In focus: John Robertson

Former NSW Labor Leader and unionist John Robertson has turned his considerable organisational skills to helping those who struggle to put food on the table, writes Sue Osborne.

The best teachers in the world will fail if students turn up to class hungry every morning.

John Robertson believes education is critical to a child’s life and, as CEO of Foodbank, having the School Breakfast 4 Health program under his auspices speaks to his core beliefs.

“Some kids come from families where they don’t have the opportunity to have breakfast, and Foodbank can stop them being left behind,” Robertson says.

Robertson is a former NSW Labor Opposition Leader (2011-2014) and former Secretary of Unions NSW (2001-2008). He is currently President of the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS), which advocates to alleviate poverty and disadvantage.

But Robertson admits education hasn’t always been such a priority in his life.

“I remember going to a parents’ evening at my high school where the principal said, ‘if your son or daughter doesn’t want to stay on for the HSC, don’t make them’. Dad would have been shuddering through that one.

“But to his credit, he didn’t try to stop me when I wanted to leave at 16.”

Sparking an interest

Robertson attended Denistone East Public School in the 1970s, and credits Year 6 teacher Peter Jones for sparking his interest in politics.

“It was the time we went to Parliament House in Canberra,” Robertson says. “I remember he engaged me and allowed me to explore the subject further. It was a very balanced conversation that we had.”

This teaching was supported by an active interest in politics at home. Politics, social justice and unionism were regular topics around the Robertsons’ dinner table. Robertson’s father was a union official for the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

When Robertson was a child, his father also stood for ALP preselection and came fourth out of as many candidates.

This taught the young John Robertson just how brutal politics could be – his father was dumped from the position and left unemployed for four months.

“The phone went from ringing off the hook to not ringing at all,” Robertson says.

Robertson became an apprentice electrician at age 16, studying for his trade certificate at Meadowbank TAFE. He regularly sat next to two other young apprentices, one who would go on to be Mayor of Penrith, and the other an MP in the Northern Territory.

“If you’d said to our teacher at the time, ‘those three are going to become politicians’, he would have laughed you out of the room,” Robertson says.

All my work has been about giving a voice to the powerless.

Due to his father’s influence, union membership was not optional for Robertson, and he joined the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) at the start of his apprenticeship.

Employed by a contractor, he worked on construction sites all over Sydney, including the extension to NSW Parliament House.

Returning to that very building many years later as an elected member, Robertson would allow himself a wry smile moving through his former building site.

Youthful organiser

At the ripe old age of 23, Robertson was asked to fill in for an ETU organiser who was taking leave. His boss wouldn’t give him time off without pay so he resigned to fill the union position. As luck would have it, the organising role became permanent, and Robertson never went back on the tools.

His experience on construction sites gave him credibility with the workers, despite his tender years.

“I was the only organiser who had ever worked on construction sites,” Robertson says. “Most of them came from the railways or were linesmen. But I knew about construction when there was a lot going on. Sydney’s Darling Harbour was being built and it was no walk in the park.”

In 1991, he became an industrial officer with the NSW Labour Council (later Unions NSW) and decided it was time to go back to study. He undertook a Diploma of Human Relations at the University of Technology Sydney.

“My attitude was I that needed a trade certificate to do my electrical trade, so I better get the piece of paper for my new position,” he says.

NSW Labour Council Secretary Peter Sams “hit him up” to be Assistant Secretary to then Unions NSW Secretary Michael Costa, who also went into politics, becoming NSW Treasurer under Premier Bob Carr in 2006.

Robertson was Secretary of Unions NSW for seven years, until ALP Premier Nathan Rees (2008-09) asked him to join the Labor Party. “I never had any plans to go into politics. I said ‘no’ at first, but he asked me again,” he says.

“But it’s not every day the Premier of the state asks you to come and join the team, so I jumped.

“Dad was so proud. I think he was living vicariously.”

NSW Opposition Leader

In 2011, Robertson became state MP for Blacktown, in Sydney’s west, then quickly became Opposition Leader.

It was a difficult time. Labor was coming off the back of one of its worst election defeats in history.

“I took the view that 25 percent of the population had voted for us, and we owed it to them to rebuild the Labor Party and convince the rest of the population who might vote Labor that they should.”

