Brian Manning was born in Mundubbera, Queensland, in 1932. His parents worked as share farmers on the outskirts of town until his father joined the army at the outbreak of the war. In 1941, Brian, with his mother and four younger siblings, moved to Brisbane.
One profound event occurred shortly after the move. Brian’s mother woke him in the middle of the night after having miscarried. The young Manning took responsibility for burying the foetus. With his mother seriously ill in hospital, Manning spent the next seven weeks caring for his younger siblings until the authorities were alerted to the fact that the children were on their own. Manning was nine years old.
After leaving school at 16 on the insistence of his father, Manning developed as a jack-of-all-trades. He took up positions as a clerical worker, storeman, plasterer’s labourer and offsider to a master builder. In different ways, each radicalised him.
So too did his home life, which was in turn nurturing and brutalising. Close to his mother, whose musical talents he inherited, Manning had a difficult relationship with his father, often a violent drunk. After a nasty altercation, he moved out of home and back to Mundubbera, where he formed, with his older half sister Margaret and a cousin, a dance band.
After noticing groups of boys standing by the door, Manning decided to set up a dance school, which became so popular that the local council ended up providing him with a larger venue to accommodate all his students. It was in Mundubbera that Manning’s first child, Linda, was conceived.
Manning shifted in 1956 to Darwin, where he worked as a carpenter for the Works Department, patrol officer and later fireman at the airport, manager of the Workers’ Club and on the waterfront. It was during his stint with the Workers’ Club that Manning bought the now famous Bedford truck that will be forever associated with his name.
After three years in Darwin, Manning joined the Communist Party. His Darwin home, shared with other “reds”, was known satirically as the “Kremlin”. From the start Manning and his housemates tried to shift the focus of the local branch of the CPA to issues beyond the wharves.
One issue taken up was the “Stay Put Malayans” incident. In 1961 three indentured men who had been working in Australia were threatened with deportation after losing their jobs. With the support of Jim Bowditch, the editor of the NT News, and the CPA, Manning and others set up an anti-deportation committee which hid the men and raised their case across the country.
Eventually the federal government backed down, and the men were allowed to stay. By now, Manning had formed close relationships with politically active Indigenous men such as Davis Daniels and Jacob and Phillip Roberts from the Roper River area.
Together, they set up the Council for Aboriginal Rights. The NTCAR became a formidable defender of Aboriginal rights. It was this organisation, with Manning as assistant secretary, that pushed for the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) to get equal pay for Aboriginal workers.
After Dexter Daniels triggered a large walk-off of Gurindji and other Aboriginal workers from the British Vestey Company’s Wave Hill Station in August 1966, Manning left Darwin in his Bedford truck, laden with the most practical form of support he could offer: food. Manning and the small leadership group of NTCAR soon formed the core of the Gurindji’s “first wave” of assistance.
Manning then went to work on the waterfront and became secretary of what would later be the NT branch of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF). Here he ensured that Aboriginal workers got a chance to work on the wharves by stumping up union membership under the system of no ticket no start. He also used his influence to lobby the National WWF to ban the handling of Vestey’s goods. In the early 1970s, Manning’s activism on behalf of workers ensured that barely an issue of the NT News went to press that did not feature his name.
In 1975 Manning travelled to East Timor, where he took up a request to help organise a union. While the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) coup sidelined these efforts, Manning, inspired by Denis Freney, went on to play a pivotal role in the clandestine radio communication between Fretilin members in Dili and their overseas mission.
An obituary of this size cannot do justice to a man who consistently strove to secure justice for others. Each activity he was involved in opens up new and colourful paths along the road to social justice. As a unionist, activist, writer and photographer, Manning left a legacy that will continue for generations.
He is survived by his children, Linda, Brian, Louisa and Jon, and by his grandchildren. A daughter, Sandra, predeceased him. Manning also had an extended tribal familial connection with the Warameri clan group at Elcho Island. His son Brian is trying to raise funds to have the legendary Bedford truck restored
[Visit https://www.facebook.com/thebedfordtruck to chip in for the restoration effort.]