Australian Biography

Dame Roma Mitchell - full interview transcript

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What would the other aspects of your feminism be that would make, say, some modern feminists discount you as a feminist?

Ah, I suppose it's mainly that, as I say, I don't like the modern language. I wouldn't get excited about posters which portray women in attitudes that the feminists think are demeaning. I suppose I think they're nonsense myself, but I wouldn't necessarily regard them as being worth worrying about. And although I think there is a call for some affirmative action I probably would be much more moderate on that than many of the feminists. I certainly do not believe in putting women into positions because they are women. And I certainly don't believe in the quota system. I think that has disadvantages for women because they become only the token woman. I don't know that a lot of feminists believe in it anyway. It's mainly difference of approach I think.

In what way is the approach different, do you think?

Well, I think in the '70s and the early '80s perhaps, the feminists were necessarily being very abrasive. And I don't know that they are so abrasive now but I think that I would find a little difficult. Although I think the aims are probably fairly similar.

Throughout the years that you were pursuing your career and you were doing it in a very much male arena, did you find it very important -- because it was the '40s, '50s and so on -- to present in an agreeable rather than an abrasive way? Do you think if you hadn't been polite, agreeable, reasonable and fitted in, that you would have done as well?

Maybe not. You had to be agreeable. But on the other hand I didn't ever believe in trading upon the fact that I was a woman and I think I did see examples of that in my own profession. You know, expecting favours; by favours I mean expecting people not to take points against you because you were a woman, and it was unfair. I always believed and said that you didn't expect any more courting than you were willing to give. And I don't think everybody agreed with me.in that respect. Certainly their behaviour wasn't always that way. I thought that was very important. Of course, the main compliment that the profession thought they could pay in those days was to say that you had a man's brain but you behaved like a woman. And that was great compliments. Had to have a man's brain to start off with.

And be a lady?

And be a lady in effect, yes. So I think that was necessary and to ignore the discrimination insofar as it could be ignored. And where it couldn't be ignored, to try to stand hard really.

So, did you find yourself ever in a situation in those days of speaking to men that you were working with, say, about unconscious sexist remarks they might have made?

Oh no, no, I don't think there was ever anything of that sort that one worried about in the profession. You're too busy doing other things.

So, do you think as a lawyer and as a judge, or indeed in any aspect of your professional life, that you've done it differently because you were a woman?

Ah, I don't know. I find this very difficult to comment on. I've never believed that women have the monopoly of certain qualities and that men have the monopoly of other qualities. I think women can be considerate and compassionate but so can men. And women can be tough and hard-hearted and so can men. So I've never really ascribed to this view that you have to have more women doing certain things because the qualities belong to women. Ah, and the qualities, other qualities, belong to men. That's one [where] I probably am rather out of touch with modern feminism.

Oh, I think modern feminism's quite divided on that subject.

Do you?

So, you didn't feel that, but on the other hand, we do experience life differently a little as men and women.

Well, certainly physically differently and ...

... And also in terms of the sort of social and cultural milieu in which we're allowed to move and so on, so did you ever feel that perhaps you were more sensitive to some of the aspects of cases that came before you because of your own experience, that you could identify with them differently?

I don't think I did, consciously, feel that way. It may be but I didn't ever have a conscious feeling about that. Ah, there are some things one can understand better probably and the same thing might apply with the male in reverse. But, no I didn't ever have any feeling that way.

The major publicity that you've received and a lot of the attention you've received publicly has had to do with your being the first woman ... Do you look back on your achievements [where] you think, well, I was the first person to do that? Or do you wish that you could be known for an achievement that you've had as a human in your area, rather than as a woman?

I haven't thought about it that way, but there is a certain amount of truth in it. There are some things, well, we mentioned the Human Rights Commission. I was the first chairman as I would say, chairpersons they'd say now, of a Human Rights Commission in Australia. But those things do happen but I don't think I give a great deal of attention, in my own mind, to these firsts. But I'm accustomed to hearing them referred to.

So what achievements are you proudest of?

Becoming a Queen's Counsel.

Male or female?

Male or female, yes.

What about your work at the Human Rights Commission. Looking back on that, with some of the benefits of hindsight, and given that it emerged out of a great reformist period that said 'we've got to have a look at some of these things', what do you feel about your time there? What do you feel most strongly about and perhaps proudest of from that period?

I think mainly alerting people, but we came in in a fine flourish of 'here are we, Australia, with a Human Rights Commission and this is very important'. And the politicians thought it was fine when we came in. But then when they realised that the other side of the coin is human responsibilities, they really didn't like it very much. They really didn't like us at all after a while when the responsibilities part came to be emphasised. So ...

Which responsibilities were you reminding them of, that they didn't like to be reminded of?

