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Young, Michael Jerome (Mick) (1936–1996)

by Philip Payton

This article was published online in 2022

Michael Jerome Young (1936–1996), shearer, trade unionist, and politician, was born on 9 October 1936 in Sydney, sixth of eight children of Ray Barnard Young, commercial traveller, and his wife, Kathleen Bridget, née Shanahan, both New South Wales-born and of Irish Catholic descent. Mick attended Marist Brothers’ College, Mosman, leaving at the age of fifteen to become a trainee wool classer. He went to western New South Wales to gain practical experience and, with his garrulous personality and sense of workplace solidarity, fitted readily into the tough culture of the woolshed. By early 1954 he had turned to shearing. During the bitter strikes of the 1950s he aligned himself with the labour movement, becoming at the age of twenty secretary of the Broken Hill Pastoral Workers’ Committee.

 At Broken Hill, Young was influenced by a small group of communists, such as Jim Doyle, who distributed literature to like-minded colleagues. Wilfred Burchett’s China’s Feet Unbound precipitated Young’s lifelong interest in China. In 1957 he travelled through China en route to a communist youth festival in Moscow, foreshadowing his accompanying Gough Whitlam, the leader of the Federal parliamentary Labor Party, on his historic visit to Beijing fourteen years later.

Despite a later boast that he had once shorn 198 sheep in a day, Young turned his back on shearing. In February 1958 he commenced a temporary job as a State organiser with the Australian Workers’ Union, based in Adelaide. There he was spotted by the AWU stalwart Clyde Cameron, who made him a union organiser at Port Pirie. On 2 April 1960 at Rosary Catholic Church, Prospect, Adelaide, he married Mary Elizabeth Dollard, a stenographer. In late 1963 he was elected as organiser of the South Australian branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He had his first experience of electioneering in the 1965 State election at which Labor successfully terminated thirty-two years of Liberal and Country League rule. In 1968 he became ALP State secretary, and the following year also secretary of the federal party, narrowly prevailing over the elderly Francis ‘Joe’ Chamberlain, who had clashed with Whitlam over modernising the ALP.

Young held both positions until 1973, during which period his trade union credentials helped make him a bridge between the ALP’s traditional base and its emerging middle-class supporters. He also assisted in the strategically important federal intervention against the left-dominated state executive of the party’s Victorian branch, which had become widely seen as an electoral liability. In playing a significant part in Labor’s successful Federal election campaign of 1972, he made full use of such modern electioneering methods as television and market research, and was one of those behind the memorable ‘It’s Time’ slogan. Whitlam later judged that the ALP’s discovery of Young was ‘one of the greatest pieces of good fortune the Labor Party has ever had’ (McNicoll 1996, 1).

This major contribution to the party’s fortunes was rewarded with Young’s preselection to contest the safe Federal Labor seat of Port Adelaide at the election of 1974. In his first speech to the House of Representatives, he described his ‘long journey from the shearing shed to this chamber’ and acknowledged the importance of his working-class background, especially ‘the education in hard union politics and the taste for politics stimulated by shearing life’ (Aust. HOR 1974, 235). He called for more representation of women in parliament, improved pay and conditions for pastoral workers, electoral law reform to reduce expenditure on party campaigns, and greater participation in the arts through suburban community centres.

Young soon became celebrated locally as the ‘King of Port Adelaide,’ but his first term ended with his being profoundly shocked by Whitlam’s dismissal and the ALP’s subsequent electoral defeat in December 1975. Whitlam retained his position as party leader, but there was keen competition for the deputy leadership. Following the elimination ballots, three contenders remained: Tom Uren, Paul Keating, and Young. Uren, Whitlam’s least preferred candidate, won the final ballot but the closeness of the contest showed the powerful position Young already had within the parliamentary party, particularly the ALP’s right faction.

From June 1977 Young successively held the shadow portfolios of industry and commerce, employment and industrial relations, youth affairs, and immigration. Rallying the Opposition in the face of defeat, he proved a combative speaker who baited the Fraser government at every opportunity, establishing himself as ‘the master larrikin [who] made his wisecracks infamous’ (Guest 1988, 8). When, for example, Liberal frontbencher Andrew Peacock pronounced on economic policy following a visit to Western Australia, Young wondered ‘how Andrew went from being a wet to a dry just by crossing the Nullarbor’ (Aust. HOR 1987, 359).

Following Labor’s victory in the 1983 Federal election, Young was appointed leader of the House, and awarded the portfolios of special minister of state and vice-president of the Executive Council. As minister responsible for the Australian Electoral Commission and the Australian Federal Police, he oversaw major reforms that included the public funding of political parties. But his ministerial career was to be considerably rockier than his service in the party organisation. Soon after the Hawke government was sworn in, the Combe-Ivanov affair cost Young his ministry.

David Combe, the national secretary of the ALP, had formed a possibly compromising relationship with Valery Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat and agent of the KGB (Committee for State Security) who was under surveillance by the Australian Intelligence Security Organization. Young let slip to the lobbyist Eric Walsh the decision by Prime Minister Bob Hawke to expel Ivanov before this was properly in the public domain. For this indiscretion on a matter of national security, and his denial to the prime minister of having done so, he resigned as a minister on 14 July 1983.

