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Tony Blackshield

Sir Ninian Stephen: A tribute edited by Timothy L.K. McCormack and Cheryl Saunders

April 2007, no. 290

The plans for this book were announced at the time of Ninian Stephen’s eightieth birthday, almost four years ago. Each of the ten contributors focuses on one of his public roles in the last thirty-five years – five of them in Australia, and five on the international stage. The last of the Australian positions, ambassador for the environment, is a bridge between the two. Kenneth Keith’s chapter finds another bridge: in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), on Stephen’s last day as a High Court judge, his judgment decisively transformed the issue of racial discrimination in Queensland by recognising its international potency.

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‘I am really only an oppositionist, distrustful of power wherever I see it,’ wrote Jack Barry (1903–69) in 1951; and perhaps his oppositional instincts held him back from the heights of power to which he sometimes aspired. Instead, this biography argues, his impact was that of ‘a public intellectual before the term was invented’.

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These are parallel careers, and Antonio Buti’s biography of Ronald Wilson (1922–2005) is much concerned with the connections and contradictions between them. The book blazes into life whenever it touches on Aborigines: its framing device is the 1997 Reconciliation Conference in Melbourne, when delegates turned their backs on John Howard and what the Herald Sun called his ‘hectoring rant’. Wilson regretted their incivility, yet wondered whether Howard’s behaviour gave it justification. In 1969 a speech by ‘Nugget’ Coombs inspired Wilson to join the New Era Aboriginal Fellowship, and later to help establish the WA Aboriginal Legal Service. In 1985 he worked for three weeks as a builder’s labourer on an Aboriginal community centre. Four years later, he visited communities in Arnhem Land. Then there are the apology stories: Wilson’s ‘pilgrimage to Mapoon’ in 1990, to apologise for church acquiescence when the settlement was dispersed in 1963 to make way for bauxite mining, and his joinder with Dorothy McMahon in apologising for her momentary brusqueness towards Aborigines at a World Council of Churches assembly in 1991.

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