Book Review: From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story by Pamela Burton, University of Western Australia Publishing, 492pp, $49.95
by Sylvia Marchant
The life of Mary Gaudron has been rich and colourful, as is her personality as revealed by Pamela Burton in this marvellously detailed, though unauthorised, biography. From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story is a dense and weighty book of 492 pages including five pages of acknowledgments, 62 pages of notes, 10 pages of bibliography, and a 19 page index, evidence of a diligent and scholarly approach and meticulous, painstaking research. Burton has mined the sources with infinite care and the end result is an absorbing and exhaustive study of a determined and controversial character. Such diligent research was necessary as Gaudron refused to co-operate with Burton believing that the past should stay in the past. She even closed access to her oral history record in the National Library “until 2043”.
Gaudron’s reluctance is compensated for by the author’s tireless research and the generous co-operation of many friends and colleagues and the index glitters with famous names of those associated with Gaudron and who did co-operate, from Michael Kirby, who wrote the foreword, to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The Gaudron story is a dazzling story of triumph and success interspersed with the drama and excitement of the courtroom and sensational trials.
There is no doubt that Gaudron is a remarkable character. Born in 1943 to a working class family in the racially divided railway town of Moree in NSW, the gifted Mary, a determined and brilliant student, fought her way out of poverty and disadvantage to Sydney Law School from where she graduated in 1966 with first-class honours and the university medal in law. Her strength of character and her sparkling intellect transported her into a career as a dynamic and successful lawyer. Her life was not all work and study: she claims to have once played the mandolin with a band called "Jock Strap and his Elastic Band”, and there are many reports of her partying, drinking champagne and singing bawdy Irish songs. Nor did she neglect or reject the role of wife and mother, marrying twice and having three children and, with her first husband Ben Nurse, she was an enthusiastic speleologist.
Mary’s glittering career at Law school also had its downside. As with other women students she suffered from the embedded discrimination against women as lawyers and the mindless banter of some male students, both of which she fearlessly challenged, because Mary was no pussy cat. Known as Merciless Mary she did not mince her words when angry and often used coarse language, though she was always correct and formal in her public work, for Mary was bold as well as brilliant and blazed a trail for women in Australia to challenge male privilege in the professions.
Surmounting all obstacles she carved out a flourishing career as a barrister specialising in industrial law and defamation. She appeared successfully for the Commonwealth in the (1972) equal pay case and, in contrast, the bitter Pat Mackie defamation case against the Australian Consolidated Press, also in 1972. This was a case of high drama and excitement, which Burton has rigorously analysed and explained, successfully capturing the tension and potency of the arguments. Several other complex and important cases are also closely analysed by Burton, herself a lawyer, and these give the book substance and authority and, though a bit daunting, will no doubt be eagerly devoured by practicing, putative and student lawyers, as well as general readers.
Her brilliance as a barrister was quickly recognised and rewarded. Only six years after being admitted to the Bar in 1968, Gaudron was appointed Deputy President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. A further accolade came in 1981 when she was appointed Solicitor-General of New South Wales where she appeared in many high profile cases such as the affairs of the Nugan Hand Bank, the activities of crime boss “Abe” Saffron, and the Age tapes, cases which were both stressful and scandalous. A rich and disturbing account of criminal and corrupt activities in the 1980s and which required all of Mary’s talents and prowess, is engrossing reading. She remained in this demanding post until she was appointed to the High Court in 1987, where she remained until she retired in 2002, a public figure for more than fifteen years and a long way from the working class cottage in Moree.
It was Mary’s childhood experiences in Moree, shadowed as it was by local Aboriginal disadvantage and discrimination, her working class background, plus the obstacles she faced as a woman fighting for recognition in the fiercely male dominated profession of law, which Burton sees as instilling in her a fierce resistance to any form of discrimination. She became a passionate advocate of human rights and her zeal for justice and equality was evident in the famous Mabo case which found that native title did exist in Australia. Her judgement in this is a highly regarded decision and a major development in Australian law. Mabo was followed by other outstanding judgements in human rights cases such as Wik and the Hindmarsh Island trial. These are only the highlights of Mary’s splendid achievements and are all the more remarkable because of the challenges she had overcome on the way.
It is clear Burton admires Gaudron enormously and there are frequent mentions of her brilliance, kindness, intelligence, and so on, though this is balanced by descriptions of the coarse language she sometimes used and her ferocious fits of anger which caused some people to see her as improper, greedy and unlikeable. Burton tells us that if she lost a case she would be absolutely hysterical and her colleagues “would have to organise rosters to take her drinking until she got over her misery”. The striking Sally Robinson portrait on the cover vividly depicts this aspect of Gaudron’s vigorous character.
Though the narrative gets rather tortuous in places it is fair to say that Burton has covered every angle of Gaudron’s life and character. From detailed accounts of her childhood, to which she attributes many of Mary’s views and character, to the intricacies of legal proceedings, she keeps a light touch and firm control of the material. Burton has delivered a lively and in-depth account of one of Australia’s most famous judges.
* Sylvia Marchant has worked in the Australian Senate as a Senior Research Officer, wrote and edited entries for the Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography and has written feature articles and book reviews for a variety of publications.
* This review first appeared in the Canberra Times, 20 Nov 2010, ‘Panorama’, p 26