17 September 2021

Unionist and former councillor John Coombs remembered as a man of conviction

| Clare McCabe
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The late John Coombs with his wife Gwen and great grandchildren Claire and Thomas Martin. Photo: Supplied.

The well-known trade unionist and former Upper Lachlan Shire Councillor John Coombs has died.

Maritime workers across Australia paused to pay tribute to the former national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia when his funeral service was held on Thursday last week. He died on September 1.

Unionists Jim Donovan, Greg Combet AM and Paddy Crumlin remembered Mr Coombs in the service, which was broadcast on the video conferencing program Zoom.

In attendance were just 10 people due to COVID-19 restrictions.

He was most well-known for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with waterside workers during an industrial dispute with the Federal Government and port operator Patrick Stevedores.

Mr Coombs was critical to the nation-building initiatives of the Hawke and Keating government and the Australian trade union movement, president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the international president of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, Paddy Crumlin said.

“The widespread community picket lines and international support in an industry that is critical to the national interest continues to stand as a great tribute to his and the trade union movements ongoing importance to Australian values,” Mr Crumlin added.

His daughter Jenny remembers the toll the dispute took.

“I remembered the day he rang me about the Patrick’s dispute and I was in shock,” she said.

“I was so scared for him at that time – the weight of the world seemed to be on his shoulders but he never wavered. He made sure that the world saw the truth, he made sure that governments, companies, blood corporations were held accountable for their actions.

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“His dream was always the farm, ever since I was little he always wanted a farm with horses. It was always going to be his happy place and it was an absolute joy to see him there.

“The beautiful community of Crookwell and Laggan was his utopia for his retirement.”

Mr Coombs moved to the country in 2001 after his tenure as wharf leader between 1993-2000.

His first-born son Garry developed multiple sclerosis and was cared for by his parents in Laggan.

“He took on his journey as his own and the love and care that mum and dad gave to Garry and devoted to him was inspirational,” Jenny said.

Granddaughter Bonnie remembered her grandfather as a cherished family man.

“All we have is memories to hold on to and we will hold them close to us forever,” she said.

Upper Lachlan Shire Council mayor John Stafford said Mr Coombs would be remembered for his leadership.

“Like many people throughout Australia, our local community is mourning,” Councillor Stafford said.

“John was such a great contributor to society on so many levels. He contributed a great deal locally, not the least of which, as a councillor, and his leadership of his union in one of Australia’s biggest industrial disputes is legendary,” he said.

Mr Coombs was a councillor of the Upper Lachlan Shire Council following the amalgamation of the Gunning and Crookwell councils. He served a single term between 2004 and 2008.

It was during a difficult time for the community with the proliferation of wind farms beginning to infiltrate the bush landscape.

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The first wind farm had already been installed in 1998 and Mr Coombs and the council would oversee a number of wind farm applications.

Other councillors recall Mr Coombs as a man of strong convictions.

“He was a very knowledgeable man and very passionate in his beliefs to do with (the) council, and he was very committed to the role of councillor,” former Mayor John Shaw said.

“John Coombs came to the job with a high profile and some people didn’t like him because their political views were different to his, but he worked very well with his fellow councillors and I found him easy to work with and easy to get along with.”

Councillor Brian McCormack OAM presided as the first mayor of the Upper Lachlan Shire after acting as administrator through the merger, said that he was quite fond of Mr Coombs and they grew to be friends, but that it had a shaky start.

“He tried to do things the way he’d done them in waterfront disputes but he soon learned that local council is very different from dealing with waterside workers,” Cr McCormack said.

“I remember very well an early meeting at Taralga when he tried to lay down the law and he got short shrift there.

“Over the course of his term he really grew into the job and was a very good councillor, with a passion for the people and a particular aptitude for the financials.”

Mr Coombs, who was 81 and formerly of Laggan, is survived by his wife Gwen and two of his children, Stephen and Jenny.

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