Despite the release of the Murphy files last week, former NSW Liberal Party premier Robert Askin (1907-81) continues to hold the reputation of the most corrupt figure in Australian public life. And former Labor Party politician and High Court judge Lionel Murphy (1922-86) continues to have an influential fan club, especially on the left.
Stephen Walmsley’s The Trials of Justice Murphy (LexisNexis Butterworths) was published last year. It contains a thoughtful foreword by High Court judge Virginia Bell. Walmsley, a retired NSW District Court judge, has assessed the case against Murphy as if he were summarising evidence for consideration by a jury. Even so, the book indicates that Walmsley believes Murphy’s guilt is established beyond reasonable doubt.
When he was attorney-general in Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in early 1975, Murphy was appointed to the High Court.
In late 1984 he was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice by improperly interfering in a case, in the NSW jurisdiction, against his friend Morgan Ryan. Murphy was acquitted on one charge and convicted on another, but subsequently acquitted on the second charge.
Murphy, who had stood down from the High Court, then proposed to return to the bench. However, because of concern about his fitness to sit on the High Court, the Labor government led by Bob Hawke set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry, presided over by three retired judges, to assess Murphy’s suitability to be a judge.
In July 1986 it was revealed that Murphy had terminal cancer and the inquiry was halted. Murphy returned briefly to the High Court and died in August 1986. The papers of the parliamentary inquiry were not released until last week due to a 30-year embargo.
The principal witnesses for the prosecution in Murphy’s trials were then NSW chief magistrate Clarrie Briese and then NSW District Court judge Paul Flannery. Both fine men experienced the hostility of some of their peers for stating what they felt to be the truth. However, their reputations have been enhanced following the publication of Walmsley’s book.
On the other hand, the former High Court judge’s reputation has not been enhanced following the release of the Murphy files.
The parliamentary inquiry put 15 allegations to Murphy involving bribery, association with criminals, giving false testimony, interference in the course of justice and so on. Yet Murphy remains a hero to his fan club.
Appearing on ABC’s 7.30 on September 14, former High Court judge Michael Kirby said Murphy “was a great defender of the rights of those who the law sometimes forgot”.
And Guy Rundle, Crikey’s writer-at-large, also declared the judge was a “fighter for rights”.
This overlooks the controversial and improper raid that Murphy, when attorney-general in March 1973, conducted on the Melbourne office of ASIO. As documented by John Blaxland in The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO: 1963-1975, Murphy demanded that all ASIO staff go to the auditorium, where they were held under effective house arrest for some hours and not even allowed to go to the toilet.
Needless to say, many members of the staff were traumatised.
The raid was motivated by Murphy’s belief that ASIO was attempting to protect Australia’s primarily anti-communist and Catholic Croatian community — who he believed were planning terrorist attacks against Yugoslav government officials and property.
As Blaxland makes clear, Murphy did not understand the difference between ASIO (an intelligence-gathering entity) and the Commonwealth Police (a law enforcement agency).
In any event, ASIO was not involved in a cover-up of what Murphy alleged was Croatian extremism in Australia.
At the time, Murphy lied to parliament about ASIO’s response to the raid. These were not the acts of a man committed to human rights but those of a bully and a liar.
Despite all his faults as a minister and a judge, Murphy is destined to remain one of the Labor Party’s secular saints much admired by many a Labor lawyer. However, it’s fair to acknowledge that he does have some critics on the left.
Askin, on the other hand, is all but friendless. And likely to remain so — despite a reassessment by Michael Duffy and Nick Hordern in their book Sydney Noir: The Golden Years (NewSouth, 2017). Askin’s reputation was irreparably tarnished almost before his corpse was cold.
On September 13, 1981, shortly after Askin died, The National Times (editor: David Marr) published an article titled “Askin: Friend to organised crime”. The front-page story alleged that, while he was NSW premier between 1965 and 1975, Askin had received large bribes from illegal casino operators and more besides.
The story also alleged, falsely, that organised crime became institutionalised in NSW on a large scale under Askin’s watch.
It appears that, like many journalists, the writer was into bias confirmation. That is, they believe what they want to believe.
The National Times produced no evidence for its story and named no sources. A review commissioned by The Sun-Herald (a Fairfax Media stablemate) in 1993 and conducted by former NSW coroner Kevin Waller found that many of the allegations against Askin turned on “remote hearsay” and “unnamed persons”.
Duffy and Hordern report that the story’s writer told a PhD candidate, Paul Loughnan, in 2015 that the source for the National Times allegation against Askin was Perce Galea, a Sydney crook who died in 1977. Which raises the question of whether that was all that the writer had.
Moreover, why would anyone automatically believe anything Galea said? The story’s writer declined to speak to the authors of Sydney Noir.
Before Sydney Noir, such commentators as Geoffrey Reading, Norman Abjorensen and Bob Bottom had drawn attention to the fact that there is no evidence that Askin was a criminal.
But in the aftermath of Askin’s death, such Liberal Party leaders as Malcolm Fraser and Nick Greiner did not defend him.
Like all of us, Askin was a flawed individual. But there is no evidence that he took bribes from the criminal world.
The lesson is that the left is better than political conservatives at defending its own, however weak the case.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.