McCLELLAND, Douglas (1926– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1962–87 (Australian Labor Party)

Douglas McClelland was born on 5 August 1926, in Wentworthville, NSW, the son of Alfred McClelland, union organiser and farmer, and his wife Gertrude Amy, née Cooksley. Alfred was a NSW Labor MLA for the seats of Northern Tablelands (1920–27) and Dubbo (1930–32). Douglas was educated at Wentworthville Public School, Parramatta High School and the Metropolitan Business College, Parramatta. After leaving school he worked as a junior clerk at the NSW Department of Agriculture.

McClelland enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force on 10 August 1944, and was stationed in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory before being discharged with the rank of Corporal in January 1947. From 1949 he was employed as a court reporter with the NSW and Commonwealth attorney-generals' departments; he became familiar with arbitration cases and on occasions represented the Australian Journalists' Association, of which he was an active member. He married Lorna Belva McNeill, a beautician, on 28 January 1950 at Kogarah Presbyterian Church; they would have two daughters and a son.[1]

McClelland grew up in a strong Labor Party environment, and joined the ALP in 1947. As a member of the NSW Parliament, his father became a close personal friend of the MLA for Balmain, Herbert Vere Evatt, later MHR for Barton and leader of the federal ALP. In turn, Doug McClelland 'formed a very deep attachment for and a close personal association with' Evatt, serving as secretary of the Barton federal electorate council from 1953 to 1958, and acting as Evatt's campaign secretary. McClelland would brief Evatt on local political developments while accompanying him to the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturdays, to watch either cricket or rugby league. McClelland served on the NSW State Executive of the ALP from 1956 to 1962. Locally popular, he was a conciliator rather than an agitator: 'Smiling, full of anecdotes [and] obviously good-hearted ... '.

In 1958, following Evatt's retirement from politics, McClelland lost a pre-selection contest for Barton by two votes. Placed third on the NSW Labor ticket for the December 1961 Senate election, he defeated DLP candidate Jack Kane in a contest for the final Senate seat, and survived a subsequent High Court challenge over the rejection of a number of ballot papers as informal. He was re-elected at the head of the ticket in 1967, despite an attempt by the ALP's NSW right wing to drop both McClelland and Senator Lionel Murphy. Placed second on the ticket behind Murphy in 1974, he again headed the ticket and was re-elected in 1975, 1980 and 1983.[2]

McClelland began his Senate term in July 1962. Over the next ten years on the Opposition benches, he spoke often in the Senate, on numerous topics; his speeches, if sometimes lengthy, usually displayed careful preparation and attention to detail. Subjects in which he showed sustained interest included aviation and defence, health costs, the inadequacy of repatriation benefits, and the problem of affordable housing. In November 1962 McClelland raised the question of government assistance to the child victims of the drug thalidomide and he continued to press the government on the issue. He spoke out regularly against censorship of books, and the confusion resulting from the lack of uniformity between Commonwealth and state laws. From 1966 he vehemently criticised Australian participation in the Vietnam War, especially the conscription of young men and the treatment of conscientious objectors, and he asserted his approval of and participation in the Vietnam moratorium movement.

During his first decade in the Senate McClelland was a member of half a dozen parliamentary committees and he remained a close observer of the performance of Senate committees, especially after their expansion in 1970. In October 1970 he declared the reformed committee system to be of 'paramount importance', particularly 'because it will maintain and assert the authority of the Parliament over the Executive and bureaucracy ... Not only should it be maintained, indeed it should be extended and strengthened considerably'.[3]

At the state conference of the NSW ALP, held in June 1962, senator-elect McClelland had successfully moved a resolution expressing concern at the 'continued growth of monopoly control over television, radio and newspapers'. The motion foreshadowed his special interest in the media. Appointed a member of the Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television later that year, McClelland took an active role in questioning witnesses. His whole-hearted endorsement of the report of the committee, known as the Seddon Report, was reflected in his subsequent attitude to media issues, and he regularly cited it, and deplored the delay in implementing the report's recommendations.

