community, it helps understand what’s happening on the ground.

An understanding of political philosophy should mean that understanding the need for community voices and community participation are essential.

That’s been a strong and consistent theme for me, probably because part of my life has always been in communities, including in small towns in north Queensland.

Why did you decided to run on the ticket of community independents and socialists?

That’s very simple. It’s important to have you re-elected back to council. The work you have brought to Moreland Council over these past two terms has been extraordinary. You have put “local” back into council and in a way that understands local as part of a broader social and political agenda.

I see this is an election as a way of building on the work you have done and to broaden out the team.

The market-driven philosophy that’s been pushed by government over a long period has started to influence what’s happening in local government as well.

It’s not easy to bring an understanding of those issues into the local government arena, but you have managed to do that. I see this campaign as being about keeping that connection with the local community.

What are some of the key issues you think council should take up?

I’m thinking about the impacts of COVID-19. We have not begun to see the real fallout from the changes to the JobKeeker and JobSeeker payments. I’m pleased that we’ve got policies that seek in some way to acknowledge the likely impacts on residents of Moreland.

Rent relief and housing are important: housing as a basic human right. Society needs an understanding of the important role public housing plays in ensuring people have more productive lives.

The pandemic is an opportunity to face up to the problem of housing affordability and housing developments, which have not been addressed. Enormous sums are being made from land in Moreland, yet the benefits never come to the community.

COVID-19 is undoubtedly putting renters under extreme pressure. The fall out, the lack of public housing, if not immediate, is going to be in September and into the new year.

We’ve seen the increases in home affordability and rents, and now you’re adding COVID-19.

It highlights an enormous question, which is the lack of affordable and sustainable housing and the pressure that will bring to force people to move out of the area or become homeless.

It puts pressure back to council to think about housing and how we, as a community, are going to address it.

Another issue for council is to resist the market-driven agenda.

The push to privatise and contract out council services is huge. The pandemic has raised the problems of subcontracting and accountability. We are seeing what went wrong with the sub-contracting out of security at the quarantine hotels. What councils can learn is important.

You were active in the tramways union when Liberal and Labor state governments sought to rip up tram and train lines. There is a big discussion in Moreland now about wanting to reduce the use of cars. But the focus is on parking with little discussion about expanding public transport.

I’ll just correct one thing. They weren’t ripping up tram lines, just the train lines — and not that long ago. The reason people have cars is because there is not enough frequent public transport.

My background is public transport. You never ever stop being an advocate if you work for public transport: it’s in your blood.

I know people who work in the food industry in the western suburbs, some on shift work. If they tried to take public transport, it would add three hours or something to their shifts to get to work and come back.

What are our needs in this area? Apart from the duplication of the Upfield Line, I was looking at what we can do to extend tram and bus routes across Moreland. That is part of what we need to do.

Our policies on the environment, the tree canopy, parking issues are important. I think many people would try and use public transport if they could.

But we also have to also understand that, because Melbourne is a big city, many people simply have to depend on cars to get to work and take their kids to school.

[To help the Sue Bolton Moreland Team get in touch here.]

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