Merv Flanagan memorial

23 November 2017

The Hon. JOHN GRAHAM (16:23): I draw the attention of the House to an issue raised in this Parliament 100 years ago, which featured in a debate on a censure motion that lasted for three sitting days. Merv Flanagan was a Labour Movement martyr who was murdered in 1917. He is yet to see justice. It was the time of the 1917 rail strike—still the largest industrial dispute in New South Wales—and one-third of the State's unionists were on strike. Of course, the nation was at war. Merv Flanagan was a striking carter. On 30 August 1917, on Pyrmont Bridge road in Camperdown, there was an argument, a scuffle, and Merv Flanagan was shot dead. He was with his brother James Flanagan and his friend Henry Williams, who was shot in the leg. The man who fired the shots was Reginald Wearne. He was a stock and station agent, and a strike-breaker shipped in from Bingara. He was also the brother of a powerful conservative State politician.

Let us concede that it was a different, more violent time, and that there was fault on both sides. What happened was tragic. What followed was an outrage. Sydney's establishment rallied around the murderer and Wearne was quickly granted bail. He received hundreds of letters and telegrams of support, some of which described Flanagan as "an enemy of the State" and "a parasite of the lowest social order". His defence was funded by the wealthy, including A. M. Hemsley of the law firm Allen, Allen and Hemsley, who passed the hat around at Sydney's elite Union Club. Wearne was then set free. A Coroner's inquest finding was used to have manslaughter charges withdrawn. Unusually, a jury was empanelled to hear the case. The Acting Coroner hailed from Wearne's home town of Bingara. In contrast to Wearne's freedom, the brother, James Flanagan, and Williams were each jailed for three months. The murderer Wearne was free, but James Flanagan and Williams were jailed. The striker, Merv Flanagan, was dead. Now, 100 years later, it is still an injustice. First, I thank the Government for supporting a condolence motion in this House last Wednesday 15 November. The motion stated:

That this House places on record its deepest sympathy with the widow, orphans and relatives of the late Mervyn Ambrose Leslie Flanagan, killed at Bridge Road, Camperdown on Thursday 30th August 1917.

A resolution in identical terms was passed in the other Chamber of this Parliament on 26 September 1917. We are joined today by one of those relatives, Sandra Williams, the granddaughter of Merv Flanagan. As a result of that resolution, Sandra, I am able to convey to you the thoughts and the warm wishes of all members of this House. However, I believe we need to do more. It is never too late for justice. As the local member, R. J. Stuart-Robertson, said at the time:

The sooner something is done to assure the public that justice is to be had in our courts of law for the unionist, whether dead or alive, the better it will be for the State.

That is why today I wanted to tell Merv Flanagan's story. That is why today I call on the State Government to assemble and to release any documents the State holds that relate to this case, including any Cabinet, police and prosecution files that might be held on the incident, the legal process and the policy of issuing weapons to strike‑breakers. That is why today I call on the Government to issue an apology to the family for the legal injustice that was done. If this Government does not, I am confident the next Government will. That is why today I call on the City of Sydney to join with the labour movement to permanently recognise the site of Merv Flanagan's death in Camperdown. I have been informed today by the City of Sydney that it is open to doing so, and I welcome that. Today we remember Merv Flanagan. We remember his story. We remember his family. We remember this injustice. Even after 100 years, we ask that these things be done so that we may confidently say that it is still possible to assure the public that justice is to be had, for any unionist, indeed for any citizen, dead or alive in New South Wales.