Poor judgment writ large
A safer pair of hands needed in the positions Murphy held
Documents released this week about former Whitlam government attorneygeneral and High Court judge Lionel Murphy have provided Australians under 50 with an insightful lesson about one of the extraordinary characters of a frenetic era that reshaped the nation. Love him or loathe him, as many still do 31 years after his death, Murphy pioneered changes Australians now take for granted. These included, for better or worse, the Family Law Act, the Family Court and “no fault” divorce, the Racial Discrimination Act, legal aid, tougher trade practices laws and the Australian Law Reform Commission, to which he appointed now-retired High Court judge Michael Kirby as inaugural chairman.
Those who remember Murphy’s tumultuous period as attorney-general from December 1972 to February 1975 will not be surprised by much of what has appeared this week. Murphy’s surprise night raid on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne in March 1973, four months after being sworn into cabinet, was the silliest Keystone Cops exercise by a government minister in the nation’s history. It only heightened suspicions that Murphy was a Soviet spy, in search of his own file as well as other material.
Appalling, reckless misjudgments by Murphy also pepper the documents released this week after 30 years. They were compiled by the commission of inquiry established by the Hawke government when Murphy was a High Court judge.
As someone who had aspired to and then held the most sensitive and senior legal positions in the nation, Murphy was undiscerning, to say the least, about the company he kept, especially his close friendships with characters such as Sydney organised crime boss Abe Saffron, once known as “Mr Sin” and their mutual friend, Sydney solicitor Morgan Ryan — the “deadly threesome”, as an associate dubbed them. Even Murphy’s friend and Whitlam government colleague “Diamond” Jim McClelland thought Murphy was “perhaps a bit too indiscriminating in his friendships”.
At best, in helping his mates through his extensive web that included police, judges, lawyers and politicians in Sydney and Canberra, Murphy was loyal to the point of jeopardising his own reputation. As a High Court judge in 1983, for example, he went to bat for Ryan, who was facing charges of forging documents and conspiracy over an immigration racket. That intervention prompted criminal trials and the parliamentary inquiry that dogged Murphy until his death.
At worst, he was corrupt, albeit in a way authorities never quite pinned down. Material collected by the commission showed Murphy was under investigation over allegations that he was a “silent partner” in one of Saffron’s brothels. Murphy’s final illness and death from cancer at the age of 64 in 1986 cut short his chance to respond to the allegations before the commission, which the Hawke government closed down in light of his illness, sealing its papers for 30 years.
Some of the material now released is inconclusive. But it leaves no doubt that former chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick was correct when he advised Gough Whitlam — who appointed Murphy to the High Court in 1975 — that the then-attorney-general was “neither competent not suitable for the position’’.