McClelland, James Robert (1915–1999)
Senator for New South Wales, 1971–78 (Australian Labor Party)

James Robert (Jim) McClelland was born on 3 June 1915 in Melbourne, the son of Robert William McClelland, painter, paperhanger and signwriter, who was of Ulster Protestant background, and Florence Ruby, née O’Connor, a Catholic. James’ early childhood was spent at Glen Iris, Melbourne, but in 1925 his father, who worked for the Victorian Railways, was transferred to Ballarat, where the family lived for five years. James was educated at St Patrick’s Christian Brothers College, Ballarat, from 1925 to 1929, and his scholastic talents enabled him to enrol as a non–fee paying student at St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne, from 1930 to 1931. At St Kevin’s he shared classes with B. A. Santamaria, who rapidly became an early and powerful ideological competitor. In 1931 McClelland won the Exhibition for Greek and Roman history, somewhat to the surprise of classmates, who remembered him more as a party-goer than a student of history. [1]

McClelland won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, and enrolled for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1932, but in 1934 he dropped out and joined the Victorian Railways as a clerk, later resuming his studies part-time. Completing the degree in 1936, he abandoned Catholicism and embraced Trotskyism under the guidance of future labour leader Laurie Short, and Marxist scholar and foundation member of the Communist Party Guido Baracchi. Leaving home in 1940, he worked as a labourer with Australian Iron & Steel Ltd in South Melbourne, and later as a machinist with the ARC Engineering Company where he was a shop delegate in 1942. It was probably during the previous year that he joined the Communist-dominated Victorian branch of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association (FIA). In August 1942 he was expelled for engaging in disruptive activities, and was later sacked from ARC Engineering for alleged ‘anti-war deviationism’, following pressure on the company from his arch-enemy Ernie Thornton, secretary of the FIA federal council. McClelland did not forgive Thornton for this and, when representing the FIA as part of a legal team in 1955, helped to have Thornton excluded from the FIA, an action which apparently gave him considerable satisfaction.[2]

McClelland joined the RAAF on 4 February 1943, serving as a leading aircraftsman in radar units in Australia and, from May 1945 to January 1946, in New Guinea. While stationed at Mascot, the airport for Sydney, he vowed that if he survived the war, he would live in Sydney forever. Discharged on 6 February 1946, he took over the management of ‘Mrs. W. Bradley’s Shelly Beach Café’, at the Sydney suburb of Manly. McClelland commenced a law degree at the University of Sydney, under the postwar Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme.[3]

On 4 July 1947, at the district registrar’s office in Paddington, McClelland  married 21-year-old Nora Fitzer, an articled law clerk. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Nora, who was born in Harbin, Manchuria, introduced him to a cosmopolitan social circle. McClelland graduated LLB in 1950, and in February 1951 was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Establishing the law firm Boyland, McClelland and Company (later J. R. McClelland and Company), he acted in late 1951 and early 1952 as solicitor for Laurie Short in Short’s successful effort to oust the Communist leadership of the FIA.

McClelland, who had joined the Glen Iris branch of the ALP in 1941, became a member of the Paddington branch probably in 1947. Although he allowed his ALP membership to lapse, he rejected approaches from B. A. Santamaria and others to join what later became the Democratic Labor Party. By the mid-fifties, McClelland had established a lucrative practice in industrial compensation law, had abandoned Trotskyism, and made friends with such legal luminaries as future Governor-General John Kerr and Lionel Murphy. In 1958 he made a visit to the United States, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.[4]

In the early 1960s McClelland rejoined the ALP, this time its Mosman branch, and in 1966 stood unsuccessfully as the ALP candidate for the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah. In December 1967 he joined the Double Bay branch, where Lionel Murphy (a senator since 1962), along with future New South Wales Labor Premier, Neville Wran, were also members. Divorced from Nora in 1968, McClelland married Freda Minnie Watson, née Squire, on 20 December of that year, becoming the father of three young stepchildren. Freda, an elegant hostess, presided over ‘a salon of young people of promise’ at their Darling Point house, and Patrick White was a friend of both. Freda died in 1976, and in 1978 McClelland married Gillian Patricia Appleton, a writer and broadcasting consultant.

