We are very sad to have lost our friend and colleague, Michael Beahan, to cancer. Today, Max Ogden, a close friend and colleague in trade union education, pays tribute.
— Max Ogden
I first met Michael around late 1974 or early 1975, when he, along with some others, including Warwick McDonald and Des Hanlon, were based in Melbourne for about a year to get the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA) off the ground. The Minister for Labour, Clyde Cameron, had not yet got the legislation passed, but provided funds to enable the Authority to get going quickly.
In 1975 I participated in one of the first, and excellent, TUTA, three-week, Train the Trainer Courses in Melbourne, which Michael directed. There I met quite a number of TUTA and union trainers, who were to become lifelong friends. From the moment I met Michael I was impressed by his calmness, competence, and very friendly manner.
Michael was born in England to Irish parents and along with his family migrated to Perth when he was about 14. He subsequently did an electrical apprenticeship, then, while working and conducting a small electrical business, he put himself through Teachers’ College and became active in the Teachers’ Union.
After a stint of teaching, he was appointed the first full-time Education Officer for the Western Australian Trades & Labour Council. In this position he was able to play a significant role in the development of TUTA, becoming WA TUTA Director. He was appointed WA State Secretary of the ALP, eventually becoming a WA Senator for 11 years, and elected as a highly regarded President of the Senate for the last two and a half years.
Michael was national leader of Centre Left faction, and was in constant bargaining with both right and left factions, where he gained wide recognition as a person of great integrity, always seeking a united approach, and a wise counsellor.
Our paths rarely crossed during that period, but we caught up again after his Senate career finished, and he moved to Melbourne. From then on our friendship flourished. We attended Fabian and other meetings, and their annual dinner, and he became a regular at our Friday after work pub group at the Standard Hotel. We shared many great lunches where we solved so many of the world’s problems. We were also both active in Open Labor, an attempt to democratise the ALP, by taking power from the factions, still a work in progress.
Michael became widely known and admired around Brunswick where he and Margaret lived. He Chaired Merri Health for a decade, and led or was involved in local campaigns such as saving the bluestone in Brunswick’s lanes.
During the last three years of Michael’s life we worked very closely to develop a project to record the history of TUTA and union education. We were concerned at how many of the pioneers of this movement were starting to pass. Over a coffee one day we finally hit on the idea of getting one of Australia’s great historians, Stuart Macintyre, involved. He also lived in Brunswick, so we moved from one coffee shop to another to meet him.
This proved a turning point. With Stuart’s guidance, we put together an excellent team, and got an Australian Research Council Grant for the trade union education project. Tragically Stuart died a few months before this great project was due to finish. And now so has our great friend Michael, who, as usual, played such a wise, and valuable role in the project.
At 86, Michael was still involved in progressive causes, including the union education history project, right up until his passing. His was an exemplary life of service to improve the lives, especially of those less well off. Everyone whose life who has been touched by him has been privileged, and he is already sorely missed. He had many achievements, but was incredibly modest.
Unless you dug a little deeper, you would not know all Michael had done, as he was never one to talk about himself. So, if ever it can be said of a person, especially a parliamentarian, that they left the world a better place than they found it, it is Michael Beahan.
Other members of our research team will share memories of Michael in our next blog post. We also look forward to sharing excerpts from the interview we recorded with him about trade union education.