Collateral damage for Wran as mud flies
Some of the claims made against Lionel Murphy 30 years ago are explosive
In his last interview, Neville Wran told me that when he died, somebody would accuse him of being corrupt and he worried about not being able to defend himself.
“After I breathe my last, there will be articles and so-called learned dissertations about how I was a crook,” he said in 2011. “You can defame the dead. I won’t read it or hear it but my family, my kids, my friends and my colleagues will. But that’s politics, and there is nothing I can do about that.”
Documents from the parliamentary commission of inquiry into Lionel Murphy’s conduct as a High Court judge included allegations that do not reflect well on Wran, NSW premier in 1976-86.
It is claimed Murphy was urged by solicitor Morgan Ryan to use his influence with Wran to make sure the lease on Sydney’s Luna Park and a contract to remodel Central train station went to crime boss Abe Saffron. Wran was also allegedly asked to intervene in a High Court case. Murphy told Ryan his “representations had been successful”.
These allegations were based on illegal police recordings of telephone calls published in The Age in 1984. Ian Temby QC, the director of public prosecutions, concluded they could not be authenticated. Staff memos from the parliamentary commission reveal they too could not substantiate the claims about the Luna Park or Central station contracts. It is also alleged Murphy leaned on Wran to appoint Wadim Jegorow to the Ethnic Affairs Commission. This is hardly a hanging offence: governments often appoint friends, party members and donors to government positions.
These allegations were not fully tested. The commission did not make findings. And Wran, along with Murphy, was not given an opportunity to respond. We must treat all of this sceptically. Some of the evidence in the commission’s files, including Murphy’s relationship with Saffron, is contradicted by police testimony.
It is claimed Murphy was a partner in Saffron’s brothel, the Venus Room, and had “a long history” of “receiving sexual favours from women supplied by Saffron” but an interview with the chief of staff to the police commissioner, Ken Drew, revealed “no link between Saffron and (Murphy) had come to light”.
Wran may have had a blind spot when it came to Murphy. They had been friends since university. Wran told me he loved Murphy and believed he was targeted by “the establishment”.
When Murphy was charged with perverting the course of justice in 1985, Wran declared his friend “innocent” and was slapped with a contempt-of-court conviction and a $25,000 fine.
Did Murphy ask Wran for favours? Wran was not stupid. He had been a leading barrister and was a shrewd politician. He would not have done anything to jeop- ardise his government. He could be brutally cold and pragmatic, even towards friends. It is possible Murphy was using Wran’s name to elevate his own importance.
While these disclosures don’t look good, there is not enough evidence to conclude Wran acted improperly. Indeed, his alleged impropriety is mentioned only by others indirectly. In 1983, the ABC’s Four Corners alleged Wran had sought to influence magistrate Murray Farquhar to have charges against rugby league boss Kevin Humphreys — accused of misappropriating funds — dismissed. Wran stood aside as premier while a royal commission headed by Laurence Street examined evidence. Sir Laurence exonerated Wran.
Wran was one of Australia’s most popular politicians. He won four elections and showed Labor how to run a prudent, pragmatic government. He left a legacy in health, education, conservation, capital works and law reform. But he knew his life would be put through the wringer and there was nothing he could do about it.
In the rarefied setting of the High Court, Lionel Murphy’s presence on the bench was bound to be a shock to the system from day one.
When he arrived in February 1975 to sit among his bewigged and robed colleagues, Murphy was not the first to have been appointed directly from politics, but he was already mired in controversy.
As Gough Whitlam’s attorneygeneral, Murphy had not just overseen the introduction of Labor government reforms such as nofault divorce that were derided by some conservatives and religious groups, and could now get argued out in front of him as a judge. He had also been personally entangled in scandals that continued to bedevil the Whitlam government, and contributed to its early destruction eight months later.
Before becoming a judge, Murphy was in the thick of it: ordering a ham-fisted raid on ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters, negotiating a political fix to push the Democratic Labor Party’s Vince Gair out of the Senate, helping exotic Labor staffer Junie Morosi score cheap housing, and backing an unorthodox, possibly unconstitutional scheme to borrow $US4 billion from Middle Eastern money men for national development projects.
To this day, Murphy’s supporters claim he was hounded for years afterwards by opponents whose real motivation was to get rid of a judicial activist who posed a threat to the established social order.
