A friendship between a NSW national party grandee and a Queensland Labor man sounds unlikely, but that is what transpired between North West Star founder Sir Asher Joel and former state minister and mayor of Mount Isa Tony McGrady.
Mr McGrady shared his recollections of Sir Asher, who was a parliamentarian in Sydney and a businessman brought here by Mount Isa Mines to help solve a bitter industrial dispute in 1964 which lasted six months.
“It was a shocking time, brother fought brother, sons fought father and many people left the city,” Mr McGrady said.
“In 1964 we got the Sunday Mail on Tuesday, we had the ABC and 4LM, we were isolated and the news was two days late but this dispute had captured the imagination of the world.”
Mr McGrady said when it ended, Mount Isa Mines and the trade union movement decided it must never happen again.
“MIM assisted in setting up the credit union, the health society, building new housing estates in Sunset and Healy and made it easier for their employees to purchase their own homes with low interest loans,” he said. “It made people have a stake in the community, at that time there were about 1500 mostly men living in company barracks, when something happened they could just leave.”
MIM also wanted to replace the newspaper.
“At the time there was one paper in the city, the Isa Mail owned by Rupert Murdoch,” he said. “As I mellow with age I have to say now it ran the editorial on the side of the workers. I even recall writing the editorial one night.”
Asher Joel was a journalist and was in the Philippines with General MacArthur and he came back and set up a PR consultancy.
Mr McGrady said MIM commissioned Joel after the strike to come here and advise them what to do.
“The first thing he did was to set up the North West Star,” he said.
“It was in the mine’s interests to have a neutral paper.”
He said MIM was trying to build a new community.
“People who stayed during the dispute, climbed the tree overnight. We all went about trying to build the community,” he said.
“Asher Joel was seen by some of us as coming in here to build up the stocks of old Bob Katter, he was then a Country Party member of the NSW parliament and some of us had seen him for what we thought he was.”
Then one Mount Isa Mardi Gras night the young McGrady got a call from Sir Asher who now had a TV station to go with the paper.
“He was in town and he would like to have dinner with me that night,” he said.
“I was busy but next time he came to town he said, what do you intend to do with your life, and I said, with all due respect, what’s that got to do with you.”
Sir Asher replied they had been doing surveys for the paper and the TV station to see who the potential leaders were.
“Your name keeps on bouncing up,” Sir Asher told him.
They started to talk about his ambitions and a friendship slowly blossomed.
“Everytime he came to Mount Isa he came here to our house and Sandra had to find out what Jews could and couldn’t eat,” he said.
“We became close friends.”
Mr McGrady always remembers going to Joel’s office in Sydney.
“We were sitting there talking and the phone goes and it’s Neville Wran, the premier of NSW,” he said.
“Neville had invited him to chair the committee to build the Sydney entertainment centre.
“Then Michael Somare, prime minister of Papua New Guinea rang up about some issue while I’m walking around the office with pictures of him with the queen and with the pope.
“Everybody knew Sir Asher.”
Sir Asher asked McGrady if he was happy the way the paper was treating him and the young Labor man said it could be handled better.
“So he rang up Kelvin Fairburn and asked him how he was handling the story about me and he read it out and Asher said, ‘I’ll get back to you’,” he said.
“Then the two of us re-wrote the story. A friend worked as a printer at the paper saw me a few weeks later and said, you wouldn’t believe this, the paper was being printed and we had to stop and print a new edition, some Tory b****d had got to him, I said, I didn’t believe it!”
The young mayor of Mount Isa was at a crossroads in 1989 when Wayne Goss and Wayne Swan wanted him to stand in the 1989 state election.
“Sir Asher kept asking me what are you doing,” he said.
“Sandra wanted me to stand but I didn’t because the party wasn’t in top shape. Sir Asher asked me what did Sandra think and said well that’s it, that’s what you’ve got to do. Where I was standing I could see parliament house and thought, if I was to knock this back I’d never forgive myself.”
He would often ring Joel for advice. “He never told me what to do but advised me on the downsides and upsides and often when I became minister for mines and energy I’d meet Sir Asher and he took pride in introducing the minister to people,” he said.
Sir Asher paid McGrady the greatest accolade when he died.
“He organised his funeral as he organised his life,” Mr McGrady said.
“It was held at the Sydney Synagogue and the six pallbearers were Gough Whitlam, Ian Sinclair, Ralph Hunt, the governor of South Australia, the chief rabbi of New South Wales and me.”
Starting off to him as a political arch-enemy, McGrady would eventually see Sir Asher as a father figure.
“And he saw me as a son and of course now I’m a grandfather and my son’s new baby is called Asher,” he said. “I had nothing in the name but I’m sure the Joels would be delighted.”