I attended the memorial service for co-founder of the Australian Democrats, Jack Evans in Perth yesterday. I don’t especially seek to be the chronicler of departed Democrats, but I do believe the contribution of key figures in the Democrats’ history should be recognised because of the significant impact of the party on the Australian political and policy landscape.
The service filled the memorial chapel in the northern suburbs of Perth. People were drawn by their many varied experiences of Jack’s rich life over 80 years, much of it outside of politics. I didn’t recognise the majority of people, but there was a healthy representation of current and former local Democrat members and staff, along with some former parliamentarians from Western Australia. All the surviving former WA Democrat Senators were present, with Andrew Murray (1996-2008) joined by Jean Jenkins (1987-1990) and Brian Grieg (1998-2004).
Former WA Parliamentarians from other parties were also present – former Labor member for Stirling, Ron Edwards, along with former WA Labor Senator Jim McKeirnan and former WA Greens/Nuclear Disarmament Party Senator Jo Vallentine.
Naturally, the service recalled many aspects of Jack’s life outside of politics. Overarching emphasis was given to the central important role of his family life, including a 57 year long marriage to wife Margaret. He had an extensive and successful involvement in building small businesses locally and internationally, including in the area of education and training.
A nephew outlined Jack’s intense involvement in many sports and in sports administration – most notably in hockey. Former Democrat Senator Andrew Murray spoke on some aspects of Jack’s political career, giving strongest emphasis to his optimism, determination and long record in the essential, but often grinding work at organisational and grassroots level.
While Jack Evans served in the Senate for a little over two years, and made an impact there, it was his efforts as an unpaid party official where he really made his difference. He not only played a pivotal role in founding the Democrats nationally and locally in Western Australia in 1977, but was central in rebuilding again it in the mid 1990s WA, from little more than a handful of members, after some prolonged internal disputes in the party in that state.
There is always some luck and timing involved in politics – as in life. While there are a range of factors contributing to the fact that the party in WA had its most successful ever era in this mid-1990s period, it is also beyond dispute that none of this would have been able to be achieved if Jack Evans had not been there putting in the long hours to rebuild those organisational bricks.
While the Democrats’ time is all but passed, there is no doubt they reshaped the political landscape in a number of ways, particularly at federal level. Some of the independent commentary noting the Democrats’ passing in the last year or two has had a touch of the ‘damning with faint praise’ about it, but most still contained a recognition – sometimes begrudging – that the party did make an important mark.
I am conscious that it was not just the party’s Senators that created this legacy. The party was only able to make its more through the efforts of thousands of members and staff over more than thirty years. Most of these people will never be publicly acknowledged. In some ways Jack is a good embodiment of all those thousands of unnamed members, as it was his tireless efforts within the party organisation which made such a big and lasting impact.