Poor judg­ment writ large

A safer pair of hands needed in the po­si­tions Mur­phy held

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY -

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’’.

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