One of our finest judges of character
A JUSTICE of the High Court of Australia from 1987 to 2003, the redoubtable Mary Gaudron was the first woman to hold this lofty position. She was only 44 when appointed, after the death of Lionel Murphy.
It is fascinating to learn that when Mary was eight, a chance encounter in her NSW outback town of Moree with federal Labor leader H. V. Evatt led to him posting her a copy of the Australian Constitution. It was this thoughtful gesture that led her to aim for a career in law.
The red-haired daughter of a heavy-drinking Catholic railway worker and trade unionist who eventually became an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous, the fearless and feisty Mary was initially educated in a convent school in Moree East.
This was the part of town where the white working-class poor lived, sometimes cheek by jowl with Aborigines, who Mary noticed suffered blatant forms of discrimination, sparking her lifelong passion for social justice.
A recipient of a bursary, Mary became a boarder at the liberal-minded St Ursula’s High School in Armidale, which prepared her well to win a scholarship so she could study arts and law part time at the University of Sydney. By this time she was well associated with the Labor side of politics.
While Gaudron is best known for her role in the 1992 Mabo decision, some of the most revealing aspects of this rather prosaic biography concern her work as a barrister and her time as a deputy president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and as NSW solicitor-general.
Particularly illuminating are the sections concerning Gaudron and the radical Sydney barrister (later judge) Jim Staples. They first joined forces in November 1972 in a defamation action against the Australian Consolidated Press, representing Pat Mackie, the activist leader of striking miners during the famous 1963-64 Mt Isa Mines dispute.
In a trial lasting a month, Gaudron and Staples thoroughly lambasted the mining company and the Queensland branch of the Australian Workers Union, which, in effect, joined forces against the militant Mackie and the striking rank and file. The jury found for Mackie and he was awarded $30,000 damages for libel.
Gaudron’s work in this case, and then in representing the commonwealth in support of equal pay for women, so impressed Clyde Cameron, Gough Whitlam’s minister for labour, that in 1974, at age 31, she was appointed a deputy president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.
In February 1975 Staples joined her on the bench of the commission. The two left-leaning barristers became colleagues again, this time as judges, and the chapters dealing with these unconventional activists mine rich fields indeed.
However, unlike Staples’s libertarian and individualistic approach to resolving disputes, Gaudron worked within existing political and legal frameworks. Despite this, they remained (and, as far as one can tell, still remain) staunch friends.
In fact it was Staples, with what Pamela Burton terms his “unique talent for havoc”, who ultimately caused Gaudron to resign from the commission on a matter of principle. This was after the militant Staples attracted the ire of the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser. As a consequence of Staples’s demotion and general mistreatment, Gaudron resigned in sympathy in 1980. But unlike Staples, whose career was all but over, Gaudron went from strength to strength.
Towards the end of that year, her fellow law student Frank Walker, who was then attorney-general in Neville Wran’s second Labor government, appointed her NSW solicitor-general. At 38 she was the first woman to hold such a position in any jurisdiction in Australia.
Yet, as Burton points out, with the Wran government and then that of Barrie Unsworth enmeshed in allegations of crime and corruption, politically and legally this was a difficult time to be such an avid Labor sympathiser. Not least of all because of the serious allegations made against her friend Murphy, who was attorney-general in the Whitlam government and a justice of the High Court from 1975 until his death in October 1986.
However, a couple months later the outspoken “girl from Moree” really fell on her feet: her appointment by the Labor government of Bob Hawke as the first female justice of the High Court was announced in December 1986.
For the rest of her judicial career, Gaudron was far from a shrinking violet. She was always comfortable about her working-class origins, and those who know her report that, especially when crossed, she had (and has) a rich turn of phrase that would make a bullocky blush.
This well-researched, if a little bland, book makes it clear that Gaudron — who could often be brash and cutting, and who was noted for her steely determination — seldom took a backward step.
Indeed the great P. G. Wodehouse could well have written a novel about her called “Mary the Merciless”.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Alan “The Red Fox” Reid.
‘From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story’, by Pamela Burton, UWA Publishing. 492 pp, $49.95
The Weekend Australian, January 15 16, 2011