Monday, March 3, 2014

Alderman Clem Jones

It seems that today's politicians frequently disappoint us. So often they over-promise and under-deliver, regardless of which party or faction we are talking about. Therefore it seems rather surprising and refreshing when we come across one who delivers in spades.

I think this one did deliver in spades, and those spades were wielded by the council workmen who paved the roads and brought the sewerage pipes to Brisbane suburbs. He was Lord Mayor of Brisbane from 1961 to 1975 (a record term), proud member of the Labor Party even though he was a multi-millionaire, and although he resigned from that same Labor Party over federal interference in state party business, he was later reinstated and awarded life membership. 

He was Clem Jones OAM.

Here he is in his mayoral robes in 1964.
(Photo: BCC-B120-33166)

Disclaimer: I describe my political leaning as conservative, although I abhor the right-wing views of many politicians on topics such as boat people; and I do not subscribe to the left-wing views of many others, such as continually bailing out the Australian subsidiaries of multi-nationals. I believe in small government (we could do without state governments in my opinion) but I believe that battlers should always be given a helping hand. No wonder I find politicians disappointing!

Clem Jones was exactly the sort of politician that I admire. If there was a job to be done he rolled up his sleeves and got cracking. He recognised that Brisbane was well behind other major cities in terms of amenities, hence his great work in upgrading the roads, improving public transport and rolling out the sewerage. The photograph below shows the rows of backyard dunnies that were the norm in suburban Brisbane prior to the Jones administration. 
(Photo: JOL 97264)

JC Slaughter, who was recognised by his peers as one of Queensland's most capable administrators, was an outstanding Town Clerk who provided Clem with able support drawn from more than 20 years of experience under previous Brisbane councils. Jones himself was a qualified surveyor and had a degree in town planning, so he brought this knowledge with him to Brisbane's local government, along with an abundance of energy. This double act changed the Brisbane landscape forever, and the Brisbane public loved it. In one local government election Clem Jones won 20 of the 21 available seats, prompting Gough Whitlam to dub him "Clem the magnificent."

Clem Jones did make one decision that I deplored and that is still spoken about today. He killed off Brisbane's tram system in favour of more buses and what are known as freeways (nothing about them is free - not the cost and certainly not the traffic flow!). Future local governments ever since have investigated methods to restore inner-city tram services but we are yet to see a coherent plan. Here is a picture of Clem when he was in better harmony with trams.  

Clem Jones was a great supporter of charities in both his public and private lives. He is pictured below with his wife Sylvia at one of the Lord Mayor's Charity Balls that he hosted.

Sylvia Jones passed away in 1999 after a long and painful illness - this caused Clem to leave a substantial legacy to euthanasia law reform after his own death. She and Clem had no children, and after Clem's death in December 2007 his personal wealth was estimated by some as being as high as $200 million. These funds became the Clem Jones Trust, which delivers bequests to sports, health and education causes, making Clem one of Australia's leading philanthropists. It is well-known that Clem Jones never took the mayoral salary at any time during his 15 years of service in that role. Isn't that refreshing in the light of current stories about tax-payer funded tours of wineries or trips to attend weddings and to purchase investment properties? Clem Jones was a public servant in the true sense of the phrase.
(Photo: BCC-C35-58.8)

Clem Jones had great community presence. The photo above shows him at the 1974 Anzac Day ceremony in memory of Hector Vasyli who was killed in a traffic accident near the Victoria Bridge on Anzac Day 1918. His Greek relatives commemorate his death each year, and there is a memorial plaque in his name on the bridge portal that remains on the southern side of the river.

There were other facets to the Clem Jones story too. A cricket tragic, he played in the lower grades of the University Club for many years, as well as providing administration assistance. He became a member of Australian Cricket's board of control in 1961 and was heavily involved in the Queensland Cricket Association - he was even the curator for a while, rolling the pitch prior to the 1974 Ashes match when Australia unleashed the Lillee-Thomson combination for the first time. His deep involvement with cricket led to Australian fast bowler Terry Alderman being given the nickname "Clem", one of my favourite cricket stories.

But not everything that Jones touched turned to gold. He was defeated in 1972 for the state seat of Yeronga after the state government modified the boundaries of that electorate to ensure a coalition win. In 1974 he ran for the federal seat of Griffith, and this time he lost because of his own popularity. Electors were bombarded with leaflets that said "You Can't Afford To Lose Him" and they decided that they wanted him to stay in local government rather than have him moving off to Canberra.

He also submitted a bid for Brisbane to host the 1978 Commonwealth Games that was won by Edmonton; but the resilient Jones tried again, this time successfully, for the 1982 Games which resulted in such a cultural fillip to the city.

Jones was heroic in the terrible 1974 Brisbane floods, and after leaving the city council, he was appointed chairman of the Darwin Reconstruction Authority to rehabilitate that city following its severe beating at the hands of Cyclone Tracy at the end of 1974. In true Jones form, he completed a five-year rebuilding program in three years.

Clem Jones died on 15 December 2007, causing an outpouring of grief at his loss but also thanks for his remarkable achievements. He was accorded a state funeral that was held at City Hall, where Labor and Liberal politicians alike praised both his public and private personas. Following that ceremony the hearse containing his casket toured many of the locations that were important to Clem - in particular his beloved Gabba cricket ground.

If this piece seems to laud Jones too much, Google his name and you will only find more of the same. It does seem to good to be true - self-made millionaire, tireless charity worker, shaper of a modern city - all without a hint of the improper behaviour or snout-to-trough mentality that seems so common today.

The city of Brisbane, and many individuals too, owe a debt of gratitude to this man. He has been remembered with a spate of buildings, ovals, prizes and awards having been named in his honour. Perhaps the one he might have been most interested in would be the Clem Jones tunnel under the Brisbane River (below), named after him by a Liberal council. It is just the sort of major infrastructure project that he was so good at.       
(Photo: Erict9 via



  1. Our politics differ widely, but we share one important belief: doing away with state governments. I believe in bigger, stronger Federal government with funding going directly to local councils for service delivery. State governments add another clumsy layer of government but with no better outcome for local communities.

    Perhaps all Lord Mayors should have degrees and experience in surveying and town planning. Jones, as you have presented him, had a better grasp of public transport, sewage, road infrastructure etc than others who have been bankers, insurance people or lawyers in their previous lives. Even though he ruined the tram system, Jones seemed to have a vision for a workable, modern city.

    1. There is no doubt that Clem's qualifications were an advantage, but we all know people who have qualifications but none of the energy and determination that is needed to get things done. Jones was a very practical and able politician.

  2. Great tribute to Clem! It was unfortunate that he believed that trams were not part of Brisbane's future. I still sulk about the removal of trams ! Lol

    1. He remained convinced that he did the right thing by implementing the Wilbur Smith recommendation to terminate tram services.

      I think most Brisbane people today would love to have a tram system, even if it were only on the busiest routes.

  3. I am no fan of left wing politicians but Clem Jones is one of those rare exceptions. A great servant who worked for no pay, achieved so much for Brisbane and genuinely cared for the people he served along with being such a generous philanthopist. Clem said regarding the tram closure that much of that decision was brought about by the Bjelke-Peterson government's decision to replace Victoria Bridge without the capacity to take trams. It was the only place where trams crossed the river.

    I certainly would love to see a tram line between West End and New Farm at some stage in future though I understand the difficulty there would be to have a dedicated lane through this route leaving only one lane for cars.


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