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John Patrick Ducker (1932–2005)

by Bob Chisholm

from Daily Telegraph

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

John Ducker, n.d.

John Ducker, n.d.

On August 21, 1972, a group of plumbers were angry when a six-week strike ended without producing a pay rise as big as they expected. They vented their spleen on a bespectacled union bureaucrat with dark-framed glasses and short back and sides. One started kicking John Ducker, assistant secretary of the NSW Labor Council, in the back of the legs.

Another picked up a garbage can near Sydney Trades Hall and threatened to pour the contents over Ducker. A third said: "We'll get you and finish you!"

Ducker said the next day: "I took the same action I would with a mad dog. That is, I knew that if I showed fear we would be viciously attacked."

If the thugs had wanted to attack an influential Labor man, they chose the right man. The wheeler-dealer Ducker wielded colossal clout in both the Labor Party and the union movement, despite a modest title and a low public profile.

To ALP insiders, Ducker was "the kingmaker". Gough Whitlam would probably never have become prime minister without Ducker's passionate support. Bob Hawke would not have become ACTU president if Ducker had not vetoed attempts to white-ant him. Neville Wran became premier of NSW after Ducker paved the way.

And Bob Carr, once an assistant to Ducker, went on to become premier because the boss blocked his selection as a Labor senate candidate. Ducker thought the time was not ripe for the impetuous young Carr to have an express ride to power in Canberra.

Ducker's power arose from his determination to shake up the NSW union movement, which had become dominated by old men, to make way for younger talent.

In the process, he revitalised the union-influenced state Labor Party. For these ends, Ducker would sacrifice his own friends if he thought it necessary — if he thought some of Labor's "Young Turks" under-performed. Carr was just one of them. Another was Ducker's friend of 20 years and right-wing factional colleague, ALP state secretary Geoff Cahill.

Historian Marilyn Dodkin wrote a book called Brothers about leaders of the Labor Council, the union umbrella body now called Unions NSW. It says that in 1976, Cahill and his wife returned from an overseas holiday to be met at the airport by Barrie Unsworth, then a Labor Council official and later premier.

Unsworth drove the Cahills home, dropped off Mrs Cahill and then, with minimal explanation, drove Geoff to the Sussex St headquarters of both the ALP and the Labor Council. When the lift doors opened, Cahill found himself surrounded by factional heavies. Ducker denounced his performance and demanded his resignation.

After Cahill was told the troubles facing his career if he didn't go quietly, he signed. Then he went to his own office to pick up his belongings. But the lock had already been changed — by apparatchik Leo McLeay, on the orders of party organiser Graham Richardson.

This political execution had been dwarfed by that of state ALP leader Pat Hills. By 1972, Hills was within a couple of seats of defeating Robert Askin's Coalition. Hills had few enemies and, as a devout Catholic, appeared a soulmate of Ducker's. But Ducker worried that the dour Hills was not a politician of the emerging television age, where slick one-line comments were crucial. And some at Labor HQ worried that Hills, if he won the 1973 election, would do something like putting up train fares to pay to upgrade the creaking rail system. Higher fares would cost the party votes which it would need to keep Gough Whitlam's federal ALP in power if Whitlam won his election in December.

So when the state election came around, the ALP head office ran dead, with a modest advertising campaign. Ducker also supported a move by the party's Left to groom Wran, then ALP Upper House leader, for the top state job by finding him a lower-house seat.

Ducker had an unlikely background for kingmaker. He was born on March 29, 1932, in the English industrial town of Hull. Leaving school at 14, he found work carting boxes of kippers on the docks.

When Ducker was 18, his family moved to the higher wages of Australia. In Sydney, he worked as a furnace labourer and became a delegate in the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA). The union's new national secretary, Laurie Short, noticing Ducker's intellect and political compatibility, made him an organiser in the FIA.

In 1961, Ducker moved to the job of organiser with the Labor Council. Then a gap appeared in the ranks of old men: the secretary retired, and his successor, Ralph Marsh, made Ducker his assistant. Marsh was happy to see his young protege making real decisions.

Ducker eventually rose to be both secretary of the Labor Council and president of the ALP, as well as getting a seat in the NSW Upper House. But by 1979, with his power at its peak, Ducker at 47 suffered a health breakdown. Too much living out of suitcases and clinching deals over bottles of scotch left him with high blood pressure. He resigned his Labor Council and ALP posts.

Ducker, conscious of the speech impediment that made his "brother" sound like "bwuvver" on top of his Yorkshire accent, wasn't fiercely ambitious to move into a high-profile ministry. So instead, Wran made him a member of the Public Service Board (he would eventually become its chairman). Ducker already had experience of boards, as a union representative on state government instrumentalities.

This job set Ducker on a new career path. He went on to sit on the boards of many companies, including Qantas, and worked as an industrial relations consultant. But his final career did not end in glory. After he had to step down as chairman of poker-machine maker Aristocrat when profits fell, he faced defeat at last year's annual meeting for his position as director.

Ducker, now sick, stayed away from the annual meeting but contested the directorship. Under his contract, the decision to contest triggered a retirement benefit of at least $550,000. It also triggered outrage in the business community.

Nonetheless, when John Patrick Ducker died on Friday he left many permanent supporters, including his wife Valerie, his two sons and three grandchildren.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Bob Chisholm, 'Ducker, John Patrick (1932–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/ducker-john-patrick-33454/text41831, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

John Ducker, n.d.

John Ducker, n.d.

Life Summary [details]

Birth

29 March, 1932
Hull, Yorkshire, England

Death

25 November, 2005 (aged 73)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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