EVANS, John Gordon (1928–2009)
Senator for Western Australia, 1983–85 (Australian Democrats)

Although Jack Evans served in the Senate for only two years, he was a founding member of the Australian Democrats before entering Parliament and remained a key figure in the party afterwards. He was described as ‘the consummate Democrat’.

John Gordon (Jack) Evans was born at Southern Cross, a goldfields town in Western Australia, on 28 November 1928, the eldest of three sons of William Evans, a locomotive fireman, and his wife Rita, née Moss. He was educated at North Cottesloe Primary School, Northam High School and Midland Technical School. After employment in the office of the chief mechanical engineer at Midland Railway Workshops, Evans obtained a position managing sporting and other recreational activities at the Railway Institute at Perth. He also worked as a management consultant and a company director. In 1953 Jack Evans married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Michel; they had two children, a daughter and a son.

Shocked by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975, Evans joined the Liberal Movement, founded by Steele Hall, heading the Liberal Movement’s Western Australian Senate ticket in the election held the following month. In March 1977 Victorian MHR Don Chipp, a former minister, quit the Liberal Party and became the leader of a new party—known, from August 1977, as the Australian Democrats—formed by way of a merger between the Australia Party and Robin Millhouse’s New Liberal Movement. As noted by Chipp in 1985:

… had it not been for Jack Evans there would be no Australian Democrats today. Contrary to popular belief, when I resigned from the Liberal Party in 1977, my whole intention was to get out of politics. The last thing in my mind was to help to form a new political party. It was Jack Evans, whom I had not met then, who pleaded with me to come and address a meeting in Perth. It was in Perth, with Jack Evans chairing an overflowing meeting in the Perth Town Hall, that the Australian Democrats were born.

Evans later explained:

The unconstitutional sacking of the Whitlam government prompted me to get involved in politics and to form a democratic party that would provide integrity to the federal parliament. I wanted there to be a people’s voice in the parliament to balance the conflicting extremes of powerful unions and wealthy big business.

Evans was founding president of the Western Australian branch of the Australian Democrats and a founding member of the Australian Democrats National Executive, serving as Deputy President (1979–81) and President (1981–83). Evans was also president of the Western Australian Sports Federation and enjoyed a wide range of sporting interests, especially hockey.

Evans headed the Australian Democrats Western Australian Senate ticket at the 1977, 1980, 1983 and 1984 federal elections. In 1977 he secured 12.1 per cent of first preference votes, the highest percentage that any Democrats candidate would ever achieve in Western Australia, but he fell just short of a quota, losing the last Senate spot to Allan Rocher of the Liberal Party. In 1980 Evans was again narrowly defeated for the final Senate seat by another Liberal candidate, Noel Crichton-Browne. Evans challenged this result, alleging that the Liberal Party had engaged in misleading conduct by advertising in the media that a vote for the Democrats was effectively a vote for Labor. The Full Court of the High Court rejected this argument, holding that paragraph 161(e) of the Electoral Act 1918 pertained to misleading or incorrect statements that were intended or likely to affect an elector in the act of marking a ballot paper rather than statements that may have affected the formation of an intention to support a particular candidate.

Evans finally won election to the Senate at the double dissolution poll of 5 March 1983. Elected for a three-year term, he was the first Australian Democrats senator from Western Australia and one of five Democrats senators elected in 1983. When Prime Minister Bob Hawke called an early election for December 1984, Evans suffered his fourth electoral loss after the last Western Australian seat was won by Jo Vallentine who, at the time, represented the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and he left the Senate in June 1985.[1]

Jack Evans delivered his first speech on 4 May 1983, promising that he and his colleagues from the Democrats would ‘act positively to break down the polarised nature of parliament’. Evans’ speech covered a broad sweep of domestic and international issues including: the possibilities for reform through citizen-initiated referendums; the need for Australia to adopt a bill of individual rights; the ‘urgent need for all governments to encourage the concept of preventative health’; the importance of introducing a ‘new era of industrial democracy’; and the imperative of looking beyond the concept of states’ rights when considering environmental matters of national importance, such as the Franklin dam issue in Tasmania. Evans was especially scathing about the condition of the Australian economy, characterising it as ‘one of the most restricted, protected anti-private enterprise economic systems in the free world’. Evans argued that the economic wellbeing of Australia rested with small business and challenged the government to provide more incentives and support to small business. He also urged a reconsideration of the role, content and funding of all levels of education, and stressed the need for the Australian education system ‘to grow hand in hand with high technology’.

