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James Robert (Jim) McClelland (1915–1999)

by Stephen Wilks

This article was published online in 2023

James Robert McClelland (1915–1999), politician, judge, and columnist, was born on 3 June 1915 in Melbourne, second of four children of Victorian-born parents Robert William McClelland, a painter with the Victorian Railways, and his wife Florence Ruby, née O’Connor. Florence raised their children in her Catholic faith. In 1925 Robert was assigned to work at Ballarat, where Jim attended St Patrick’s College. Young McClelland considered training for the priesthood, but his voracious reading sowed doubts that culminated in his rejecting the church during his late teens.

Returning to Melbourne late in 1929, McClelland studied at St Kevin’s College. He was a ‘clear and forceful’ (Advocate 1931, 20) debater, and won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (BA, 1937). Conscious of his relative impoverishment and of being out of his social depth at university, in 1934 he took a clerical job with the Railways Department. Renouncing Catholicism had rendered him ‘a sitting duck for Marxism’ (Australian Biography 1996). He joined a Trotskyist cell, and came under the influence of Laurie Short, seemingly an ‘authentic proletarian revolutionary’ (McClelland 1988, 41). In 1940 McClelland further cultivated his working-class credentials by becoming a machinist with Australian Iron and Steel Ltd. His criticisms of the Stalinist leadership of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia (FIA) led to expulsion from the union and the loss of his job two years later.

In February 1943 McClelland enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and served as a radar operator mainly in the Northern Territory and New Guinea. Following discharge as a leading aircraftsman in February 1946, he settled in Sydney, a city he relished as an ‘intoxicating experience’ (McClelland 1988, 59), and studied law at the University of Sydney (LLB, 1951). His Trotskyist phase ended abruptly in 1947 when he finally wearied of ‘being earbashed about unreality’ (McClelland 1998, 77), and switched to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). On 4 July 1947 at the Paddington District Registrar’s Office he married Nora Fitzer, an articled law clerk and daughter of Russian Jewish émigrés. Exposure to this community broke down his parochialism, ‘which in those days characterized even the better educated Australian’ (McClelland 1988, 78).

McClelland was admitted as a solicitor in 1950. His role as legal adviser to Short (by then an anti-communist), during a bruising campaign between 1950 and 1952 to unseat the FIA leadership, was a formative professional and political experience. Bitterness over his earlier expulsion and a conviction that FIA members were being undemocratically manipulated motivated McClelland to become involved in this dispute. His onetime schoolmate B. A. Santamaria was an ally, and he briefed a barrister, (Sir) John Kerr, who became a close friend. Short’s eventual victory made McClelland ‘something of a minor folk hero in the union’ (McClelland 1988, 98). His legal practice flourished, and he befriended another young barrister, Neville Wran. Although McClelland claimed to be politically unclassifiable, he was generally seen as embedded in the ALP’s right faction, then characterised by its vigorous opposition to communist influence in trade unions. He became known as ‘Diamond Jim’ for his sartorial elegance, and possibly also his self-confessed tendency to hedonism.

Increasingly bored with the law, McClelland was encouraged by friends to run as an ALP candidate for the Federal parliament, and in 1966 stood unsuccessfully for the safe Liberal seat of Warringah. In 1968 he and Nora divorced, and on 20 December McClelland married Freda Minnie Watson, née Squire, a physiotherapist and also a divorcee, at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney. He was elected to the Senate in 1970 and was due to take his place in July 1971, but commenced early when appointed to a casual vacancy arising from an incumbent senator’s death, in March 1971. Eschewing the mundane chores expected of novice parliamentarians, he preferred to deliver pungent speeches on such issues as the environment, abuses by security services, and industrial relations. He was passed over for the ministry following the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972. One of the few party colleagues to impress him was the attorney-general, Lionel Murphy. As chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs (1973–75), McClelland worked closely with Murphy in drafting the ground-breaking Family Law bill, presented to the parliament in December 1973, which introduced no-fault divorce and established a family court.

