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Cleland, Dame Rachel (1906–2002)

by John Farquharson

In title and in life she was a grand dame, with great verve and spirit, a matriarchal figure who, even in her nineties was still game for anything.

That was Rachel Cleland, who has died peacefully in Goondiwindi, Queensland, aged 96, on Thursday April 18, after a heart attack. She had moved there from Perth barely a week ago, having purchased a unit so she could be near her son, Evan, and his family. As sprightly as ever on the day she took ill, she went for an outing with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren and tried out her new electric scooter.

Ever indomitable, Dame Rachel once said you could call her anything, a do-gooder, even a bastard, but you could not call her uncaring. She cared about everything she undertook and went at it full tilt.

For 27 years after World War ll she was intimately associated with Papua New Guinea where her husband, Sir Donald, went in 1951 as Assistant Administrator and within two years became Administrator. Though she returned in 1978 to live in Perth, where she was born, PNG lived on in her heart and was still ‘home’.

In 1999, at 93, she hit the headlines and was featured in the ABC’s TV series, ‘Australian Story’, when she threw herself wholeheartedly into campaigning against the logging of old-growth forests in the south-west of Western Australia. Not for the first time, this put her at loggerheads with the hierarchy of the Liberal Party, which her husband, the party’s first Federal director, had helped Sir Robert Menzies to get established. However, Dame Rachel was unfazed by the criticism she drew from party heavyweights, including WA Premier Richard Court and then Federal Forestry Minister Wilson Tuckey.

No stranger to a political stoush, she then turned her critical guns on Prime Minister John Howard, declaring that she no longer respected him for having appointed Tuckey ‘to do the best for the timber industry against the people who wanted to keep the forests’. Her other complaint about Howard was his style of Government, which she regarded as 30 years behind the times. Once described as ‘the conscience of the party’, she was one of the first prominent Liberals to denounce publicly former powerbroker and WA senator Noel Crichton-Browne.

But such political skirmishes, and the issues that triggered them, never replaced Dame Rachel’s pre-occupation with Papua New Guinea where she spent the greater part of her life, much of it through the crucial building period leading to independence. When she arrived there in 1951 she never dreamed she would ever consider it home. However, she stayed for 27 years and when Sir Donald retired in 1966, they continued to live in Port Moresby. She said at the time, ‘It just never occurred to us to move – we loved the country, we adored the people – we were happy’. Sir Donald died in 1975, just two weeks before independence. She stayed for another three years, writing the first draft of her first book, Papua New Guinea: Pathways to Independence, published in 1984, before returning to the Perth suburb of Peppermint Grove to live ‘just a mile from the bush-surrounded bungalow’ where she was born, and to be near her family.

There, beside the Swan River, the eldest of six children born to William and Olive Evans, she enjoyed a happy, free-ranging childhood in a ‘very progressive political home’ where, from an early age, the children were ‘encouraged to take an interest in social issues’. Through the regular chores they had to do - looking after horses, saddlery and a boat – the children learnt to be independent, able to turn their hands to practical skills.

This background, plus her training and work as a kindergarten teacher before she met and married Donald Cleland, an up-and-coming Perth lawyer, stood her in good stead in PNG. From surveying her life there, the word that comes to mind is ‘indefatigable’. She was a woman of initiative, enthusiasm and firm ideas, with a tendency to jump into things. Like so many expatriate wives, she identified with her husband’s work and with the local people, to whom she intuitively reached out and put them at their ease.

She was not in her husband’s confidence about everything that went on, but recent research has shown that where PNG affairs were concerned he relied upon her much more than has been generally recognised. He was not hidebound, either, about using her unofficially when circumstances or a need dictated. He once encouraged her to attend a political rally which Oala Oala Rarua [one of the independence leaders] was addressing at Ela Beach so he could get a cross-reference on the report of the police special branch.

In her capacity as Administrator’s wife, she was able to visit the length and breadth of the country, often in tiny wooden-frame aircraft, in and out of jungle valleys amidst cloud-shrouded mountains. None of this perturbed her. As she once observed, ‘I don’t get frightened – I find danger rather exciting and stimulating – it never occurs to me that anything really awful will happen’. It was that quality, as well as her capacity to take situations and people as she found them, that endeared her to local people. As Sir Maori Kiki once said, ‘That old woman, I have time for her. I think she had time for Papua New Guineans. She went down to the people’s level and she knew exactly what people wanted. She used to come to our house, and teach our women how to cook, sew dresses and so on. She walked to different villages. Even when we had bitter feelings, I knew that from the top level we had the backing of Sir Donald and Lady Cleland’.

No wonder she was the only Western woman to be made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1981 by the PNG Government for ‘services to the country’. It was also recognition of the great contribution Dame Rachel made to the country’s voluntary organisations – Red Cross, Girl Guides, Netball, CWA, YWCA, youth and social clubs and the integral role she played in the establishment of pre-schools throughout PNG. The contribution by women, both expatriate and local, in PNG was the subject of her second book, Grass Roots to Independence and Beyond, published in 1996.

Like Dulcie Johnson, wife of PNG’s last Administrator, Dame Rachel was a great giver and doer, though not a busybody. What she did was invariably tempered by commonsense coupled with sincerity. With her philosophy that ‘you can only enjoy yesterday if you are enjoying today’, people, from the humblest to the highest, took her into their hearts.

Her two sons, Robert and Evan and their families survive her.

Dame Rachel Cleland, born January 19, 1906; died April 18, 2002

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 2002
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 March 2002

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Cleland, Dame Rachel (1906–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cleland-dame-rachel-229/text230, accessed 11 December 2019.

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