Tom Hughes QC: A Cab on the Rank
By Ian Hancock
The Federation Press, 2016
Australian hb $59.95
International Price $55.00
Reviewed by Paul Henderson
The author of this biography of Tom Hughes, Ian Hancock, has previously written a considerable amount of material on Australian history and politics. He is a fellow editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and has written numerous books and chapters of books in a range of publications. This includes books on the New South Wales Liberal Party and the former premier of that state, Nick Greiner.
Ian Hancock’s Tom Hughes QC: A Cab on the Rank is a very scholarly work. Over the 350 pages there are hundreds of footnotes and the bibliography is extensive. As a result, the book is a very detailed account of Hughes. There are many references throughout the text to the extensive diaries, notes and letters kept by Hughes himself and members of his family, which have been used as source material.
Religion appears to have played a major part in the Hughes household when Tom was growing up and after Tom left school. There was a strong Catholic influence on his life, with weekly masses, rosaries said after dinner and morning and afternoon prayers. The family regularly prayed for Hughes when he was serving overseas in the air force during World War 11.
It is obvious that Tom’s father, George, had, and wanted to have, an influence over the former’s career. Tom returned to school at St Ignatius’ College (a Jesuit school) in Sydney for a second year in Year 12, as many students did in those days. However, his father withdrew him at the start of the year when he was not made school captain. In a big statement, George claimed that the school had yielded “… so readily to the miserable policy of disillusion that has bred the ruin that we face today”, this being a reference to the world scene in 1943. (Tom Hughes removed his own son in his second last year at the school because he thought he would do better elsewhere). Ambition in the Hughes family went from one generation to another.
When Tom was training in England in 1942 as part of the Flying Boat Squadron, George was also involved in contacting senior instructors at the base to ensure that his son could reach the required level of expertise. Later, when Hughes returned to Australia and applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, his father became effectively his campaign manager, helping Tom sort out who would be his best people to write references for him.
Time and time again throughout the book Tom comes across as being very ambitious, whether it being in the armed services, as a member of parliament or at the Bar. There is nothing wrong with this and, while he made many friends, nothing got in the way of his personal ambitions.
In his early days at the New South Wales Bar, Hughes was very hard working, in the belief that barristers must be like a taxi and take “any cab on the rank” providing the client could pay the financial fee. He was involved in some big cases, becoming a silk in 1962. He thrived at the Bar and, like his days in the army which involved “useless night patrols”, he became bored if he was not kept active.
At different places throughout the book, Hancock hints that Hughes was an egotist. He thought he should have had a higher rank in the navy during World War II. In an interview in 2014, he can recall a comment made to him more than 50 years prior by former prime minister, Robert Menzies when Hughes first entered parliament. Menzies said “my boy, you have a future here”. He described opponents of Prime Minister Gorton as “termites”. In a eulogy at Gorton’s funeral in 2002, with former Prime Minister Fraser in the congregation, he criticised the role played by Malcolm Fraser as an opponent of Gorton.
During his career, Hughes at times wrote about not getting enough work at the Bar, even though he was charging high fees and was getting plenty of cases. He did not hold back in discussing the performances of some judges and barristers. He described one barrister as “… a strange mixture of dishonesty, stupidity and … a complete lack of knowledge.” (page 269) In a defamation case which he lost, years later he would still say “… that the Court was wrong”. He had a strange mannerism of looking sideways, rather than looking at the Bench, when addressing the Court.
Hughes was interested in politics from the early days being a strong anti-communist and disliking the Chifley Government’s attempt to nationalise the banks. He won the seat of Parkes in 1963 on Democratic Labor Party preferences. He was re-elected in both 1966 and 1969. He was a member of the “mushroom club” who were strong supporters of Prime Minister Gorton.
Gorton promoted Hughes to become the Attorney-General, a senior ministerial posting. Hughes had to deal with the tricky issue of possibly prosecuting people who were encouraging soldiers to lay down their arms in Vietnam. Some of the anti-war demonstrators went to Hughes’ home where violence broke out in the street. Hughes was seen in his front garden holding a cricket bat, to defend himself and his family if they had been attacked.
All this time when in Parliament, Hughes remained at the Bar. He defended the Australian Government, which had denied a passport to Wilfred Burchett. He appeared in the Trade Practices and the Concrete Cases. After he was sacked as a minister by Prime Minister William McMahon, Hughes retired from politics and returned to the Bar full-time.
Rightly, a significant amount of the book discusses a number of the famous cases in which Hughes was involved, most of which he won. One case he did lose on appeal, was his defence of Leigh Ratten, who had been found guilty of murdering his wife.
Hughes successfully defended a Fraser Government minister, Eric Robinson, in the Robinson Royal Commission. Hughes’ attention to detail was seen when he cross-examined a witness for three days. He defended the Murdoch and Packer press on different occasions, some involving issues of defamation.
Other cases included defending people such as Lionel Murphy, Elizabeth Evatt, Clive Lloyd (who had been accused of possibly throwing a cricket game), Reg Austin ( a rugby league player on a defamation issue), Rupert Murdoch, Robert Holmes a Court, Alan Jones, John Laws, Jane Maken (the elder sister of the Duchess of York} and Gina Reinhart. As the legal costs rose and the media became more careful, the number of defamation cases diminished.
As said earlier, Hancock’s book is meticulous in its detail. As someone, who lived through the political and legal issues that Hancock outlined, it is interesting to read. Reading the in-depth arguments and counter-arguments in legal cases and the lists of all the names of judges and counsels for both sides, should be interesting for readers with a legal background. However, on occasions, there is too much detail and the lay reader may find this overwhelming.
Also, it was obvious that Tom Hughes kept extremely detailed accounts of just about everything. Whether it is necessary to include in this book the places he visited during World War II, the restaurants at which he dined in his working life, what he ate and drank and the people who attended these occasions, is debatable. The reader can lose the big picture.
Tom Hughes was a powerful figure at the Bar, meticulous in preparing for and being involved in cases. His prose was eloquent and, at significant times, such as on commemorating his 50 years at the Bar, Hughes’ colleagues spoke well of him. Ian Hancock’s book covers his career comprehensively.
Paul Henderson is an author and historian