THE “O’SHANNASSY PROBLEM”
Written By: Hone Heke
ACP Candidate Member
Ray O’Shannassy (1923-1990), labourer, communist and trade unionist, was born on 1 July 1923 at Mount Pritchard, New South Wales, third surviving child of Victorian-born parents Martin O’Shannassy, carpenter, and his wife Vera Beatrix, née Calman. Having limited education, Ray worked during the 1940s as a labourer at the Sunshine Harvester Works, Melbourne. He was aggressively leftist and joined the Communist Party of Australia.
As an organiser for the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, in 1951, O’Shannassy took part in a CPA reform movement that opposed the vehemently anti-communist New South Wales branch secretary W F (Fred) Thomas. With two other CPA members, Tom Quinn and Joe Ferguson, O’Shannassy talked to workers on building sites, distributed leaflets to encourage union membership and campaigned for better working conditions. Elected a treasurer of the BLF, he was expelled from the CPA for allegedly stealing union money.
In 1962 O’Shannassy moved to Leeton, where in July that year he was narrowly admitted (4 votes to 3) to the local branch of the CPA. Moving again in about 1964 to Carlton, Melbourne, he successfully argued in court for a comrade charged with assaulting police at a political demonstration. In 1965 he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam War outside the consulate of the United States of America.
“O’Shannassy disturbed cautious members with his firebrand words and actions. While some were impressed by his focused tenacity and eloquence, others were either puzzled by the variety of his causes or alarmed by his uncompromising tactics.”
Having left Melbourne by 1967, O’Shannassy worked ‘up bush’ for the BLF. After a brief period in Sydney he arrived in Canberra in 1970, found employment at the Hotel Canberra and joined the Federated Liquor & Allied Industries Employees Union of Australia. Elected assistant-secretary (1970-71) and secretary (1971-72) of the ACT Trades & Labour Council, he later worked for the ACT Department of Housing and Construction.
Active in Canberra’s CPA, at meetings O’Shannassy disturbed cautious members with his firebrand words and actions. While some were impressed by his focused tenacity and eloquence, others were either puzzled by the variety of his causes or alarmed by his uncompromising tactics. His fellow CPA member, the historian Daphne Gollan, praised his political acumen but despaired of his tactless manner. An Australian Security Intelligence Organization agent described him as ‘loud-mouthed’.
O’Shannassy illegally occupied low-cost accommodation that was about to be bulldozed, demonstrated outside the Indonesian embassy against the invasion of East Timor and picketed the National Library of Australia about the management’s toleration of asbestos. He was often sent to Goulburn gaol, convicted of offences such as trespass, wrongful entry, wilful obstruction and occupation; he conducted his own defence with more tenacity and wit than success. Driving senior bureaucrats to distraction with his long, fractious arguments, he was referred to as ‘The O’Shannassy Problem’. However, the Federal member for Fraser, Ken Fry, found him a considerate ‘squatter’ at his electoral office, arriving punctually at closing time each day and leaving promptly when it opened next morning. His last battle was with the New South Wales Department of Corrective Services over a disputed rail fare from Goulburn to Canberra. It resulted in his incarceration in Long Bay gaol, Sydney.
Short, pugnacious and persistent, O’Shannassy discussed local, national and international politics forcefully and quoted from the Marxist classics frequently; he was particularly fond of Mark Twain’s parable ‘The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg’ (1899). He occasionally gambled at the ‘TAB’. Unmarried, he died of ischaemic heart disease on 31 July 1990 at Long Bay gaol and was cremated. For about ten years from 1993 Ray O’Shannassy House offered low-cost housing at Narrabundah, ACT.