Colin Clark

Colin Clark was PSA general secretary from 1986 to 1991

Colin  Clark came from a working class background in Christchurch and was active in left-wing politics immediately after World War 2; for a period as a member of the Communist Party. He went to University with a junior scholarship in languages but in 1951 at the height of the hysteria against watersiders, he left university and for several years worked both with the then Public Works Department and also with private contractors on major construction sites such as the Homer Tunnel, and the Waitaki Hydro schemes. He also spent a number of years as officer in charge at some of New Zealand’s isolated weather stations at Campbell and Raoul Islands. He became interested in ornithology and made various studies of birds and discovered a rare Campbell Island spider which is named after him (Gohia Clarki). In 1966 – 67 he was leader of the DSIR Scott Base Party. He then became industrial relations manager for the construction company Downer but his political heart was never at ease working on the employer’s side.

He thought it was a “tremendous thrill” when he was appointed PSA assistant general secretary (arbitration) in 1975 and in 1977 was promoted to deputy general secretary. On the retirement of Barrie Tucker in 1986 He was appointed PSA general secretary. He definitely broke the pattern of his predecessors who had all been career public servants and had mostly held high elected positions in the union.

However his appointment was something of a poisoned chalice. The Labour Government was building a head of steam in the Rogernomics reforms and the 1988 State Sector Act dismantled the unified public service forcing PSA members to become employees of their department or ministry and others of state owned enterprises. Privatisation of Government Print and similar agencies followed. Clark oversaw the transition from state sector to private sector bargaining and largely protected existing conditions of employment for members. “The big agony for the PSA was, for the first time in its history, having to negotiate a redundancy agreement. We had a stark example staring us in the face. The restructuring of Railways had begun with a vengeance and large numbers of jobs were disappearing. Their unions refused to negotiate on redundancy. What the employer did was to put together a very attractive package, wrap it up in a glossy booklet and sent it to staff. Of course people queued up and the union had no part in the process. PSA chose the path of involvement”

After fighting the good fight for quality public services under the neo-classical economic theories of Labour, the election of the Bolger National Government (Ruth Richardson’s tenure as Minister of Finance and Bill Birch’s labour market reforms, the Employment Contracts Act) hit the PSA with a fury. This was when many of the conditions protected in the transition away from the unified public service were lost in concessional bargaining arrangements. Clark led the PSA through some of its toughest battles.

Clark oversaw a major restructuring of the PSA as the branch structures which had served so well for so long in maintaining the integral democracy of the union were weakened by the move from general to departmental employment arrangements. Colin was also a staunch supporter and key builder of the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU) which launched in in 1987.

In 1991 he retired and was replaced by Dave Thorp. He stayed very active in a number of political issues and played a particularly high profile role as spokesperson for the campaign for MMP. When asked on retirement about his legacy he replied “I hope that I will be remembered with some affection by the PSA staff”. He definitely succeeded in that gaol. All those who remember him remember a warm, sincere man with a genuine passion for the betterment of working people. He had a rare skill in being able to communicate with people from all walks of life. We will never forget his laugh and his supportive nature.

Colin Clark died in January 2002.

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