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Haylen, Leslie Clement (Les) (1898–1977)

by R. E. Northey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Leslie Clement Haylen (1898-1977), by L. J. Dwyer, 1950s

Leslie Clement Haylen (1898-1977), by L. J. Dwyer, 1950s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24213437

Leslie Clement (Les) Haylen (1898-1977), politician, playwright, novelist and journalist, was born on 23 September 1898 at Woodfield, near Queanbeyan, New South Wales, youngest of twelve children of Thomas Haylen, a maintenance man from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Catherine, née Day. His parents were small farmers before they moved to Sydney about 1908. Raised as a Catholic, Les was later to lose his faith. He was influenced by his grandfather William Henry Day, who loved literature, and by (Dame) Mary Gilmore, a family friend. In Sydney, he attended high school and began work as a bank clerk.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 July 1918, Haylen embarked for Europe in October, but the troop-ship was recalled and he was discharged in January 1919. He re-enlisted in June and sailed for London next month as an escort for German prisoners being repatriated in the Trás-os-Montes. Back in Sydney in November, he was successively employed as a journalist on the Sunday Times, as theatre critic on the Sun and as news editor on the Sunday Times. At the registrar general's office, Chancery Square, on 30 April 1927 he married Sylvia Myrtle Rogers, a shop-assistant.

They moved to Wagga Wagga where Les was the Daily Advertiser's chief sub-editor and leader-writer. His anti-war play, Two Minutes' Silence, was staged in Sydney in 1930. It ran for twenty-six weeks and was enthusiastically reviewed by Kenneth Slessor. In 1933 the McDonagh sisters produced a film version of the play. After a brief stint on the Orange Leader, Haylen returned to Sydney. In 1933 he joined the Australian Women's Weekly as news editor. He wrote the plays, Change of Policy (1934) and Freedom has a Beard (1937), and three novels about early Australian life, The Game Darrells (1933), The Brierley Rose (1935) and Brown Boy Singing (1940). The novels were serialized in the Women's Weekly before their publication as books and their subsequent production as radio serials.

In 1942, when Haylen sought Australian Labor Party pre-selection for the Federal seat of Parkes in south-west Sydney, (Sir) Frank Packer terminated his contract with Consolidated Press Ltd. Haylen was appointed editor of the A.L.P.'s new official newspaper, the Standard. He gained the pre-selection in 1943. Shunning official party publicity-material, he wrote his own and unexpectedly defeated Sir Charles Marr in the elections that year. Haylen's margin was 1020, one of the largest in his twenty-year hold on Parkes.

His maiden speech proclaimed his interest in cultivating 'the spirit of Australianism' through literature, theatre and art, and he sought financial aid for Australian artists and writers. Around parliament, he quickly established a reputation as a bon vivant, 'with plenty of charm, wit and a sharp tongue'. No Labor Party machine-man, he was regarded with suspicion by those who were. He was committed to socialism and read widely on the subject. Parish-pump politics bored him and he described formal occasions in his electorate as 'fetes worse than death'; he preferred foreign affairs and economics.

In 1944 Haylen acted as publicity director for the 'fourteen powers' referendum. Next year Arthur Calwell chose him as chairman of the Commonwealth immigration advisory committee which visited Europe to find new sources of settlers. The committee's report (1946) became the basis for Australia's ambitious postwar immigration programme. He wrote another play, Blood on the Wattle (1948), about the Eureka uprising.

Haylen narrowly missed a cabinet post after the 1946 elections. In Opposition from 1949, he was a vigorous and satirical debater in the House. His literary production included pamphlets and occasional verse. He led a parliamentary delegation to Japan in 1948 and caused a stir in Australia by shaking hands with Emperor Hirohito. That year he visited China to arrange for the migration of Europeans from Shanghai. In 1957 he headed a Labor delegation to China and in 1959 published Chinese Journey, a glowing account of changes which had taken place under the communists.

As 'Sutton Woodfield', in 1960 Haylen published A for Artemis, a satire on politics and the press; he drew in part on his experience with Packer and his feud with the Sydney cartoonist George Molnar. In 1945 Haylen had been appointed to the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. He was president (from 1946) of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and served on the interim council (1960-61) and the council (1961-64) of the National Library of Australia. In 1963 he was a member of a parliamentary delegation to South-East Asia.

A strong admirer of the political leaders for whom he worked, he had supported J. B. Chifley's attempts to nationalize the banks and settle the 1949 coalminers' strike, advised H. V. Evatt in his crusade against the 'groupers', and showed great loyalty to Calwell. Although Haylen claimed that he was consistent in his socialism, he was dubbed a 'political gadfly' and Labor's 'Artful Dodger' for his volatility. He stood unsuccessfully for the deputy-leadership in 1960.

Haylen's defeat at the 1963 elections was a surprise. He continued writing, and in 1965 and 1976 edited The Tracks We Travel, volumes of Australian short stories. In 1965 he also published Big Red, a novel about politics in rural Australia in the 1890s. Another play, The Stormy Blast (1966), reflected his opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. After failing to be elected to the Senate in 1964 and to be pre-selected for his old seat of Parkes in 1965, he wrote his political memoirs, Twenty Years' Hard Labor (Melbourne, 1969), which revealed his disillusionment with parliament and the A.L.P., especially its right wing. One reviewer perceptively wrote that Haylen was 'not of the old school of Labor [and] neither was he of the new'. Haylen openly admitted that he would never have entered parliament if he had been able to support his family as a writer.

Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 12 September 1977 at Lewisham, Sydney, and was buried with Anglican rites in Rookwood cemetery. In their tributes in the House, Haylen's former colleagues recalled his wit, repartee and irreverence. Gough Whitlam remarked: 'Only Australia could have produced him'.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 28 Sept 1943, p 94
  • People (Sydney), 18 July 1951, p 40
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Dec 1960
  • Bulletin, 2 June 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 Dec 1964
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1963, 1 Nov 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 14 Sept 1977
  • Haylen papers (National Library of Australia) M. Pratt, interview with L. C. Haylen, (transcript, 1976, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

R. E. Northey, 'Haylen, Leslie Clement (Les) (1898–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/haylen-leslie-clement-les-10466/text18565, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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