Well, you're reminding them if you have a Sex Discrimination Act, it's not only saying yes it's fine for women to, and they should, receive equal treatment, but some men are going to complain that they're been done out of something and some women are going to complain that their husbands are being done out of something. And so were the Aborigines. It's all very well to say that Aborigines have to receive equal treatment but it means that somebody who's not treating them equally is going to suffer a detriment. There are detriments all the way and then, of course, we also became unpopular for criticising legislation. We criticised some of the legislation of the Bjelke-Petersen Government at the time, when they had the electricity dispute and they passed legislation which we believed was in contravention of the convention, and I always remember with amusement that the then Premier said that I was like a bee buzzing in a bottle with very little honey in it and he was right because there was no honey unless the Commonwealth Parliament was willing to pass legislation to rescind what he'd done, and of course they weren't willing to do that. But, so I thought he was quite apt, but then later on I heard him apply the same remark to somebody else and I was hurt. I thought it was mine. He'd given it to somebody else. But that sort of thing. So I think there were more ...

That was Sir Joh?

That was Sir Joh, yes. I think there were more criticisms than plaudits as we went along and of course we were limited because it's only now that racial defamation is being outlawed and I think about 80 per cent of our complaints related to racial defamation. You realised when you saw those how hurtful it is to people. And we couldn't do anything about it except sympathise and advise. So I don't know. I can't point to anything and say, well, this is the grand achievement. I think the main achievement was warning and getting people accustomed to the idea.

And at the end of it, of your period there, what did you feel personally was the area of discrimination or the areas in Australia that we really needed to do something strong about? And do you think we've made any progress since in those areas?

Well, I mentioned the question of racial discrimination which is really the symptom, not a cause I suppose, but it did demonstrate, and I think it still does exist. As far as the Aborigines are concerned, I just don't know the answer to that. It's the sort of cases we used to get related to accommodation, to jobs, mainly to those things in the townships. We did get some from the reserves too, but mainly in the townships when accommodation was not so easy to get, somebody would apply for a unit and be told yes it was available, then would turn up, either an Aboriginal himself or with an Aboriginal wife, and the accommodation was no longer available.

Now, you know that this can be a problem if the Aborigines are likely to overcrowd a place. If all their aunties and uncles and cousins are going to come in and they're going to have them in to stay. So it was a problem both ways. But often they were people who, you know, would have been perfectly safe tenants. And I can remember again, this was in Queensland, because most of those Aboriginal complaints came from Queensland in those days. Girls who were trained as hairdressers and very good and, no, they couldn't be employed because the customer mightn't like it. Those things did demonstrate a very strong discriminatory situation and then of course there was a lot of discrimination against Vietnamese in those days. They were the latest immigrants.

I remember one Italian saying to me once that when he came out to Australia it was always the Italians who'd done anything. There was one newspaper had published an article saying that certain birds had disappeared from the district because the Vietnamese had eaten them all and he said, 'You know, when we came out to Australia 30 years ago, the same thing happened but it was the Italians who'd eaten them all.' It's the last newcomers who seem to catch the discrimination. It's ignorance. It's ...

... It's that age-old human thing that we tend to look at difference and see it as inferior.

Yes. Inferior. But I've just been in Cooper Pedy, twice in the last week as it happened, and they have, they say, 42 nationalities represented in that school and there are no problems there. Cooper Pedy's a town which demonstrates pretty good tolerance. I think they did have a Yugoslav Club which is not being very much used at the moment, they've now got a Croat Club and the Serbian Club. I think the Yugoslav Club is tending to be used by the Muslims. But apart from that, you know, people can live together.

When you were there, this great ability you've developed to be objective and to not get emotionally involved in cases, were you able to maintain that through these particularly nasty sorts of little cases in the Human Rights?

By and large yes, I think. But some cases of course do rouse your emotion, but then you don't do any good. You certainly don't do any good if you get angry. You're likely to be less effective.

So you've really found it important all your life not to get too passionate about things and yet, you'd started out as somebody who was passionate enough to stick up for people and ...

I think I've retained that. That, I hope, I have retained. I think I have. But there's one thing in sticking up for people. There's another thing getting out of control in doing it.

Has staying in control and being in control of situations always been important to you?

It's always been important, but I wouldn't for an instant say I've always adhered to it by any means. Far from it.

When do you feel you sometimes lost control?

Oh. Quite often I think.

In what form? Do you lose your temper?

Yes. Yes. And I think that's, as I've got older, pretty much controlled but, no, I think I am very smooth and easy on the whole, but then there will be an occasion when I lose my temper, yes. There will be an occasion when I'll — when I think even here in Government House the place can run itself as far as I'm concerned. Well, it doesn't run itself, but I mean the people who have to run it, can run it. But then there'll be something on which I'll stick and say, no, you know, that can't happen. It's got to happen this way.