Indeed the Liberal Party did oppose his appointment by Whitlam, and Murphy did face a harrowing ordeal: two parliamentary inquiries into his conduct, two criminal trials on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, and a further parliamentary commission of inquiry that was set up reluctantly by the Hawke government in May 1986 to examine further allegations of Murphy’s misbehaviour that surfaced after his trial acquittals.
But almost 6000 pages of documents released this week from the aborted final Murphy inquiry present a very disturbing picture of a man acknowledged even by those who loved him as no saint.
Kept secret for 30 years under the terms of a repeal law that shut down the inquiry midway in August 1986, after news that Murphy was dying, the now published “Class A” confidential files contain a flood of negative material.
Under the terms of reference handed to them, the three retired judges in charge were given a most serious task: to advise parliament whether Murphy’s conduct amounted to “proved misbehav- iour” under section 72 of the Constitution.
Murphy died in October 1986. If he had survived and the panel of retired judges had completed their work with a finding of misbehaviour, he would most surely have been dismissed by a vote of parliament unless he quit first. He possibly could have faced further criminal proceedings.
Taken together, the central allegations considered by the commission of inquiry are breathtaking in scope for a judge of the highest court in the land: that he attempted to bribe police officers, encouraged the intimidation or harming of several people, and im- properly used his influence to help Sydney organised crime boss Abe Saffron win lucrative business contracts.
The documents also contain claims that Murphy’s closeness to the notorious Saffron extended to being a silent business partner in his King’s Cross nightclub, the Venus Room, and that Murphy received “sexual favours from women” supplied by Saffron or one of his associates.
The criminal charges against Murphy at his earlier two trials, in which he was found not guilty, related to allegations that he unlawfully tried to help out a mate, Sydney solicitor Morgan Ryan, who was accused of running an illegal immigration racket, by seeking to influence NSW chief magistrate Clarrie Briese and District Court judge Paul Flannery.
Morgan’s name crops up repeatedly in the newly released inquiry allegations. While the commission was prevented from raking over the previous trial matters, the fresh allegations it considered were a re-run of sorts because of the claim that Murphy had improperly tried to influence a further judge in charge of the Ryan case, District Court chief judge Jim Staunton. It was claimed he also urged former Whitlam minister and the Land and Environment Court’s NSW chief judge Jim McClelland, to approach Staunton.
Ryan’s name pops up yet again in an allegation to the effect that Murphy agreed with him and Saffron that Saffron would arrange for lawyer Danny Sankey to be “improperly and unlawfully intimidated” to pressure him to drop legal action in 1976 against Murphy, Whitlam and Rex Connor over the infamous Labor loans affair. And Murphy allegedly “urged or encouraged” Ryan in 1979 and 1980 to “cause harm” to David Rofe QC, a Sydney barrister who had acted for Sankey. The alleged purpose was “revenge”.
Ryan was present at a Korean restaurant lunch in 1979 when Murphy allegedly tried to bribe a federal police officer, Don Thomas, by suggesting he could arrange his promotion to assistant commissioner if Thomas provided “covert information”. “We need somebody inside to tell us what is going on,” Murphy is alleged to have said.
In 1980, Murphy is alleged to have agreed to a Ryan request to investigate the possibility of bribing two federal police officers, David Lewington and Robert Jones. According to a tapped phone conversation, Ryan is alleged to have asked Murphy if “the two fellows” were “approachable”. Murphy is reported to have replied “the answer was definitely no; they were both very straight”.
According to another phone tap in 1980, Murphy allegedly received a request from Ryan to help Saffron secure the lease on Sydney’s Luna Park by speaking to NSW premier Neville Wran, Murphy’s closest friend. “Leave it with me,” Murphy said. He used the same phrase on the phone that year when Ryan allegedly sought Murphy’s help to secure a Central railway station remodelling contract for Saffron. In both instances, Murphy allegedly told Ryan that he had been successful.
George Williams says other inquiries would typically not release allegations lacking in any credibility, as has occurred here
Allegedly urged on by Ryan, Murphy also contacted Wran in 1979 with a request to appoint Wadim Jegorow to the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission. Jegorow was appointed.
