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Remembering Clyde Holding

Professor Gareth Evans AO QC, State Memorial Service for Hon Clyde Holding, Great Hall, National Gallery of Victoria, 16 August 2011

One of my strongest memories of Clyde Holding goes right back to the beginning, when we were just getting to know each other – he as the Opposition Leader in waiting in Victoria, and me as an idealistic young student activist at Melbourne University. It was in February 1967, mounting a vigil outside Pentridge Gaol, the night before Ronald Ryan was hanged. The crowd was large, and feelings were running very high. But because of the awful gravity of the occasion, the atmosphere around midnight was fairly quiet. Quiet enough, anyway, for Clyde’s voice to penetrate some distance as he said “Have a look at that [effing] dog!”.

There was indeed a dog in sight: a large and aggressive looking Alsatian, attached to a large and even more aggressive looking policeman. It remains in some contention as to whether Clyde was referring to the four-legged or two-legged of the two. Either way, he was arrested for offensive behaviour and indecent language, and had to be bailed out four hours later by his political nemesis, State ALP Secretary Bill Hartley. Clyde always loved telling the story, not least the exchange at the desk when he was booked in: ‘Name?’–‘Allan Clyde Holding’; ‘Occupation?’ – ‘Lawyer and parliamentarian’; ‘Can you read and write?’….

I cherish this memory, among many others, because it captures some of the things about Clyde that made him such a memorable human being, and memorable public figure:

  • He was there on the frontline, because he was always there on the frontline.
  • He was there protesting for a great moral cause – in this case an end to the horrors of capital punishment – because he was a highly principled man always willing to stand up for great moral causes, however out of sync they might have been with the political mood of the time, for so long shaped in Victoria by the crude populism of Henry Bolte.
  • He got himself arrested because –for all the Trinity Grammar education, and the Melbourne University law degree, and the legal practice, and all the wonderfully refined sensitivity he showed as an enthusiast for the most sophisticated arts – he was an outspoken, rough and tumble, larrikin who was always getting himself into some kind of trouble.
  • And, like Mick Young but few others, he had a wonderful capacity to tell, and retell, and embellish and re-embellish these tales, in a way which made them, and him, unforgettable: he was a great raconteur, a great stump orator, and a great performer in the parliamentary bear-pit.

Many of Clyde’s stories of course were about the Richmond municipal and Labor party machine, which was – for better or worse –– his political base in the early years, and which I have to say was a pretty alarming introduction for people like me to some of the inside workings of the system as it then was. A system, for example, where the compilation of electoral rolls for party or council elections was an activity which gave new meaning to the expression ‘graveyard shift’…

And of course many more of his stories were about the horrors of coping, as parliamentary leader in Victoria, with a Labor Party Central Executive that was – in the words of our mutual friend Ian Turner – ‘exclusivist, authoritarian, bureaucratic, sectarian, dogmatic and politically inept’. Actually, as Barry Jones has commented, Ian Turner actually had a wonderful gift for understatement. When it came to electoral success, the Old Left’s guiding principle seemed to be Trotsky’s old maxim that ‘worse is better’.

It was Clyde’s unwillingness to tolerate being stood over any longer by the central executive machine – which came to a head in the debacle over state aid policy in 1970 – which more than anything else precipitated the federal intervention in Victoria, which in turn made possible the revival of Labor’s fortunes nationwide, which culminated in Gough Whitlam’s victory in 1972 and all the state and federal victories that have followed since.

It was certainly Clyde’s courage in breaking this mould, and the support and mentoring that he – and his closest colleagues Peter Redlich and Ian Turner – gave me, which made possible my own political career, one which would have been unthinkable in the unreconstructed Labor party. And there are many in my political generation who owe a similarly huge debt of gratitude to him.

I am not suggesting Clyde was a professional role model in every possible way. He was enormously intelligent, committed to great causes, and passionate about new ideas. But when it came to following through on the passion and putting the detail to bed, he was – to put it as gently as I can – not exactly at the anal compulsive end of the spectrum…

But there were so many things to love and admire about the man, and you’ve heard about most of them today:

  • he loved his family life – first with Margaret, and their kids Peter and Danny and Jenny; and then with Judy and Isabella; and his families loved him;
  • he loved his many friends, and they loved him;
  • he loved his electorates, and they loved him;
  • he loved the Indigenous people of this country – not in some abstract way but in the most down to earth possible fashion – and they loved him;
  • he loved the arts, and the arts community, and they loved him;
  • and he loved the Australian Labor Party – whether, in all its sometimes crazy manifestations it always loved him back or not.

Clyde had brains, had principles, had guts, had charm, and had cheek.

Like all of us here today – above all his family – I miss him, and deeply mourn his passing. But he was a man who made a real difference to the world around him, and the people around him. Clyde Holding’s was a life that demands, and deserves, not just sorrow but celebration.