In 1970 McClelland obtained second place on the ALP’s Senate ticket. Successful at the Senate election in November, he was due to take his seat on 1 July 1971, but was selected by the New South Wales Parliament to fill a casual vacancy caused by the death of Senator Ormonde. He thereby entered the Senate on 16 March 1971, twenty-one months ahead of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 federal election victory.[5]  

Now an atheist—a position he maintained to the end of his life—McClelland was neither of the right nor the left factions of the ALP, although he was disliked and distrusted by the more vigorous members of both camps. He was particularly friendly with Labor senators John Button and John Wheeldon, and two Liberals, Jim Killen, the MHR for Moreton in Queensland, and Senator Alan Missen. Difficult to classify in conventional political terms, McClelland is best described as a radical, though tolerant, liberal, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill.[6]

Although he initially failed to gain a place in what was Labor’s first federal ministry since 1949, McClelland rapidly became one of the most sparkling, effective and creative members of the Senate. His first speech, on the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Bill in 1971, was a classic defence of civil liberties. His hallmarksthe telling phrase, wide historical framework and cutting analysis—were early displayed by his assertion that ‘the real threat to law and order comes from intolerant over-reaction by traditionalists and defenders of the status quo rather than from dissenters’, and by his argument that ‘the Government’s obsession with order has outweighed completely its concern for freedom’. He went on:

We do not hear of people being arrested for blocking the streets during a visit by the Pope or the Queen or while disporting themselves at some of our regional mardi gras such as the Moomba festival or the Waratah festival, while the drunken excesses of Anzac Day are evidently sanctified by patriotism … so many people who deplore apathy are appalled by commitment.[7]

McClelland supported investigations into population and environmental problems, and argued for the abolition of conscription and improvements in the conditions and pay of volunteers in the armed services. He opposed efforts to amend the Conciliation and Arbitration Act in favour of the employers. Workers’ compensation, Croatian extremism, and what he perceived as being the Liberal–National Country Party Coalition’s manipulation of Australian security services for domestic political advantage were all debated with clarity and perception, as were human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, Chile, Brazil and Mozambique. An advocate of the Australian Schools Commission Bill and the States Grants (Schools) Bill, he supported federal aid to schools on an impartial needs basis.[8]

After Labor’s re-election in May 1974, following the simultaneous dissolution of both houses, McClelland’s star began to rise. Approaching sixty and a late starter in realpolitik, he missed out on a Cabinet position by one vote. In a brilliant speech he defined the fundamental basis of the Family Law Bill as the replacement of notions of fault in divorce by the sole ground of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of marriage. Applauding the setting up of a Family Law Court and the ending of complex legal fictions, McClelland declared: ‘The real causes of the disintegration of marriage … are to be found in such things as increasing urbanisation, increasing industrialisation, greater social mobility, the emancipation of women, the weakening of religious sanctions and … increased all-round prosperity’.

His practical contribution to the making of the Family Law Bill was substantial. An adept chairman of the inquiry into the bill by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, he was later credited with much of its drafting.[9] 

As a member of the Labor Caucus committee on the arts and the media, McClelland advocated a separate licensing authority for public broadcasting, and he used his membership of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts to put forward his views on media reform. He was chairman of the committee by the time of its 1974 second progress report on all aspects of television and broadcasting, including the Australian content of television programs. The committee’s recommendation that when FM radio was introduced it should utilise the VHF band instead of the more restrictive and costly UHF band was vindicated by the report of an independent committee. As Senator Schacht observed: ‘By promoting the changes to the recommendations of the [Australian Broadcasting Authority] he [McClelland] probably did more than any other person to ensure a broader range of iconoclastic views were heard every day in Australia, to the advantage of our community’.[10]

