Off to the Alice

I was enthusiastic, enthralled by the Northern Territory from the moment the Royal Commission brought me to town and Frank Vincent QC encouraged us ‘baby’ barristers to go north and work with Aboriginal legal aid on circuit. After a chance introduction to Paul Everingham, the Territory’s first Chief Minister, we made a decision to move to the NT. Weighing all the options, Josephine and I surprised family and friends with our announced move to Alice Springs in 1986 to establish a legal practice.1 We agreed to go north on the understanding that we kept our home in Prospect Hill Road Surrey Hills, in case it didn’t work out.

Prospect Hill Road Surrey Hills

We left behind many good friends and colleagues. As is always the case the tyranny of distance ultimately costs you those connections. My colleagues in Chambers, Dick and Sue Stanley, George and Catherine Watkins, Prue and Jim Parrish, Tom and Helen Wodak all got on with their careers, as did we. I saw Mel Speed infrequently at airports after he had left the Bar to pursue his first love of sports administration. I lost contact with many others, including those with whom I had completed the Bar readers course, apart from Jack Hammond and Tim North. Infrequent catch-ups are no substitute for living and working in the same city. A recent reunion of Leo Cussen graduates was almost surreal. Nice to catch up, would do it again but little in common as time has gone by. I have never attended a Wodonga High School reunion for much the same reason. Recently, an old teacher from Wodonga High School Ron McIntosh made contact. I was pleased to hear from him. He taught me geography and showed an interest in my progress; one of the few. On a happier note in June 2019 the former Readers of Richard aka Dick Stanley QC gathered in Melbourne to honour our old Master; that was worth doing.

I left behind my Nana, Nellie Stone, dad’s mum ensconced in Collingwood going nowhere. She would die aged 99 years in 1990 before I was elected to Parliament.

Mary Ellen aka Nellie Stone nee Currie

Her death coincided nicely with her beloved Collingwood winning a premiership after a 32 year drought; next to being Catholic the other most important thing in her life was being a ‘magpies’ supporter. She didn’t approve of my father’s or my political allegiance. Labor to her bootstraps, she believed the conservatives to be the Party of the bosses. Worse, I barracked for Geelong, the ‘Cats’. Josie and I also left behind our immediate families; in the early years that was not problematic but becomes so as a parent ages and wants to spend time with their grandchildren. You never foresee all these unintended consequences but they should never be a bar to living your own life. Children can’t be shackled to their parents and neither should parents follow their children around.

Setting up in the Alice

We drove up the east coast past rolling surf and golden beaches collecting my sister Susan from near Rockhampton before taking that left hand turn - Mt. Isa to Alice. We had never driven in that part of Australia. I had not been outside of the northern reaches of the NT from Darwin to Katherine apart from a ‘flying visit’ to Alice to have a look. As the landscape gave way from lush green tropical pastures to the wide open spaces it was though we were traversing the US prairie plains of the midwest.

On our arrival at the Barkly Homestead our heads were in a spin. The searing dry heat and wide open spaces were not quite what we expected. The landscape either side of a never ending highway snaking its way through rolling red dust storms gave context to Mad Max. If Toecutter and Bubba Zanetti had appeared on the roadway we wouldn’t have been all that surprised - it was an eerie drive. Tennant Creek had our undivided attention as we drove through the town. Not all the highway between Darwin Tenant and Alice was sealed with large potholes looming up out of nowhere as large road trains trundled by oblivious and contemptuous of other traffic. Closer to Alice, the McDonnell Ranges and the surrounding landscape in their grandeur revealed an urban oasis. I had a real sense of the covered wagon as we ambled into ‘the Alice’ past the old telegraph station on 6 January 1986. We drove into town towing a trailer with the majority of our belongings following behind in a Wridgeways removals truck.

Josie and I had made a flying visit to Alice Springs in 1985 to check out the town. It was a big leap of faith on Josie’s part. Later she would share with me her thoughts as we made that exploratory visit standing atop ANZAC hill surveying the township below and beyond. She hoped I would get it out of my system in 12 months and we could return to our comfortable home and lifestyle in Melbourne.

1986 was the Year of the Tiger and turned out to be the most eventful year imaginable, well beyond our wildest expectations. Inside of 12 months, I was acting President of the CLP sitting on top of a powder keg with a fast burning fuse. There was no going back.

