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Hermes, Clarence Lindsay (Clarrie) (1921–1991)

by Jack Waterford

Garrie Hermes, former Canberra Chief Magistrate, would-be Liberal politician and former senior secret intelligence officer, died at Royal Canberra Hospital (South) yesterday after suffering a heart attack on Friday. He was 70.

Mr Hermes was as well known to Canberra people for his public service with numerous voluntary organisations, including Outreach (which he founded), Legacy, and the ACT Council of Social Service as he was for a formal career in intelligence, law and government spanning 30 years, not including six years in the RAAF from 1940.

Born in Sydney in 1921, he left school at 17 and worked as a copy boy at the Adelaide Advertiser (of which he boasted that his chief distinction before he decided on a career in banking was that he had dropped the plate of one of the great cricket photographs of the season minutes before press time) and as a bank clerk.

He joined the RAAF as a radio and intelligence officer in 1940, serving in the Northern Territory (he was present at the bombing of Darwin), Queensland and on a US command ship in Borneo, intercepting Japanese signals.

Demobilised in 1946, he studied law at Adelaide University, becoming a prominent student politician and attracting the notice of the soldier and brilliant young university professor Richard Blackburn, who dabbled in part-time talent spotting for Australian intelligence services. Clarrie Hermes graduated in 1950, operating a private practice in Whyalla before going to work at the South Australian Crown Law office in 1952.

He was one of the first people recruited into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service on its formation in 1952, and was sent to London fairly promptly for training with the British Secret Intelligence Service — MI6. Discreet about his intelligence career, he never once mentioned it in public and, when supplying career details, used euphemisms about working at Defence. Of his time in Britain with MI6 he said, "I became one of the gang of Homburg-hatted gentlemen who walked around St James Park at lunch time and fed the ducks".

The head of ASIS at the time, Alf Brookes, described him yesterday as "one of ASIS's most brilliant officers — and one of my closest friends".

At the time of the first great ASIS purge in 1957 — when External Affairs Minister Dick Casey sacked Mr Brookes and other senior officers in the small organisation — Mr Hermes, who had been about to be posted to run the ASIS Indonesia station, was asked to stay on by Ralph Harry, the new boss. But he had become disillusioned and was not sure that the Government really intended to keep ASIS going: he took a tax free £5000 and went back to work at the South Australian Law Office.

In the following year, he went into private practice. He was solicitor for the Adelaide News editor, Rohan Rivett, in 1960 when he was charged with seditious libel for his coverage of the Stuart murder trial. He did not like private practice — "dunning people for money and asking for 50 guineas to start with" and in 1961 applied for and got a position as a magistrate. Two years later he applied for a similar position in Canberra, arriving in 1963.

He was a humane judge, fairly brusque and no-nonsense, but not greatly given to severity. In his out-of-court hours, he threw himself into community projects and rehabilitation schemes, particularly for young people. He founded Outreach as "a strictly disciplined but homey family environment" for juvenile offenders aged between 15 and 20, opened Children's Courts (on a condition that the press not identify individuals) and became active in Legacy, in preschool and parents' and citizens' organisations and in youth and suburban sporting organisations (he long played social cricket for the suburb of Hughes, of which he was one of the earliest residents.) In 1968 he was named Canberra Citizen of the Year. He was a Churchill Fellow in 1969.

When the popular long-time Labor Member for the ACT, Jim Fraser, died in 1970, the Liberal Party thought it had a big chance of winning the seat with a high profile candidate in Clarrie Hermes. He stood down from the bench, not before a few celebrated jousts with the barrister who was to carry the Labor flag against him, Kep Enderby, and ran very hard. The Labor primary vote was almost cut in half, but Mr Hermes missed out.

He went to work in the Attorney-General's Department, serving a period as its man in London, and also as a deputy president of the Repatriation Review Tribunal before returning to the bench as Canberra's Chief Magistrate on the retirement of Charles Kilduff in 1980.

He became quite depressed at the sheer volume of drug offences. He had not had a single drug matter come before him between 1961 and 1970. Many of the cases coming before him, he commented, seemed to involve people living from one welfare benefit to the next, scarcely even clearing their heads for appearances in court: they regarded them as mere incidents in the lives they had chosen. Old homilies about "pulling yourself together" seemed inadequate and inappropriate: he did not know what to do and felt a sense of defeat.

He had a number of celebrated stoushes with Canberra's most vexatious defendant, the late Ray O'Shannassy, a wily bush lawyer skilled at baiting magistrates and dragging them into error. There was a strong lack of mutual regard — on one occasion Mr O'Shannassy sought an injunction in the ACT Supreme Court arguing that comments by Mr Hermes (such as "Mr O'Shannassy, you are not going to provoke me into dealing with you for contempt, so you are wasting your time: you are beneath contempt") indicated bias against him.

Both Mr O'Shannassy and Mr Hermes had heart attacks in 1982 and, on their next meeting after each was fit for his respective duties, Mr Hermes commented about their heart attacks and suggested it might be better if neither got too excited at each other. Ray O'Shannassy replied to this olive branch with the comment "Look, you silly old bugger, if you can't do your job you ought to get off the bench." It was Mr Hermes' favourite judicial anecdote.

Made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1982, he retired in 1984, but took a number of part-time appointments, including the chairmanship of the ACT Credit Tribunal, and various public-service disciplinary boards. He was also appointed to report to the Government on whether charges ought to be preferred against any ASIS officers after the Sheraton Hotel debacle, and in settling associated compensation claims.

Clarrie Hermes was never pompous, and was engagingly cynical about the human condition and what might be done to change it — but it did not stop him trying. He is survived by his wife, Betty, and four sons, Neil, Simon, Ashley and Michael.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 25 January 1991, p 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Hermes, Clarence Lindsay (Clarrie) (1921–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hermes-clarence-lindsay-clarrie-29427/text36837, accessed 12 December 2019.

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