Remembering Frank Walker QC
I last spoke to Frank Walker about two weeks ago. I knew he was very sick and I wanted to see how he was travelling. But I had another reason too - an obscure legal question needed an answer. It concerned the NSW Constitution and the other silk I'd spoken to was of little help. So I gave Frank a call pretty confident that he'd have the answer.
When he got on the phone he sounded tired, but his voice still had that dark chocolate richness which had always given him an easy authority. A politician's voice can be the best part of his trade. Along with Bob Carr and Gareth Evans, Frank had the most authoritative voice I've heard in an Australian politician.
I explained the issue - it concerned a tricky area of law that sometimes trips up unwitting politicians in their private dealings - it's called "office of profit under the Crown". Frank not only gave me the answer but also referred me to the leading case - without walking away to consult a text. I wasn't surprised.
We talked for a while about new politics, old times and his failing health - but he didn't dwell on that. He knew his fate and he was resigned to it. At our last meeting he'd even joked about it. Perhaps that acceptance came from the sure and certain knowledge that he had fought the good fight - the good Labor fight - to give voice to society's weakest and most vulnerable members. Not only had he battled hard - he'd had more than his share of wins.
And now he is dead. A good man with a remarkable mind and a drive to reform has finally succumbed.
I was one of quite a few people who worked for Frank in those remarkable years when he held a succession of portfolios in the Wran and Unsworth governments. In fact, Frank was so notorious for the number of staffers he employed, his office was said to be the size of the Tasmanian public service. But there was a reason for that - he wanted to produce laws and policies which would change NSW and to do that he needed staff who could produce results. His clashes with public servants had, I think, destroyed his faith in their ability to make the changes he demanded. So every ministry Frank Walker held - be it Attorney General, Aboriginal Affairs, Youth and Community Services, Housing or Arts - he put to work.
For any young activist, working for Walker was as good as it got. It meant having a boss who would go in to bat on the big issues and more often than not the strength of his argument would carry the day. So working for the Attorney General was a big deal.
Despite his combative nature, Frank Walker was a remarkably even tempered and upbeat person. He wasn't given to angry outbursts - but did expect work to be done well.
In those days the office of Attorney General was incredibly powerful. We had advance notice of any Cabinet submissions, had a seat at almost all the committees and it was the Attorney General who oversaw the drafting of all legislation through the office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
Of course, being a reformer also made him a target. He didn't make friends in the Police Force when he repealed the Summary Offences Act which, among other things, had made it an offence to be a vagrant. In fact, throughout his career Frank Walker had a fraught relationship with a police force which was riddled with corruption and resentment about his changes to the criminal law.
He also changed the rules relating to bail, helped overhaul our outdated sexual assault laws and rewrote the child welfare and adult guardianship legislation to give enforceable rights to people who had never before enjoyed such protections.
And of course, Frank Walker legislated the first aboriginal land rights act in the country - more than a decade before Mabo.
Some of the reforms Walker made were controversial then and remain so today. Just this week we have seen calls for changes to the law relating to the defence of "provocation" in criminal trials. Some argue that provocation as a means of reducing a charge of murder to manslaughter has gone too far - and they have a good case.
But provocation can occur in many shapes and forms. As Attorney General it was Walker who changed the law to allow defendants in murder trials to show that the provocation had gone on for an extended period of time, usually through domestic violence, rather than as an immediate reaction in the heat of the moment. In making that change to the criminal law he was responding to the case of Violet Roberts and her son, Bruce. Violet Roberts's husband was a monster who systematically bashed and abused his wife and terrorised his family over many years. As is often the case, it was the son who finally put an end to it by killing his sleeping father. However, despite the years of abuse, the defence of provocation was not available to Bruce and Violet Roberts and they were convicted of murder.
Frank Walker changed all that and gave proper recognition to the plight of victims of domestic violence in such tragic cases. So, before changing this area of the law our legislators will need to carefully consider Walker's important reform and all the Bruce and Violet Robertses who still live in fear of their lives at the hands of violent spouses.
Working for Frank was always interesting, usually fun - and sometimes dangerous. In those days the Attorney General occupied the 20th floor of the old Goodsell Building. I was sitting at my desk one day and looked up from my work to see two policemen with a bomb sniffer dog. Apparently we had been having so many bomb threats that no one bothered to evacuate the building.
On another occasion as Housing Minister he had to take the blame when a contractor demolished the wrong house! Some poor family went to work in the morning and the demolition crew came to the right number in the right street but the wrong suburb. I still have an image of Frank standing in the ruins of the family home offering generous compensation - what else could he do? Other ministers would have gone off their heads but Frank just took it in his stride, even seeing the absurdity of it all.
But being a reformer in those days took its toll. He was targeted by corrupt cops and hard criminals sometimes working together and by elements within his party who felt threatened by his reforms and ability. It was those ultimately senseless divisions within the Labor Party's left, which seemed to go on for longer than the War of the Roses, that denied Frank Walker further advancement.
None of that slowed Frank though - when he wasn't changing the world he was fostering careers. In later life he told me that perhaps his greatest satisfaction was seeing staffers and colleagues excel. In that regard he could feel quite contented having launched or boosted the careers of successful politicians like Bob Debus, Michael Knight, Anthony Albanese and Carmel Tebbutt - to name just a few. So, the Walker legacy lives on today.
People enjoyed working for Frank and that meant he had some remarkable advisers. The brilliant Mary Gaudron, his Solicitor General, and the daughter of a railway worker, went on to become a High Court judge. Listening to Mary reduce complex legal arguments to a few understandable principles was awe inspiring.
Sometimes personal loyalty to Frank went beyond the call of duty. His driver, Roy, was a huge man - one of those blokes you avoid shaking hands with for fear of breaking several fingers. He'd been a cop in pre-independence New Guinea... you're getting the picture. One day we had warning that our office was about to be occupied by a militant public housing tenants group. Roy positioned himself at the only doorway into our office and held the protesters back as they pushed against him. There would have been 50 against one and Roy held them all back for at least five minutes like a front rower in a scrum before disappearing under the weight of numbers. Footage of our Horatius at the doorway was used in channel 9's news promotions for weeks after that.
There were other upsides in working for Frank. Every Friday night seemed to involve a lengthy pub crawl where we all took advantage of the much reformed drinking laws introduced by the Wran government. And he definitely had the best Christmas parties in the Government. Whatever people may say about him, Frank Walker was determined to enjoy life.
He also had the lucky knack of always drawing the top position on general election ballot papers. Frank held the seat of Georges River from 1970 until Labor's wipeout in 1988.
After that he entered the federal parliament and became a minister in the Keating government and ended his career as a District Court judge.
But for me, Frank's best days were as the young minister in those exciting reforming years of the Wran government. In those days we went to work with fire in our bellies and it felt good. It's true that we probably went too far in a number of areas and there was, in time, an electoral backlash. Maybe that is always going to be the fate of reforming governments - but surely rather that than to just fade away.
There is a lot more I could relate about Frank - including some unbelievably sad things. His commitment to schizophrenia research was born out of family tragedy. But for now I want to think about the good and the great things a very modest man did at considerable personal sacrifice.
Today I want to recall Frank Walker as a man who was driven by an unswerving belief that politics practised well and for the right reasons can transform the lives of powerless people and give dignity to those who would otherwise be ignored.
Thanks for everything Frank.