MUNGO MacCALLUM. Murphy was a political giant, a man of voracious appetites on many levels.

Murphy may have been flawed, but he was a flawed colossus, a Labor hero. Whatever his peccadillos, history has already redeemed him.  

Thirty years after his death, the archivists have exhumed Lionel Murphy, the incomparable Attorney-General from Gough Whitlam’s government.

Or rather they have not attempted to exhume the man, but only the raft of accusations that dogged him to his early grave.

Many of these were absurd, fanciful to the extent that even his toughest critics admit that they were obvious fabrications. But others have been given some credibility. This is unsurprising because Murphy was never the conventional figure his position, both as a cabinet minister and a high court judge, supposedly demanded.

Murphy was a political giant , a man of voracious appetites on many levels. He craved power and achieved it; but along with his ambition he also loved food, wine, and good company, especially that of attractive women. This infuriated many of his less successful colleagues, who could never understand what they saw in a man who was, let’s be frank, no oil painting; he was once slandered as a puce-nosed jackal.

But Murphy had charm, wit and a blazing intelligence: he considered himself Whitlam’s intellectual superior, partly on the grounds that while his leader had studied arts and law, Murphy had pursued the more arduous pairing of science and law. He was something of a polymath, a man of boundless curiosity and utterly fearless about where it might take him.

And this was the trouble. In his youth he had made some friendships that appeared harmless at the time but were regarded as dubious or worse when he achieved high office. But Murphy, being Murphy, refused to abandon them and at times, in open defiance of those who counseled discretion, even flaunted them.

There was, and is, no serious suggestion of corruption in the normal sense, but there was a feeling that he had crossed the line where cronyism became at the very least inappropriate. And so his enemies pounced, and there were plenty of them.

Whitlam, who had always regarded him as an unwelcome rival, hoped that he had disposed of him by agreeing to his appointment to the high court, to the fury of its then chief justice, the previous Liberal attorney-general Garfield Barwick. But when leaked illegal phone taps appeared in the Melbourne Age, one of which referred to Murphy talking about the overly colourful solicitor Morgan Ryan as “my little mate,” the shit hit the fan.

One trial convicted Murphy and an appeal cleared him, but then further stories emerged and a new inquiry was opened, only to close when it was revealed that Murphy had terminal cancer. And it was the subject of this second inquiry that had the voyeurs of the media salivating last week.

There were allegations but none of them were tested, let alone proved. But enough mud has stuck for some commentators to claim that Murphy would have been struck from the High Court for proven misbehaviour if the case had continued.

Personally, I doubt it: the Murphy I know was certainly indiscreet, even outrageous, but he was above all a lawyer and a bloody good one. I do not believe that he would risk his career and reputation, which remains that of one of the great reformers of Australian politics.

Murphy may have been flawed, but he was a flawed colossus, a Labor hero. Whatever his peccadillos, history has already redeemed him.

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5 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Murphy was a political giant, a man of voracious appetites on many levels.

  1. Dog's breakfast says:

    “Whitlam, who had always regarded him as an unwelcome rival, hoped that he had disposed of him by agreeing to his appointment to the high court, to the fury of its then chief justice, the previous Liberal attorney-general Garfield Barwick.”

    Interesting. That would be the same Garfield Barwick that was giving ‘advice and counsel’ to John Kerr to sack the Whitlam government, or am I mistaken in my recollections?

    I suspect Murphy was on the wrong side of the line at some stages, but I don’t think he ever cynically undermined a democratically elected government.

  2. steve jordan says:

    Mungo, did the Bard have Murphy in mind with

    “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”??

    That “evil” has been done to death by Rupert’s merry men of recent days.
    So, in recognition of the man’s many achievements, might you, for the record, pen another piece that sets out “the good” of Murphy please?

  3. Christopher Sheil says:

    Hear, hear Mungo!

  4. Kerry goulston says:

    I agree 100% with your assessment Mungo
    Kerry

  5. derrida derider says:

    Na, this is biased judgement. There was good evidence of straightforward Joh-BP type corruption on Murphy’s part – after all, Joh did favours for mates as well as cash too.

    That’s why Murphy was convicted in the Ryan case (BTW on that, its a bit dishonest not to put the fuller context of that “my little mate” line), and the appeal only succeeded on technical grounds. Sure the other allegations are untested – but I’m old enough to remember, living in eastern Sydney at the time, rumours about Murphy long BEFORE the Ryan case.

    Bear in mind that NSW politicians of all stripes in the 1970s were indeed commonly corrupt, and the NSW courts also had a deservedly bad reputation (though perhaps better than that of the organised crime gang called the NSW Police).

    Just because you got blind drunk with him a couple of times and he was on your side of politics, Mungo, shouldn’t blind you to nasty facts about him.

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