Although a few can pull it off, most judges have the good sense not to attempt an autobiography. Judges’ personalities are not usually of such outstanding interest, and their lives generally do not so engage with the world, as to generate the stuff from which autobiographies worth publishing are made. The reserve which the judicial experience inculcates, and the general inability to expose judicial life in prose that does not condemn the reader to death by suffocation, are additional inhibitors. Even those tragics who think that the judiciary occupies a place of mystical significance use the autobiographies of their colleagues as a cure for insomnia.
Gough Whitlam’s famous words during his impromptu speech after the Dismissal in 1975 remain a potent symbol of the excitements and turbulence of the Whitlam era. As Troy Bramston’s collection of ALP speeches since 1891 reminds us, political speeches can capture a national mood or sentiment at a particular time in history. Indeed, a carefully crafted set of words can become a treasured part of our national self-image. They can also boost or destroy a politician’s reputation. In an age when the media has become uncritically obsessed with gaffes, Twitter banalities, polls, and sound bites, it is worth remembering that a good speech can elevate the national conversation and appeal to our better instincts.
There are only seven High Court judges. Since Federation there have been just fifty-six of them (or fifty-five if we discount Justice Piddington, who never sat during his four weeks on the court). High Court judges are rare creatures, and as a rule they are publicly noticed far less than the importance of their work might suggest.
Neville Wran was nothing if not sartorial. He represented the new generation of politicians – dapper, immaculately tailored, effortlessly elegant – and stood out from his Labor colleagues in their crumpled suits and gaudy ties. His dress sense was not merely a matter of personal taste but also a political statement. He once appeared on the podium of a Labor party conference perspiring uncomfortably in the glare of the arc lights. A colleague leaned over and urged him to take off his jacket. Wran retorted, ‘What! And look like a Labor politician.’ It was classic Nev.
Gough Whitlam was sometimes naughty. Descending in a crowded lift from a conference attended by a number of state parliamentary delegates, he looked down on his fellow passengers and growled ‘pissant state politicians’. It was the sort of remark he liked to get off his chest. In a more deliberative mood, Whitlam, in his 1957 Chifley Memorial Lecture, wrote of state parliamentarians in the following terms: ‘Much can be achieved by Labor members of the state parliaments in effectuating Labor’s aims of more effective powers for the national parliament and for local government. Their role is to bring about their own dissolution.’ These remarks reflect a widespread dissatisfaction with Australia’s ‘colonial’ constitution and with the division of powers between the three tiers of government. The Whitlam government favoured increased powers and responsibilities for both Canberra and local government.