However, Young’s exile to the backbench was short-lived. In January 1984 he resumed his old portfolio of special minister of state and his position as leader of the House, and in February 1984, with the former leader Bill Hayden, formed the party’s centre-left faction to counter the domination of the left and right groupings. Yet within six months he was again at the centre of controversy, which led to his being stood down from the ministry pending an investigation. The issue this time was his failure to declare to customs officers a large Paddington Bear stuffed toy in his wife’s suitcase. This oversight, or deliberate concealment as some critics suggested, was the subject of an inquiry led by Michael Black QC which concluded in August 1984 that Young had ‘no intention to evade duty and made no attempt to evade duty’ (Malone 1984, 1). Cleared of any impropriety, he once again regained his portfolio.

Yet Young had acquired a reputation for being accident-prone, and became something of a controversial figure in the party. At the fractious ALP national conference of July 1984 he voiced his opposition to uranium mining. He lent support to anti-nuclear protestors, and championed the campaign to have the City of Port Adelaide declared a nuclear free zone. Nonetheless, in February 1987 he was appointed minister for immigration and ethnic affairs, and expressed strong support for refugees and multiculturalism. He also became federal president of the ALP (1986–88). His political downfall came in February 1988, the result of his implication in a third controversy. This was the so-called Harris-Daishowa affair, when the ALP had failed to disclose a $10,000 donation from a woodchip company. Fingers were pointed at Young as the culprit. Once again an investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, but by now he had had enough. He announced his resignation from parliament on 8 February 1988, despite strenuous efforts by the prime minister to dissuade him. Hawke felt ‘indescribable sadness’ at Young’s decision to resign, and condemned sections of the press for having ‘driven from public life a great man’ (Malone 1988, 1).

Not all observations were so charitable. The left-wing Tribune considered Young’s demise ‘a watershed’ as ‘rightwing [sic] Labor’s dominance of Australian politics has been dealt a blow which ought to shake it from its arrogance and smug complacency’ (Aarons 1988, 2). There was little sympathy either from the Opposition leader, John Howard, who thought ‘Mick Young dished out more in his political career than he got’ (Malone 1988, 1). Laurie Oakes, a parliamentary press gallery veteran, lamented that parliament would henceforth be very dull as Young ‘was the only politician left with a sense of humour’ (Guest 1988, 8). Hawke later recalled Young as having been invaluable for his ‘down-to-earth, commonsense approach’ that so often made him ‘an anchor to reality’ (Hawke 1994, 193).

In 1990 Young was appointed AO. After leaving parliament he did not retire from public view, but became a lobbyist and political consultant, and the first chair (1994–96) of the Federal government’s Multicultural Advisory Council. He died of leukemia on 8 April 1996 in Sydney and was cremated; his wife and their son and daughter survived him. His early death sparked an outpouring of grief, especially in Labor circles. Of medium height and solid build, with wavy dark hair, his fellow South Australian Don Dunstan remembered him as ‘earthy and ribald, and full of the wry self–deprecatory humor which is typically Australian’ (Dunstan 1996, 25). In 2011, at a fund-raising dinner for the Mick Young Scholarship Trust designed to help disadvantaged children and adults further their education, the former prime minister Julia Gillard hailed him as ‘a leader in a great Labor generation’ which ‘built two great Labor Governments’ beginning with ‘Mick’s greatest campaign. It’s Time’ (Gillard 2011).

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Aarons, Brian. ‘A Watershed for Labor.’ Tribune (Sydney), 17 February 1988, 2
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, 16 July 1974, 234–38
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, 19 February 1987, 359–60
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, 30 April 1996, 38–63
  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, 30 April 1996, 33–48
  • Dunstan, Don. ‘Working-Class Hero.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 April 1996, 25
  • Gillard, Julia. ‘“Thanks Mick. Thanks for What You Did for Me”, Mick Young Scholarship Trust, Fundraising Dinner, 2011.’ Accessed 15 October 2021. https://speakola.com/political/julia-gillard-mick-young-scholarship-trust-2011. Copy held on ADB file
  • Guest, Stephen. ‘Young’s Career Mirrors the Party’s Past 30 Years.’ Canberra Times, 9 February 1988, 8
  • Hawke, Bob. The Hawke Memoirs. Port Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1994
  • Malone, Paul. ‘Dejected Mick Young Leaves Parliament.’ Canberra Times, 9 February 1988, 1
  • Malone, Paul. ‘Young Moves Back into Ministry.’ Canberra Times, 18 August 1984, 1
  • McMullin, Ross. The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991
  • McNicoll, D. D. ‘Tears Flow as Nation Farewells Labor Hero.’ Weekend Australian, 13–14 April 1996, 1–2
  • Menadue, John. Things You Learn along the Way. Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 1999

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Philip Payton, 'Young, Michael Jerome (Mick) (1936–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/young-michael-jerome-mick-32202/text39817, published online 2022, accessed online 4 July 2022.

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