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Pont, George William (1910–1992)

by D. W. Hunt

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George William Pont (1910–1992), trade union official and industrial commissioner, was born on 14 October 1910 at Bloomfield station in western Queensland (though his birth certificate records nearby Blackall), third and youngest child of Queensland-born parents George William Pont, shearer and station hand, and his wife Minnie, née Howard. Pont senior had been prominent in the 1891 shearers’ strike; he was convicted of intimidation but, after five months in gaol on remand, acquitted of arson. Known as ‘Bluey’ on account of his red hair, young George attended Blackall State School then, although nominally an Anglican, St Joseph’s Catholic primary school. He embraced union principles, buying his first Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) ticket when he secured a school-holiday job as a ‘picker-upper’ at the town’s wool-scouring works. Leaving school at fourteen, he briefly held an apprenticeship to a motor mechanic, and later worked throughout the central west as a truck driver, shed hand, and wool presser. From 1931 to 1936 he was a labourer and miner at Mount Isa, before moving to Mackay where he earned wages as a rock driller and mill hand.

On 19 June 1937 at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Mackay, Pont married Mona Rose Schmidt. In 1940 the AWU appointed him organiser at Mackay; in 1942 he occupied a similar position at Julia Creek; and in 1943 he became the union’s western district secretary, based at Longreach. Four years later he was transferred to Cairns as far northern district secretary, a position he was to hold until 1966. A big man, 6 feet 3 inches (191 cm) tall and weighing at least 16 stone (102 kg), he used his size to impress if not intimidate others, whether on the football field (he was a useful rugby league player) or as a union official.

Pont was determined yet realistic in pursuing and protecting members’ interests, particularly during World War II when workers faced pressure to moderate their claims. Like other leaders of the AWU, he was committed to arbitration rather than direct action, and insisted on award provisions being observed by both workers and employers. From the 1950s technological change in the sugar industry inexorably reduced the size of the workforce and thus AWU membership. In fighting to preserve existing jobs and regulate new occupations, Pont was later described as a ‘union policeman enforcing rules whose purpose belonged to the past’ (Burrows and Morton 1986, 133). He would have taken the comment as a compliment.

In some but not all respects Pont fitted the AWU mould of strong, hard-nosed officials, such as Clarrie Fallon, Tom Dougherty, and Joe Bukowski. Pont was less ambitious and less inclined to manipulative power plays, though still active in quelling dissent from ‘the Commos’ (Townsville Daily Bulletin 1950, 1). He was prominent in the union, attending all annual Queensland delegate meetings from 1943 to 1966, except one (in 1964, when seriously injured in a car accident), and most national conventions. Following Fallon’s death in January 1950, the State executive appointed Pont president of the Queensland branch two months later. In December, however, he lost the ballot to Bukowski, who viewed him as a rival, especially when he again unsuccessfully contested the office in 1952.

Pont was a long-term and committed Australian Labor Party member, even during those periods when the AWU severed its affiliation with the ALP. His political connections, coupled with the dominance of the AWU during the long period of Labor government in Queensland (1932–57), played a part in his serving on two royal commissions: into the sugar industry (1950) and into off-the-course betting (1951–52). He was a frequent ALP election campaign director at Cairns and a regular delegate to Queensland Labor-in-Politics conventions. In 1957 he opposed the party’s expulsion of Premier Vince Gair, because he knew it would cause a split, and he was saddened by the ensuing schism, for which he blamed Gair.

Appointed to the Queensland Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Pont assumed office on 18 July 1966. His selection by the Country and Liberal parties’ coalition government demonstrated the respect he had earned in industrial relations circles, regardless of political and union connections. The government doubtless also regarded him as a safer choice than one from a more radical union. Commissioner Pont’s decisions were typically clear, well informed, and briefly expressed. Perhaps his most significant case was the 1967 award ending discriminatory pay and conditions for the State’s Aboriginal station hands. Pont had some misgivings that equal pay would mean higher Aboriginal unemployment, but resisted the opposition of employers and the obstructionist tactics of the State government. Not notably progressive, he nevertheless had a strong sense of justice. He was primarily influenced by his deep knowledge of actual working conditions, his empathy with those subject to them, and, in the equal-pay case, his experience organising Aboriginal employees in the north.

In 1978 and 1979 Pont was the centre of controversy when employers and the government criticised supposedly generous provisions he awarded to pastoral workers. The president of the National Party, Sir Robert Sparkes, and the premier, (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, linked the decision with Pont’s AWU background, suggesting further that the commissioner chose the cases he wanted. The president of the State Industrial Court, Justice R. H. Matthews, then held a special sitting of the full bench publicly to defend the integrity of the commissioners and the rostering system. Pont also responded forcefully to his critics. On 17 July 1980 he retired, having served two seven-year terms and being close to the statutory retirement age of seventy.

In retirement he lived at Cairns. He had a keen interest in sport and he enjoyed fishing and gem-fossicking, the latter with his wife. Unlike her, he was not a churchgoer but regularly mowed the lawn of St Peter’s Anglican Church. A widower from 1991, he moved to Bundaberg, the home of his youngest daughter. He died there on 30 October 1992 and was buried in the Forest View cemetery, Cairns. His two sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Worker. 'Union Bids Farewell to a Lifetime Friend.’ 14 December 1992, 4
  • Burrows, Geoff, and Clive Morton. The Canecutters. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1986
  • Hearn, Mark, and Harry Knowles. One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 18861994. Oakleigh, Vic.: Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996
  • May, Dawn. Aboriginal Labour and the Cattle Industry: Queensland from White Settlement to the Present. Oakleigh, Vic.: Cambridge University Press, 1994
  • Pont, G. W. Autobiographical notes. Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Fryer Library, University of Queensland
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 2 May 1979, 4437
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 4 September 1979, 221
  • Tennant, Kylie. Speak You so Gently. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1959
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin. 'Plebiscite System to be Retained.’ 25 February 1950, 1

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. W. Hunt, 'Pont, George William (1910–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/pont-george-william-17796/text29375, accessed 20 September 2017.

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