McLEAN, Paul Alexander (1937– )
Senator for New South Wales, 1987–91 (Australian Democrats)

‘Although I was not raised in poverty, I saw enough of it to understand it’ admitted Paul Alexander McLean. Born to Harold Penrose McLean and Kathleen McLean, née Collins, on 13 March 1937 in the Lake Macquarie suburb of Belmont in the Hunter region of NSW, he was raised by parents—’a coal miner and … the daughter of a tin miner’—who instilled in their son a belief in the importance of education and a ‘quiet determination’ which were to define his approach to life. After attending the local Belmont Public School, McLean moved to St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill, Sydney. His time there ‘utterly convinced [him] of the profound importance of the educational experience’. He would go on to study at four universities—the University of Newcastle, the University of New England, the University of Melbourne and Brunel University in London—graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, a Diploma of Education Administration and a Masters of Education Administration.

Following six months of National Service Army training in 1956, McLean served part-time as a commissioned officer in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) while completing his studies and working as a teacher. On 7 January 1961 he married Nola Thomas, a fellow graduate of the University of Newcastle, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1964 he moved from the CMF to the Australian Regular Army, at the rank of major. In this position he was able to utilise his teaching skills, serving as an instructor at the Officer Cadet School in Portsea, Victoria. After dedicating a decade to the Army, which included an exchange posting to the Royal Army Education Corps in Beaconsfield, England and Rheindahlen, West Germany, McLean resigned his commission in favour of a more settled routine for his family. Under the Whitlam Government’s Australian Assistance Plan, he became a social planner based in Gosford, NSW and remained in this position from 1974 to 1976 before returning to high school teaching for another eight years.

When the Australian Democrats formed in 1977 they seemed to McLean the ideal vehicle through which to focus his political concerns, and he became a foundation member of the party. He served on the NSW Executive from 1977 and filled a number of other party roles over the following decade. McLean stood as a NSW Senate candidate for the Democrats in four federal elections between 1977 and 1984. In the double dissolution election of 1987, at the top of the Democrats ticket, he was the third senator elected. His campaign for this election had attracted media attention, notably for when he burned an imitation ‘Australia Card’ in Sydney’s Martin Place to protest against the mooted introduction of the identity cards by the Hawke Government.

Following the commencement of his term on 1 July 1987 McLean was appointed Democrats’ spokesperson for defence, veterans’ affairs, industrial relations and small business and, in July 1988, he added the role of party whip to his list of duties. He held all of these positions for the remainder of his time in the Senate.

In his first speech on 16 September 1987, McLean commented that his previous experience as a social planner had changed him dramatically as it led him ‘to believe in people power’, and ‘in the devolution of power out of bureaucracies and down to communities’. He also ‘became hooked on participation’, ‘sceptical of elitism and disillusioned with some representation’. He called on Parliament to adopt ‘a much more innovative and imaginative role’ as one of ‘the primary change agents in society’, asserting that ‘governments must in future be much bolder and further sighted’. He went on to state his belief that many social problems could be solved by reversing the trend of urbanisation. He proposed that the creation of special tax zones would encourage people to move from the cities to the regions. McLean argued that Australia’s ‘national cultural malnutrition’, caused by a poor diet of popular culture and informed by dubious ‘value-sets’, resulted in ‘social decay’.

His experience as a teacher and his belief in ‘people power’ came to the fore in 1989 when, as a member of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, McLean spoke to the committee’s report. He argued that although, in theory, all ‘communities have a great capacity to resolve their own difficulties … some communities are utterly powerless to resolve their own difficulties while other communities are quite powerful’. He claimed that this is caused by a ‘disproportionate distribution of power, knowledge, skills, insight and commitment’ and this ‘detracts from the quality of our democracy’. McLean suggested that to improve the quality of Australian democracy, the government should implement a national program to educate Australians on how to become active citizens. Later in the year, while contributing to the debate on the government’s response to the committee’s report, McLean challenged the government to shift its position from a ‘commitment in principle’ to an education program to a ‘commitment through action’, arguing that there ‘can be no true democracy without truly intelligent, active and informed citizenship’.[1]

McLean’s military background and his father’s war service helped to inform his frequent contributions to debates on defence and veterans’ affairs. In his first speech, McLean suggested broadening the role of Australia’s defence forces to focus more on civil defence issues—such as coastal patrols, bushfire fighting and rescue work—and less on traditional military roles. He returned to this theme in the following years, advocating for more ‘lateral thinking’ on defence and military matters. He suggested that the defence forces should be restructured to effect a policy of armed neutrality, to revitalise the Army Reserve and to reintroduce national service for young people. In December 1988 he spoke strongly in opposition to the government’s proposed War Crimes Amendment Bill, which was intended to facilitate the prosecution of Australian citizens or residents suspected of committing war crimes in Europe during World War II. Unlike his fellow Democrats, who supported the bill, he feared the bill would create ‘too great’ a ‘potential for injustice’, given the amount of time that had passed since the war and the difficulties that prosecutors would face in obtaining reliable evidence.[2]

The issue that brought McLean the most public prominence was related to small business, another of his portfolio responsibilities. In December 1988, after having been approached by a number of small businesses, he raised allegations that ‘senior officers of the Commonwealth Bank have in the past colluded in a corrupt practice by which businesses receiving funds from the Bank have been deliberately manipulated into bankruptcy and then acquired by other predetermined parties’. By the following March, McLean had broadened his case to highlight alleged banking malpractice by a number of financial institutions. He often used the scheduled Matters of Public Interest debate to raise the topic, on each occasion tabling further documents in support of his claims. In April 1989, in the absence of government and Opposition support, he failed in his attempt to refer the matter of banking malpractice to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. A second attempt in October of the same year had the same result.

