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Jones, Clem (1918–2007)

by Tony Stephens

Clem Jones had what he described as "a weakness for doing things". The weakness led him to sufficient wealth to be able to retire from his chosen profession at 37, to turn Brisbane from a sleepy bush capital into a modern city, and to lead the rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy.

It also led him to other, more bizarre, achievements. After sacking the curator of the Brisbane Cricket Ground on the eve of a Test, he did the job himself. He sailed a raft made of 12,000 beer cans – the Cantiki – with two mates from Darwin to Singapore in 1976 to announce to the world that Darwin was back in business.

He is best remembered for his 14 years as Lord Mayor of Brisbane, when he became – and probably remains – Australia's only "big city mayor" in the American tradition, commanding a budget bigger than that of Tasmania, rivalling the Queensland government for power and ruling like an autocrat who got things done, often with dazzling virtuosity. He cultivated a romance with the people of Brisbane.

Clem Jones, who died on Saturday at 89, after strokes, was born in Ipswich to E.W. Jones, the senior master at Brisbane's Church of England Grammar School, and Elsie Jones. After education at CEGS, he gained a University of Queensland science degree, majoring in mathematics and geology. He qualified as a surveyor and undertook postgraduate studies in public administration on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles. Jones quickly became a successful surveyor with a real estate business, a sharemarket investor and, later, developer. He became a national figure, however, for his tenure from 1961 to 1975 as Brisbane's ALP Lord Mayor.

Gough Whitlam, the Labor leader who asked Jones to stand for the federal seat of Griffith in the 1974 election – Jones lost in the anti-Labor swing – called him "the greatest man in Australian local government history". In 1973 Whitlam had called him "Clem the Magnificent" after Jones's team had won 20 of the 21 wards in the Brisbane council elections.

This was the age of Clemism in Queensland, with Brisbane run like a state within a state. Jones became known as "the man who sewered Brisbane", after coming to the lord mayoralty of a city without a coherent town plan, but with 2175 kilometres of dusty dirt roads and about two-thirds of its suburbs unsewered. He sealed the roads, built new ones and developed city gardens, sporting fields and swimming pools. He created a city square that became the platform for demonstrations against the Bjelke-Petersen government.

"I never had any vision," he said later. "Basically, we were so far behind and we had no amenities. The basic amenities for living just weren't here. It had to happen. I just happened to be there."

Jones spoke of Labor standing for "the real working man and the have-nots". Critics said these sympathies were a public relations front through which he gained power. However, Jones could point to his cooking most days, including Christmas, at the Bulimba Home for Homeless Men. Besides, his lined, brown face, ginger blond hair, toothy grin and liking for a beer sat well with blue-collar workers. And he had handed out how-to-vote cards for Labor as an 18-year-old in Coorparoo.

He stood unsuccessfully for the state seat of Yeronga in 1972, before losing in Griffith two years later. About this time his cricketing activities were noted. He played in lower grades for Queensland University and was elected to Australian cricket's controlling board in 1961, when South Africa's apartheid policies were starting to trouble sporting bodies.

Jones was the only member of the board, led by Don Bradman, to vote against Australia's tour of South Africa in 1970 and the planned visit of a South African team in 1971-72. The latter tour was finally cancelled. Jones's stance was vindicated when the South African side was banned from international cricket for two decades and Australia instead hosted a World XI tour in 1971-72. Jones prepared the Brisbane pitch for one of the World XI matches.

Floods brought a huge challenge in 1974. He ordered the gates of the Somerset Dam to be closed, despite expert advice that this would risk the dam's safety. Jones argued that letting the water run out kept the flood going. The dam survived.

Then he took over as curator of the Brisbane Cricket Ground after heavy rain before an England-Australia Test made it unplayable. "The Test pitch will enable the fast bowlers to get the ball to rear right up," he said mysteriously. "But because the wicket is so soft underneath it will only rear up slowly."

The final decision of the Whitlam cabinet before the government was dismissed in 1975 was to appoint Jones to take over as chairman of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission. Made a life member of the ALP in 1978, he resigned in 1982 over federal intervention in state affairs. He became a life member again in 1984.

More recently he developed his wealth, through companies such as the builder Watpac, and his philanthropy, through such organisations as the Clem Jones Group, which provides university scholarships, and the Leukaemia Foundation, which offers accommodation for the families of leukemia sufferers.

Jones had wanted an Australian republic before he died. Before the federal election and after the then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd had pledged to hold another referendum on a republic if he became prime minister, Jones wrote to all 226 federal parliamentarians, urging them to begin work on the issue.

Clem Jones became an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1976. His wife, Sylvia, died in 1999. They had no children.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 December 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Jones, Clem (1918–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jones-clem-22781/text32263, accessed 21 August 2019.

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