McClelland argued that the preferences of commercial television operators for purchasing American dramas, often featuring violent crime series or westerns, drove down standards, gave viewers little choice, and deprived Australian producers, actors and scriptwriters of the opportunity to develop films and television programs reflecting Australian culture. He was also disturbed by the degree of ownership of television and radio networks by press proprietors. Unimpressed by the apparent unwillingness of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) to take any disciplinary action against commercial broadcasters for breaches of program standards, McClelland argued that television licences should be withdrawn if quotas for the airing of Australian drama were not met. He questioned the priorities of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), saying in 1968 that it was 'vital for Australia that we have a strong, independent and fearless national broadcasting commission'.[4]

Following Labor's victory in the federal election of December 1972, McClelland was, as expected, appointed to the newly-created portfolio of Minister for the Media. His new department, described as 'the first Ministry of the Media in the Western world', included under its ambit the ABC, the ABCB, the Australian News and Information Bureau, the Australian Film Development Corporation, the Australian Government Publishing Service and other bodies. Within days of becoming minister, McClelland was attempting to ease anxieties about his role: 'I won't bring in any form of political censorship; I am a libertarian and a democrat'. Even so, four months later, he conceded that there were 'suspicious doubts among some newspaper editors about the functions of my department'.

In February 1974 McClelland announced the abolition of licence fees for radio listeners and television viewers. He secured increases of around thirty per cent in the ABC budget for 1973–74 and 1974–75, including a special grant in 1973 for the production of Australian programs. The Australian News and Information Bureau was expanded as was the Australian Information Service, with shopfront inquiry centres in major Australian cities by the end of 1974.

In pursuit of his aim of increasing the proportion of Australian television content, McClelland introduced a points system in August 1973. Broadcasters were required to amass points allocated on the basis of the presentation of Australian programs. Points were weighted according to perceived cultural value: the greatest number of points went to drama played during peak ratings periods. Twelve months after the introduction of the points system, McClelland told the Senate of significant increases in Australian drama and children's programming. Critics disputed the figures and derided the scheme, alleging that cheap variety and quiz shows, so-called 'quota quickies', were being produced to bolster the numbers.[5]

In response to a report of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, the government appointed a Royal Commission, headed by Sir Francis McLean, to inquire into the potential for FM radio broadcasting in Australia. McLean's report, presented in March 1974, argued that there was considerable scope for introducing FM radio on the VHF band (rather than on the UHF band, as previously mooted); and for increasing the number of AM stations. The minister acted promptly and the first licenses for FM stations were approved, as were several new AM licences, including the ABC rock station, 2JJ (later JJJ); and the first steps were taken towards developing community radio.

In late 1974 the Whitlam Government introduced the Broadcasting and Television Bill (No. 2). According to McClelland, the legislation was needed to 'clarify' the existing powers of the ABCB to 'determine rules and standards to be observed by licensees' and to determine 'requirements with regards to programs of Australian origin'. The Opposition treated the legislation with suspicion. Senator Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle argued that the government's proposals would result in 'total control of radio and television in Australia by the broadcasting control authority'. Defeated in the Senate, the legislation was reintroduced in mid-1975, with the same outcome.

Similar reservations were expressed about the power of the government over the film industry when McClelland introduced the Australian Film Commission Bill in September 1974. The Australian Film Development Corporation, established by John Gorton in 1970, was replaced by an Australian Film Commission (AFC). The Opposition distrusted the power given to the Minister over the AFC, fearing the creation of a 'political propaganda machine', particularly through the incorporation of the film production body Film Australia, and the power given to the AFC to direct exhibitors on the allocation of screening time. The bill, amended in both houses, was rejected in the Senate, but was redrafted and reintroduced in the following year. Under the new bill, any exercise of ministerial direction had to be reported to Parliament within fifteen days. The bill passed both houses early in 1975.

McClelland's failure to implement 1973 recommendations of the Tariff Board, to reduce the monopoly of dominant overseas exhibition chains over the distribution of films and television programs, confirmed the opinion of opponents that he was influenced by local and foreign commercial media interests, who opposed any restructure of the industry. His appointment of former commercial media executives to senior posts in his department was held against him and it was suggested that he was 'rather too friendly' with American film magnates such as Jack Valenti.[6]

The removal of Jim Cairns from the office of Treasurer in June 1975 led to a wider ministerial reshuffle. McClelland's media portfolio went to Moss Cass, and McClelland was appointed Special Minister of State and Manager of Government Business in the Senate.