By that time McLean’s interest in the banking industry had become associated with the Westpac documents case in which Westpac Banking Corporation had applied to the courts to suppress the publication of leaked documents relating to its program of foreign currency loans, on grounds of legal professional privilege. On 12 February 1991, while speaking on the adjournment debate, McLean indicated that he intended to refer in his speech to certain documents in his possession that related to Westpac. The President of the Senate, Kerry Sibraa, interrupted the debate to explain that he had received competing submissions from Westpac and McLean on whether he should permit disclosure of the documents. Westpac had argued that disclosure of the documents would be prejudicial to ongoing legal proceedings and their contents should not be disclosed in the Senate. On the other hand, McLean, supported by advice from the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, argued that disclosure should be permitted on public interest grounds. The President concluded that disclosure would clearly result in a ‘real and present danger to current legal proceedings’ and ‘a particular litigant’s rights being denied absolutely’, and ruled that McLean would neither be permitted to disclose the contents of the documents nor be permitted to refer to his previous conversations with the President which may have indirectly revealed the contents of the documents. The ruling was debated on 14, 20 and 21 February, by which time the documents had already been made public, having been read out in the South Australian Legislative Council on 20 February. When, on 5 March, McLean raised the matter again, the President stated that he would not revisit his ruling until the NSW Court of Appeal had finalised its judgment on the matter. Two days later the President informed the Senate that the relevant documents had been published by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration with the concurrence of Westpac. Given this development, the President withdrew his ruling of 12 February, allowing McLean to table the documents by leave in the Senate on the same day.

The House of Representatives committee that published the Westpac documents did not focus on the malpractice issues raised by McLean in its inquiry. Disappointed with what he saw as the inquiry’s shortcomings, in May 1991 McLean introduced a private senator’s bill, the Commission of Inquiry (Bank Practices) Bill, which proposed to establish a royal commission into alleged banking malpractices. The bill stalled at the second reading stage and did not progress. McLean was eventually invited before the House of Representatives committee as a witness and provided a substantial amount of testimony on the issue. However, the committee’s report published in November 1991, specifically found that McLean’s allegations of widespread corruption and banking malpractice were unfounded. Yet the report also referred to the Westpac documents case, recommending that this specific matter be referred to the National Crime Authority for further investigation.[3]

McLean also made a lasting contribution to Senate practice. In October 1989 he gave notice that on the next day of sitting he would move: ‘That, when the attention of the Chair is drawn to the absence of a quorum and a senator is speaking, the time taken for the formation of a quorum shall not be deducted from the time available to the senator to speak’. This was the first time such a suggestion had been mooted and was designed to prevent the erosion of senators’ speaking times. Although the motion was not actually moved at that time, the idea was incorporated in temporary orders in the early 1990s and, in 1997, Senate Standing Order 52 was amended to that effect.

McLean was a member of a number of parliamentary groups during his time in the Senate, including the Parliamentary Liaison Group on AIDS and the National AIDS Taskforce Education Panel. Prior to his election McLean, together with his niece, Kathleen Kay, produced a publication on the need to educate young Australians on the dangers posed by acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other sexually transmittable diseases; the publication was later purchased by the NSW and Victorian departments of education and the World Health Organisation. In 1988 when the Minister for Justice, Senator Michael Tate, tabled a policy discussion paper on AIDS, McLean was able to draw on his knowledge to state:

Between the ages of four and seven most of us are taught to do one of the most dangerous things that we will ever do in our lives, that is, to cross the road safely on our own. Between the ages of 16 and 24 most of us are taught to use responsibly one of the most lethal machines known to society: the car. We must now undertake to teach all of our young people between the ages of perhaps 10 and 16 how to engage in sex safely.[4]

Although McLean was a candidate for leadership of the Democrats on two occasions his name did not appear on the party ballot either time. Following the resignation of Senator Janine Haines from the Senate in 1990 and her subsequent failure to win a seat in the House of Representatives, the Democrats were left with no party leader. McLean initially put his name forward but withdrew it prior to the ballot. The second instance followed the removal of Senator Janet Powell in August 1991 as Leader of the Democrats in a 6–2 vote of the party room. McLean had voted for Powell’s deposition and had put forward his own name as a candidate to replace her. He did so, he said, not because he considered himself the best choice as leader but because he believed that members should be given a range of choices. However, the public bitterness within the party following Powell’s removal so disappointed McLean that, on 23 August, before the leadership ballot, he resigned from the Senate with immediate effect. His reason, publicly revealed a few days later, was to ‘shock the party back to its senses’. Fellow Democrats Senator John Coulter, who succeeded Powell as leader, later commented on how distressed McLean was at the time: ‘He was quite overcome’.

