A Step in the Right Direction

On one view, I was where the brothers had always intended, notwithstanding some thought I would make a good carpenter - another Catholic in the law. I had worked out that the best pathway to that elusive parliamentary career was the law. Parliaments are full of lawyers: on the Labor side, lawyers, teachers, trade unionists and careerist ministerial advisers. The conservative side of politics has its share of lawyers and career ministerial advisers. The lack of diversity among sitting members at all levels of politics is a concerning trend. Parliaments need greater diversity of occupation and backgrounds to be truly grounded and representative. However, as a lawyer, at least I could read the legislation and make sense of it. Having embarked on a law career, I never had any intention of seeing out my working life as a lawyer as will become evident. Law was always going to be a means to an end - politics.

Given my background as a teacher with a love of the social sciences, evidenced in my studies at the ANU, I recently read with some interest David Runciman review of the book by the vanquished Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff who wrote ‘Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics’. Runciman observed in his book review:1

'’The great German sociologist Max Weber thought that certain professions were not well suited to making the switch to a career in politics. One was professional soldiers, who were prone to become schematic and unimaginative politicians. Another was academics: far too thin-skinned and unworldly for the rough-and-tumble of political life. Weber thought the best way to learn about politics was to do politics. But failing that, the likeliest background for a successful politician was either the law or journalism. Both these professions had the advantage of teaching ruthlessness combined with adaptability”.

Just as well I ditched the sociology career for law and didn’t persevere with the military.

Starting out in the profession

I enjoyed my time in the profession, particularly at the Victorian Bar. There was a great sense of collegiality and every day was different. Being briefed at the last minute, driving out to Magistrate courts in the suburbs and country centres was all part and parcel of starting out as a barrister interspersed with occasional appearances in the County Court or before some obscure Tribunal added to the intellectual challenge. That said, my practice and legal background has been consistently misrepresented by my political opponents including that partisan cabal of Labor Lawyers aided by their fellow travellers in the ABC. There are not too many groups I despise but they are right up there. For years they have sought to portray me as a small town hack solicitor from Alice Springs. For years I put up with this nonsense including from some who should have known better. I could have fought back harder but when it comes down to it, the punters don’t pay much attention to lawyers so why bother. The legal profession abounds with petty individuals who jealously seek to diminish the achievements of others particularly if they are of the wrong ‘political persuasion’.

When Nicola Roxon was appointed the Federal Attorney General the usual suspects were quick to point out that she was well qualified for the task as, among many things, she had been Associate to a High Court Justice. I remember reading that and almost choking on my corn flakes. We now have a new benchmark for senior appointments in the law and, on that note, I’ll take the time to spell out my legal career for the record.

On graduation from Melbourne Law School I attended the Leo Cussen Centre for Law in 1981 to satisfy the professional Admission requirements for the State of Victoria and the High Court of Australia.

Sir Edward Woodward AC OBE

Later that same year I commenced employment as Associate to Sir Edward Woodward AC OBE2 in the Federal Court. During that time, I travelled Australia extensively with Justice Woodward as Royal Commissioner into the Australian Meat Industry3 and thereafter worked for him in the Melbourne Registry of the Federal Court4 before applying to the Victorian Bar to complete the Bar Readers Course, subsequently signing the Roll Of counsel on 1 December 1983. I was admitted as a Barrister & Solicitor in Victoria and the High Court in 1981 following the completion of Leo Cussen, the Northern Territory in 1982 and NSW Bar and Tasmania in 1984. I initially practised at the Victorian Bar5 having read with leading Melbourne ‘junior’ Richard aka Dick Stanley6 and appeared regularly in Victorian, Southern Riverina NSW Courts and on circuit in the Northern Territory. I appeared in the criminal and civil jurisdictions and was at times briefed by the Katherine Regional Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (KRALAS)7 and the Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (NAALAS) on matters principally within the criminal jurisdiction. Before moving to the Territory, I conducted a typical juniors practice ranging between Magistrates Courts, the County Court and Family Court with an occasional appearance in the Supreme Court.

In Alice Springs I practised as an amalgam and only undertook appearance work as a barrister or in house Counsel from 1986 to 1989 and, thereafter, in Darwin until my election in October 1990.8 I am very happy to be associated with the town and my time there in the profession; if that makes me a Alice Springs ‘hack’, so be it. I note this accolade was bestowed by a couple of visiting Counsel from Darwin who regularly came off second best on my turf. Their simmering professional resentment combined with their political allegiance made for, at times, an interesting encounter at the Bar table. I hope that clears up any misunderstandings contrived or otherwise assisted by the ABC.

  1. The Guardian Newspaper 27 November 2013

  2. Former Director General ASIO, Justice of the Industrial Court and thereafter Federal Court with Commissions in the NT and ACT Supreme Courts; famed champion of Aboriginal Land Rights arising from his appearance in the landmark Nabalco case 1968-71. He was the Inaugural Aboriginal Land Rights Commissioner. I wrote the Obituary A Remarkable Journey of an Inquiring Mind published NT News 1 May 2010

  3. The deliberations of the Royal Commission into the Australian Meat Industry re-named in Australian media as the ‘roo in the stew’ inquiry warrants a book all of its own. Counsel Assisting Neil McPhee QC and his intrepid junior Ken Hayne (now of the High Court of Australia) cut a swath through the industry. Regrettably, too few prosecutions were made or succeeded. The entire incident caused massive damage to the Australian export meat industry seriously damaging Australia’s standing as a reliable exporter of beef. It also played into the hands of the US meat industry who were looking for any reason to argue against meat imports

  4. Justice Woodward also held Commissions in the NT and ACT as a Supreme Court Justice

  5. I was accepted into Chambers at Latham 500 Burke Street; George Watkins, Tom Wodak (later County Court), Mal Speed (later ICC fame), Jim Parrish (later County Court) comprised the suite with me the most junior

  6. Dick Stanley took ‘silk’ the following year. I credited him as an outstanding Master who always had time for his ‘student’. Dick had read with Jim Gobbo later Supreme Court Judge and Governor of Victoria. In the context of the Bar that made Sir James Gobbo AC my ‘grandfather’ – I nice co-incidence as I had been at law school with his son Jeremy and he was among those who facilitated my admission to the Order of Malta

  7. In 1985 I spent 3 months as the Acting Director of KRALAS during a period of considerable upheaval in the organisation working closely with the then Chairman the late Larry Ah Lin, an Aboriginal Korean War veteran

  8. The NT legal profession was largely based on the South Australia. The profession in SA and WA has been described as a ‘fused’ profession or as an ‘amalgam’ where lawyers who practised otherwise than exclusively as barristers generally described themselves as barristers and solicitors, whereas there were others who practice exclusively as barristers. This was different from NSW and Victoria where the profession was formally separated. In the NT there was an independent Bar best described as a voluntary speciality rather than a distinct branch of the profession which did not extend to Alice Springs

Next: Chapter 7: Moving to the Territory