Australian Biography

Dame Roma Mitchell - full interview transcript

Tape of 7

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Republic or not, what do you think is going to be Australia's future over the next 50 years? Why not be expansive and think long term?

Well, it's very hard, isn't it, to get further than trying to get us out of this recession which belongs to the world as well as to us. Quite clearly it seems to me that there have to be some changes of direction in what we produce and in what we do industrially. I'm optimistic that we can intellectually advance. I think we've got a good potential for intellectual advancement, for really giving something to the world in that respect. We have in the past with some pretty bright intellects but it's very hard to know. I suppose partly because of my generation, partly because of my background, it seems to me that people must have an occupation and I think that's probably going to have to go away. We've got ... Australia's got to look forward to a period of some people being permanently supported without gainful employment. I don't know how that's going to be worked.

Well, perhaps it involves them being able to see their life as being real and worth living, whether or not they have a job, and people stopping defining themselves in terms of their career?

Yes, I'm sure that that is so. But then, you see, I don't think it's going to be so difficult for people who have a career which involves intellectual work because they can find interests. It's the people who have had the career in which they have done the sort of more repetitive work, giving them self-worth without employment. There's going to have to be a change of attitude I think. There's a lot of voluntary work to be done. There is a lot of voluntary work that is being done. But it's mainly being done by people who have retired early, although you get some young people who are still doing quite a lot of voluntary work. Until I came into Government House I was doing Meals on Wheels and the friend who continues to do them without me says that at times she has the help of a young man who's unemployed, who just comes along and voluntarily does that. Now that's a good sign.

Actually I was just about to say it would be difficult to imagine your life without occupation?

Oh, impossible. Quite impossible.

But then of course you mentioned that you yourself had been involved in voluntary work ...

Yes, I find it hard to be sympathetic with people who are in retirement and still in good health who say they haven't got anything to do, because there's so much to do. People need so much.

Do you feel that you've been a generous person through your life, somebody who's given time, and do you think generosity is an important thing, perhaps something that isn't as widespread as it might have once been?

I don't think I'd agree with the latter remark. I think generosity is there. I think generosity is a most important attribute of people. And I think there are a lot of people who give very generously. You don't, of course, get the money donations that you used to get. You don't get the big money benefactors that we used to have. That's various reasons. Corporations have taken over the place of individuals. High taxation affected people. Lots of reasons for that. You get corporate benefactors now, rather than individual benefactors. But I think generosity is still to be found and I suppose generosity of spirit is more important really than anything.

Is there any great fear you have for the world after you've gone from it?

Well, of course there's always fear, we no longer have the present, the ever present fear of nuclear destruction but present events certainly don't inspire any hope of non-destruction, do they? Europe is not a very great example of peace and so, yes, I do have a fear that the world will eventually dispose of itself.

You think that's what will happen?

No, I don't because I'm an optimist. But I think there's a fear, nevertheless.

What about yourself, do you think at all very much about death, given that you're so fit and healthy?

No, having regard to my age, I really don't. It's one of those things that's very hard to apply to yourself. You know it's going to happen but it's very hard to think about it and I don't really see any great advantage in pondering it. I was very impressed the other day with Bishop Rosier, who was Anglican Bishop of Willochra, who's now retired and back in Adelaide and he was doing a funeral service that I attended. He's a Rhodes scholar, a specialist in Greek and Hebrew languages and a charming man, probably round about my own age. And he said while he was speaking, "You know, sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me and I think it will be wonderful to find out." Now, I think that's a marvellous attitude. I don't know that I can ascribe to it myself.

What do you think it will be like?

I don't. I don't have a clue.

Your religion doesn't give you any guidance in that?

Well, not really nowadays, how can it? I mean we talked about heavens going up to the sky. Everybody knows that things are different. That's not so. I don't think any logical, sensible person, whatever his or her religion, would claim to know what the future would be like. It's hard enough to envisage a future. On the other hand it's also very hard to think that one ceases to be altogether. That's even harder. I think the ego comes in there.

Do you think it's reasonable to be afraid of death?

Oh, very reasonable, yes. I don't think I am and but, you know, who knows until it comes to the point. Literally, who knows.

But the attitude, 'well gee whiz won't it be fun to find out,' isn't ...

I thought that was just a wonderful attitude really. Yes.

Well, perhaps as somebody who's always been very interested and not bored with things it's an attitude you could adopt?

Oh yes, it's a good attitude, yes. Of course there's always the hope that one will see again the people that one has loved who've gone from this life, and they get an increasing number, as you get old.

Have you had a sense at all in your life that your mother's there somewhere?

For a time after her death, yes, I think you do have a feeling for a time. Ah, not as a presence, no, no.

So, you don't have any particular conviction that there might be a life after death? You think it might ...

I certainly trust that there will be. I don't think anybody can do more than that. [pause] As I say, the ego plays a part in that as well as everything else.

Do you feel that through your life there has been a God, some sort of guiding force there that you've turned to, or that might have been interested in your affairs?

I think the interest in the affairs is a bit hard sort of to envisage but there is a God there, yes. Yes.

Why do you feel that?