Minister for Manufacturing Industry (10 February 1975 to 6 June 1975) and Minister for Labour and Immigration (6 June to 11 November 1975), McClelland’s spell in Cabinet was brief and traumatic. The Whitlam Government lacked the numbers in the Senate to enable its reforming legislative program to have a smooth passage through that chamber. By mid-1975 the economic and political situation was rapidly deteriorating as a result of such international events as the 1973 oil crisis, and domestic processes, such as wage increases, high inflation and rising unemployment. Clyde Cameron, McClelland’s predecessor in the labour and immigration portfolio, had departed acrimoniously from the ministry. Whitlam later recorded that Cameron’s Cabinet submission on wage indexation was rejected after McClelland, in ‘the most dazzling dialectics of our time in Government’, demolished Cameron’s argument.[11]

In 1975 he guided the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Simultaneous Elections) Bill, which sought to ensure that elections for both houses were held at the same time, so that, as he expressed it, the ‘undemocratic’ Senate could not thwart the ‘decision of the people as registered in the result for the House of Representatives’. He played a major part in ensuring the carriage of the Racial Discrimination Bill, and strongly supported the regulatory Corporations and Securities Industry Bill, as he did the Privy Council Appeals Abolition Bill, of which he said: ‘I suggest that we can show our respect for the country to which we owe a great deal in our origins and in our traditions without in any way remaining lickspittles of that country’.

McClelland represented in the Senate a number of ministers who were in the House of Representatives, notably the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister (in relation to the public service), the Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs and the Minister for Customs and Excise. He came close to resignation in September 1975. Vehemently opposed to Cabinet approval of an increase in parliamentary salaries, he persuaded Caucus to overturn Cabinet’s decision.

Whitlam believed that the talents of McClelland and Treasurer Bill Hayden were capable of transforming the Government’s parlous situation, but it was too late. After the controversy over the Government’s attempts to raise overseas loans from unconventional sources had led the Opposition to block supply in the Senate, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister on 11 November, and installed the Leader of the Opposition, J. M. Fraser, as caretaker Prime Minister.[12]

At the ensuing federal election of 13 December, McClelland retained his seat, but the Labor Government was defeated. McClelland’s pain, anger and continuing disgust at the ending of his ministerial career, and what he felt was betrayal by Kerr never ceased. ‘It was’, he told the Senate in 1976, ‘especially painful to me because [Kerr] was—and I underline “was”—a close personal friend for many years. I believe it would have been shameful of me if I had not spoken against him in the way that I have publicly’. McClelland remained convinced that Kerr had tried to lull the Labor Party into ‘a false sense of security’. Bill Hayden later wrote that McClelland had influenced Whitlam in his choice of Kerr as Governor-General, and denounced Kerr excessively out of a sense of guilt. Despite his strong emotions, McClelland counselled moderation prior to the December 1975 election, and, according to Graham Richardson, spoke with exceptional brilliance at a campaign rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park. He was, remarked Richardson, ‘more of a realist than many of his cabinet colleagues’. In January 1976 McClelland lost the Caucus ballot for Leader of the Opposition in the Senate to Ken Wriedt by thirty-eight votes to twenty-five, despite Whitlam’s support. While McClelland in turn supported the ballot on Whitlam for Leader of the Opposition, he declined membership of the shadow ministry.[13]

Disillusioned, McClelland resigned from the Senate on 21 July 1978 to become a judge of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales. In 1980 he was appointed foundation Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales. In this pioneering post, he gained the support of the conservationists though not that of the developers. His disapproval of the increasing use of ministerial discretion under the New South Wales Environmental Planning and Assessment Act alienated him from the Labor Government of New South Wales, including the Premier, Neville Wran. The climax came over the Parramatta Park case, when the Government overrode the Land and Environment Court by introducing legislation to facilitate the expansion of the rugby league oval, and the building of a new stadium. On 3 June 1985 McClelland retired from the Land and Environment Court.[14]

