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Origlass, Nicholas (Nick) (1908–1996)

by Johanna Trainor

This article was published online in 2022

Nick Origlass, by Johanna Trainor, 1991

Nick Origlass, by Johanna Trainor, 1991

Nicholas Origlass (1908–1996), Trotskyist, trade unionist, environmentalist, and mayor, was born Nicholas Origlasso on 18 January 1908 at Woodstock, North Queensland, fifth of six children of Italian-born Nicholas Origlasso, railway worker, and his Irish-born wife Ellen, née O’Driscoll. Nick—often also called ‘Mick’ by family and colleagues—attended Christian Brothers’ College at Gregory Terrace, Brisbane, completing his junior public examination in 1922 and 1923. He secured a job in the Queensland Taxation Office, which he found ‘stultifying and rigidly hierarchical’ (Greenland 1999, 6), and in 1929 he was dismissed for showing disrespect towards his superiors.

It was the beginning of the Depression, and like many other workers, Origlasso travelled the country looking for employment. He finally found work at the developing Mount Isa mine, arriving during a strike against the rising price of beer. Decisions relating to the strike were made through mass meetings of the town’s inhabitants. ‘This rough-and-ready Athenian forum of miners and bagmen’ was his introduction to participatory democracy, a political process with which he would ‘be associated … for the rest of his life’ (Greenland 1999, 7). Once construction of the mine was completed, he left for Sydney, arriving in 1931. He joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), attracted by its denunciation of capitalism. Nonetheless, within six months, he was suspected of being a police agent and suspended. He refused an offer to have his membership reinstated, instead joining the Glebe branch of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement and its anti-Stalinist rebels.

Moving back to Brisbane in 1934, Origlasso began labouring work at the new abattoir under construction on the Brisbane River. He brought with him his lover, Mary Elizabeth Nolan, née Bartley, a dressmaker, organising for her to reside nearby while he lived with his parents. An avowed anti-Stalinist, he joined the Trotskyist Workers’ Party of Australia (Left Opposition), in 1936 helping establish a branch in Brisbane. At the WPA’s March 1937 Sydney conference he was elected its industrial secretary. He remained in Sydney, with his political affiliations now firmly aligned with Trotskyism; he would be the indisputable leader of this little band of ‘would-be revolutionaries’ (Greenland 1999, 81) for three decades. On 9 December 1938 at the Registrar’s Office, Paddington, he married Mary. The marriage did not last. In 1942 he left her to cohabit with Patricia Joan Hart, née Oaten, a stenographer, marrying her at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney, on 30 June 1952, after his divorce was finalised.

By 1940 Origlass had gained employment as an ironworker at Mort’s Dock at Balmain, and dropped the final ‘o’ from his surname. Although his slow and deliberate delivery of complicated ideas could be exasperating, he had ‘a charisma about him’ (Wyner 1996). He was a persuasive orator and a witty debater, commanding respect for his political integrity and tactical mastery. In 1942 he was elected as the boiler-shop union delegate of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia (FIA), whose members had a long tradition of direct action, with mass meetings of dockyard workers making decisions before informing union officials. By late 1944 the rank and file were growing impatient with wartime wage restraint, and were concerned about postwar employment opportunities. In November, a resolution by Origlass seeking the unpegging of wages and the introduction of a forty-hour week was passed at a meeting of Mort’s Dock workers, raising the ire of the CPA-controlled national union of the FIA.

When Origlass was suspended as union delegate after a further clash with union officials in early 1945, his co-delegates resigned in solidarity and the executive appointed replacements. The boiler-shop rank and file refused to work with the FIA-appointed delegates and stopped work on 16 April 1945. Cockatoo Island ironworkers and several other waterfront shops followed suit. By the end of the month, almost three thousand workers had withdrawn their labour in his defence. The strike lasted until 28 May, when he was reinstated and elected assistant secretary of the now rebel Balmain branch of the union; a year later he became branch secretary.

The 1950s saw Origlass pivot his political energy towards gaining entry into the Australian Labor Party (ALP), aiming to build Trotskyist influence. It took several applications before he achieved his objective at the annual conference of 1954. After Mort’s Dock closed in 1958, he eventually found work as a pressman for the Daily Telegraph. In 1958 one of the more conservative Balmain councillors on the Leichhardt Municipal Council (LMC) died, and Origlass was endorsed as the official Labor candidate in the April by-election, narrowly winning the seat. Re-elected in 1959, together with his political and industrial ally Issy Wyner, he was committed to introducing the politics of participatory democracy.

