Australian Biography

Dame Roma Mitchell - full interview transcript

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Do you remember how old you were when you really started standing on your own two feet? I mean, when did you stop having someone that you confided in or looked to for leadership or advice?

Well, I certainly stopped by the time my mother died which was in 1938. But I suppose that had sort of been tailing off over the last few years. Ah, I don't mean that I didn't go for particular advice to friends and I have, but not for personal advice I think. I think advice on personal things, I don't think I did.

So, when you have a decision to make about something, not a professional decision, but something that affects you about whether or not you're going to take this job or not take it or some major thing that's going to affect the way your life goes, do you just think it through the way you would a legal decision and make it? What goes on for you? Most people would talk that over with someone close to them.

Well, I may talk aspects of it but I can't really think of any one particular person throughout my life that I have done it to. There may from time to time have been people who for personal reasons I would talk on matters of personal detail but, no, I can't say that I've really relied upon advice. I think I have relied upon my own decision. Doesn't mean that I haven't talked about a thing. Sometimes it's nice to have someone to use as a sounding board I think.

And if you had a situation which was emotionally distressing for you, like for example when you started attracting the criticism, it must have not always been easy to take that lying down. Would you complain or confide or cry on somebody's shoulder?

No, I don't think I would really, no. I think I'd rather work those things out for myself.

Would you feel that it was a little bit demeaning to do that?

No, no. Not that, it's just learning to work things out in a way and also I think I felt early, fairly early in my life, that people don't want to be burdened with other people's worries. They like you when you're not going to burden them with your own worries. I think I learnt that fairly early in my adult life, so that ...

From any particular incident or just from observation?

Just from observation I think.

So, in relation to your friends, now that you're in a situation where your close family has gone, do you have an inner circle of friends that you ...

Oh yes I do. I have quite a number. It's not quite so easy. I can't be quite so spontaneous about seeing people now as I would ordinarily be but I still maintain the links.

And what do you rely on them for?

Oh, companionship. Joie de vivre.

And do they look to you for the kind of advice you tend not to ask for from them. Do you offer it?

If asked but I suppose with some and on some occasions, yes.

I suppose really what I'm asking you about is that clearly in a life such as yours there's been a great network of people that you've come in contact with, lives you've influenced. And I was really looking to see whether or not there were people who particularly sustained you, that you were able to turn to for support and help in times of trouble. And the answer seems to be that you've managed on your own?

Yes, I don't mean that I haven't looked for consolation in times of trouble, but I think as for maintaining one's equilibrium, I've really tried to do it on my own.

And succeeded.

I think, yes, yes. It's probably a question of temperament I think more than anything.

You've never lacked confidence?

I don't suppose I have. Of course, obviously there are some things one does one is far from confident about and there are decisions that are made that you feel afterwards were wrong decisions. But I don't think I've ever baulked at doing anything that I've been expected to do.

Because there are a lot of able people that have done less well perhaps than they should because they lack belief in themselves. That was probably particularly true of a lot of women of your generation, that lacked a certain confidence to act in an area they were really capable of acting in?

I think that's true, yes. I think that has happened.

So why do you think and how do you think it was that you didn't see life that way?

Well ...

Where did you get that from, do you think?

I don't know, but I can only repeat, I think it's temperament. I really do.

And perhaps your mother?

Yes. Yes, but I suppose I inherited that.

But she had a lot of confidence in you?

Oh yes, yes.

And never thought that you wouldn't be able to do things?

Oh no, never.

So, one of the things that I was going to ask you was that your grandfather, whose career you ended up emulating at the Bar and then as a judge, was still alive for ...

I was 13 when he died.

Did you see much of him?

I visited but not to get any great influence. He was a nice little man actually. He was very short and he was very nice. People liked him but I didn't see enough of him to get any influence from him. I should suspect he would have been horrified if he'd known what I was going to do.

Oh really?

My grandmother lived, she lived long enough to see me in practice.

And was she pleased about that?

Ah, I think she was but she was a pretty unbending sort of a person. She had been born in India, her father was British Army in India, and she was typical.

Was there any male figure in your early life that had any influence on you?

Not as a sort of a paternal figure, no.

Do you think that was a lack?