In the culmination of the crisis of October/November 1975 over the blocking of the Whitlam Government's supply bills in the Senate, McClelland's new Senate post placed him in a central position to influence the course of events, though not in a way he would have desired. Minutes before the resumption of the sitting of the Senate at 2 pm on 11 November, McClelland, unaware of the 1 pm dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, told Reg Withers, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, that he was going to move that the appropriation bills be passed 'forthwith'. When a note was passed to McClelland stating that Whitlam had been sacked, McClelland thought it was a joke. By the time Labor's Senate leaders had learned the truth, the passage of the bills was already under way. The appropriation bills, having been brought forward in the Senate as an urgent measure, were passed on the voices by 2.20pm, dashing any faint hopes Labor might have had of thwarting Fraser, by refusing supply to his caretaker government.[7]

In Whitlam's shadow ministry, formed after Labor's comprehensive defeat in the December 1975 federal election, McClelland was given the administrative services portfolio, and also served as Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate. After Labor's vote had failed to improve in the December 1977 federal election, Whitlam resigned from the leadership and was replaced by Bill Hayden. McClelland, who had been Deputy Opposition Leader in the Senate from May 1977, was defeated for this position by John Button and he did not seek another position in the shadow ministry. By 1980 McClelland, who was once identified with the ALP left wing, was firmly linked with the dominant right wing faction in the NSW branch.

In August 1981 McClelland was elected to the post of Chairman of Committees in the Senate (from October 1981, Deputy President and Chairman of Committees), defeating National Party Senator Douglas Barr Scott by one vote. McClelland's election commenced a convention that this office be held by a nominee of the major opposition party in the Senate rather than a member of the party of government. This was made possible by the Australian Democrats, who asserted the principle that the major Senate posts should be shared between Government and Opposition.

After Labor's election win in 1983, McClelland was elected President of the Senate, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. Within a year of McClelland becoming President judgments in the Supreme Court of New South Wales denied the right of Parliament to conduct its proceedings without being subject to examination in the courts, thereby threatening the fundamental right of freedom of speech within Parliament.

At the inauguration of the Commonwealth the Australian Constitution at section 49 conferred on the Australian Parliament 'the powers, privileges and immunities' of the British House of Commons. One of these immunities was derived from the UK Bill of Rights, which states at article 9 'that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament'.

In February 1984 the Age published what pertained to be transcripts of police surveillance tapes that implicated High Court Justice Lionel Murphy in attempting to pervert the course of justice. The following month the Senate appointed a select committee to inquire into the authenticity of the materials, and, if found genuine, whether they disclosed 'misbehaviour' that could constitute grounds for a request to remove Murphy as a High Court Judge under section 72 of the Constitution. Specific allegations raised in evidence to the select committee resulted in the appointment of a second select committee in September 1984, which, supported by commissioners, further examined the evidence. Each of the four committee members came to their own conclusions, but three found that Murphy's conduct, at least on the balance of probabilities, could amount to misbehaviour.

Following the report of the second Senate committee, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that Murphy would be prosecuted for attempting to pervert the course of justice. When it became clear that witnesses at the Senate committees would be required to give evidence, McClelland briefed counsel to appear as amicus curiae on behalf of the Senate at the pretrial hearing in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in June 1985 and to outline the law on the immunity of the witnesses and the accused from cross-examination of evidence given to the Senate. The trial judge, Mr Justice Cantor, ruled that witnesses could be questioned on their evidence to a Senate committee, so long as there was 'no adverse effect' on the freedom of speech in Parliament. Subsequently, witnesses were cross-examined during the trial on their evidence to the Senate, including on evidence they had given in camera, and Murphy was examined on a written statement he had given. Murphy's conviction by this court was overturned on appeal, but a new trial ordered.

In the Senate on 11 September 1985, McClelland outlined his actions and the progress of the trial, and tabled documents relating to the case. He pointed out the implications of the judgment, saying:

Since the judgment draws no distinction between witnesses and members of parliament, and as there is no rationale suggested in this judgment for any such distinction, it would also appear that members of parliament could be crossexamined in court on their parliamentary speeches and could have their parliamentary speeches used against them through cross-examination in subsequent criminal proceedings ... I therefore regard the judgment as having a serious impact on the freedom of speech in Parliament ... .

