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Clarey, Percy James (1890–1960)

by C. J. Lloyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Percy James Clarey (1890-1960), by unknown photographer

Percy James Clarey (1890-1960), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L16912

Percy James Clarey (1890-1960), trade union leader and politician, was born on 20 January 1890 at Bairnsdale, Victoria, fifth of six children of Francis William Clarey, general agent, and his wife Jessie Littlejohn, née Lawson (d.1895), both native-born. When Percy was a child the family moved to Melbourne where he was educated at South Yarra State School and later at the Working Men's College. Crippled in his youth by rheumatoid arthritis, he thereafter walked with crutches. Clarey was employed as a clerk by George Pizzey & Son, leather merchants, and became involved in trade unionism: he was Victorian president of the Federated Clerks' Union of Australia at the age of 24 and federal president three years later. An organizer of the Amalgamated Food Preservers' Union of Australia and of the Federated Storemen and Packers' Union of Australia, he served as federal president of both and maintained a close relationship with them throughout his long industrial career.

At Box Hill on 31 March 1917 Clarey married a schoolteacher Catherine Mary Isabel Chambers with the forms of the Churches of Christ; they were to have two sons before being divorced in 1936. Catherine was prominent in labour and pacifist movements in the 1930s, and was a member of the Victorian central executive of the Australian Labor Party. In 1935 she was Labor candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Caulfield, but withdrew before the poll.

By the late 1920s Clarey had emerged as a national industrial leader through his affiliations with increasingly powerful federal unions and his work for the newly-formed Australasian (Australian) Council of Trade Unions. He presided over the A.L.P.'s Victorian branch in 1934 and next year was elected president of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. A principal advocate for the union movement in the industrial courts, he led a protracted struggle to restore wages to the levels from which they had been cut during the Depression. In World War II he was appointed to the Victorian board of area management of the Department of Munitions (1940) and to the Manpower Priorities Board (1941). He was a delegate in 1944 to the International Labour Conference at Philadelphia, United States of America.

In 1937 Clarey had been returned to the Victorian Legislative Council as member for the province of Doutta Galla; he was to hold the seat until 1949. He was minister of labour and of public health (14 to 18 September 1943) and minister of labour and of employment (21 November 1945 to 20 November 1947) under John Cain. President of the A.C.T.U. (from June 1943), Clarey was criticized in parliament and the press after he accepted the ostensibly incompatible post of minister of labour in 1945. He shrugged off the protests and conducted his portfolio without any evident conflict of interest. On 21 August 1948 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married a divorcee Florence Midiam Cater, née Knowles (d.1953).

As head of the A.C.T.U., he formed a notable partnership with the secretary Albert Monk who was to succeed him as president in 1949. From 1945 Clarey was involved in negotiations to resolve a wave of industrial disputes. Resisting attempts by the Communist Party of Australia to extend its influence in the labour movement, he worked with the controversial industrial groups which were linked to the Catholic Church and in 1947 defeated by thirty-eight votes a communist challenge to his leadership. Although conceding the Communist Party's right to exist, he vigorously opposed any role for it within the A.L.P. One of his final initiatives as A.C.T.U. leader was to introduce salaries for the council's president and secretary.

With a margin of only 152 votes Clarey won the Federal seat of Bendigo in December 1949; he retained it until his death. When he entered the House of Representatives there was press speculation that he would be a future leader of the federal parliamentary party. He stood for deputy-leader in 1951, but was defeated by Arthur Calwell by 45 votes to 36. During the A.L.P. split of 1954-55 Clarey was mentioned as a possible compromise president of the Victorian branch which bore the brunt of the internal conflict. There was also conjecture that he might replace H. V. Evatt as parliamentary leader. Despite Clarey's long involvement with Labor's right wing, he stuck to the official party line and in February 1955 resigned from the 'grouper'-dominated Victorian central executive. In April he moved a motion in caucus expressing complete support for Evatt, a tactic important to Evatt's survival as leader.

A man of enthusiastic artistic and literary tastes, Clarey accumulated a substantial library, and broadened his expertise in etchings and Chinese pottery. He was an innovatory publicist who built a national reputation during World War II as a radio broadcaster on patriotic, industrial and economic themes, and who became one of the first Australian politicians to appear regularly on television. His range of friends spanned the political spectrum and included (Sir) Robert Menzies. Clarey was a staunch advocate of industrial conciliation and arbitration, and a consistently moderating influence on trade union militancy. Although branded a 'bosses' man' and a 'strike breaker' by his opponents, he was by no means conservative in his political attitudes. At the A.L.P. federal conference of 1948 he had moved a resolution reaffirming the party's socialization objective, and he advocated trade union support for the Indonesians in their struggle against Dutch colonialism. He upheld the White Australia policy, but urged the deletion of the term from the A.L.P. platform because it was offensive.

Clarey was described by one contemporary as a 'cripple with a fighter's face . . . a clear thinker and negotiator'. He was the country's foremost trade union leader of his generation and his presidency of the A.C.T.U. established a model for his successors. Although he was respected as a politician, his impact in Federal parliament was lessened by advancing years and failing health. In 1954 he went to New York as an Australian delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and in 1957 visited China. Survived by the sons of his first marriage, he died on 17 May 1960 at Oakleigh, Melbourne; following a state funeral, he was cremated with Methodist forms; his estate was sworn for probate at £11,425.

His younger half-brother Reynold Arthur Clarey (1897-1972) practised as an accountant and was A.L.P. member for Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly from 1955 to 1972.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • J. Hagan, The History of the A.C.T.U. (Melb, 1981)
  • K. White, John Cain and Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 8 Dec 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17, 18 May 1960
  • Times (London), 18 May 1960
  • Clarey papers, 1923-59 (National Library of Australia)
  • Australian Overseas Information Service (roneoed and typewritten articles, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Clarey, Percy James (1890–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clarey-percy-james-9751/text17225, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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