In Alice, we had a single name to contact - local real estate agent, the late Les Loy.2 He organised a rental property to get us started and helped identify commercial premises. We have remained close to the Loy family over the ensuing decades. History records we never went back and our minds were settled in that first year. The move was, in part, facilitated and encouraged by Pat Loftus of Loftus & Cameron fame in the ‘Top End’. Pat was keen to establish a presence in Alice Springs. ‘Loophole’ Loftus, as Pat was known, was an accomplished criminal practitioner3 and had formed a partnership with a former NT senior law bureaucrat Bill Raby. We opened for business and set about making ourselves known in the town.

I had been admitted as a Legal Practitioner in the NT on 10 May 1982 while visiting with the Royal Commission. Josie was admitted in Darwin on 1 August 1985 when she visited me in the Top End when on circuit. We were set to go when I received my first real introduction to the Territory profession. I did an interview with the Centralian Advocate providing a little of our background and hopes for the practice in Alice. Next thing, I received a letter from the NT Law Society responding to a complaint from Martin Partners accusing us of ‘touting’. I found this an extraordinary turn of events but, as matters transpired, fairly typical of the way the profession at times conducted itself in the NT.4 On another occasion, as I got to my feet to announce my appearance, I was challenged from the Bar table as to whether I was admitted in the NT and held a current practising certificate’. How times have changed particularly with full on advertisements for law firms commonplace these days.

We set up in Alice in the aftermath of the Chamberlain Coronial Inquiry. We got off to a flying start; clients would come and ask for the lawyer in the suit. As I went to Court to do the appearances, Josie undertook the mundane work of a solicitor – wills, conveyancing, leases and civil litigation. We had just missed Magistrate ‘Scrub’ Hall but Denis aka Deny Barrett would figure large in our professional life. He was a great man who ran his own show much to the annoyance of the ‘legal establishment’ – his great refrain was:

‘’If you want justice plead here today; if you want the law go to Darwin’’.

Many a Justices AppeaI in the Supreme Court commenced with the presiding Judge hardly able to contain his mirth.

‘’This is another Appeal from Mr Denis Barrett Stipendiary Magistrate’’.

Deny was a legend and worthy of a book in his own right. I was not a stranger to the profession in the north where I had regularly appeared on circuit. In the Alice Supreme Court, Justices visited from time to time including a number well known to me; John Nader (I inherited his wig when I went to the Victorian Bar5), John Gallop and Phil Rice who were fellow Navy legal officers and Austin Asche who I had previously worked for.6 Magistrate James aka Jim Hannan7 occasionally visited. We had become friends during my time with NAALAS and KRALAS. Visiting Counsel from interstate and Darwin regularly travelled to Alice on matters we had the carriage of. Our thriving practice regularly briefed old colleagues at the Victorian Bar notably one Richard Stanley QC leading Jack Forrest and George Watkins8 in the early days until we became more familiar with Darwin Counsel. I later realized that this caused some resentment from Darwin Counsel who felt we were not giving them a go (not surprising given the antics of some). I came to know John Reeves8, the former ALP Federal Member for the NT and, notwithstanding a shaky start, we have remained close friends. In the relatively small community of the Alice, we mixed in and built relationships with visiting Counsel and members of the Bench and this made for a good introduction when we later moved to Darwin to expand the practice.

For reasons that I won’t elaborate on, the Loftus & Cameron venture was short-lived and terminated amidst some acrimony.

Buckley and Stone Office Alice Springs

Danny Masters from rival law firm Povey’s assisted Josie and I negotiate a way out of the firm; we remain most appreciative of Danny’s intervention. Thereafter Josephine and I established Stone & Stone which in a relatively short period merged with Buckley & Buckley and so became Buckley & Stone; forerunners to M.B. Cridland. We had met Graham and Catherine Buckley early on, after our arrival in Alice, and we agreed to merge our interests; a very successful partnership. Later, I would bring Tony Morgan into the practice and he has remained with Graeme Buckley through successive mergers.

We lived temporarily in a house Les Loy found us before buying 7 Sturt Terrace on the river. We saw Alice flood more than 3 times so, based on that folklore, we were destined not to leave.

Flooding Alice Springs

It was a great house on a very generous block with a large, ever leaking, pool. It had previously belonged to a local business identity who had retained Adelaide architects to design his dream home. It comprised four bedrooms, a separate dining room, kitchen, and a separate entertainment area that included a full-size billiard table. When the time came to leave for Darwin, had we been able to hook it up to a trailer we would have. It also had a wonderful big barbeque in the backyard made from local stone. My preoccupation with the barbeque will come as no surprise to my friends - I am somewhat an aficionado when it comes to barbeques and, at last count, owned eleven. At my fishing hut at Channel Point on the Daly River, I stand accused of having my own Barbeques Galore franchise. I spent many a night out the back in the crisp desert air with a glass of red or two staring at that wide crystal clear sky with the occasional shooting stars intersecting the planets.