In late 1964 Origlass commenced a love affair with Daphne Gollan, a lecturer in history at the Australian National University and a kindred political spirit. Joan reconciled herself to the affair, with Gollan becoming a discreet and permanent part of Nick’s private and political life. His position as an ALP Leichhardt councillor ended after he and Wyner breached a Labor caucus decision by voting against a development application to install a chemical-tank farm adjacent to housing at White Bay; they were expelled from the party in early 1968. At the State election of February 1968, he nominated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Balmain to test support, narrowly missing election against the official Labor candidate but topping the poll in his suburb of Balmain. Most of the Balmain branch of the ALP joined Origlass and Wyner in the breakaway Balmain–Leichhardt Labor Party. Both dissenters were successfully re-elected at the 1968 December council election.

At the 1971 election a majority of Independents won control of the council, defeating the conservative ALP majority. Elected mayor (1971–73), Origlass introduced participatory democracy or ‘open council,’ including onsite inspections with neighbours before development applications were decided, and mandating every resident’s right to attend and speak at council meetings. He opposed the State government’s planned radial expressway system, challenging the construction of the north-western and western expressway distributors designed to pass through Glebe, Annandale, and Rozelle, and initiated negotiations with the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and the Whitlam government for a Federal buyout of the church lands in Glebe. The campaigns resulted in the abandonment of the expressway scheme, the retention of low-income housing in the inner city, and the preservation of the Glebe Estate’s historic built environment.

By the end of the decade, Origlass had minimal involvement with the Trotskyists, becoming more committed to environmental activism, particularly the campaign to transform vacated industrial sites on the Balmain foreshore into public open space. Having been defeated in the 1980 council election, he stood again and was elected in 1984, and elected mayor for the 1987–88 year. He was arrested in 1986 when protesting against construction on a local park site, and again in 1989, aged eighty-one, while demonstrating against a nuclear waste dump in Brisbane. The introduction of ‘open council’ into local government by Origlass and Wyner influenced many Australians into believing that maximising citizen participation in the decision-making processes of government was achievable.

Described by Wyner as the ‘embodiment of political honesty and integrity,’ Origlass displayed ‘courage, tenacity and obstinacy when … pressing for a well-thought-out decision’ (Wyner 1996). After suffering several strokes in the last two years of his life, he did not contest the council election of 1995. He derived considerable comfort in his final days from Joan and Daphne, who visited him in hospital together. Survived by Joan and Daphne, and one of his and Joan’s two sons, he died on 17 May 1996 at Balmain and was cremated. Origlass Park in Balmain was named in his honour.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Gollan, Daphne. ‘The Balmain Ironworkers’ Strike of 1945 Part 1: The Factions Emerge, 1942–3.’ Labour History, no. 22 (May 1972): 23–41
  • Gollan, Daphne. ‘The Balmain Ironworkers’ Strike of 1945 Part II: The Strike against the Union.’ Labour History, no. 23 (November 1972): 62–73
  • Greenland, Hall. ‘Nick Origlass: Local Exception or Prophet for the 21st Century.’ A Heritage Week talk, 14 April 2010. Accessed 11 March 2021. https://archivescollection.anu.edu.au/index.php/origlass-nicholas. Copy held on ADB file
  • Greenland, Hall. Red Hot: The Life & Times of Nick Origlass 1908–1996. 2nd ed. Neutral Bay, NSW: Wellington Lane Press, 1999
  • Mitchell Library. MLMSS 6614, Nick Origlass papers, 1907–1992
  • Mitchell Library. MLMSS 8042, Daphne Gollan papers, ca. 1918–2002, with the papers of Bob Gollan and Nick Origlass
  • Roberts, Alan. ‘Obituary: Nick Origlass.’ Arena Magazine, no. 24 (August–September 1996): 54–55
  • Short, Susanna. Laurie Short: A Political Life. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992
  • Trainor, Johanna. ‘Australian Urban Squatters of the 1970s: Establishing and Living a Radical Lifestyle in Inner-City Sydney.’ PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 2020
  • Wyner, Issy. ‘Obituary: Nick Origlass (1908–1996).’ Hummer 2, no. 6 (Winter 1996). https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/vol-2-no-6/origlass/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Wyner, Issy. Open Council: A New Era in Local Government. Balmain, NSW: Balmain Association, 2008

Citation details

Johanna Trainor, 'Origlass, Nicholas (Nick) (1908–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/origlass-nicholas-nick-32161/text39746, published online 2022, accessed online 18 August 2022.

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