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The moment that helped inform Sally McManus’ political values

Is now the wrong time to be a socialist? I would have been a teenager when the Soviet Union started collapsing, so I’m not burdened by the old Cold War arguments.

Because of coronavirus, unemployment has skyrocketed. Is the federal government’s response right? At the moment, I think the government is just trying to cope. But terrible things like wars and pandemics have changed society – not always, but sometimes – for the better. The social welfare state was built out of World War II. Many protections were also created when people emerged from the Great Depression. People stopped accepting the weaknesses of the system and said, “No, we want better.” It’s up to us to grab hold of that, to shape what comes out of it.

When are you going to run for political office? It has never been an ambition of mine.

I haven’t heard you rule it out, though. I’m not ruling it out. [Grins] But if I were to bet on it, I’d say it’d be a very small chance.


You grew up in western Sydney. Was yours a typical working-class family? Yeah. Neither of my parents went to university. My father didn’t finish high school. Neither of my brothers finished high school. When I enrolled in a bachelor of arts at Macquarie University, my mother said to me, “I never realised you’re good at painting.” [Laughs] So I’m a total, proud Westie.


What did you never go without? And what couldn’t you access? We never went without food. It was only when I went to university that I realised there were all these kids who went to elite private schools and got amazing Higher School Certificate marks. But then you’d be in these classes with them and do better. What became obvious was that people who have more money have a big psychological safety net: a certain amount of confidence when it comes to living.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? Telemarketing. I lasted two weeks. You’d ring a pensioner and they were just so happy to have someone to talk to, but you’re meant to be selling them something. I couldn’t do it.

And the best job? Before I became a union organiser? Pizza Hut delivery driver. I loved the solitude of it, driving around the suburbs, memorising all the maps.

How much is an ACTU Secretary paid? If you include the car allowance, about $190,000. It’s an incredible amount of money. I don’t think anyone needs more than I get. I could survive on much less. If you divided it into an hourly rate, though, it’s probably not very high. There are no weekends. It’s long hours, but I don’t do it for the money.

What do you spend too much money on? My camera, and computer games. I love technology.

What was the last game that you blew money on? Ghost Warrior!


What were you told about death growing up? I grew up in a Protestant family. We were originally Church of England, then my parents decided on the local Baptist church. I grew up believing that when you die, if you let Jesus into your life, you’re going to heaven. If you don’t, you’re a sinner and you’re going to hell.


And now? I’m an atheist. I understand why human beings have a need to construct a grand narrative around life and death, and it’s really important we protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. But I think death is probably like when you go to hospital and get anaesthetised: a lack of consciousness.

People have very strong feelings about you. Have you received death threats? Yes, someone even threatened to behead me once.

How seriously do you need to take those threats? Well, I’ve done martial arts all my life …

Kung-fu and taekwondo, right? Yeah, and at the moment I’m doing kickboxing. So someone who wanted to take me on would want to be careful. [Laughs] People who make death threats often have mental health issues, so I feel a bit sorry for them. Others I just think are pathetic.

How would you most like to pass away and why? Can you overdose from opium? I’ve never tried it. [Laughs] But I imagine, from what I’ve read, that you just sort of float away. Maybe that will be the best thing.

Go out on a literal high. Yeah!

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