Well, I suppose it must have been. I keep on hearing about the ill effects on children of single parent families. So it must have been. I didn't think about it as such but I couldn't say that there was ever anyone, you know, there were uncles by marriage. I had one, an uncle, my father had a brother but he lived in Goulburn and I didn't see very much of him. He was a nice man, but I didn't see much of him. So, you know, we really were rather lacking in any strong male influence.

But then again, all the women, all the people around you who were making important decisions, taking responsibility and acting with authority were female, so maybe that gave you some other sort of message?

It may have, I don't know.

So you've never, looking back on your now long life and a lot of situations in which you were being asked to take responsibility, make decisions, you've never had any difficulty with that?

No, I don't think I've ever had any difficulty with the fact that I've been asked to make decisions. Like everybody else, I've had my problems with making decisions sometimes. But I don't really hesitate a great deal of time before making a decision about anything important. I may reconsider something and change my mind while there's still time but, by and large, I don't think I've had any great difficulty in making decisions.

Have you ever lost sleep over a decision you've made that you regretted?

Oh, yes, I must have. I am a pretty sound sleeper but I must have at times, yes. I think everybody makes a wrong decision, a decision which he or she thinks is a wrong decision at some stage.

And how do you deal with that when you realise that?

Well usually, you know, the time has passed. You can't do anything about it. I've always tried to adopt the idea of not fretting about things that I've done. Tried to use it as a an example of what not to do in the future.

So, is there any particular regret you have? I don't mean necessarily about a decision, but again in a review of your life, would there be anything that you did regret, a wrong turn, something that you haven't done that you wish you had done?

No, I don't think so, no. Certainly not as far as my career, professional life is concerned. I don't think so.

In the course of your work you've had cause to really understand better than most, that some people live in this world with very little. Does it ever ... do you ever feel particularly privileged when you compare your life with those of others?

Yes, I think I'm greatly privileged particularly in a material sense. And I really do feel concerned for the people who are trying to get by and manage when they're materially disadvantaged. Yes, that is a problem. But once again, it's a problem that's very difficult to do much about in my position.

You've also done well in life partly because you were just born with a lot of ability which of course you've worked at and put to good use. Again, do you feel that your life, that that great intellectual energy that you've had, has been the main factor that's given you the life that you've had?

Yes, I'm sure it has been and I don't want to imply that everything's been roses though, because I've had my own personal problems as everybody else has. And I haven't always had confidence as far as affairs in my life are concerned. And I've had griefs and I've had sorrows. But then everybody has those. And I've had disappointments as far as work's concerned. But then everybody has those too. I think I have been very fortunate, I've been fortunate in having good health too, which has enabled me to do the things I've done.

So, of the things you have done, forgetting for the moment the fact that you, in the area of personal achievement, feel most proud of being a QC, of the things you've given to others, of the things you've made possible for others through your work, what would be the single thing that you might look to as the example of [what] you're proud of about your life's contribution?

That's a difficulty I find. I've enjoyed, for instance, the years that I spent with the Churchill Trust, enabling people who wouldn't have had a chance of going overseas and increasing their capacities to do so. There are so many shining examples there. One of them is Marilyn Richardson, who's doing Tosca in Adelaide at the moment, and she was a young woman who had a very good voice but she also had a family and I don't think we knew at the time she got her fellowship, her marriage was breaking up. She went overseas with young children and look at what it did for her. She came back, she's just gone from strength to strength. I think those are the things I've enjoyed in so far as I've been part of those bodies. Having something to do with that.

You've observed an enormous amount of change in the course of your life. Are there any aspects of that change that you feel particularly pleased have happened?

Well I think, yes, it's very hard to express it — maybe that by and large people are perhaps freer and more open and I think a lot of people suffered in the past, really through no fault of their own, by circumstances. We were very ... society was very harsh in relation to people who didn't comply with what was regarded as the ordinary lifestyle. I think that's been a great change for the better that people are not so critically observed as they were.

Certainly the situation of women is much better than it was. There may be still things to be done but they are much freer and have many more opportunities. Even politically, one of the ministers was saying the other day that he couldn't vote in the Legislative Council when he first voted, because it had to have a property qualification which he didn't have in those days. Even little things like that have made a big difference to life. Although it's hard for everybody who wants to get a university place to get one, it still is much better than it was when I was an undergraduate. So you know there are lots of improvements. Of course improvements in health caused by medical advances have been great. I think there've been a lot of improvements in life.

