Michael Easson


Union Leader Guided by Principles: Michael O’Sullivan, 1941-2013

The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 2013
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Michael O’Sullivan was leader of the Federated Clerks Union, a superannuation pioneer and a corporate governance advocate. He was the chair of the $7 billion CareSuper fund (a director from 1996 to 2012) and president for a decade to 2011 of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors.

He was a man of integrity and sought influence through understanding different points of view, building coalitions and trying, wherever possible, to do the right thing.
Within the industry and like-minded super funds internationally, he was vocal for transparency and good governance.

Michael John O’Sullivan was born on November 25, 1941, and educated at Xavier College, Kew, Melbourne. After winning a Commonwealth scholarship, he enrolled in a bachelor of agricultural science at Melbourne University.

His curiosity led him far from discussions on farm economics and modern agricultural techniques. When he was in his early 20s, the Vatican Council-inspired concept of taking God’s word to the world to defend and promote good causes aroused his idealism.

He joined the Federated Clerks Union and, in 1966, became an official of the Victorian branch. In 1981, he attended the ACTU conference in Sydney and by then, his knowledge was encyclopaedic on personalities of the hundreds of unions present, from ship divers in Western Australia to miners’ delegates in Newcastle.

He mostly knew who would be voting for whom: who should be spoken to, who might really, secretly, be with whom. No vote, no delegate would be left to chance. He tried to gauge the floor and the ballots later in the week for ACTU executive members.

O’Sullivan was a man of measured and sober judgment. Despite opposing the communist leadership in every way, he respected the wharfie, building and other union leaders, for the good they often did, despite their politics.

After Bob Hawke became prime minister, O’Sullivan creatively articulated and advocated among his colleagues the case for those unions exiled from mainstream Labor in the 1950s split to rejoin.

To the hisses, spits and, famously, rotten red tomato throwing by the extreme left, with Jim Maher of the “Shoppies” (the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association), O’Sullivan led the four unions, including the Clerks, Ironworkers and Carpenters, into the Coburg Town Hall in 1985, thus officially ending the ALP split in Victoria.

He was deputy president of the Clerks up to 1988, when he was defeated by Lindsay Tanner for state secretary.

Eventually, in a “peace deal”, O’Sullivan transferred to the national office as president, in which role he won respect from across the political spectrum, particularly from Tanner.

Intriguingly, as his old enemies came to know him, they respected his energy, talent and dedication and wanted this put to good effect. He fostered the formation of the Australian Services Union and was its inaugural president in 1993.

In the 46 years from when he made his decision to join the broad labour movement, he kept true to his vocation. Never destined to be famous, he influenced, trained and inspired many to consider a life of commitment in dark days and bright. Driven by Christian principles, he was not sectarian or prejudiced in some narrow way to those who did not share his faith. He loved to talk about sport, politics and ideas. He was an interesting man.

No one was more embarrassed by praise, as those who saw his reaction in 2011 to being publicly named the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees trustee of the year can testify.
Six months ago, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer but giving up with a whimper was not the O’Sullivan way.

Before Christmas, the cancer had spread. For the last time, he watched the cricket at the MCG on Boxing Day, as he had done since he was 7.

Michael O’Sullivan is survived by his wife, Lynn, and children, Elissa and Damon, their partners, Ian and Donna, and his grandchildren Mabel, Spencer and Clementine.

Michael O’Sullivan’s funeral is at 10am on Wednesday, at St Dominic’s, 818 Riverside Road, Camberwell East, Victoria.