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Paddy McGuinness on Jim McClelland

Sydney Morning Herald

28 November 1999

The way Jim McClelland betrayed Lionel Murphy while pretending to be his friend will reopen old wounds.

AFTER the hymns of fulsome praise offered up on the death of former senator and judge Jim McClelland, it was inevitable that a backlash would come. After all, many people knew his history and personality and had a rather less starry-eyed view of him than he promoted in his later writings, when he adopted every fashionable cause and slogan calculated to appeal to "progressives" of all types.

He did indeed express himself gracefully as he set about creating a new persona for himself.

While he was always a man of considerable charm and elegance, good looking and highly articulate, most of his history was as an opportunist of the NSW Labor machine who acquired wealth and status through exploiting his union connections.

There is nothing wrong in abandoning first the Catholic Church and then Trotskyism as a young man - although I did not do the second, since I was never a Trotskyite, despite what he says of me in his semi-fictional autobiography Stirring the Possum.

Incidentally, he stirred a lot more things than that, as is made clear in a much better written and franker autobiography, that of Betty Roland. In her third volume, A Devious Being (Angus & Robertson, 1990), she describes his callous and self-centred behaviour during their affair at about the end of the war; other former lovers have told of his overweening vanity.

Even his role in helping defeat the corrupt communist leadership of the ironworkers' union has been greatly exaggerated. The record is set straight in Dr Amy McGrath's book, The Forging of Votes (Tower House).

The real moving spirits were the late Cecil O'Dea and her husband, Frank McGrath, who early on was a Balmain ironworker and who completed his career as chief judge of the NSW Compensation Court .

It was he who discovered the actual forgery when John Kerr, junior counsel in the Short case, was ready to give up. McClelland was indeed a close friend of Laurie Short, and subsequently acquired the kudos of the victory, not to mention the bulk of the Federated Ironworkers' business.

Years later in the Senate, McClelland was most noted for his frivolity and his wit (he and then Senator John Wheeldon were an entertaining double act) and was never seriously considered for the ministry until, sensing a change in the wind, he allied himself with Bill Hayden and the small group of what would now be called economic rationalists in the Whitlam Government (although he later made clear that he never believed a word of it).

This could have saved the Whitlam Government had it not been for the premature action of Kerr as Governor-General; McClelland, outraged by having power snatched from him, treated this as a personal betrayal. Not surprisingly McClelland, as well as Whitlam, subsequently became confirmed republicans.

And now it has emerged that all the time the late High Court judge Lionel Murphy was suffering his trials and tribulations, McClelland was playing at Deep Throat with a small number of Sydney journalists - including David Marr and Wendy Bacon - publicly defending Murphy and privately urging on his persecutors and convincing them of Murphy's guilt, while still pretending to be Murphy's friend. Like his former bosom buddy, John Kerr, McClelland was an expert in the Judas kiss.

But he was probably telling the truth about his own shabby role in interfering with the course of justice by being "economical with the truth" concerning Murphy. The latter, while being in many ways one of the most significant members of the High Court bench ever, whose influence produced the radical Mason court, was also a crook.

He held crazy conspiracy theories about international finance and his personal behaviour was, let us say, exceptionable. He certainly should never have been appointed. But McClelland knew perfectly well that the tribal loyalties of the Labor Party are such that truth is always at a discount.

If he had said publicly that Murphy had attempted to pervert the course of justice he would have been crucified by the fanatical true believers, who have little time for honesty, and treated very much as Bill Hayden has since been treated. Instead, he lived out his latter years still enjoying the plaudits of his admirers.

By telling a few journalists (one of whom, Wendy Bacon, had been strongly supported by Murphy in fighting her denial of admission to legal practice, partly on ethical grounds) the story in confidence, McClelland had it both ways.

Now we have a pretty imbroglio. The Murphy loyalists will have to tell more of the truth about McClelland, which will dismay those who only a few days ago were beatifying him rather than simply keeping silent.

This process has been begun by Federal Labor MP Robert McClelland, the son of the other Labor senator of that name but apparently no relation. In turn, the McClelland loyalists will have to reveal more and more about the true history of Lionel Murphy (once described by Richard Ackland as a "puce-nosed jackal"), including his predilection for his female associates.

It is inevitable that the present Government will be tempted to repeal the totally improper legislation by which the Hawke Government suppressed all the evidence given before the special inquiry into the Murphy affair.

This should produce a fascinating Senate debate and vote which will test the honesty of the Democrats. The controversy aroused by McClelland's posthumously revealed confessions should also have a devastating impact on the Labor Party as the cobwebs are blown off many ancient enmities.

It is a pity that Labor and its propagandists should be so determined to canonise selected heroes and consign others to damnation. The truth about them is much more interesting.

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