In a 1979 recorded phone conversation, Murphy allegedly told Ryan about problems encountered by his Darling Point neighbour Robert Yuen, who he said was paying a senior NSW police detective and yet was still subject to police action over the illegal casino he operated in Chinatown. “This is a disgraceful turnout,” Murphy said, adding that he wanted to talk to “N” about it.
A big question, considering the commission of inquiry was never completed, is what weight to give any of these allegations.
The inquiry’s chief, George Lush, told parliament in writing, according to the released documents, that “no findings of fact” were made and therefore the commission “formed no conclusions or opinions whether any of the conduct of the judge has been such as to amount to proved misbehaviour”.
About half of the 41 allegations presented to the retired judges in charge of the commission were fairly quickly dismissed as baseless, fabricated, lacking in sufficient evidence or not relevant to misbehaviour. These included that Murphy was a Soviet spy, helped Morosi with cheap housing, scored free flights on Ethiopian Airlines and wanted Sydney thug Stephen Bazley to “knock out” crime kingpin George Freeman.
But there was an entirely different category of allegations that the commission was treating very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that at the time of its shutdown the inquiry had served Murphy’s lawyers with 14 detailed allegations that included after each a summary of how they amounted to judicial misbehaviour.
Most were described as “conduct contrary to the standards of judicial behaviour”. The rest, the commission told Murphy’s lawyers, brought him and the High Court into disrepute and put his own interests above the court’s.
Murphy’s lawyers were set to be served with one further allegation for response, and possibly more, before operations were abruptly shut down.
Cameron Murphy, the late judge’s eldest son, strongly argues against the release of any of the documents now, questioning what public interest it serves 30 years after his father’s death.
Cameron Murphy, a Sydney barrister and former president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, tells Inquirer that the process has been “grossly unfair” because none of the allegations was tested at the time.
He says his father had no opportunity to respond to the allegations because he was “coming in and out of a coma”. Cameron Murphy calls the allegations “disgraceful mudslinging at its worst” when dozens of ridiculous or trivial claims can be aired alongside serious ones that could not be established as fact at the time.
He claims the inquiry was deeply flawed from the start because it allowed anyone to come forward with an allegation against his father, spanning a lifetime. The result, he says, was to encourage “nut cases” or people motivated by jealously or greed.
George Williams, professor of law at the University of NSW, agrees the Murphy commission process was unusual.
He says other inquiries would typically not release allegations lacking in any credibility, as has occurred here. Still, Williams believes the release of the Murphy files is justified in the public inter- est given the extraordinary and serious nature of the matter. The key, he says, is to be very careful about the credibility attached to untested information.
A key document released with others for the first time was a letter sent to Lionel Murphy in March 1986 by Donald Stewart, the inscrutable head of the royal commission into drug trafficking and illicit telephone interceptions. He asked Murphy for his response to seven specific allegations based on information from illicit police phone taps he had been investigating, some of which had come to light in media reports from the socalled “Age Tapes”.
In front of him, Stewart had telephone recordings of Murphy, Ryan and others related to Yuen’s casino problems, the Luna Park lease, the Central Station deal, the Ethnic Affairs Commission job, the possible bribing attempts involving federal police officers Thomas, Lewington and Jones, and a further matter related to a debt repayment to Ryan that allegedly involved “defrauding the tax department”.
Williams says the Stewart letter is certainly appropriate to release in the public interest: “It’s not scuttlebutt but comes from someone with integrity who raised them with Murphy, and it should come to light.”
A law passed in 2012, with rare agreement between Labor and the Coalition, means a re-run of the Murphy inquiry can never occur — at least not with the same powers to advise on conduct warranting dismissal. That power is now solely in the hands of parliament. If the provision had existed in Murphy’s time, the commission would have run as a fact-finding exercise, unable to make accusations of misbehaviour.
Williams says: “In the end, this is going to be a matter for historians. There is enough to say it should have been released — but it depends what weight you put on it.”
Morgan Ryan scores numerous mentions in the allegations
Clockwise from main picture, Lionel Murphy; Gough Whitlam, second from left, front row, with his cabinet in December 1972, including Murphy, second right in the second row; Abe Saffron; Murphy with his wife Ingrid after being acquitted of criminal charges in 1986; and Junie Morosi
Whitlam flanked by deputy PM Lance Bernard, left, and Murphy in parliament in 1973