Ray Evans: A quiet shaper of the right’s ideas

John Roskam, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, on the legacy of Ray Evans:

Ray Evans, who died in Melbourne on Tuesday at the age of 74, had more influence on politics and policy in Australia than 95 per cent of MPs who have been in the federal Parliament, and 99 per cent of MPs who have ever been in a state Parliament.

In some way or another, Evans was involved in, and helped shape, the course of every major policy debate in Australia of the last 30 years. And he did it all as a private citizen who volunteered his own time for the public good. He was the epitome of a concerned and engaged member of the community. And because the causes Evans pursued were not of the left, his efforts were without the assistance of government funding. It’s easy being a public intellectual when you’re employed at the ABC or have a tenured professorship.

As ever more attention is devoted to the daily and often trivial goings-on of the Australian Parliaments, Ray Evan’s legacy is a testament to the fact the public and intellectual life of a nation is not, in fact, determined by what happens in the parliamentary chamber. Making the laws under which people are forced to live is certainly important, but the ideas which give birth to the laws on which politicians vote don’t originate on the ministerial benches.


In 1986, Evans together with John Stone, Peter Costello and Barry Purvis, founded the HR Nicholls Society. Evans was president for 21 years. At the first meeting of the society, Hugh Morgan spoke of how industrial relations system of the time penalised efficient industries that competed in world markets. While farmers and miners suffered, the rest of the economy was insulated from “the discipline and vagaries of the marketplace”. This statement of an obvious truth was so controversial that prime minister Bob Hawke labelled the society “political troglodytes and economic lunatics”.

Evans also founded, or was a central figure in, The Samuel Griffith Society committed to upholding the rule of law, the Lavoisier Group which questions the prevailing wisdom on climate change, the Bennelong Society which focuses on indigenous affairs, and the Galatians Group which examined the role of religion, and especially Christianity, in modern society. All of these organisations were non-government, voluntary groups sustained by the individual efforts of their members. The influence of these organisations rested on nothing more and nothing less than the power of the ideas they espouse.

Evans was an electrical engineer by profession and taught at Melbourne’s Deakin University before going to work at Western Mining Corporation. He had been a member of the Australian Labor Party and, in the 1960s, was a union delegate to the Victorian State ALP Conference.

It was morality that motivated the passion of Ray Evans. For example, he wanted a worker to have the freedom to work for a wage that was chosen by the worker themselves – not the government.

In 1997 Evans delivered the funeral eulogy for the great tariff reformer, Bert Kelly. Kelly was only briefly a minister in the Holt and Gorton governments. After his ministerial career, Kelly had a weekly column as the “Modest Member” in this newspaper.

“Those Friday columns came to exert great influence throughout Australia, and each successive Friday came to be dreaded by the Canberra lobbyists whose job was defending and expanding the tariffs which their industries enjoyed,” Evans recalled.

What motivated Ray Evans was what motivated Bert Kelly. In the case of protectionism, Evans pointed out that Kelly was opposed to protectionism not just because it was economically inefficient – but because it was morally wrong.

“[Protectionism] created a situation in which governments, in the person of ministers or officials, granted arbitrary and capricious favours to some, who were thus greatly enriched, at the expense of others.”

Evans said of Bert Kelly that he “was the great embodiment of Edmund Burke’s dictum that ‘politics is morality writ large’ and if the application of the moral principles which has been inculcated into him from childhood led to economically sensible conclusions, that was an additional benefit”. Ray Evans was also a great embodiment of Burke’s dictum.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review and reproduced with permission.

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