Senator Andrew Murray (AD, WA) characterised Evans’ Senate career as ‘cruelly short but busy and impactful’. Evans recalled that on ‘day one’ of his Senate career he ‘was thrown in at the deep end’ by being assigned multiple portfolios: treasury and taxation matters; industrial relations; trade; industry and commerce; transport; and sport and recreation. This highlighted a constant problem for the Australian Democrats—with only a handful of senators, each one shouldered a heavy workload. The fact that the Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate also resulted in Evans soon becoming the subject of intense lobbying and media attention. Despite these pressures, Evans spoke frequently in the chamber, touching on issues pertinent to each of his portfolios but focusing much of his attention on matters related to taxation.[2]

Debate on tax evasion and avoidance was prominent in the 1980s following the publicity given to ‘bottom-of-the-harbour’ schemes, where companies were intentionally stripped of assets and accumulated profits before their tax fell due, leaving them unable to pay their tax burden. Evans was very active in his attempts to combat tax avoidance but held strong to overriding principles of justice and fairness. He argued on behalf of taxpayers who had been involved in tax avoidance schemes, to afford them better rights of appeal in cases of extreme financial hardship and sufficient time to pay amended assessments. Evans and fellow Democrats Senator Colin Mason were instrumental in obtaining such concessions in the government’s Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Amendment Bill 1983, which was ultimately defeated in the Senate on a tied vote after the Opposition and the three remaining Democrats senators voted against the bill, objecting to the retrospectivity of the measures. Evans later commented on the differences of opinion within the Australian Democrats:

I recall the conversation with Don Chipp during the controversial bottom-of-the-harbour negotiations. He set out the guidelines for the decision making by the senators. He made it very clear that the vote was exclusively mine with absolutely no pressure from him or the party. In the end he voted against the overthrow of conventions on retrospective laws and I voted against the fraudsters.

On 7 December 1983 the government introduced a bill into the House of Representatives to combat a practice known as ‘cherry picking’; the use of employer-sponsored superannuation funds to avoid tax. The Senate rejected part of the bill that sought to tax those who had used a cherry picking scheme, retrospectively from 1 July 1977. The government accepted the omission of the retrospective element, allowing the other measures of the bill to go ahead to royal assent. On 2 May 1984 two bills, which for the most part were identical, were introduced into the Senate: the first was a private senator’s bill, initiated by Jack Evans; the second was a new government bill. The difference between the two bills was that the government bill included the contentious retrospectivity element, deleted from the earlier bill, while the Evans bill only applied to schemes from the date the original legislation had been introduced into the House of Representatives, 7 December 1983. The Evans bill—the Income Tax Assessment Amendment Bill 1984 (No. 2)—passed the Senate on the voices on 4 May 1984; in contrast, the government’s measure was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations and, although a majority of the committee recommended that the bill be passed (with Evans and two others dissenting), the government bill stalled in the Senate for the next five months. At a political level, the rejection of or failure to pass the government bill could have constituted grounds for a simultaneous dissolution of Parliament. To resolve the impasse the government accepted the Evans bill, which passed the House of Representatives on 10 October 1984, making it only the sixth successful private senator’s bill since federation.

Evans introduced fourteen other private senator’s bills, all of which lapsed. His bills were concerned mainly with taxation reform, industrial relations and small business. He also proposed a measure to deal with the problems faced by owner/drivers in the road transport industry and sought to ban the advertising of tobacco products in the Australian Capital Territory.

During September/October 1984, in his role as Democrats industrial relations spokesman, Evans was at the centre of discussions with the Australian Council of Trade Unions and Industrial Relations Minister Ralph Willis over proposed government legislation, the Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1984 and the Trade Practices Amendment Bill 1984, aimed at repealing sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (now the Competition and Consumer Act 2010) which allowed employers to seek injunctions and other punitive legal actions to restrain unions from imposing secondary boycotts. Evans and his Democrats colleagues rejected the proposed omissions and the bill failed at the second reading stage on a tied vote; Evans argued that removal of the sections would endanger the viability of small businesses.[3]

Although Evans was mainly focused on his many portfolio duties, he did not overlook the value of parliamentary committee work, noting that a joint standing committee ‘has the potential for taking party politics out of the parliamentary processes and for reaching a degree of consensus’.

Don Chipp described Evans as a ‘determined man, to a point of stubbornness’, possessed of ‘courage and a sense of humour’ and ‘enormously useful for his input on economic and legal matters’. Evans, he said, ‘had the helpful facility of being able to express the most complex proposition in the simplest of terms’. Colleagues also noted his voice: ‘rich, deep and resonant—the sort of naturally authoritative and projecting voice which any politician would die for’. Evans was a hard and conscientious worker—despite the exacting demands of travel between Western Australia and Canberra, he did not miss a sitting day.[4]

After leaving the Senate, in 1986 Evans unsuccessfully contested a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Council in circumstances that led to allegations that he had unethically negotiated Labor Party funding assistance in return for crucial election preferences. Following this, Evans sought preselection for first place on the Western Australian Democrats Senate ticket for the next federal election but was defeated by Richard Jeffreys. Evans contested this result in January 1987, resulting in a second preselection contest which excluded Jeffreys. However, Evans lost again, this time to Jean Jenkins. At the July 1987 double dissolution federal election, Evans therefore occupied the unwinnable second spot on the Australian Democrats Senate ticket. The January 1987 dispute became the subject of an exhaustive inquiry and a series of reports by the National Ombudsman of the Australian Democrats, published in May 1988. Evans survived an attempt to expel him from the Western Australian branch of the Democrats and he withdrew from party activity for several years. During this period in-fighting broke out among the Western Australian division of the Democrats that culminated in one group of members taking another group to court to determine which group made up the executive of the division. This in-fighting resulted in a mass expulsion of many members, leaving the Western Australian branch in a very poor state.