In July 1984 McClelland was appointed by the Minister for Resources and Energy, Peter Walsh, as president of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, where he played an important role in leading the investigations in Australia and the United Kingdom. McClelland’s penetrating questions, keen analyses, and recommendations for compensation, site clean-ups, Aboriginal restitution and the reinforcement of Australian sovereignty made the report, submitted in 1985, a high point of his public life, and a confirmation of the view of legal colleagues, that ‘his career has been conspicuous for meticulous professional efficiency’.[15]

McClelland then embarked on a new career as an iconoclastic columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. Between 1986 and 1998 he wrote constantly, producing his autobiography, Stirring the Possum, in 1988, and two collections of essays, An Angel Bit the Bride (1989) and Conversations in Cabs (1991). Founding chairman of the boards of the Sydney Theatre Company (1978–80) and Belvoir Street Theatre (1984–87), McClelland was also a member of the Australian National University Council (1974, 1976–77), a Fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney (1983–86) and chairman of the New South Wales Privacy Committee (1979–81).[16]

McClelland died at his home at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains on 16 January 1999 and was cremated at Leura Memorial Gardens Crematorium. He was accorded a State Memorial Occasion, at the Sydney Town Hall on 3 February, which was attended by some 1200 people. ‘Diamond Jim’, an appellation bestowed because of his fondness for stylish and expensive clothing and his polished manners, was survived by Gillian, by his first wife, Nora, one child from his first marriage, and by three stepchildren from his second marriage.

McClelland’s Senate career, though brief, coruscated with creativity and controversy. Except for those with Wran and Kerr, his friendships across a wide spectrum of politics, the law and the arts endured. His sharp and superior intellect and wit, which he refused to conceal, meant that he suffered few fools gladly. He encapsulated social mobility, religious disenchantment, ideological starts and shifts, financial success, humour and urbanity. His life mirrored not only changes in Australian life from the great Depression to the close of the twentieth century, but also to the Senate itself, which he adorned as ‘a glittering bird of paradise’.[17]

D. B. Waterson

[1] James McClelland, Stirring the Possum: A Political Autobiography, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1989, pp. 1–6, 16, 20–2; The editor is indebted to Brother Brian Davis, Archives and Records, St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, and Peter Macdonald, St Kevin’s Old Collegians’ Association, East Melbourne; Ross Fitzgerald, The Pope’s Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 2003, pp. 2, 19, 21, 109–10, 272–3; Chris McConville, St Kevin’s College 1918–1993, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1993, p. 58.

[2] The author is indebted to Mark Richmond, University of Melbourne; McClelland, Stirring the Possum, pp. 25–6, 31, 37–43, 47–9, 54–7; Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia, Vic. branch, Management Committee minutes, 25 Aug. 1942, E175/11/1, NBAC, ANU.

[3] McClelland, James Robert—Defence Service Record, A9301, 126699, NAA; McClelland, Stirring the Possum, p. 59; The editor is indebted to Julia Mant, Archives and Records Management Services, University of Sydney.

[4] McClelland, Stirring the Possum, pp. 47, 77, 79, 82, 91–8, 107–12; ALJ, 15 Mar. 1951, p. 450; Susanna Short, Laurie Short: A Political Life, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1992, pp. 150–1.

[5] McClelland, Stirring the Possum, pp. 114, 120; ALP, NSW branch, Membership records, MLMSS 2083, item 574, MLMSS 5095, item 122, SLNSW; David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random House, Milsons Point, NSW, 1991, p. 515; SMH, 4 May 1970, p. 6.

[6] Gillian Appleton, Diamond Cuts: An Affectionate Memoir of Jim McClelland, Pan MacMillan, Sydney, 2000, pp. 135, 193–4; John Button, As It Happened, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 155–8; McClelland, Stirring the Possum, pp. 124–5, 138–9.

