Vale Brian Manning — wharfie and staunch unionist


On November 3, Brian Manning, one of the Northern Territory’s most respected activists and trade unionists, passed away surrounded by friends and family at the age of 81.

He was a long-time member of the Communist Party of Australia and the Search Foundation. This obituary was written by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).


Manning was a wharfie and staunch MUA member up until his retirement in 2002. He continued to be very active in the trade union movement until his passing.

He was famous in the Top End for his social activism, most notably, perhaps, for his role during the Wave Hill Walk-Off.

In 1966 a group of Aboriginal people led by Vincent Lingiari walked off the job at Wave Hill Station, 600km south of Darwin, in protest of wages and conditions.

This action, supported by the trade union, was central in paving the way for Aboriginal land rights.

The struggle lasted for nine years until in 1975, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, handed over a parcel of land to the local Gurindji people.

During this struggle, Manning and his J Series Bedford Truck, which is now heritage listed, supported the striking workers camped at Wattie Creek (Daguragu) by running supplies to and from Darwin.

On the 40th Anniversary of the Walk-Off Manning told the ABC his story:

“I loaded this little Bedford with about three tonne of stuff. God, it took nearly two days.

“I think we had to camp half way. The roads were shocking – there were no bitumen roads, there were diversions all around the place.

“They were making the roads, you see, so it was terribly corrugated. We managed to get there the second night about 9.30pm and drove down into the bed of the river where they were all camped, you know and there was great exhilaration by these people that help had arrived in respect of food.”

Manning also used his truck to erect an antenna to establish communications with the underground movement (the Fretilin) in East Timor in the early days of the Indonesian invasion. He campaigned strongly for East Timorese self-determination.

At the 2011 Fretilin Congress Manning was applauded by 700 Fretilin members for his efforts of coordinating the establishment of the communications in difficult conditions.

Manning, who in 2011 was unable to attend the congress due to the stress of his ailing health, was still greatly loved and revered by the East Timorese people.

Prior to the Wave Hill Walk-Off Manning was instrumental in setting up the NT Council for Aboriginal Rights and he was also a co-founder in the NT Trades and Labour Council.

He was recognised for his hard work by becoming a Territory finalist for Australian senior of the year in 2010, the same year he was named Darwin citizen of the year, accepting his prize wearing a Morning Star tie in support of the West Papuans’ struggle for independence.

One of his most recent achievements was relocating and refurbishing the Seafarer’s Centre at Darwin while he was voluntary chair of the Darwin Port Welfare Committee.

Although he was too sick to attend the grand opening, he said he was very proud of the work he had done with the voluntary committee, in getting somewhere safe for visiting seafarers to recuperate.

In paying tribute to Manning, National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said that his long life as a social, political and industrial activist was punctuated by great achievements that manifestly changed the lives of many people for the better.

"He laid strong foundations and his work and commitment would continue for many more years to come," Crumlin said.

"As a branch official of our union and on the National Council, Brian treated others with great respect and generosity; consistent with his labour and political values.

"Together with a raw boned humility and soft humour, he was a great leader and mentor for many more. His union and political standing reflected his determination to bring people together rather than divide them.

"He was a socialist and lived a life combatting elitism and constructing conditions for peace over war. Along with his extroadinary work in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, he was active in the fight for independence in East Timor and was a renowned and respected Internationalist. He will be greatly missed and I extend the union's and the ITF's deepest condolences and sympathies to the family and his many friends and comrades."

Northern Territory Branch Secretary Thomas Mayor said that Manning was a supreme mentor and a pillar of support.

“When I first became an official, I knew where to go to learn the lay of the land both politically and practically,” Mayor said.

“One of the most difficult issues was worker’s compensation. I knew that Brian was on the Board of Inquiry held that was completed in 1984 and that set the foundations for workers compensation for Territorians today, so I went to him for guidance.

“I was also interested in working towards Indigenous advancement and of course Brian’s reputation in this area is second-to-none. I spent several afternoons with Brian talking about these issues. He never once tried to tell me what I should do, but his grasp on history and his no nonsense approach have guided me since.”