At Murphy's second trial in April 1986, counsel for the President appeared once again, and argued that the witnesses could not be examined on their parliamentary evidence. In this instance the trial judge, Mr Justice Hunt, refuted the Senate's arguments by contending that article 9 had only the effect of preventing parliamentary proceedings from being the actual subject of criminal or civil actions. It did not prevent such proceedings being used as evidence of an offence committed elsewhere, to support a cause of action or to establish motive or intention. McClelland responded quickly to Hunt's ruling, with a statement in the Senate on 9 April. In the following debate, it was suggested that parliamentary privilege should be protected by legislation, and Senator Michael Macklin, who in 1985 had introduced a bill to codify parliamentary privilege, suggested that the President himself might sponsor a privileges bill. Subsequently, McClelland described his interactions with the Clerk and Deputy Clerk at the time by stating: 'we agreed that something had to be done by Parliament itself to re-assert this vital principle, and we determined the only way was the introduction of a completely new Bill into the Australian Parliament guaranteeing to its members the long held principle of the Westminster system'. McClelland also explained that when the proposed bill was presented to Caucus for the government's approval it inspired a large amount of debate. Eventually, the Caucus agreed to allow McClelland to present the bill to the Senate in his capacity as President. In the meantime, Murphy was acquitted of all charges against him.

On 4 June 1986 McClelland tabled draft legislation in the Senate, and in October he introduced the Parliamentary Privileges Bill 1986 to protect the privileges of members of Parliament and witnesses to Senate committees. This was the first bill introduced by a presiding officer in the history of the Australian Parliament. McClelland commented that he had taken this historic step due to 'the fundamental importance of freedom of speech to the operations of both Houses'. The bill was passed by both houses in May 1987, becoming the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.

The Act clarified that the rights of the Australian Parliament in relation to freedom of speech were those conferred by the Bill of Rights and which had prevailed since federation, and defined the terms of parliamentary privilege. It also codified other aspects of parliamentary privilege, following some recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which had reported in 1984. These provisions dealt largely with parliamentary powers in relation to contempt of Parliament, and lessened the power of Parliament in respect of some contentious issues. Criticism of its business outside Parliament, for example in the press, was not to be considered a contempt, and the Parliament was not to have the power to expel its own members. Privilege resolutions passed by the Senate in February 1988 put into effect procedures and practices for the implementation of the legislation.[8]

McClelland resigned from the Senate on 23 January 1987. Having served as a chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House from 1983, one of his last official duties as Senate President was to unfurl the Australian flag at the new Parliament House. On his retirement, St George Rugby League Football Club awarded him its No. 1 supporter's badge.

From 1987 to 1991 McClelland was Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, proactive particularly during Australia's bicentenary year. He treated the position, as he put it, 'as if occupying a marginal seat'. McClelland was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in June 1987 for service to the Commonwealth Parliament and Government. Douglas McClelland's son, Robert McClelland was Labor MHR for Barton from 1996 to 2013 and Attorney-General in the Rudd and Gillard ministries from 2007 to 2011.

While McClelland endured criticism over his performance as media minister, reforms introduced during his ministry saw the beginning of a new era for Australian radio, television and film production and related industries. His stout and timely defense of freedom of speech in the Parliament was warmly acknowledged by his fellow senators. As President of the Senate during a period in which neither of the major parties had a majority of seats in the Senate, he was recognised as inclusive, courteous and fair.[9]

Brian Stevenson


[1] 'Questionnaire' completed 10 Sept. 1982 for Parliament's Bicentenary Publications Project, NLA MS 8806; Douglas McClelland, Record of Service, AIF, NAA B 883, item NX204213.

[2] CPD, 9 Nov. 1965, pp. 1355–6, 1 May 1996, pp. 195–6; Peter Manning, 'The real mediocre man: Douglas McClelland', New Journalist, No. 14, May 1974, pp. 3, 10; SMH, 13 Dec. 1986, p. 15; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th ed., AGPS, Canberra, 1976, p. 122; Ray Gietzelt, Worth Fighting For, Federation Press, Syd., 2004, p. 100.

[3] CPD, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 386–90, 8 Oct. 1963, pp. 912–3, 957–9, 5 March 1964, p. 244, 19 May 1964, pp. 1258–63, 18 Sept. 1963, pp. 611–14, 3 Sept. 1964, pp. 399–402, 16 Sept. 1964, pp. 481–2, 1 May 1968, pp. 718–21, 8 April 1970, pp. 600–4, 24 Sept. 1970, pp. 897–8, 30 April 1963, pp. 147–52, 20 May 1964, pp. 1366–9, 31 March 1965, pp. 202–6, 5 May 1966, pp. 819–24, 29 Sept. 1966, pp. 860–2, 27 Nov. 1962, p. 1493, 14 May 1963, pp. 420–3, 26 Sept. 1963, pp. 895–9, 18 March 1964, p. 344, 26 Sept. 1963, pp. 895–9, 18 March 1964, p. 344, 23 March 1966, pp. 200–4, 28 Feb. 1967, pp. 135–41, 21 March 1968, pp. 256–7, 28 May 1968, pp. 1186–8, 15–16 April 1970, pp. 836–8, 28 Oct. 1970, pp. 1600–1.

[4] Manning, 'The real mediocre man'; CPD, 13 Nov. 1962, pp. 1366–7, 29 Nov. 1962, pp. 1648–9, 10 Nov. 1965, pp. 1407–9, 28 Feb. 1967, pp. 140–1, 18 May 1967, pp. 1765–70, 26 Sept. 1968, pp. 1001–5, 14 Oct. 1970, pp. 11321–8.

[5] Douglas McClelland, 'The arts and the media' in John McLaren (ed), Towards a New Australia, Cheshire, Melb., 1972, pp. 159–68; Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1985, pp. 578–80; Keith Windschuttle & Elizabeth Windschuttle (eds) Fixing the News, Cassell Australia, North Ryde, NSW, 1981, pp. 56–7; SMH, 23 Dec. 1972, p. 7; Nick Herd, Networking: Commercial Television in Australia, Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2012, pp. 128–36; CPD, 15 Aug. 1974, p. 967, 10 Dec. 1974, p. 3254, Susan Dermody, 'Nothing worth reporting: Douglas McClelland', New Journalist, No. 14, May 1974, pp. 4–5.

[6] CPD, 25 Sept. 1974, pp. 1387–8, 15 Feb. 1999, p. 1854, 11 June 1975, pp. 2504–7, 14 Nov. 1974, pp. 2375–7, 3 Dec. 1974, p. 3017, 26 Sept. 1974, pp. 1451–3, 23 Oct. 1974, pp. 1875–1920, 5 March 1975, pp. 639–40; CPD (R), 20 Nov. 1974, pp. 3786–810; Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia, Currency Press, Syd., 1987, pp. 54–117; Dermody, 'Nothing worth reporting'; Age (Melb.), 16 April 1975, p. 8.

[7] Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia's Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1975, pp. 267–9.

[8] CPD, 11 Sept. 1985, pp. 455–6, 9 April 1986, pp. 1449–53, 4 June 1986, pp. 3307–10, 7 Oct. 1986, pp. 892–5, 17 March 1987, pp. 791–820; Harry Evans, 'The "Murphy affair" produces conflict between parliament and the courts', The Parliamentarian, April 1986, pp. 47–51, 'The "Murphy affair" ends and the Senate president acts on freedom of speech', The Parliamentarian, Jan. 1987, pp. 15–20; Dr Michael Macklin, 'Serving the Senate: the legacy of Harry Evans', Annual Harry Evans Lecture, 2015; Private email correspondence to the Clerk of the Senate, 20, 24 and 25 Aug. 2015; 'Parliamentary privilege: changes to the law at federal level', UNSW Law Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1988, pp. 31–47.

[9] SMH, 13 Dec. 1986, p. 15; Carl Bridge et al. (eds) The High Commissioners, Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, 2010, pp. 194–212; CPD, 10 Dec. 1986, pp. 3763–7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 20-26.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1962–87 (ALP)

Minister for the Media, 1972–75

Special Minister of State, 1975

President of the Senate, 1983–87

Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, 1981–83

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, 1962–63

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1965– 1972, 1976–87

Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1967–70

Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, 1968–70

Estimates Committee A, 1970–72, 1976–78; B, 1970–71; C, 1981

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1970–73

Standing Orders Committee, 1974–87

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1977–81

Select Committee on Parliament's Appropriations and Staffing, 1980–81

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1983–87

House Committee, 1983–87

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1983–87

Library Committee, 1983–87