McLean did not view his resignation from the Senate as the end of his involvement with the Democrats or even the end of his time in federal Parliament. His plan, he announced at the time, was to contest a seat in the House of Representatives at the next election, alongside Janine Haines, with a view to giving the party the balance of power in both Houses. Ultimately neither McLean nor Haines contested the 1993 federal election.[5]

Following his departure from the Senate McLean continued to campaign for investigations into Australia’s banking industry. Three months after his resignation, he described Parliament as ‘cowardly’ and ‘an executive without will’ because it had failed to support his push for an inquiry into bank malpractice. In 1992 he co-wrote a book with lawyer James Renton. In his preface to the book he explained:

As a senator I made banking malpractice and corruption my special interest and sought to convince the parliament of its great importance. My pleas fell on deaf ears. I know through bitter experience that one lone parliamentarian is powerless no matter how potent the evidence at hand. I have chosen to carry the fight outside parliament and into the streets and public halls—to the people.

McLean’s name re-surfaced in the media in 1993 after an investigation by the Australian Federal Police discovered irregularities in the New South Wales Democrats’ claims for electoral funding. McLean, by then living in regional Tasmania, maintained his innocence and suggested that he was being ‘framed’ as a consequence of his banking industry activism and to discredit his ongoing work on the issue. No charges were ever laid.

By his own admission, McLean’s parliamentary career was ‘short but eventful’. Years later, he reflected on his time in the Senate:

I found it challenging to go into parliament with that idealism and realise after a short while that you’re actually quite impotent. If you haven’t got the numbers, you’ve got very little real power. It is only by seizing what opportunities present themselves that you can bring about change. You’ve got to really make the best of the opportunities presented to you. It’s terribly hard work, and it is not acknowledged for what it actually is.[6]

Joel Bateman

[1] CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp. 172–5; Australian (Syd.), 8 July 1987, p. 10; Media Release, Australian Democrats, 28 June 1988; CPD, 8 March 1989, pp. 693–4, 24 Oct. 1989, pp. 2075–6.

[2] CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp. 172–5, 28 Nov. 1988, pp. 2975–7, 8 June 1989, pp. 3677–80; Herald (Melb.), 19 June 1989, p. 4; CPD, 15 Dec. 1988, pp. 4328–32.

[3] Australian Democrats, 30 Years, Australian Democrats, East Melb., Vic., 2007, p. 30; CPD, 8 Dec. 1988, pp. 3803–4, 15 Dec. 1988, pp. 4266–9, 2 March 1989, pp. 293–5, 9 March 1989, pp. 741–3, 5 April 1989, pp. 930–5, 27 Oct. 1989, pp. 2404–10, 12 Feb. 1991, pp. 355–62; SMH, 14 Feb. 1991, p. 11, 28 Feb. 1991, p. 7; ‘Procedural Digest 1991’, Papers on Parliament, No. 14, 1992, pp. 20–1; Harry Evans & Rosemary Laing (eds), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 13th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2012, pp. 254–5; House of Representatives Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, A Pocket Full of Change: Banking and Deregulation, Canberra, Nov. 1991, pp. xlix–li, 339, 344; CPD, 9 Oct. 1990, p. 2679, 28 May 1991, pp. 3663–4.

[4] CPD, 6 Oct. 1989, p. 1793; Rosemary Laing (ed.), Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2009, p. 196; Paul McLean & Kathleen Kay, AIDS and Other Sexually Transmittable Diseases: What Every Young Australian Should Know! Foreground Enterprises, Green Point, NSW, 1987; SMH, 28 Dec. 2007, p. ١٤; CPD, 22 Nov. 1988, pp. 2552–5, 2562–3.

[5] CT, 28 March 1990, p. 4, 21 April 1990, p. 7, 24 Aug. 1991, p. 1, 27 Aug. 1991, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 24 Aug. 1991, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 2 Aug. 1991, p. 1; SMH, 2 Aug. 1991, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 25 Aug. 1991, p. 7.

[6] Australian (Syd.), 31 Oct. 1991, p. 4; Paul McLean & James Renton, Bankers and Bastards, Hudson, Hawthorn, Vic., 1992, p. x; SMH, 5 April 1993, p. 1, 6 April 1993, p. 7; Rodney Smith, ‘The Australian Democrats in NSW politics’ in James Warhurst (ed.) Keeping the Bastards Honest: The Australian Democrats’ First Twenty Years, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1997, pp. 231–3; 30 Years, Australian Democrats, p. 30.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 102-106.

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Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1987–91 (AD)

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, 1987–90

Procedure Committee, 1988–91

Publications Committee, 1988–90

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1989–91

Selection of Bills Committee, 1989–91

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1990–91