From Moree to Mabo is the compelling and readable biography of a remarkable lawyer. Although some of the detailed analysis of the key cases and political turmoils of Mary Gaudron’s time as Solicitor General of NSW can be overwhelming, it is hard to put this book down. If you don’t know who Mary Gaudron is or if you cannot explain what is meant by equal opportunity or if you have never heard of section 75(v) of the Australian Constitution, then this is a good book for you.
Pamela Burton’s biography of Mary Gaudron is unauthorised. Her subject went so far as to tell her friends that she would prefer it if they did not cooperate with the biography (395) and Burton makes it clear throughout that Gaudron does not like to dwell on the past and does not like ‘bad press’. However this lack of cooperation has not diminished a very fine biography in any way that this reader could identify. There are plenty of anecdotes from friends and colleagues as well as extensive quotes from court proceedings. Some of these are hilarious, such as the case of Alan Anderson, a union advocate who could not follow his opposite number’s line of argument and decided that honesty would be the best policy:
Your Honour, as a child I was dropped out of my pram on my head and I’ve been in a state of confusion since then. I don’t know what he is talking about.
Without missing a beat, Gaudron leaned forward in what looked to be an aggressive hunch, and Anderson waited for the dressing-down he thought he deserved. With feigned indignation, she said:
I grew up in Moree, the daughter of a railway worker, and I wasn’t dropped out of a pram on my head, and I don’t know what he is talking about either.
Gaudron’s wit and humanity, her direct, emotional approach, is highlighted in this telling of her story. Burton is clearly a supporter and admirer of Gaudron’s legal work and has enormous respect for her achievements. It is exhausting work just reading about the cases and judgements she undertook while raising a family of three and battling the NSW government over the radioactive contamination of her family home in Hunters Hill. Any one of those three challenges would have been enormous for most people but Gaudron took them all on. She was back at work one day after the birth of her son which is remarkable but leaves the reader wondering. If that’s what she chose to do then fair enough but what hidden, powerful, uncivilized expectations might have been at work?
Burton writes about the law in a straightforward manner which is not simplistic and enables the uninitiated to follow the story as it unfolds. She allows herself a moment of melodrama when she imagines the last meeting between Prime Minister Hawke and Lionel Murphy in the study at The Lodge:
Hawke did not always see eye-to-eye with Murphy, but he respected him. It can be imagined that both men shed tears … As others heard the story later, Hawke, emotionally, if rhetorically, asked; ‘Mate, mate…what can we do?’ Murphy replied: ‘Appoint a woman to the High Court.’
It is a good story and on first reading the tears seem to be a detail too far but if you refer to Burton’s footnotes you can see that the description is based on a phone conversation with Bob Hawke and a published newspaper interview with Clyde Cameron. After Murphy’s death, Mary Gaudron was chosen to take his place on the High Court and become the first female High Court Justice of Australia in December 1986. The details of what she did there fill chapters thirteen to seventeen where Burton deals even-handedly with Gaudron’s decisions on a range of important cases of which Mabo was only one. The 2002 immigration case, 275-02 v MIMA and anor, where the applicant could not be named in court is an episode which sticks in the mind long after the pages are closed.
Pamela Burton’s biography is a pleasure to read but Mary Gaudron’s commitment to the law and its power to change lives is inspiring.
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