In February 1975 McClelland became minister for manufacturing industry. His striking good looks as a young man had by now given way to a silver-haired and reassuring aura of authority. With little prior knowledge of industry policy, he valued the bureaucracy’s advice. From June 1975 he was on more familiar ground as Whitlam, impressed by the ‘dazzling dialectics’ (Whitlam 1985, 288) of McClelland’s critique of full indexation of over-award wage payments, promoted him to the demanding portfolio of labour and immigration. He warned unions against opposing industry restructuring, and won praise from colleagues and sections of the press for advocating wages restraint. His ministerial career ended when the governor-general dismissed the government on 11 November 1975. Kerr’s failure to warn Whitlam turned McClelland against his former friend.

Following the ALP’s election defeat in December 1975, McClelland unsuccessfully sought to lead his party in the Senate. He declined to join the shadow cabinet, only to find life on the backbench miserable. Freda died in October 1976, and on 10 July 1978 at his Woollahra home he married Gillian Patricia Appleton, a Sydney-born program co-coordinator with the Australian Film and Television School, who turned him into ‘an ardent feminist’ (McClelland 1988, 196). That year he resigned from the Senate and accepted a standing offer from Premier Wran to join the bench of the New South Wales Industrial Commission. He left parliament without regret, having concluded that the political stage did not always attract the best and brightest. Despite his earlier legal practice, McClelland had to work to master his ‘somewhat less than exhilarating’ (McClelland 1988, 196) new job. He was relieved to be appointed the first chief justice of the New South Wales Land and Environmental Court (1980–85), but his dismay over such pre-emptive government interventions as legislating for a new rugby league stadium at Parramatta led to a falling out with Wran. More happily, he maintained his long-standing support for the arts, and helped found the Sydney Theatre Company in 1978.

McClelland’s most publicised role was as president of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia (1984–85). His forcefulness helped secure access to British archives, and he took pains to gather evidence directly from Aboriginal witnesses. His standing and his colourful profile was such that he was satirised in this role on the popular television program The Gillies Report. Although he revelled in the high drama of the commission, he was unimpressed by the Hawke government’s qualified acceptance of its findings on compensation of veterans and the clean-up of test sites. In 1986 he accepted an offer from the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald to contribute a column. He delighted in this occupation, drawing on his wide-ranging knowledge and sardonic wit to assail political adversaries and friends alike, in print and occasionally as a commentator on television. His memoir, Stirring the Possum (1988), was an entertaining spin-off. More discreetly, in the mid-1980s he publicly defended Murphy, whom it was alleged had attempted to influence a criminal case against a friend. It emerged only after McClelland’s death that he simultaneously briefed selected journalists in confidence that Murphy had a case to answer.

Ill-health from emphysema marred McClelland’s final years. He died on 16 January 1999 at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains and was cremated, survived by his wife and one of his two adopted children from his first marriage. Assessing himself harshly as ‘not by nature an inveterate toiler,’ he felt that he had not fulfilled his potential. One of his remaining friends from politics, John Button, more sympathetically concluded that McClelland ‘had a great feel for the human condition and drew strength from an amused philosophical detachment’ (1999, 13). A portrait (1946) by Nancy Borlase is held by the National Portrait Gallery.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Melbourne). ‘Inter-Schools Debates.’ 24 September 1931, 20
  • Appleton, Gillian. Diamond Cuts: An Affectionate Memoir of Jim McClelland. Sydney: Macmillan, 2000
  • Australian Biography: James McClelland. Film. Directed by Frank Heimans. Acton, ACT: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, 1996
  • Button, James. ‘Jim’s Words Were Genius.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1999, 13
  • Jost, John. ‘A Last Hurrah for Diamond Jim.’ National Times (Sydney), 5 August 1978, 19
  • McClelland, James. Stirring the Possum: A Political Biography. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988
  • Whitlam, Gough. The Whitlam Government 1972–1975. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1985

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Stephen Wilks, 'McClelland, James Robert (Jim) (1915–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 20 June 2024.

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