In early 1993 the Australian Business College in Perth, owned by Evans, collapsed with a tax debt of $570 000. An inquiry by the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training found that approximately 450 students had lost around $2.2 million from paying advance fees to the College. The committee recommended that the applicable legislation be amended to protect students from losses sustained due to the financial failure of education providers. On 15 April 1993 the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Kim Beazley, announced that the government would provide financial assistance to help in the placement of overseas students who had been unable to complete their courses because of the closure of the Australian Business College.

Later in 1993 Evans returned to active involvement with the Australian Democrats and helped to rebuild the Western Australian branch; the political fortunes of the Western Australian branch of the Democrats revived in the late 1990s with the election of Senator Andrew Murray in 1996 and then Senator Brian Greig in 1998, the first time the Democrats in Western Australia had two seats in the Senate. Evans worked as a part-time staffer to Murray throughout his term (1996–2008) and served as the Democrats’ national campaign director in 2001. Murray appreciated Evans’ energy, optimism and sage advice, finding him ‘well-informed and well-connected’.

In 2009, when diagnosed with cancer and given only a fortnight to live, Jack Evans contacted his friends and former staffers to hold what he called ‘a living wake’. He died at his home in Wanneroo, Perth, on 2 October 2009. His funeral service was held at Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park. Former Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett wrote of Evans, ‘it must have been a terrible thing for him to witness the final eradication of the party from the national parliament, after thirty years of effort and sacrifice’. In his eulogy, Andrew Murray said ‘the words that summarise Jack Evans and politics are “constant effort” and “tenacity”… He was an intensely value-driven policy modernist’.[5]

Harry Phillips

[1] Press Release, Australian Democrats, 2 Oct. 2009; Andrew Murray, ‘Political Eulogy’, delivered at Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park, Perth, 13 Oct. 2009; CPD, 26 Oct. 2009, pp. 7005–6; Andrew Bartlett, ‘Death of Democrat co-founder Jack Evans’, Crikey, 3 Oct. 2009; WA (Perth), 7 Oct. 2009, p. 69; Sunday Times (Perth), 13 March 1983, p. 6; CPD, 31 May 1985, p. 2979; ‘Profile: John Gordon Evans’, House Magazine, 8 Nov. 1983, p. 3; Don Chipp & Phil Larkin, Don Chipp: The Third Man, Rigby, Adel., 1978, p. 184; Australian Democrats, 30 Years, Australian Democrats, East Melb. Vic., 2007, p. 25; Evans v. Crichton-Browne (1981) 147 CLR 169, Full Court of HCA.

[2] CPD, 4 May 1983, pp. 195–9; Chipp & Larkin, Don Chipp, p. 38; Murray, ‘Political Eulogy’; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘PM’, 31 May 1985; CPD, 2 Nov. 1983, pp. 2090–2, 16 Nov. 1983, pp. 2622–43, 15 June 1984, pp. 3117–8, 3 Oct. 1984, pp. 1093–6, 16 Oct. 1984, pp. 1751–6, 23 Oct. 1984, pp. 2214–6, 20 March 1985, pp. 497–9. 27 March 1985, pp. 870–4.

[3] Age (Melb.), 26 May 1983, p. 1; AFR. (Syd.), 2 June 1983, pp. 1, 4; Trevor Boucher, Blatant, Artificial and Contrived: Tax Schemes of the 70s and 80s, Australian Taxation Office, Canberra, 2010, pp. 357–8; 30 Years, Australian Democrats, p. 25; CPD, 2 June 1983, pp. 1206–10, 19 Oct. 1983, pp. 1783–4, 1 Nov. 1983, p. 2007, 14 Dec. 1983, pp. 3739–41, 14 Dec. 1983, pp. 3766–7, 19 April 1985, pp. 1246–9, 2 May 1984, pp. 1455–6, 4 May 1984, p. 1595, 31 May 1984, p. 2201, 12 June 1984, p. 2806, 2855–9, 8 Oct. 1984, pp. 1411–5; Age (Melb.), 5 Sept. 1984, p. 9; SMH, 25 Oct. 1984, p. 3; CPD, 24 Oct. 1984, pp. 2311–12.

[4] Murray, ‘Political Eulogy’; CPD, 27 March 1985, p. 873; Chipp & Larkin, The Third Man, pp. 38, 56; Bartlett, ‘Death of Democrat co-founder Jack Evans’.

[5] WA (Perth), 6 Oct. 1987, p. 20, 16 May 1988, p. 7; Divisional Council Western Australian Democrats, ‘Minutes of a special meeting’, 29 July 1993; Bartlett, ‘Death of Democrat co-founder Jack Evans’; Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, The Efficacy of the Education Services for Overseas Students, Canberra, 1993, pp. 9–10, 13, 15–18; CPD, 26 Oct. 2009, pp. 7005–10; Murray, ‘Political Eulogy’.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 522-526.

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Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1983–85 (AD)

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1983–85

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1983–85