Oh well, that's a very deep question of discussion, isn't it? It's so difficult to ... there is a belief. There's my Christian Catholic belief. Ah, but to translate into a feeling is another thing, but most of the agnostics, not the atheists, but most of the agnostics toy with the feeling that there is a God, and I think it's a natural thing for people to toy with.

And it's natural for you to come down on the side that, yes, on the whole, you think that ...

Yes, yes, yes.

We need to go back now and pick up just a few of the things we missed out on. We'd like to give Frank (the director) his nice clean start, so I did want you to talk to us and just describe to us, in your own words, as sort of like a little story, what was the thing you remembered most from your early childhood?

You asked me what I remember about my very early childhood and in fact you asked me what I remembered about my father, who was killed on the 5th of April, 1918, when I was about four and a half. I have really only two memories that I can make claim to as not having been prompted. The first one I must have been two and we lived in Renmark on the River Murray and I remember — I couldn't find the house now, I have looked, but I couldn't find it now. I remember that it had a fairly large entrance hall and it was either my birthday or Christmas time and somebody had given me a mechanical toy. And I remember my father and another man whom I can't identify down on their hands and knees playing with the toy. Now, when I said this some years later my mother thought that I'd made it up but I described the entrance hall to her and she had to agree that it was so. And so it was obviously frustration. Somebody had given me the toy and they, in learning how to work it, were enjoying it themselves. And I think that's fairly typical of what goes on. That's one memory I have of him.

The other memory would be probably at least some months later when he was going away overseas to the war and we were in Adelaide, in fact we were staying with an aunt, and I remember I can picture the house. And I do know that house is still extant. I do know where it was. I do know where the room was and I can remember trying to attract his attention by getting him to pick me up, because my sister who was three years older was really more inclined to get his attention. She was more interesting to him at that stage than I was. They're the only two memories that I can be sure were my own.

After you left university did you go straight into a law firm or was there a bit of a wait?

We, my year, we finished the university course and I was admitted to the Bar in December 1934. Now I had nothing specific then, and I think the rest of us were in the same boat. There were 10 admitted at the same time. One or two of them didn't go into practice, but the rest of us did and so I started inquiring around and I was very fortunate. I went into the firm which was then known as Nelligan & Angus Parsons. There were several people aiming to join the firm as what we called a Managing Clerk then, which was an employed solicitor, and the senior partner, Joe Nelligan, was very slow in making up his mind and finally with a little pressure he did make up his mind and a date I remember, I joined them on the 19th of February, 1935. And I remained with him for a good many years and on the 19th of February I used to go in to him and say, "Isn't this a lucky day for you?" He'd say, 'I'm not too sure that it is such a lucky day.' It was, it was a lucky day for both of us I think because he was a very good barrister. I learnt a great deal. I appeared as his junior in many cases and I learnt a great deal from him. Unfortunately he had what we thought what was a minor stroke when he was 50, 51, and it was gradually downhill after there so a lot of people didn't remember his capacity. But that was a very fortunate thing for me.

He had a high opinion of you?

Oh yes, I think we each had a high opinion of the other. We had plenty of arguments though. Yes, the sparks would fly.

Legal arguments?

Yes, yes. Oh, yes, mainly legal arguments. There'd be personal ones too. He used to complain that ... he used to say to me that, you know, I had too many other interests in too many other things and I'd say, I'd never know what was going on if I didn't have them. He, on the other hand, devoted himself too much. It was law, his family, football. That was about it. And it's not good.

You've always maintained a broad range of interests?

Always, yes.

Now you're a formidable worker, you've always taken breaks though?

Yes, I have. I've always done it and one example of what not to do came from Joe Nelligan, whom I've mentioned. He was always planning a holiday. He'd get quite excited about his planned holiday and then the time would come near it and oh, he'd find an excuse, find a reason why he couldn't go on his holiday and I saw what happened to him. And so I've always taken breaks and I've always gone away, got myself right into another atmosphere.

You don't often do things very impulsively do you? You do tend to think of things and plan them out fairly sensibly.

I suppose that's, I think that's more a question of age. I think I was probably fairly impulsive when I was young.

I said that because there seemed to be a lot of commonsense guiding your life.

Oh, I think that's more apparent than real, probably.

The sort of work you've done and the way you've planned and lived your life has involved a great deal of self-control. And holding in of emotion. Do you feel you've suffered in any way from that?

No, I don't think so, because I don't think I have held in emotion except in so far as my professional life is concerned. So that I certainly haven't led a rigidly disciplined life as far as my personal life is concerned.

Has that been all over the place like everybody else's?

A bit, yes.

But that isn't something that you reveal publicly?

No, not at all. I think that is something which is mine and anybody else who happens to have been involved and not the public. I don't think it ... I just don't like this baring of the emotions in public and I never have.

People who of course appear vulnerable as well sometimes feel, especially people from your generation, that that resulted in a loss of dignity, to show their vulnerability.

Yes, well I suppose, I think it does too. It depends on whether you care about dignity or not but I don't know that I'm particularly thinking of dignity, I'm just thinking of things that belong to me. Things that belong to me only and don't belong to the rest of the world. