Rebel with many causes

Wednesday, August 14, 1991

By Frank Noakes

PERTH — What have unionism, opera, internationalism and local government in common? Answer: Australian Railways Union (WA) assistant state secretary Tony Costa.

Tony is a colourful character, always ready with a witty quip or a biting comment.

Born to an Irish mother and Italian father in England 50 years ago, he was almost immediately orphaned. At the age of 11, Tony was bound for Australia, as part of the Catholic migration scheme.

Tony relates his rude awakening on arrival at Boys Town, Bindoon, in rural Western Australia. "It was an era of bastardry. Boys Town was brutal and very traumatic. Under the guise of Christianity and discipline, kids were treated in the most inhumane way, flogged and brutalised."

Ironically, it was there that he developed his life-long love of operatic music and in particular the music of Mario Lanza. (He is still a close friend of the family of the late singer.)

"During playtime we could hear the booming powerful voice of Lanza soaring above us from speakers the Christian Brothers had mounted around the playground.

"Many of the boys were transported by his voice. It had a haunting, yet joyous, uplifting, feel good thing about it."

The harsh experience of Boys Town in the '50s also moulded his rebel make-up, Costa insists.

Tony himself has a good singing voice, one he could never afford to get trained, and in the '60s sang with a duo doing everything from Italian love songs to Irish folk to pop.

Rejecting the snobbery surrounding the performing arts, especially opera, Costa declares, "Workers have every right to identify with culture. The great singer Caruso was a peasant himself, and most operas are based on the peasantry and their struggles. Yet opera is marketed as upper middle class and theatres charge such high prices it is out of the reach of Mr and Mrs Working Class.

"The great Paul Robeson was a people's singer but did not appeal to the snobs because of his convictions — he dared to speak out about his socialist convictions and the treatment of black people. I remember when he came to Perth in 1960 and he sang to the railway workers at Midland and to the workers on the waterfront at Fremantle. His dignity and charisma impressed all who

heard him."

Tony's parentage and background contribute to his strongly internationalist outlook. He is outspoken on Ireland and the Philippines, and armed with first-hand experience of both countries.

"Filipino people, like the Irish, are a non-material race of people. They're very loving and kind to each other as a people and yet they have both been long subjected to the most horrific exploitation and human violation", Costa says.

"The Irish have been and continue to be oppressed by the British imperialists and the Filipinos have been oppressed by American imperialism."

It was in the Philippines that he first met Father Brian Gore, the priest jailed under the Marcos regime, and was immediately impressed by his dedication.

Costa says that Gore "has often been ostracised by his own hierarchy in the Catholic Church because he dared to take on the human element and social justice questions".

Still believing in "some form of Christian doctrine", Tony remains unrepentantly hostile to church hierarchies for what he sees as their hypocrisy and lack of humanity. He reserves most of his scorn for the pope, who, he says, jets around the world dispensing pious platitudes, while millions in the Third World live under daily oppression and in poverty.

Tony abhors the idea of Australians genuflecting before the altar of monarchism and expresses disdain for the current industrial restructuring process.

Usually loquacious, Costa is sharp and to the point on the question of the Labor Party. There is a sense of personal betrayal there. He, like many others, had been a member of the ALP, joining in his late teens. After resigning a few years ago, he now says:

"My hopes of the ALP have been shattered. We now have a bunch of arrogant impostors in the federal scene as well as here in this state. I have no desire to go back with them."

Critical of those who use the union movement as a stepping stone to parliament or become careerists, Tony was elected to his position four years ago, coming from the ranks.

Besides this, Tony remains active as an independent councillor of nine years' standing. He represents the inner Perth suburb of Subiaco, where he has lived since leaving Bindoon at age 16. He also worked there for 18 years with a dry cleaning

company.

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