In a way, becoming Governor came for you at the end of a long line of really having to assume authority and responsibility. Did it feel like quite a natural progression to you?

I think it's a very good retirement occupation myself because I didn't think of it as a natural progression at all but it is a good, it's a very pleasant, thing to do.

How did you come to be Governor? Tell us about that one. Was that a surprise too?

Oh, it certainly was. What happens is the Premier presumably determines in his own [way], after many discussions, who ought to be invited and presumably then talks it over with Cabinet and they make a conclusion as to the person, and then the Premier gets in touch with the person and asks if the name can be put forward and it's put forward to the palace, with a CV presumably, and I don't think there'd be any circumstances in which it would be rejected unless there was something very untoward. And then it moves from there. But in my case I happened to be away on holiday and the Premier was chasing, they were chasing me all over the place. They couldn't find me. He found me in Verona eventually. And asked me. No, I was surprised because of my age. I thought I would have been much too old for anybody to contemplate inviting me to be Governor.

What were you doing at the time, apart from visiting Verona?

I was just having an overseas holiday, you know, I usually go overseas once a year ... oh, I beg your pardon, what other things was I doing? Oh well, I was still going back to the Supreme Court from time to time. A month at a time. There's a system, a comparatively recent system, of appointing what they call auxiliary judges who can be asked to come in at the invitation of the Chief Justice to clear up some backlog. So I was doing that occasionally. I was a member of the Court of Appeal for Kiribati, which is the old Gilbert Islands. Sir Harry Gibbs is the President and there were three Australians and two New Zealanders went there once a year. I was Chancellor of the University of Adelaide which was taking up a lot of my time. Ah, they were the main things. I was President of the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation which supports a home in India, Dehra Dun, and I was Chairman of the National Churchill Trust, of which I'd been a director ever since its inception. They were the main things taking up my time at that particular stage and are the things I had to abandon.

It was an impressive array of things to be doing when you were actually officially retired?

Yes, I was quite busy, yes. Yes, I didn't go from idleness to this. I was quite busy. Yes. In fact, for the first four or five weeks I was complaining bitterly that I didn't have enough to do. And then I thought, well I'd been complaining to myself about not getting around to read a lot of books I'd like to read, so let's settle down and read the books and stop complaining. And no sooner had I said that to myself than I became busy. I haven't read them since.

So what's it like here? What is it that you find to enjoy in this job?

Well, I think one of the main things is that I do see a lot of people in the state, a lot of people in different situations, different walks of life, you know, and I go and open things. I have receptions for people here if they're having conferences. I go and, as I say, I open things, I open conferences. I visit all parts of the state. So that I'm seeing different people all the time. And getting a lot of interest out of it. I think that's the main thing that I really like about it. There are other things. I've always been very attached to the theatre and to music so I go to a lot of things and they like me to come. I'd go anyway but people are pleased that I want to go to them. So that's a plus. There's not a great deal in the — I always seem to be preparing speeches, that's the greatest job. I don't have any assistance in that. Some of the Governors have, you know, research assistants. I don't have any assistance in that.

But having someone capable of doing that for herself must be a real saving ...

Oh, I don't think I'd use a research assistant anyway. You know I think you're quite right.

What do you think about the role? What do you think about the position? There's a great deal of debate going on now, with the talk of the republic, about these positions. What are your thoughts on it?

I think you have to have a head of state. And that means, to my mind, while we have individual states —and historically I wouldn't like to see them go — I think you have to have a head of state for each state too. I think it's preferable that it will not be a political head of state and that the head of state will not have any political power.

Why do you think that?

Well, because I think it functions well with us having a Prime Minister or a Premier as the case may be who takes the primary role in government. If the head of state is to have political power then, in fairness, the head of state must be subject to election. I mean, I think you necessarily are going to get a political head of state. And I don't think that's a good idea myself. It's just putting another Premier or another Prime Minister ahead.

Some people say the position has a certain political connotation anyway, because it's appointed on the recommendation of the head of a particular political party.

That is true. That is true. But then if it hasn't got any power it doesn't matter much, does it? There is of course the reserve power which could be exercised against either the Premier who made the appointment or a succeeding Premier.

As we have seen happen in Australia.

Yes.

How would you feel in that situation?

