Living Large

Damien Freeman, Roddy’s Folly: R.P. Meagher QC—Art Lover and Lawyer (Connor Court, 2012), 500 pages, $39.95

As you can imagine, I would normally begin any address of this kind with an acknowledgment of country, but perhaps, just this once, out of respect for Roddy, I might dispense with that particular formality. I didn’t personally know Roddy Meagher but admired him from afar, and salute Damien Freeman, who knew him, worked for him, and has now preserved his life and character to be better appreciated by posterity.

The character and work of far too many remarkable people is lost with those who knew them. It is the biographer’s task-beyond-treasure to ensure that the good people do is not interred with their bones. Just a few hundred people would have known Roddy Meagher well, but thanks to Damien, his life and times and character are now available to everyone.

I suspect that Damien has asked me, rather than a judge or an arts connoisseur, to launch this book because Roddy Meagher was a conservative and I am the standard-bearer for what’s sometimes called the conservative side of politics. It’s a task I approach with relish, but also with humility, as a ten-minute speech can hardly do justice to a full-length biography, let alone a very crowded life.

As John Howard once observed, “a conservative is someone who doesn’t assume that he is morally superior to his grandfather”. A conservative instinctively appreciates everything that shaped him, doesn’t lightly change anything, and, where change really is necessary, tries to ensure that it enshrines values that have stood the test of time. Conservatives are not against change, but they instinctively prefer restoration to reform.

By this standard, Roddy was indeed a conservative. To illustrate, Roddy kept lists of the nicest and nastiest things in life. His top ten nastiest things were, in order: one, the Soviet Empire; two, Cardinal Gilroy; three, Hitler, Stalin and Attlee; four, the Whitlam cabinet; five, six o’clock closing: six, Patrick White; seven, Manning Clark; eight, castor oil; nine, Doctor Evatt; and ten, the Bloomsbury Group.

His list of the nicest things that had vanished in his lifetime, in order, were: one, sulkies; two, the village blacksmith; three, barber shops; four, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton; five, the Catholic Church; six, shops in country towns which sold wool hides and skins; seven, the Latin language; eight, ads on railway hoardings; nine, live-in servants; and ten, something which delighted him, Sunday afternoon teas at the Royal Sydney Golf Club.

In short, he liked everything that was larger than life—especially if it was under threat. Yes, Roddy Meagher was a conservative. He was a conservative lawyer and he was a conservative Catholic. Justice Callinan—slyly, perhaps—once described him as the best judge of the nineteenth century.

After retiring as a judge, Roddy said, “I am quite sure that barristers are nicer people than judges. They do not, as judges do, corner you and then turn the screws on the relentless anecdote to illustrate what they think is true. They never take up to a year to answer a simple question.” Alas, we will never have the benefit of Roddy’s view on Fair Work Australia.

Roddy endorsed Sir Owen Dixon’s view that there is no other safeguard to judicial decisions than a strict and complete legalism. Decisions had to be made strictly in accordance with statute or precedent, he thought, because to do otherwise would be to exalt mere opinion over the collective wisdom of mankind, preferably refined and distilled through the ages.

Likewise, not for Roddy Meagher the modern conceit that religion is no more than sophisticated superstition. For Meagher, Christianity was the guarantor of both reason and liberty: reason, because of its insistence that truth can’t be subjective; and liberty, because of its insistence that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.

A shared respect for the church—however much it sometimes went against the grain—and for the monarchy, too, was something that Roddy Meagher had in common with his sometime antagonist Michael Kirby. It may have helped two otherwise quite different individuals to understand and appreciate each other.

For all his exuberance and occasional bluster, Roddy Meagher wrestled with doubt and the mystery of suffering, especially after his wife Penny’s death from leukaemia. Even as a daily communicant, as he was at the close of his life, like the centurion of the gospels, he would doubtless have prayed: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

His friend Christopher Pearson wrote in an obituary: 

once, when I was at a conference in Hobart, he rang and offered to come down and take me on a jaunt. Since neither of us could drive, he proposed hiring a Bentley and a chauffeur. Word had reached him that the last two Tasmanian tiger skin lap rugs in existence were up for sale in some obscure hamlet. The plan came to nothing, but the memory of the conversation cheers me still. 

It wasn’t folly to speak against the errors of these times, as Roddy did. It is our duty to speak out against that which diminishes us, although it helps to see the good as well as the ill in the times in which we live.

Thanks to Damien Freeman, Roddy Meagher is with us yet: to inform, to amuse and to teach. If I could try to put it in a way that I suspect Roddy would have liked: eius lux luceat nobis.

This is an edited version of the speech with which the Hon. Tony Abbott, Federal Member for Warringah and Leader of the Opposition, launched Roddy’s Folly at Sydney University Law School on April 23.

Leave a Reply