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Jackson, Rex Frederick (1928–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Rex Jackson, who knew poverty as a child, had a streak of compassion and sound commonsense behind his pugilistic exterior, which served him well when he took over the tough Department of Youth and Community Services in 1976. He made a success of it, with genuine concern for the needy, and some strong reforming ideas.

His performance there won him a place in cabinet and the even tougher portfolio of Corrective Services in 1981, where his confidence, aggression and plain speaking ought to have paved the way for further success. But he had a gambling addiction that threw him hopelessly into debt, and made him vulnerable to corruption. Justice Adrian Roden said in 1987 that he had to look at ''the quality of the man'' he was sentencing for conspiracy to corrupt, and gave him a 7½ year term, with a non-parole term of three years and nine months. The Crown appealed and the Appeal Court decided in a two-to-one decision to give Jackson 10 years, with five years non-parole, on the grounds that he had ''prostituted'' his high office.

Rex Frederick Jackson was born on October 7, 1928, at Wagga Wagga, elder son of a railway fettler and gatekeeper, Patrick Jackson, and Olive (nee Griffiths). The family, who came to include a brother, Kevin, and sister, Betty, lived at Harefield, north of Wagga. Jackson attended Harefield Primary School and Junee High. In 1942, the family moved to Waterfall, south of Sydney, because his mother needed specialist medical treatment. Jackson went to high school in Sutherland. His mother died that year and 18 months later, so did his father. Jackson and his siblings were separated. Jackson was taken in by a family and worked at a shop the family owned at weekends, selling ice-cream and lollies.

In 1943, Jackson got a job with a printing company, Marchant and Co, and became a hardcore stalwart of the Federated Clerks Union. He also took up professional boxing, as a light-welterweight, fighting at Sydney Stadium and winning 16 of his 17 fights, with one draw. At age 24, he was general manager of Marchants. In 1949 he married Irene Sneyd, whom he met at a dance. In 1954, at 26, he stood against a field of 14 candidates for preselection in a byelection for the seat of Bulli and won the seat on July 9, 1955.

Jackson soon became known in Parliament for his vigorous style. He spoke effectively and came down hard on opponents. Labor MP Mike Cleary gave him the nickname ''Buckets'' and the name stuck. To his constituents, Jackson was attentive and approachable. In February 1971, with the seat of Bulli abolished, he won Heathcote. But he was always having financial difficulties. In 1973 a securities company filed a bankruptcy petition against him for a debt of $12,000, an amount ultimately paid.

In May 1976, when Neville Wran became premier, Jackson won a place in the ministry through a draw from a hat and received the Youth and Community Services portfolio. He quickly made his mark, delighting the departmental boffins by raising the final budget for his department from $44.4 million in 1975-76 to $78 million in 1978-79. He said the plight of deserted wives and others at similar disadvantage was atrocious, lagging behind other states, and the administration of child welfare as something out of ''the Dickensian age''.

In October 1981, Jackson got the troubled Corrective Services portfolio. He said prison was not meant to be a holiday. In his first move, he ordered a 48-hour crackdown on Parramatta jail, and a virtual arsenal of weapons was found. Jackson pledged himself to clean up the system and was dismissive of an assistant ombudsman's report about conditions at Goulburn jail. He said it had been filed in the appropriate place, ''that being the wastepaper basket'', because it was based on the word of criminals. He said he was prepared to support those who genuinely wanted to reform their lives.

Wran had wanted Jackson to get the prisons off the front pages. Jackson failed to do that, and when in April 1982, he instituted an early release scheme for some categories of prisoners, it was not destined to be. Jackson's justification for the scheme was that the prison population was too big. But the implementation raised the immediate question of corrupt dealings. Jackson scoffed at the idea. It was ''one of the first things'' that would be looked at, he said.

Jackson's gambling addiction was advanced. He lost as much as $15,000 on a race meeting. In six months, between October 1982 and March 1983, he lost $135,855 to bookmaker David Cohen. In this period, his ANZ bank account was overdrawn to the tune of about $60,000. In two years, he deposited $394,200 in a state bank account but at the end the balance was $306.13. Early releases, which had been averaging one a month, were now running at 50 a month. By 1983 five NSW judges were publicly complaining about it and newspaper reports suggested prisoners were buying their freedom.

On April 6 and 7, 1983, Australian Federal Police intercepted phone conversations that revealed a conspiracy between solicitor Howard Hilton and businessmen Frank Hakim and Morres George to have turf identity Keith Harris approach Jackson for an early release for three marijuana growers. Jackson had had a judgment handed down against him for $12,430 in gambling debts and desperately needed the $12,000 offered. When the three were not released as quickly as he wanted them to be, Jackson was on the phone to Noel Day, deputy chairman of the Corrective Services commission. ''Rex here Noel,'' he said. ''What the bloody hell is going on down there at the department?''

In October 1983, the federal opposition leader Andrew Peacock raised the alleged conspiracy in parliament. Jackson complied with Wran's request that he resign from the ministry on the grounds he had given a misleading answer in Parliament, relating to his dealings with Harris.

A Special Commission of Inquiry, headed by Justice Patrick Slattery, found evidence of the conspiracy to corrupt. Jackson, Harris, Hilton, Hakim and George were all charged. The state government initially decided to pay Jackson's legal costs, but stopped after a public outcry. In January 1986, Jackson resigned from the ALP, and announced he would stand again as an independent. In August 1986, he resigned his seat, saying he needed the superannuation to pay his legal costs.

In November, Harris, Hilton and George were convicted but a retrial was ordered for Jackson. In September 1987, Jackson and Hakim were convicted and Jackson got his initial jail term. On June 23, 1988, the Court of Criminal Appeal gave him is final sentence, of 10 years. At the time, the ANZ Banking Group, claiming Jackson and his wife owed it $124,101.61, had sought an order, but then withdrew it for possession of Jackson's family home.

Jackson, who served his term at Berrima jail, made clocks. His wife died in 1993. The couple had no children. Jackson got his release in November 1989 after serving three years and three months of his sentence, having earned merit points for good behaviour. He was scathingly critical of prison conditions.

He went into business selling ice-cream and hot dogs from a van in Stanwell Tops. He returned to the racetrack in 1991 but had the indignity of being told to leave the members enclosure because he had no member's ticket. Jackson died on New Years Eve, 2011.

His funeral will be held on Monday, January 9, at 10.30am in the West Chapel at the Woronora Cemetery.

Original Publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Jackson, Rex Frederick (1928–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/jackson-rex-frederick-16734/text28630, accessed 22 November 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012