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Roderick Philip (Rod) Evans (1925–1998)

by Charlie Fox

This article was published online in 2023

Roderick Phillip Evans (1925–1998), bookmaker, businessman, and city councillor, was born on 9 June 1925 in Perth, elder son of locally born Roderick Phillip Evans, bookmaker and store owner, and his New Zealand-born wife Olga Teresa, née Berghofer. The year after Rod’s birth, his parents opened Evans’ Tearooms in East Perth, next to a tramway depot and Gloucester Park, Perth’s main trotting course. They sold lunches to ‘trammies,’ groceries to local families, and meals to owners, trainers, and drivers who worked at Gloucester Park. Thus he grew up surrounded by talk of trotting and betting. He remembered his mother as a strict Catholic and ‘a bit of a snob’ (Evans 1996, 14), who sent her sons to a convent primary school, then to Aquinas College, Perth’s élite Catholic boys’ high school. Evans was torn between the school where, he recalled proudly, he was appointed head boy of one of the houses, and East Perth, where he could be himself, a brash, boastful, knockabout kid in a tough neighbourhood, even though he came from the ‘better’ side of the suburb. His father was a heavy drinker, and when Evans was sixteen, he fought him to stop him beating his mother. His father then took up with the café’s cook, after which he and Olga divorced.

Evans began SP (starting price) bookmaking—an illegal activity—at school, and continued when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 18 March 1944. He was discharged in May 1946 having served as a clerk in Perth and Darwin. After the war, he took up training and driving pacers, as well as enrolling in medicine at the University of Western Australia, to please his mother who wanted her boys to be professionals. When she became ill he left university to run the tearooms. Evicted in 1949 because the owners wished to redevelop the site, he became a full-time SP bookie and based himself in East Perth. He made enough money to buy a string of shops and the Carlton Hotel in Hay Street on the edge of Perth’s central business district. On 9 November 1954, at St Columba Catholic Church, South Perth, he married Veronica Paula Knuckey, the sister of a jockey.

After the passage of the Betting Control Act 1954, Evans gained a licence to operate as an on-course bookmaker. This was more to his liking and business flourished; he also built up a stable of successful race-horses and pacers. In 1973 his stayer Allegation beat the favourite to win the Perth Cup, provoking a hostile demonstration from the crowd. He was influential in 1965 in setting up the Western Australian Racehorse Owners Association, meeting to begin with at the Carlton Hotel, which became a platform to both attack and infiltrate the State Turf Club committee, a body he regarded as hostile to the interests of owners.

In the 1950s Evans had turned to politics. After attempts to gain Liberal Party preselection for the electorate of East Perth in the Legislative Assembly, he joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In the early 1960s he shifted his focus to local government, motivated by a desire to improve East Perth, because ‘it was a slum, a run-down terrible area’ (Evans 122). He sought election as a City of Perth councillor and, after several attempts, won the East ward in 1964—by dint, his opponent alleged, of ‘irregularities with postal votes’ (Morfesse 1998, 9). He represented the ward (1964–88) for most of his career, before switching to Heirisson (1988–90).

On joining council, Evans was appointed to the powerful Town Planning Committee (1964—68; 1974; 1983—90; chairman, 1984–88). His tenure coincided with periods of rapid growth in Perth’s central business district, especially during the mining boom of the 1960s and the scandal-plagued years of the Brian Burke-led Labor government of the 1980s. As planning committee chair, he was given, he later claimed, carte blanche to reach deals with big developers, a strategy he called ‘innovative town planning’ (Evans 1996, 130). Thus he might offer a developer higher plot ratios in return for environmental benefits such as public open space around a city skyscraper, or council management of parking. ‘We were very easy,’ he recalled, ‘providing you gave the council something’ (Evans 1996, 130).

With a lax town planning process, and growing links between the Burke government and Perth’s new breed of brash ‘four on the floor entrepreneurs’ (Hewett and Loxley 1987), it was inevitable that suspicions of corruption beset the council and in particular, Evans. In 1987 a member of parliament and former city councillor, Ian Alexander, made allegations about close relationships between members of the Town Planning Committee and Perth’s big developers, and about conflicts of interest by councillors who owned construction companies. Decisions were negotiated, he claimed, on the basis of ‘you vote for mine, I’ll vote for yours’ (Callander 1987, 1). Evans was said to have warned Alexander that he could be fitted with concrete boots and thrown into the Swan River over another development project. The government rebuffed calls for a royal commission into the council and a small and heavily criticised inquiry found no evidence of corruption. The subsequent royal commission into the commercial activities of the State government, established in 1990 and reporting in 1992, excluded investigation of the Perth city council. Evans retired as a city councillor in 1990 and the same year was made a freeman of the city.

Wealthy, well-connected, and friendly with politicians, Evans appeared in an infamous 1984 photograph, in which ten of Perth’s wealthiest men, all members of the ALP’s fund-raising organisation, the John Curtin Foundation, surround Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Premier Burke. The foundation was often linked to what became known as ‘WA Inc.,’ and the 1992 royal commission report identified huge sums the men had donated to the ALP. Evans did not appear on this list; nor was he interviewed by the commissioners or named in their report. Yet there was a whiff of scandal about him, partly because of his friendship with corrupt businessmen such as Laurie Connell.

On ‘hanging up his satchel’ (Morfesse 1998, 9) as a bookmaker in 1994, Evans displayed the hallmarks of a successful career. He was an influential and powerful member of the ALP, a bastion of the Catholic church, a Justice of the Peace, a patron of the East Perth Football Club, and a philanthropist. The achievement of which he was most proud was the building in 1980 of a senior citizens’ centre in East Perth, which was subsequently named in his honour. In an oral history recorded in 1996, he emerged as boastful, charming, garrulous, vengeful, and full of life. Nicknamed ‘the Milkman’ because of his pale complexion, he could be ‘aggressive and blunt,’ but was also ‘one of the most generous public figures of his time’ (McIlwraith 1998, 14). In declining health owing to a diabetic condition, he died in Perth on 8 December 1998, and was survived by his wife, and their son and two daughters. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Beresford, Quentin. The Godfather: The Life of Brian Burke. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2008
  • Callander, Diana. ‘Corruption in PCC, MP Tells House.’ West Australian, 18 September 1987, 1
  • Dunstan, R. ‘Rod Evans, Deputy Lord Mayor and Racing Enthusiast.’ Sunspeed, Summer 1986
  • Evans, Roderick Phillip. Interviewed by Erica Harvey. May 1995–June 1996. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Gregory, Jenny. City of Light: A History of Perth since the 1950s. Perth: City of Perth, 2003
  • Hewett, Jenni, and Stephen Loxley. ‘Perth Inc.’ Australian Financial Review, 30 October 1987
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Bookie Trod Turf with All Types.’ Australian, 22 December 1998, 14
  • Morfesse, Luke. ‘Evans Loses Private Battle against Odds.’ West Australian, 10 December 1998, 9
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 84521. Evans, Roderick Phillip

Additional Resources

Citation details

Charlie Fox, 'Evans, Roderick Philip (Rod) (1925–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-roderick-philip-rod-32213/text39830, published online 2023, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

9 June, 1925
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Death

1998 (aged ~ 72)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Military Service
Key Organisations
Political Activism
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