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John Qualtrough Ewens (1907–1992)

by Jack Waterford

John Ewens, who died in his sleep on Sunday, aged 84, was a former Parliamentary draftsman whose nearly 60 years of public service, overlapping those of his first public service mentor, Sir Robert Garran, spanned the entire history of Australian federation.

He was a somewhat gruff, exact, exacting and usually strictly formal lawyer who terrified a generation of Attorney-General lawyers, but he was more of a softie than he let on. He wrote legislation, both in his position as the first First Parliamentary Counsel from 1949 to 1972, and for another decade, with various law-reform commissions, that was usually a model of plain English.

Legislation with which he is associated includes much of Australia's intellectual property law, the ill-fated bank nationalisation legislation of 1947 (which, though rejected by the Privy Council, probably would not be thought to offend Section 92 of the Constitution now), security regulations during World War II and Norfolk Island legislation.

Much of his work was necessarily done on the run. During the coalfields strikes of 1949, the Chifley Government decided to seize union bank accounts and had to get its legislation through before banks opened in the morning. Ewens had completed a draft in the early hours, presented himself to Dr Bert Evatt, the Attorney-General (who sat huddled by a heater in front of an open window while he checked it), got it roneoed off (there was no time to have it printed), through both Houses of Parliament and then had to search for the Governor-General to obtain the Royal Assent before 10am.

Educated in Adelaide, he filled a vacancy at the bottom of the Attorney General's Department created in those days by the departure of the department's first head, Sir Robert Garran. Sir Robert was, however, retained to advise on constitutional matters, and John Ewens was appointed to devil for him. His capacity was quickly recognised; his drafting capacities gave him a role in wartime legislation and later, when the Office of Parliamentary Counsel was set up, the first position there.

That position saw him often stand in as head of Attorney-General's. Sir Kenneth Bailey would sometimes let work pile up; John Ewens would plough through it and write quick, fluent opinions.

John Ewens always searched for precision, and, as one person commented yesterday, "was always hell on a misplaced comma". He had a good eye for the weak point in a Bill. He searched for economy, precision and simple English, not always an easy task when there are professionals looking for loopholes, determined to misunderstand anything written, tempting the drafter to anticipate and close possible loopholes with more words.

John Ewens, who is survived by his wife, Gwendoline (who wrote Murray of Yarralumla), and two sons, Warren and Peter, will be cremated at 2pm at Gungahlin.

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Jack Waterford, 'Ewens, John Qualtrough (1907–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 July 2024.

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