The Life and Times of Ray Evans

ray 2 day IIThe political campaigner, Ray Evans, formally known as N.R. Evans, died on Tuesday evening, July 17, after collapsing the previous Sunday and lapsing into a coma. Best known for his dry economic  views, he boasted a diverse group of friends and acquaintances who inhabited interlocking networks, many of which Ray created.

In the early Sixties, Ray was part of a loose grouping that included Brian Buckley, Paddy O’Brien, John Kiely, Bob Browning and Bob Murray — people in their mid-twenties who were doing late courses or still mixing in university circles. At this stage Ray was a young working engineer who ran an open house on weekends in his large and rambling abode in North Carlton. He and his first wife, Marion, had a young family with lots of children. People with political and affiliated interests would drop by to chat in a relaxed way about their current passions, Barry Jones among the regulars. Many of Ray’s guests were centre-right members of the ALP and keen to dislodge the dominant-but-unrepresentative Bill Hartley-Socialist Left cabal, a necessary pre-condition for Labor gaining office at federal and state level.

Though a graduate engineer, Ray became a member of the Fuel & Fodder Workers Union so he could participate as a delegate at annual ALP and Trades Hall conferences. But when the Federal ALP Member for Wills, Captain S. Benson, was expelled by the Hartley clique, Ray pulled up stumps on the ALP and, as it turned out, on a party political career. He formed a breakaway group to help Benson’s successful 1966 bid to retain his seat as an independent. This was, I think, the first of many organisations Ray formed as the need arose.

Ray first came to prominence when he joined Western Mining Corporation, writing CEO Hugh Morgan’s speeches and orchestrating the company’s media and public relations strategy.  Prior to this he had worked as an engineer in the State Electricity Commission in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, where he gained a disquieting insight into a workplace where bosses and workers enjoyed a cozy, closed-shop. Over-manning practices and inflated salaries were endemic, all at the expense of the public purse.

Ray next  moved to Geelong’s Gordon Institute, which morphed into Deakin University. There he witnessed “featherbedding” and “rent-seeking”, as he scathingly described those practices. Years later, in an address that hailed Ray, his career and his achievements,  David Kemp pointed out that these experiences contributed greatly to turning Ray from the early 1980s into a pioneering “dry”. He was not alone, as Gerard Henderson, Brian Buckley, John Stone, Des Moore and others were making the same transition. At the time Bob Hawke was getting almost daily TV media coverage and adulation as he bagged Big Business and pushed the union barrow in his capacity as  ACTU president. Big corporations, like the mining companies, were contributing mightily to our national prosperity, but they had no audible public voice. Ray devised the quite deliberate strategy of encouraging WMC’s Hugh Morgan not to shy from making provocative statements on mining, the economy, Aboriginal matters and Australia’s place in the global scheme of things. These talks were designed to provoke howls of outrage from the various anti-progress lobbies, which they did. Hugh Morgan gained a high media profile and had to be included, as the authorized ‘voice from the Right’, so to speak, in all subsequent controversies in these areas. Other mining companies noticed the success of this campaign and joined with Ray to form a small working group that expanded the strategy. Other sectors of industry followed their lead.  This was a significant achievement.

Emboldened by this success, Ray went after bigger fish. The basic wage formulated by Justice Higgins in the Harvester case is embedded in the DNA of Australians, seen as both the legal embodiment of our notion of ‘the fair go’ and Australia’s unique contribution to industrial relations on the world stage. In a perceptive piece of historical analysis, Paul Kelly in his book, The End of Certainty, saw this as one of the pillars of the Deakinite settlement arrived at during the first decade after Federation — a view that endured until  the 1960s. Determined to demolish that orthodoxy, Ray argued that the Harvester decision was arrived at by a top-down tribunal, rather than by market forces, and that it inaugurated an IR system where unrealistic awards and loadings proliferated to the detriment of the overall economy, not to mention the employment prospects of workers.  The minimum wage lowered the taking up of jobs, especially among the non-unionized unemployed, which went against its original intention. Now a full-blown dry, Ray advocated smaller government, less regulation, freer trade and an end to protective barriers. At this stage, Bert Kelly, the MHR and pseudonymous Modest Member in the pages of the Australian Financial Review, was his mentor and hero.

After leaving the ALP, Ray became a campaigner rather than a political activist. He didn’t protest against deformations in the political realm; rather, he acted to correct them. When an issue arose that needed remedying he would form an organisation quite specifically designed to address and correct the perceived problem. He understood that organisations are more powerful than individuals can ever be — the media, politicians and other public figures have to take notice of them, as they represent segments of public opinion. By the end of his life the ledger of organisation Ray founded was as long as your arm. The following come to mind, and this list is by no means complete: the Democratic Labor Alliance, the Galatians, the Australian Council for Educational Standards, the Bennelong Society, The Turks Head Club, the HR Nicholls Society, the Samuel Griffith Society and the Lavoisier Group. He was a man for all seasons.

Ray also came to wield considerable influence through his constant dealings with a wide range of figures. Neither a backroom boy nor eminence grise, he was rather a partisan who utilised to the full the opportunities and openings available to all citizens in a free and diverse polity. The narrator in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby realizes that he knows only one or two sides of the hero’s multi-faceted activities. Similarly, when dealing with Ray on a specific issue, you realised that it was only one passion among many, and by chance you sometimes caught a glimpse of the other worlds in which Ray moved, worlds well beyond your ken. He shared this trait with other Melbourne figures, among them B.A. Santamaria, Dinny O’Hearn and Brian Buckley.

Ray was not so much a driven person as one whose drive, his pre-eminent characteristic, was internally generated. He was a self-starter who would rev himself up for whichever of the latest tasks he never tired of assigning himself. He had a completely formed ideological world view which he deployed with great energy. Though it seemed that he operated in many diverse areas, from his perspective it was all one – a campaign he waged on many fronts. He was confident and assertive in his ideas, and seemed to have few doubts. Moreover, he was a straight shooter and committed combatant in the arena of ideology and practical politics.

To say Ray’s approach was direct would be an understatement; his intention was to aim for the knockout blow as a first resort.  Many thought him an extremist, but the simple fact was that he had the intellectual capacity, and the courage, to take his views to their logical conclusion. In this sense he was both purist and idealist. This made on him on any particular issue basically unsatisfiable. For instance he used to say: “I, too, disagree with John Howards’ Work Choices:  he didn’t go nearly far enough!”  Ray thought acquaintances who  generally shared his views but didn’t “go all the way” were no better than wimps. His confidence made him at times brusque, but he was courteous and never to my knowledge aggressive. He encouraged many people in the early stages of their careers to take the plunge, publish their perhaps unfashionable views, and to face the music with resolve and conviction when the chorus of offended interests began to howl — just as he always did.

That courage was another of his hallmarks. He knew his views would be treated with ridicule by large sections of the so-called thinking public, but he didn’t give a stuff.  Ostracism never knocked a feather off him, nor diminished his drive. Firm and resolute in his convictions, he paid scant regard to ill-considered views and those who promoted them.

He was a self-starter in another sense, too. He seemed to have worked out all his ideas from scratch, from experience and personal observation. In promoting his dry economic views, for example, he hardly ever invoked  Friedman, Hayek or any of the other greats in that field. To the end of his days, Ray was not burdened by the ‘anxiety of influence’.

Any and every field these days boasts a massive intellectual genealogy, which can be enlightening but also a burden to those who come after. Ray did not fish in those waters, a trait that made him an original and unique figure, with a combination of talents which fitted no category. In his later years the fierceness did not diminish. He was looked after with great attention by his second wife, Jill, and as his health declined he enjoyed long sessions of elevated gossip with friends in which he recalled epic battles, unusual characters and memorable incidents. In this mood he could be quite genial.

Though known to friends and adversaries for his economic and political activities, Ray was of a religious cast of mind. Unlike in politics, where after having his fingers burnt in the ALP he never joined another party, he undertook a life-long quest for a religious home, moving by stages from the Methodism in which he had been reared to Anglicanism,  then to Anglo-Catholicism. He was contemplating in his last years moving on to the new Catholic Ordinariate set up for unsatisfied Anglicans, but never took the final plunge. Ray would have admired the way the Catholic Church conducts its industrial relations. Its ununionised priests are paid below the minimum wage, with no leave loadings nor penalty rates, despite working mostly at weekends. Priests cannot down tools or decline to say Mass on days over 35 degrees, and they are unable to sue their employer. This arrangement would have seemed very close to perfection to Ray – good arguments for embracing the Catholics, above and beyond any religious consideration.

Ray set up a group, the Galatians, for traditionalist Protestant ministers who, though in the majority in their congregations as far as their views went, were being marginalized by the unrepresentative trendy clerics who have grabbed control of the ruling organs of their denominations. Ray retained from his Methodist background an evangelical zeal for making converts to his political causes, and the strong dissenting strain in his personality never dimmed. Of such people it is common (and easy) to say they have secularised their initial religious formation, but remarkably in Ray’s case, he remained a deep, practicing Christian. His original religious drives were not so much displaced as augmented. He was an ideal type of Max Weber’s puritan, a man who strives for worldly success as a token of hoped-for salvation.

Ray’s political and economic analyses were often underpinned by religious explanations. In his last great crusade, against climate change hysteria, his interpretation was that warmists are driven by an apocalyptic fervor of a distinctly religious bent. (Mind you, Ray was no slouch himself when it came to painting apocalyptic scenarios.)

If you were to review his many speeches and articles, it would become immediately evident that he combed time and time again through Medieval and Reformation histories to locate early examples of the same heresies he condemned almost until his last breath. He ransacked books like Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium looking for chiliastic outbursts in the past which throw light on current madnesses. It was a benevolent joke among his friends to await his inevitable invocation of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which settled the wars of religion. That pact, thought Ray, was the  crucial turning point in what was, to him, our recent history.

What a pity that his friends can no longer look forward to the fresh insights and intellectual firepower of a great man and a fine mind.


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