Interview: As They Say In The Bible ...
Industrial: Just Doing It
Unions: Breaking Into the Boys Club
Activists: Making the Hard Yards
Bad Boss: In the Pooh
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Pop Will Eat Itself
Technology: Dean for President
International: Rangoon Rumble
Education: Blackboard Jungle
Review: From Weakness to Strength
The Locker Room
A Recipe for Conflict
After the Accident
Cuba - the Debate Continues
Greetings from Japan
Making the Hard Yards
By Jim Marr
Three years back home, near Taree, changed Mal Cochrane's view of the world and where he fitted in.
He returned to the mid-north coast in 1997 with a police badge, a grand final winner's medal and Rothmans Medal in his kit, a wife on his arm and young children in tow. The kid from Purfleet Mission had been to the big city and kicked plenty of goals.
But co-ordinating a juvenile justice program, put together by Taree-based Tom Powell was, to put it mildly, an eye-opener.
"It was interesting, yeah," Cochrane drawls. "It was very challenging but, in a lot of cases, also very rewarding.
"Those three years changed my attitude. I found I wasn't looking at things from a policeman's point of view any more."
When he returned to the city Cochrane handed in his badge and applied for a position with the PSA. In 2001 he was confirmed as the union's Aboriginal Liason Officer, dealing with workplace problems facing Indegenous workers around the state and, perhaps more importantly, ensuring they felt comfortable contributing to the organisation.
In his view, it is an opportunity to work on his community's positives, rather than constantly battling negatives, and that's something he is passionate about.
Cochrane linked with a group of like-minded activists in Sydney - NSW Labor Council's Adam Kerslake, Les Tobler of the CFMEU, the ASU's Kevin Tory, Charlene Emzin Boyd from the Teachers Federation and Diat Callope of the IEU - Aboriginals committed to seeing their people play bigger union roles.
They supported one another in NSW and are all active on the ACTU's Indigenous Committee.
Kerslake explains their rationale like this: "Unions are natural allies of Aboriginal people but, for a whole lot of historical reasons, the partnership hasn't been as strong as it should have been.
"To cement the alliance we need to see Aboriginals playing greater roles in their unions and unions encouraging them to do it."
That, he says, is Cochrane's strength. The former Manly hooker is a natural leader.
For his part, Cochrane is enthusiastic about the PSA, the support and encouragment he gets to carry out that mission. With the Teachers Federation having set the original benchmark, he would like to see other unions recognising, encouraging and employing Aboriginal members.
"It's not about separatism," he says, "it's about recognising cultural differences and addressing them so everyone benefits.
"A lot of our people feel more comfortable discussing their issues with a fellow Aboriginal, at least in the first instance. Affiliation with unions goes back a long, long way with our people. There is a perception that trade unions are there to fight for people's rights and Aboriginal people understand that concept, absolutely."
So, what happens in practice?
Cochrane has set about electing Aboriginal delegates, sometimes alongside existing representatives as well as on jobs where there hasn't been an elected union presence. Interestingly, in the latter case, more and more, he says, general members are approaching Aboriginal delegates with their concerns.
He is in the process of helping put together a steering committee across the Department of Education and Training that will raise issues of importance to its Aboriginal members.
He finds the same issues raising their heads, department by department, agency by agency. Harrassment, discrimination, lack of career paths, and limited access to training still blight Indigenous advance.
Old attitudes, it seems, die hard.
"Look, things are improving," Cochrane says, "but it is happening too slowly. If there was a better understanding of Indigenous people we would all benefit.
"I've been around and I can tell you that Aboriginal people are skillful, knowledgeable and resilient but that is not always the way everyone sees us."
Away from work he is CEO of the Australian Indigenous Rugby League. Last year it sent an under-21 team on a six-match tour of Britain and, subsequently, at least two members have been signed to NRL contracts.
The venture came to fruition, he says proudly, "thanks largely to the support of Maurie O'Sullivan and the PSA".
Cochrane also maintains football contacts as a member of the NRL's judiciary where he sits, often enough, alongside longtime friend and 1987 grand final winning team-mate, Darrell Williams.
He was a member of the panel that sent down John Hopoate for the sensational anal probes that rocked the game and brought international notoriety.
Cochrane copped plenty of lip during his footy career, some of it none-too subtle. While not condoning inappropirate coments, he adopted the old 'what's said on the field, stays on the field" response.
He identifies two responses to the racism which confronts many Aboriginal people - one confrontational, the other educational.
"Most times I choose the educational approach because, at least, it leaves the other person with something to think about," he says.
Which is all well and good but, at the end of the day, how do you convince unions they will benefit from creating and resourcing positions for people like Mal Cochrane?
Well, PSA figures show that since they put dollars where their bicultural mouths were, Aboriginal membership has steadily climbed.
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