Jack Evans, a pivotal person in the founding and development of the Australian Democrats, has died at the age of 80.

It is always dangerous to single individuals out, but Jack Evans and Sid Spindler, alongside Don Chipp, were amongst the most crucial people in getting the Democrats established and functional. Sadly all three have now passed on. Certainly when it comes to Western Australia, there is no other person who played a more fundamental role in the Democrats in that state, from the frantic early days, slowly building the party to a significant political force, in some very difficult days rebuilding the party in the west after some major infighting in the early 1990s – with the party ultimately reaching its strongest ever point in 1998 – and again in the even harder, distressing period where the party was struggling unsuccessfully for parliamentary and political survival.

Jack Evans not only hosted the huge town hall meeting in Perth in 1977 when Don Chipp was barnstorming the country setting up what to date has been the most successful minor party in Australian political history. He was a strong promoter of a ‘centre-line’ party and served as National President and in a number of other positions in those early years of the Democrats when the new party had lots of momentum and many wildy diverse and fervent members, but very little money or political experience.

Jack Evans only served in the Senate for a single, shortened term, from March 1983 to June 1985. There is a lot of hard, unglamorous work involved in party politics, and Jack was over represented in that category, but there is also a lot of luck, and he drew some short straws in that department.

Jack Evans has a few distinctions in electoral history, some of which I’m sure he would have preferred not to have. He gained the highest Democrat vote in Western Australia in the party’s entire history, at the Democrats’ very first effort in 1997. With Jack Evans at the head of the ticket, the party gained around 12.6% of the vote. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get him elected. Meanwhile over in NSW, his Democrat colleague Colin Mason was comfortably elected despite the party only getting around 8.3% of the vote.

For those interested in political trivia and minutiae, the number 2 candidate following Jack Evans on the Democrat ticket way back in 1977 was Uri Themal, who later went on to head the Queensland government’s Multicultural Affairs department. The number 3 candidate was Olympic gold medal sprinter Shirley Strickland-de la Hunty, who ran as a support candidate for Jack and the Democrats a number of times through into the 1990s. Jack and Shirley know each other from their teenage years, and he spoke at her funeral in Perth in 2004.

Jack recontested for the Senate in 1980, and while the primary vote was much lower at 8.8%, after all the votes were counted and preferences distributed, he came much closer to getting elected — agonisingly so, missing out on the final seat by less than 1000 votes out of around 700 000 votes cast. That final seat went instead to the Liberal’s Noel Crichton-Browne, starting him out on a Senate career which would stretch for another 16 years.

To rub salt into the wound, the Liberals had advertised in TV, radio and newspapers, as well as through direct mail, with false assertions that a vote for the Democrats was a vote for Labor, along with other alleged inaccuracies about the Democrats’ voting record in the Senate. Given the final result was so close, it is not unreasonable to assume that these falsehoods may have had sufficient influence to make a difference.

This led to Jack achieving another unwanted political milestone, as the key appellant in a High Court challenge – Evans v Crichton-Browne – to that result. I believe it was the first test of the provision of the Electoral Act which makes it an illegal practice to be:

“Printing, publishing, or distributing any electoral advertisement, notice, handbill, pamphlet, or card containing any untrue or incorrect statement intended or likely to mislead or improperly interfere with any elector in or in relation to the casting of his vote.”

The High Court found that this provision related only to misleading electors regarding the actual act of voting – i.e. how to fill in the ballot paper or which ballot box to put in it – not in regard to influencing them in deciding who to vote for, so Jack and the WA Democrats lost out again.

It is not surprising that the Democrats strongly pushed for many years afterwards to get a prohibition against dishonest political advertising inserted into the Electoral Act. These efforts to remove the ‘licence to lie’ at election time were actually briefly successful — for a short time after the election of the Hawke Labor government, amendments to this effect were passed by the Senate and inserted in the Electoral Act. However, the two major parties decided to remove them once again before the next election could be held, so they were never used in practice.

Jack was finally successful in getting elected in March 1983. Ironically, the Democrat Senate vote was lower still, at just 6.8%, but the fact it was a double dissolution election, with a lower quota required for election, made the difference.