Well, you see, what happened in Australia, the appointee was on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and I think that simply shows that the person who's appointed head of state is going to regard himself as apolitical, whether you think he did it correctly or incorrectly. Nobody would like to be in that position, but I think it's a big advantage to have somebody who can intervene if you have an intransigent Premier or Prime Minister. You see, there've been other examples. Of course, there was the famous one in New South Wales with [Governor Sir Philip] Game, but then there've been other crises. Somebody's got to deal with them. There was the one in Tasmania, which the present Governor has had, and the very interesting one in Queensland, I think, when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen had lost the position of leader of his party and wanted to stay as Premier, and saw the Governor, and asked the Governor to dismiss the whole of the ministry and then reappoint a new ministry with Sir Joh as Premier, leaving out the ministers who were opposing him including the head of the political party. Now that was ingenious; it didn't work. But what do you do? You either make ... [INTERRUPTION]

... In order to be ready to face any constitutional crisis that might arise, it must be necessary for you to follow the political scene very closely just in case those reserve powers have to come into play. Do you enjoy that aspect of your job and how would you feel if you really had to act on your understanding of a political situation that had got out of hand?

... And I have executive council meetings once a week every week, and then the odd one in between if something unforeseen arises or something has to be done in a hurry. So that there is that contact with the ministry and of course the Governor must keep informed on what is happening. I don't think any Governor wants to have to exercise a power of dismissal and ordinarily it won't happen. It's only an extraordinary situation, but somehow there has to be some way of dealing with any extraordinary situation, preferably so as the community doesn't suffer.

What do you see as the real meaning of the role?

I think it is just that the role is the role of the head of state, to watch, to warn as it's sometimes said, not to warn about legislation which the Government may be going to introduce (there's a parliament there to decide whether that will be passed or not passed) but to warn if, usually through financial problems it's been most times, the state is going to get into real problems by not passing supply or if it's clear that the Premier hasn't got the confidence of his own party, and that the place is going to fall apart. It's very rare, it's hard to put examples except the ones that have already occurred.

Well, South Australia's had a slightly rocky period, even while you've been Governor. You've had to follow that very closely ...

Oh yes, we've had a rocky period and the government itself has to rely on two independents, but we haven't had any situation which would call for any intervention.

But it might have called for some wise counsel?

If anybody had known in time, I suppose, it might have but nobody did realise — I don't think anybody realised the problems that we were in financially.

So you, South Australia and you, have very close associations in that it goes way back in your family, doesn't it?

Yes. Three of my four grandparents were born in South Australia. Ah, and they were, on both sides of the family, very early settlers here.

Have you ever felt a bit like a big fish in a small pond? Have you ever thought about going to one of the bigger states or even internationally, given that somebody of your ability, stature, confidence, could have done well outside the relatively small community of South Australia?

No, I never had any aim to do so and I don't know that I would, even if I were much younger, because we're looking back to times when there weren't so many opportunities anyway. But even so, I don't know because it's hard to tell when you're old what you would do if you were young again, but I've never ... I've worked on different things in Sydney, Canberra. I had a Royal Commission in Sydney, where I sat in Sydney, which took me nearly two years, that was that one into the Greek episode with Social Security and I spent more time, for a couple of years, in Sydney than I did in Adelaide. That was from about 1984, '85, but no, I've enjoyed working in other places but I haven't ever felt, oh, it would be good to make my mark elsewhere.

Why not?

I think by and large I've been satisfied with what's been offered.

And you like living here?

Yes, I like the life here, yes.

What is it that you like about South Australia?

I think it's easy to move around in. It's not too big. I don't really, selfishly, I don't really want it to get any bigger, but I'm sure it will, at least I suppose it will. But I think the size is good here. That's the main thing because I notice when I go to Sydney, if I've only got a day or two days or whatever, I can't see my friends on the North Shore line and my friends on the other side, whereas here you could do the lot in a couple of days. And that is easier, it has that advantage.

In a job like this, as Governor in a big house with a whole household of staff and so on, do you ever feel just very exposed and you're someone who has almost notoriously valued the privacy of your private life. Do you feel ever that that's compromised by the public nature of your position here?

No, I don't think it is because, except when I'm on public duties, it's quite easy. There are some things I don't do. I don't wander around the street shopping. I take somebody to go shopping with me. I do go to church on my own which means walking up King William Street and people know that and join in and walk along with me and chat. That's the only thing I do on my own. That's not for security reasons at all. It's because I think it's better not to be available, too readily available, to people coming who may have petitions that are better that they send through the proper channels. But no, it's a little constricted in that sort of a way but then when I go down to my beach house ... I'm not constricted as all. People are very good and don't ever impose. I wander around the beach and into the little village without any problems at all.

Is this a beach house you've always owned?

For about 11 years.

And tell me, in relation to, again, your love of privacy, you say you are a very gregarious person. Over the years of your life, who have you looked to to confide in and to talk over your problems with?

I don't know that I have, to be quite honest.

You've been that self-sufficient?

Well, there are obviously some, my sister, I don't know even there — no, I don't think I really have looked at people to ... no, I think my problems have been my problems, not other people's.

[end of tape]

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