ACCOLADES have begun to flow for Peter Barrack, the progressive activist and long-term Newcastle Trades Hall Council secretary, who died on Friday, aged 84.
His wife, Di Barrack, said her husband had been seriously ill and "in and out of hospital" for more than a year with renal problems that followed an earlier bout with prostate cancer. He died of acute renal failure.
Ms Barrack said the long weekend had complicated funeral arrangements, but the service was likely to be towards the end of this week.
Although trades hall (nowadays known as Hunter Workers) is still an important organisation in Hunter politics and community affairs, it was considerably more powerful in the years before the modern decline of the union movement.
Mr Barrack was trades hall secretary from 1979 to August 2000, retiring just before his 65th birthday.
Mr Barrack was born at Stockton in 1935 and joined the Painter's Union at 18.
His 20 years as a member of the Communist Party of Australia unsurprisingly drew the attention of Australia's main security organisation, ASIO.
So much so, that fellow activist, the late Bob Phillips, wrote in 2011 that Mr Barrack's declassified ASIO file was a big help in compiling a 70-page essay, Peter Barrack - a Life of Political Activism.
The Phillips biography traces the arc of Mr Barrack's political life, and the close links between trades hall and a range of community, social and political campaigns over the decades.
The record shows that Mr Barrack and trades hall were involved in virtually ever major issue that affected the Hunter industrially, and socially, during his time in office.
Mr Barrack was a key organiser for any number of progressive causes, including May Day, Vietnam Moratorium, anti-Apartheid, peace and Indigenous rights.
Over time, the growing respect he received from business and political leaders resulted in board positions on Hunter Water, and various government development agencies, including the Hunter Development Board and the Hunter Economic Development Corporation.
Trades hall was continually pushing to maintain manufacturing jobs in the region, and helped campaign to revive shipbuilding in Newcastle in the 1980s. Submarine and frigate contracts went elsewhere but Newcastle won construction contracts on both jobs.
Mr Barrack was a reformer at Newcastle Workers Club, serving as president from 1981 until 2003.
This role put him in management's shoes, when the club was forced into substantial retrenchments; first in the 1980s and then again in the 2000s after the earthquake rebuild.
"It's been a while since Peter retired, but nobody will argue the fact that he was very well respected by all of the parties, not just the union movement, but the business sector and even the conservative politicians," Ms Barrack said.
He was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 1994.
Hunter Workers secretary Daniel Wallace said Mr Barrack's "socialist way" had left the Hunter "in a much better place".
"Peter's interest in global affairs attracted a lot of attention and Peter often mentioned that intelligence agencies must have had people in the room to know the info they new about him, yet he remained unwavering in his fight for his beloved community and challenged us to rise above and be better," Mr Wallace said.
"Being Novocastrian means you've benefited from the work of a man like Peter.
The greater the gain in life, the bigger the loss felt during this time."
Like many men whose public lives kept them away from their families, Mr Barrack recognised the strain that his union organising and his volunteer activism had placed on those around him.
As he told Bob Phillips, his first marriage, in 1957, dissolved in 1972. He subsequently remarried, and he and Di raised their three children from his first marriage, Kerri, Glen and Tracy, as well as their twins, Peta-Maree and Damien.
Di told Phillips that although she sometimes resented Peter's absences, she had grown up in a political family - they met in a union office - and she had no regrets because "he never let me down".
In a similar fashion, Mr Barrack told Phillips he never regretted his 20 years in the communist party, even though he acknowledged (in Phillips's words) that "the Soviet model that had inspired left-wing union activists for several decades had failed to produce a prosperous and democratic society".
More than 500 people attended Mr Barrack's retirement dinner at the workers club in August 2000.
In a letter at the time, Greg Heys, who had been defeated as a Newcastle Labor lord mayor the year before, said that under Mr Barrack's guidance, trades hall forged links across political divides.
"Being prepared to communicate and work with interests and institutions across perceived ideological divides while being clear about your own beliefs is a key attribute for balanced regional and community development," Mr Heys said.
It was that sort of thinking that saw Mr Barrack, still a CPA member, stand with a markedly more conservative John Tate on a Newcastle City Council ticket in 1986, the first election after the sacking of the Joy Cummings led council in 1984 and its replacement by an administrator.
It would turn out to be a rare ballot that Mr Barrack did not win.
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