However, the downside of being elected in a double dissolution was that firstly Jack only got a three year term instead of the usual six years, and secondly that the start of his term was back-dated to July 1982. On top of that, the Hawke government, elected in March 1983, called an early election on 1 December 1984. This time, the Democrat vote was seriously hampered by the brief shooting star of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. The Democrat vote in WA was just 4.8%, while the NDP’s lead candidate, Jo Vallentine, was elected on 6.8% after having been drawn at the top of the ballot paper — well below the level Jack had achieved in 1977 and 1980 without getting elected.

As another sign of the vagaries of Senate elections for smaller parties, over in NSW the NDP’s rock star candidate Peter Garrett, who had helped generate so much of the momentum for that new party, failed to win a seat despite getting 9.6% of the vote, while the Democrats’ Colin Mason once again managed to get elected, despite polling lower at 7.2%.

If there was one area the ‘consider each issue on its merits’ Democrats had been unyieldingly dogmatic about since their formation, it was the anti-nuclear, pro-disarmanent message, so the splintering of that vote by the NDP, and especially the loss of a seat to them, caused a degree of teeth-gnashing at the time.

When the 1987 election came around, Jack Evans came second in a tightly contested pre-selection ballot within the Democrats. Jean Jenkins, the lead candidate got elected — in another double dissolution election — with 5.8% of the vote. Jo Vallentine — recontesting as an Independent, as the NDP has already imploded by this stage — was also re-elected with 4.8% of the vote — the same percentage the unsuccessful Jack Evans led Democrat ticket achieved in the previous election.

Such are the vagaries of Senate polls for smaller parties. The key message isn’t so much a series of hard luck stories, but rather a stark reminder for minor parties that unless they can gain enough support to get a quota in their own right, they will always be subject to the vagaries of preference flows.

But even though Jack had only a short time in the Senate – the second shortest of the 26 people who served as Senators in the Democrats’ history – he still made his mark in that time. Perhaps most notably, he introduced one of only twelve Private Senators’ Bills (i.e. non-government legislation) to be passed into law in the nearly 109 years since federal Parliament was founded, and one of only two Democrats (along with former Victorian Senator Janet Powell) to be a sole sponsor of such a Bill. His Income Tax Assessment Amendment Bill (No 2) 1984 was aimed at preventing a particular type of tax evasion.

The topic of tax evasion legislation was very vexed for the Democrat Senators of this period — the first term of the Hawke government. A shared strong aversion to tax evasion at times ran into conflict with a strong opposition to retrospective legislation. Democrat Senators Chipp, Haines and Macklin tended to go towards only supporting non-retrospective aspects of legislation which clamped down on tax avoidance, while Jack Evans and Colin Mason leaned towards supporting closing tax avoidance loopholes regardless.

Unlike the later tax troubles the Democrats ran afoul of with the GST legislation in 1999, this much more drawn our public difference of opinion amongst their Senators did not split the party or its supporter base. Perhaps this was because the positions various Senators took were always openly and honestly explained, and were consistent with their public policies and principles previously pronounced.

In his first speech to the Senate in 1983, Jack Evans highlighted issues that he pursued in the all too brief period he served in that chamber. Apart from the traditional Democrat emphasis on inclusiveness and the search for constructive cooperation ahead of combative confrontationalism, he strongly promoted the importance of supporting education at all levels as an investment for the future.

He gave specific mention not just to the need to stop the Franklin Dam, but also to protect precious areas of Western Australia such as the jarrah and karri forests and Cockburn Sound. While his mention of the women of Greenham Common may seem a bit dated, his emphasis on the importance of nuclear disarmament is as current as ever, as was his mention of the importance of a Bill of rights and individual responsibilities.

He expressed support for cultural diversity as well as economic diversity, with a display of traditional liberal support for individual enterprise, social supports and a reduction in constraints on fair economic competition.

Following the 1987 election, after Jack Evans had been defeated in pre-selection and Jean Jenkins had been elected to the Senate from WA, he moved into the background witin the party for a number of years. However, Jenkins’ seat was lost at the 1990 election and she was unsuccessful again at the 1993 poll, with the WA Greens (which by that time had formed around Senator Jo Vallentine prior to her retirement in 1991) then holding 2 Senate seats.

Around this period, a series of infighting broke out in the Democrats in WA which involved the most extraordinary, labyrinthian set of circumstances I’ve ever witnessed. It reached the stage of one group of members taking another group to court to determine which people were the ‘real’ executive of the WA Division. It would take far too long to outline the twisting disputes here — and if I started to try, it would probably attract a furious flurry of comments from a few people who are still determined to have their version history recognised, long after everyone else has forgotten the whole affair happened.

This period ended with a mass expulsion from the party of the major protagonists from both sides of the stoush – plus others who I have to say were basically caught up as collateral damage. In addition, some other people from outside the party tried to ensure the dispute dragged on in one way or another through the courts for a number of years after – and without raising the names of anyone from outside the Democrats who might already have been mentioned in this piece, suffice to say that there were some disconcerting similarities with efforts made some years later by other people using sizeable amounts of money to pursue court action to derail Pauline Hanson and her party.

In any case, with most of the active members of the WA Democrats either expelled or repelled by the whole saga, Jack Evans came back in to help rebuild the party in WA almost from scratch. Within a few years, the WA Democrats not only had a Senator elected once again in 1996, with Andrew Murray gaining 9.4%, but in 1998 for the first time ever gained a second WA Senator, with the election of Brian Greig from 6.4% of the vote.

In between those two elections, for the only time in the party’s history they also succeeded in getting people elected to the Upper House of the State Parliament. The election of Helen Hodgson and Norm Kelly at the state election in late 1997 not only gave the WA branch of the party it’s only ever taste of state success. That election was also historic because, in combination with the election of three candidates from the WA Greens, it broke the conservative’s hold on the WA Upper House for the first time in the state’s history. The consequences of that were historic, not least because it – eventually – led to the removal of (most of) the disgraceful enormous malapportionment in favour of rural voters which had existed for so long in WA.

Sadly, both of these state seats were lost at the next WA state election in February 2001 — a result which also played a key part in the party’s members across the country moving to generate a ballot of the federal leadership, leading to Meg Lees being replaced by Natasha Stott Despoja less than two months later.

At the 2001 federal election, the Stott Despoja-led Democrats — with Jack Evans serving once again as National Campaign Director, as he had in the earliest days of the party — provided the only occasion where the Democrats retained a Senate seat in WA, with Andrew Murray being re-elected on 5.8% of the vote.

I never heard Jack mention it, but if I was him I would have found it interesting to note that results of 12.6% in 1977 and 8.8% in 1980 when he was lead Senate candidate weren’t enough to get a successful outcome, whilst Democrat votes of 5.8% in 1987, 6.4% in 1998 and 5.8% in 2001 were sufficient to be successful. There a range of reasons why this is so, not least a slightly lower quota after 1984 and the emergence of the NDP/Greens in WA cutting into the Democrat base vote whilst providing strong preference flows if the Democrats could stay above them in the count.

Despite age and health starting to catch up with him, Jack one again played key roles in the 2007 election for the party in its efforts to stave off parliamentary annihilation. 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.

I don’t pretend I had no disagreements with Jack now and then over the years, but I could never fault his commitment or his tenacity. And while he was determined, he wasn’t dogmatic or inflexible.

It probably sounds shallow, but I also have to say I was terribly envious of his voice, which was rich, deep and resonant — the sort of naturally authoritative and projecting voice which any politician would die for.

In the final paragraphs of the final speech made by a Democrat in the federal Parliament, I mentioned Jack Evans; wondering what might have been if he had had the chance to contribute over a longer period of time in the Senate. But politics, like life, is full of “what ifs”. The most we can do is try our hardest to improve things for the better, and I have no doubt Jack achieved that.

In reading back through a piece I wrote about Don Chipp’s funeral three years ago, I saw a comment I heard at the time from Paul Keating. He was talking about Chipp, but I think it is fair to give it some application to Jack Evans too, when he said Don Chipp “successfully achieved one of the most difficult things possible in Australian politics — starting a new political party.”

The fact that the party’s time may now have ended doesn’t in any way diminish its achievements over the thirty years when it reshaped the political landscape in Australia, especially when it comes to the Senate. It doesn’t just leave a historical artifact or curiosity; it leaves an ongoing legacy that impacts on all that follow.

I know the 30 or so years of the Democrats’ history only played one part in the 80 year long life of Jack Evans. I focus on that because I don’t know enough about the rest of his life to comment, but on that score alone, it’s a very good effort.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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