[7] C. J. Lloyd and G. S. Reid, Out of the Wilderness: The Return of Labor, Cassell Australia, North Melbourne, 1974, pp. 47–55; CPD, 28 Apr. 1971, pp. 1080–4.

[8] CPD, 29 Sept. 1971, pp. 962–4, 5 Oct. 1971, pp. 1137–43, 24 May 1972, pp. 2013–18, 19 May 1971, pp. 2116–19, 4 Apr. 1973, pp. 807–11, 12 Apr. 1973, pp. 1125–33, 27 Mar. 1973 p. 582, 27 Sept. 1973, pp. 1024–6, 7 Nov. 1973, pp. 1619–22, 5 Dec. 1973, pp. 2486–9.

[9] Australian (Syd.), 13 June 1974, p. 12; CPD, 29 Oct. 1974, pp. 2039–47; Gough Whitlam, State Memorial Service for Jim McClelland, Sydney Town Hall, 3 Feb. 1999, Whitlam Institute, University of Western Sydney, viewed 22 Mar. 2009, <>.

[10] Paul Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, A & R, Sydney, 1976, p. 90; Allan Patience and Brian Head, From Whitlam to Fraser: Reform and Reaction in Australian Politics, OUP, Melbourne, 1979, pp. 217–19; Nation Review (Melb.), 21 Mar. 1974, p. 9; CPP, 108/1973; CPD, 15 Feb. 1999, p. 1855.

[11] Age (Melb.), 11 Feb. 1975, p. 7; John Menadue, Things You Learn Along the Way, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, pp. 127–8; CPD, 3 Sept. 1975, pp. 474–8; Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, Viking, Ringwood, Vic., 1985, p. 288.

[12] CPD, 25 Feb. 1975, pp. 411–13, 27 May 1975, pp. 1886–8, 6 Mar. 1975, pp. 748–55, 25 Feb. 1975, pp. 430–1; Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, p. 215; Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, p. 289.

[13] CPD, 18 Feb. 1976, pp. 55–9; Bill Hayden, Hayden: An Autobiography, A & R, Pymble, NSW, 1996, p. 88; Age (Melb.), 14 Nov. 1975, p. 11; James Robert McClelland, Transcript of interview by Brian Furlonger for This Day Tonight, 13 Nov. 1975, CPL, p. 1; Graham Richardson, Whatever It Takes, Bantam Books, Sydney, 1994, pp. 41–2; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, p. 124; Barry Cohen, After The Party: More Political Anecdotes, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1988, p. 149; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, p. 377.

[14] ALJ, Oct. 1978, p. 585, June 1980, p. 376; McClelland, Stirring the Possum, pp. 198, 200–1, 205–27; Mike Steketee and Milton Cockburn, Wran: An Unauthorised Biography, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1986, pp. 47–9, 53–4, 157; National Times (Syd.), 20–26 Feb. 1983, p. 22; SMH, 19 Feb. 1983, p. 3; Advertiser (Adel.), 4 June 1985, p. 2.

[15] Robert Milliken, No Conceivable Injury, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1986, pp. 316–20, 325–6, 330–5, 345–7; CPP, 484/1985; ALJ, Sept. 1985, p. 579–80.

[16] The editor is indebted to Judith Seeff, Sydney Theatre Company Archives and John Woodland, Artistic Administrator, Company B Belvoir.

[17] SMH, 18 Jan. 1999, p. 37, 4 Feb. 1999, p. 5; Appleton, Diamond Cuts, p. x.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 444-450.

McClelland, James Robert (1915–1999)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1971–78

Minister for Labour and Immigration, 1975

Minister for Manufacturing Industry, 1975

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in matters relating to the Public Service, 1975

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee B, 1971–73, 1976

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1971–75

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1971–75, 1976–77

Select Committee on Civil Rights of Migrant Australians, 1973, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1973–74

Estimates Committee A, 1973–75

Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, 1974–75

Library Committee, 1974–75

Estimates Committee F, 1976–78