Sturt Terrace Alice Springs

I had my own planetarium and made the most of it. Blackfellas lived in the river bed and we all got on. The tap in the front garden was their only source of water and we were happy for them to take what they needed; they had been around longer than us. Alice was a wonderful town with a near perfect climate and a surrounding landscape that was picture perfect. We made many friends and had a great time. ‘Puccini’s’ was our favourite restaurant and most venues were within walking distance. People prospered in Alice, however, many had a deep-seated suspicion of Darwin; the ‘Berrimah line’ was no fiction in their minds. Many looked south to Adelaide rather than north to Darwin, and not much has changed.

You don’t have to go to America to see the likes of the Grand Canyon; Central Australia has much on offer and we did more than our share of wandering through prehistoric gorges and forests, swimming in isolated waterholes, camping out in remote river beds sitting in front of roaring fires staring at star-filled skies. As the slogan goes:

‘You’ll never ever know if you never ever go’.

Successive CLP Governments have done much to expand the tourism infrastructure in Central Australia including the Alice Springs Desert Park.

In Alice Springs we acquired a dog - the cute purebred puppy turned into a big tan lumbering Doberman with piercing yellow eyes. We named him after the Zulu King, Sharka.

Sharka Zulu

Sharka was an important, integral part of our family for almost 10 years. In Darwin, he had his own media profile and scored a front page of the NT News and a feature piece in the Sunday Magazine. He was a legend around our suburb of Larrakeyah and could sniff out a Labor leaflet dropper with ease. As a family, we cried when he died. I told Michael Sitzler when he bought our house that Sharka was buried in the front garden at Zealandia Crescent close to the fence line where he inflicted the most damage to those ALP leaflet droppers. Sharka was on the team and always voted CLP, and often.

In 2000 we moved to our Penthouse at the Myilly Apartments at the top of Cullen Bay which we still retain as our Darwin residence.

  1. Loftus & Cameron was merged with Stone & Stone and thereafter with Buckley & Stone with offices in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Darwin and Katherine. I acted as ‘in house’ Counsel. Josephine and I relocated to Darwin in 1989 to open and run the new Darwin office

  2. Seventh Assembly First Session 11/21/1995 Parliamentary Record No: 17 23 November 1995 Adjournment Debate Les Loy p. 5920

  3. Pat Loftus was fairly typical of those who maintained an amalgum practice consistent with South Australia and Western Australia where an established private Bar competed with law firms. For decade the same was the case in the Territory until luminaries such as Ian Barker and Tom Pauling decided to establish the Bar mirroring in part Victoria, QLD and New South Wales. The NT still have amalgums particularly in smaller centers such as Alice Springs and Katherine

  4. I recall later sharing this experience with Jim Noonan. He had one better having been admonished for writing to another legal practitioner suggesting he ‘’kept both hands on the table’’ when writing future correspondence

  5. Some barristers wigs have a pedigree and are passed on; sometimes father to son or from master to pupil. Nader gave his wig to Ted Woodward so that he might pass it to his son Ted of the same name. Young Ted decided on a career as a solicitor although later changed his mind and went to the Bar. In the interim I gave the wig to Tas Liveris of the Darwin Bar; no doubt in time Tas will pass the wig on to someone of his choosing. I also have the wig of George Dickson the second person admitted in the NT

  6. Former Senior Judge of the Family Court from its establishment in 1976. Acting Chief Judge of the Family Court from 1985 – 1986. He was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory on 14 April 1986 and was appointed as Chief Justice on 17 August 1987. I had worked for Austin Asche when still in education on an Inquiry into Teacher Education commissioned by the Victorian Government

  7. Jim now deceased had a street named after him in 2013. The NT Place Names Register described him thus: ‘Named after James Hannan, who arrived in the Northern Territory in 1984 to work as a Prosecutor. He had previously been a patrol officer and then Magistrate in Papua New Guinea. Given his exceptional abilities, he was quickly appointed to the Magistrate’s Bench in the Northern Territory, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. As a Magistrate, he was renowned for his deep understanding of human nature and his compassion’. A fitting tribute for a very fine man

  8. We regularly briefed George Watkins the senior barrister in my old suite at Latham Chambers; I considered George one of the most intellectually gifted barristers I had observed. His early retirement from the bar was a great loss to the profession 2

Next: Chapter 8: NT Country Liberal Party