And do you think that life in your lifetime has generally got better for most people? What are some of the changes that you regret, that you think are retrograde, that have occurred in that time?

Well, the big problem that we didn't have when I was young was the problem with drugs. There may have been a little drug taking, but it was very slight. And that has been a nasty problem which has emerged. A lot of people would say more violence. I think to the extent that there is more violence probably concomitant with the drug problem. I think it's also partly due to the increase in population and partly the downside of the freedom that we applaud in other directions. But they are the problems, youth violence, the fact that I see that people are putting up metal posts in front of their shops to stop the roaming of them; those things are downside.

Where do you feel Australia is headed at the moment? What are the changes that you think are going to come for us? What are some of the challenges that we're going to face in the next little while?

Well, it seems to me that one challenge that has to be met, and I don't see how it will be met, is to improve the employment position and if we're not going to improve it, to allow people to have happy lives without full employment. Because I think a number of the jobs that have been lost have been lost forever. Whenever I visit a factory I'm shown some piece of machinery that's doing the work that used to be done by 12 men. So it's not only the fact that we're in a depressive era, but it's the fact that we're never going to need as many people working. Now some people say that's good because, in one way, it means the repetitive jobs are going to be done by machinery. But some people like doing repetitive jobs and they'd rather do those than not be employed. And I don't know whether we're going to be successful in teaching those people to use their time of non-employment or non-full employment.

As far back as when I was a member of the Karmel Committee of Education in South Australia, which was, I think, the end of the '60s or beginning of the '70s, we were trying to work out how to educate for non-full employment and I don't think we've succeeded. Some people of course can go very nicely. When I had the Human Rights Commission, some of our staff were choosing to work part-time and the husband or wife or partner, as the case may be, was also working part-time, so as each was having time with the children and that's going back to the '80s. But then they were highly intelligent, intellectual people who knew what to do with their spare time. And I think that is a very real worry, the future employment.

If you had to reflect and think whether or not there'd been some kind of theme to your life, would there be any particular principle or idea that you feel has been the one that's been the most important guiding one to you? A pattern?

I find that rather difficult. I don't know that I've ever evaluated it for myself. I suppose I would like to think that I've been more of a help than a hindrance to the people who've come in contact with me, that I've been a good friend to those who've been my friends and that I've been a good employer where I've been an employer and, in so far as I've had to sometimes be a teacher in that I've lectured and assisted people, that I've given people help. I think it's oriented towards people who've been in contact with me. That I hope they've had some value for their money.

In the area of justice, do you feel, looking back on your life in the law that you entered because of a passion for justice, that the law has delivered that in instances you've presided over?

Well, it's never absolute. We don't have a Utopia. There must be some cases in which the truth is not elicited, try as one may, some cases in which the law itself is defective in that the laws themselves don't deliver justice. And what is considered justice in one generation is not considered justice in another generation. So no, you can't say that it's been complete and absolute.

If you were to look at what your major strengths had been -- you talked about what you hoped you'd given to people -- but what do you think by temperament or upbringing have been the major strengths that have stood with you throughout your life?

I think people can look to me for support where it's necessary. I think that's probably been a strength. As far as other people are concerned — I hope I've been reliable. I think I have. And I hope I've been a good friend and also help people to have some fun. I think we too often forget fun.

Have you had a lot of fun in your life?

Oh yes, yes.

What have been the main things you've done for fun?

Oh, well, I suppose a lot of it's the company of friends really. The company of people you love. The company of your main contacts. Of course, I've enjoyed entertainments but I think that's the major thing.

I've lost my thread because I went off after fun. So we talked about the strengths that you brought. Why do you think that you, because there were other women lawyers, not all of them dropped out of the profession, and you were selected. Do you think that was ability or do you think it was other qualities as well that made you the first woman to do so many things?

I think ability would have to play a part in it. But there are other very able women. I suppose a certain amount of tenacity must come into these things. And also a certain amount of single-mindedness. I think that is important in anyone who's going to succeed in anything. Whether it's the athlete or anybody else.