Robertson says his leadership was marked by highs and lows, but his proudest memories include the three by-elections wins, with historic swings back to Labor.

The new standards introduced for MPs’ behaviour on the front bench, some of which were adopted by the government, were also highs.

But it is the small things, achieved for individuals at electorate level, of which Robertson is most proud.

“When someone asks their MP for help, that means they’re desperate, they’ve tried everything else,” he says. “I like that I was able to give a voice to the voiceless.”

He claims to have no regrets about not becoming Premier.

“I watched Gladys Berejiklian [NSW Premier, 2017-21] go through the bushfires and COVID and thought ‘that could have been me’ – and it’s always with a sense of relief rather than regret,” he says.

“I took my position very seriously and felt the responsibility to my colleagues in the party and the electorate. It’s an all-or-nothing job, and I think my wife and children missed out during that time.”

Finding Foodbank

Throughout his time in Parliament, Robertson volunteered for Foodbank, helping pack meals in the warehouse, or engaging his extensive network to lobby for funds.

“I think it was good for my mental health to do that volunteer work while I was in Parliament,” he says.

When his parliamentary career was over, Robertson says he was blessed to be offered the opportunity to run Foodbank.

He likes that Foodbank is self-sufficient, free of government influence, although it did receive some government support during the COVID lockdowns.

Most importantly, Robertson says the organisation gives people dignity.

“People get to choose their food with Foodbank and that’s important because a lot of people find themselves in a situation where they can’t put food on the table through no fault of their own,” he says. “They shouldn’t be denied dignity.”

Foodbank describes itself as the “pantry for Australian charities”. It’s Australia’s largest food relief organisation, providing more than 70 percent of the food rescued for food relief organisations nationwide.

Voice for the powerless

“I feel like I’m continuing the work I started with the ETU all those years ago,” Robertson says. “All my work has been about giving a voice to the powerless.”

Grocery retailers, manufacturers and farmers donate to the charity, often when items are nearing their use-by date. Foodbank also purchases food to distribute.

Volunteers at a large warehouse in Glendenning, in Sydney’s west, sort food into hampers. The organisation spends $1.5 million trucking food out to rural and regional areas. Last year, it was providing 660,000 meals a week, a figure that just keeps growing.

During the height of the pandemic, Foodbank provided hampers for people who were in quarantine in large apartment blocks and unable to afford online deliveries.

In 2020, Foodbank also supported 1500 international students who could no longer find work in tourism or hospitality and had no support from the social security system.

Doing it tough

“It’s very hard to believe there could be 20 percent of the population in Australia in this situation, but people get thrown a curveball by life,” Robertson says.

The casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy have meant many workers never know if they have a shift the next day, he says.

“There’s a medical incident, their work dries up or they run out of sick leave. All these sorts of things have an impact on workers, let alone those living on social security. There’s a growing cohort of working people who are struggling.”

In 2020, 38 percent of residents in NSW and the ACT were accessing food relief at least once a week compared with 16 percent in 2019.

“People will make choices like two meals a day rather than three, or mum and dad will choose not to eat dinner, feed their kids and tell them they had a big lunch at work, so the kids don’t feel guilty.”

No shame in struggle

Robertson is keen to get the message out that there is no shame in asking for help when it’s needed.

“There’s a significant stigma associated with having to admit you can’t afford food,” he says. “It stops people reaching out. I had an email from someone who said, ‘if it hadn’t been for your hamper, I was contemplating stealing just so I could put food on the table’.”

There’s a growing cohort of working people who are struggling.

Robertson says teachers and support staff in schools were frequently in touch with their communities and could direct families to Foodbank if they sensed a need.

The School Breakfast 4 Health program also provides students with a nutritious breakfast at school. Hungry students cannot concentrate, so a good breakfast has a big impact on their education.

Foodbank now provides food to more than 300 schools across NSW and the ACT and is looking to expand.

Before the pandemic, school student volunteers, many from non-government schools, were a big part of the workforce at the Glendenning warehouse. Robertson is hoping this will resume soon.

“I am very lucky to have had all these experiences and still be in a position to do good and help people,” he says.

More information

For more details about School Breakfast 4 Health or to donate to Foodbank: