Obituary: James McClelland

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The Independent Culture
JAMES MCCLELLAND was a flamboyant Australian judge, politician, raconteur and newspaper columnist who made his mark by flouting convention. He was known as "Diamond Jim" because of his stylish clothes and dandyish ways.

As the judge who presided over Australia's Royal Commission inquiry into British nuclear tests in Australia, McClelland took on the British establishment when he demanded the release of thousands of secret documents. Thanks largely to his initiative, the full story of Britain's atmospheric nuclear weapons tests down under was revealed, and the contaminated test sites in outback South Australia are finally being cleaned up.

McClelland was 69 when the Labor government in Canberra under Bob Hawke appointed him to head the Royal Commission in August 1984. The inquiry was Canberra's political response to mounting claims in the press that British and Australian ex-servicemen had contracted cancer and other fatal illnesses from being exposed to radioactive fallout from the 12 atomic weapons tests that Britain conducted in Australia between 1952 and 1957 in its quest to build an independent nuclear deterrent. Most happened at Maralinga in South Australia.

As the inquiry revealed, there were also hundreds of so-called "minor trials", tests on weapons components involving the burning, explosion and disbursement across the test range of plutonium and other radioactive materials. They left the site unfit for human occupation. These minor trials were conducted in great secrecy from November 1958 to September 1961, when Britain was party to an international nuclear test moratorium.

If Canberra and London thought McClelland's inquiry might whitewash this Anglo-Australian Cold War adventure, they were mistaken. During its first four months of hearings in Australia, Margaret Thatcher's government ignored the inquiry by declining to send anyone to represent Britain. By the time the inquiry moved to Britain in December 1984, London could ignore it no longer.

McClelland set the tone in a carefully prepared opening address at the British hearings in which he accused the government of "dragging its feet" and failing to co-operate with documents buried in vaults at the British Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. "Secrecy in the national interest has always been a convenient alibi for failure of disclosure," he declared. "We're not here to poke our noses into British technical secrets, but there is a certain minimum of information to which, as the host country to nuclear tests, we feel entitled to have access."

The tactic of, as McClelland later put it, "shouting from the rooftops" worked, and an avalanche of documents poured in. More than 40 people appeared as witnesses at the London hearings, including the late Lord Penney, the man in charge of the British atomic project. McClelland warmed to Penney, who was then in ailing health. He was not so warm towards certain other expert witnesses, particularly the late Sir Ernest Titterton, an Australian nuclear physicist, with whom he clashed openly over Titterton's convoluted answers. "I think the needle is stuck," McClelland said at one stage. When Titterton declared that he was "born a scientist", McClelland shot back: "Lawyers are a little less fortunate. They have to be trained."

McClelland's inquiry produced no conclusive proof that cancers in servicemen were caused directly by the tests. But it did highlight for the first time the plight of the Maralinga-Tjarutja Aborigines who were forced off their traditional lands for 30 years. McClelland took the inquiry back to Maralinga, where he and the lawyers sat in the red dust and listened to the Aborigines' stories. The Aborigines have since received millions of dollars in compensation, and are gradually rebuilding their communities adjacent to the test sites.

As for the sites themselves, London for a long time refused to accept McClelland's call, in the inquiry's final 1985 report, for Britain to bear the full cost of a proper clean-up. Britain has since contributed equipment and experts to a state-of-the-art nuclear clean-up exercise with Australia, which might never have happened had McClelland not "shouted from the rooftops".

McClelland's feistiness was not confined to the hearing rooms. At the time of the inquiry, he publicly described Margaret Thatcher as "that silly woman" and Bob Hawke as a "pygmy". His iconoclasm probably went back to his Irish Catholic roots in Melbourne, where he was born in 1915, the son of a railways painter. He won scholarships to St Kevin's College, a leading Roman Catholic boys' school, and to the University of Melbourne. McClelland ditched his religion early on ("It bored me") for a brief flirtation with Trotskysim. After serving in the Australian air force during the Second World War, he studied Law at the University of Sydney, then settled in Sydney to build a lucrative practice specialising in industrial law.

This brought him into close contact with the Australian Labor Party, for which he won a seat in the Senate, the upper house in Canberra, in 1971. In 1975, during the last months of the Labor government headed by Gough Whitlam, he served as minister first for manufacturing industry, then for labour and immigration.

McClelland never identified with any one group in the faction-ridden New South Wales Labor Party, and he was quite prepared to attack his former Labor "mates" when he was enraged about something. One of them was the late Sir John Kerr, a close friend of McClelland from their days in Sydney's legal world, whom Whitlam later appointed governor-general, the Queen's representative. When Kerr sensationally sacked Whitlam's government in November 1975, McClelland felt that he and the Labor Party had been deeply betrayed. He turned against Kerr, describing him as "a lickspittle from the wrong side of the tracks who always wanted to get to the big end of town, moved to the right and charmed the Sydney establishment to get there".

After McClelland left politics disillusioned in 1978, Neville Wran, then Labor premier of New South Wales, appointed him chief judge of the land and environment court, the tribunal that adjudicates between the conflicting interests of development and conservation. Wran, too, felt the backlash from McClelland's tongue when he decided to flout McClelland's ruling that a football stadium could not be built because it would intrude on the historic precincts of Parramatta Park in Sydney. Wran's government passed a special law and the stadium was built. A furious McClelland retorted: "Jim proposes. Neville disposes."

For the last 12 years, McClelland wrote a regular column for The Sydney Morning Herald. He had always really wanted to be a journalist, he once said, and he indulged his love of language by writing across a broad range of issues. He was quite outspoken and at his most readable in attacking both sides of politics, but he was also intensely loyal to those former colleagues whom he felt had managed to avoid being corrupted by the political process.

In his final column on 9 November last year, he wrote: "I have not received a warning fax from the grim reaper, tenuous though my grip on life may be. I have just decided to put my pen down, literally."

James Robert McClelland, judge, politician and writer: born Melbourne, Victoria 3 June 1915; member, Australian Senate 1971-78; judge, New South Wales Industrial Court 1978-80; chief judge, New South Wales Land and Environment Court 1980-85; Chairman, Royal Commission into British Nuclear Weapons Tests in Australia 1984-85; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Wentworth Falls, New South Wales 16 January 1999.