So that if you were pursuing some goal or working at some task, you weren't easily distracted by personal considerations?

I wouldn't be easily distracted by anything that wasn't very important either to me or to some other person who was seeking my help. I certainly wouldn't be distracted to go off and follow some other occupation if I'm intent on doing something particular and trying to get something done, trying to finish it. I still find it hard to be taken off something that I want to get finished.

So you don't procrastinate, and you don't allow yourself to be distracted?

I don't like being distracted. I am often, but I don't like to be.

They're probably pretty important qualities actually. So ... and do you think that you've had any major disadvantage in life? That there's been any personal characteristic that you've had that has always come between you and success?

I find this is difficult. Of course I haven't always been successful and although I talk about single-mindedness, I certainly don't think I'm single-minded to the extent of putting any project ahead of some personal thing which I regard as important, or somebody else's personal thing which I regard as important. So I suppose sometimes that acts as a deterrent.

In ordering your priorities?

Yes, yes.

But so I suppose I'm asking you to be self-critical at this stage of your life. You've got a temperament that's strong and that's stood you in good stead. You've had all sorts of other things going for you that have worked very well for you in your life. Is there any characteristic that you've struggled with?

Well I think I would naturally be ...I am naturally impatient. That's I suppose the main thing. I am naturally quite impatient. And I do struggle against that. I don't think I'm intolerant. No, I think the practice of the law makes one tolerant. My sister said to me once, when I said that, too tolerant sometimes. I think that may be so. But I think I am impatient.

And what sort of things make you lose your temper?

Doesn't happen very often, so it's hard to say. When I was young it would be something that I thought was unjust but now I can't really think of anything particular. I'm not very tolerant with people who are boring. Whom I find boring. But I try to disguise it.

I was going to say that must be a bit of a handicap in your job as Governor sometimes ...

Well, it's not really because you can be interested in what people are doing for a short time. You mightn't be able to continue that interest but for a short time it's very interesting to know what people are doing.

So, if you were asked to offer advice to some young person of say 20, about to embark on their legal career or really not just a legal career, but about to embark on life, what would be the sorts of things that you would advise them from your experience?

Well, the main piece of advice I do give sometimes is not to be deterred, not to be put off. I think if somebody really has an ambition to do something, he or she ought to follow that ambition. Fortunately nowadays, people can change more than they could when I was young so if they embark on something that doesn't work for them they can more readily change than they used to be able to. On the other hand, they find it very hard to get started now with the limitations on places in universities in particular. So I think they really have to be pretty determined to get themselves going and I speak really quite from the heart because although, as I said, my mother was very encouraging about my choice of a career, there were plenty of people to say, "It's not a career for a girl. She'll never do any good in it and why doesn't she do this, that and the other," and I think it would have been an error if I or my mother had listened to that piece of advice.

What do you think about the idea of a republic?

I don't think that's a topic that I really ought to discuss in my present position. The only thing I am willing to discuss always is the fact that I believe in the states as states and that's what the founding fathers of the constitution believed in too. And I think that states' rights need to be preserved, whatever happens.


Because I think Australia's a very large country as far as land is concerned. To some extent we're homogeneous. To some extent we're not. We all have our aims and ambitions. There is a tendency and has been a tendency, and I think it will continue, to regard the eastern seaboard as the most important part of the country. But I think for generations to come that could cause great troubles. I am also willing to say that I think it's nonsense to suggest that there would be any more freedom in a republic because Australia is absolutely and completely free and independent. Only since 1986, only since the Australia Act was passed, where there is complete and absolute independence and there can be no possibility of interference. So it certainly can't be for that reason. But I know there may be other reasons that may affect people.

Well, the reasons that are advanced are often symbolic reasons ...

Yes, I know, but the difficulty is, what symbol is going to replace the present symbol?

Do you feel yourself in your position to be primarily the representative of the Queen or primarily the Head of State of South Australia?

Oh, primarily the Head of State of South Australia. And in being it, I represent the Queen. Which is a great advantage when seeing school children because all they're interested in is have I met the Queen.

And have you?

Yes, I've had several occasions ...

And did you enjoy that?

Yes, she's a very easy person to talk to.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 7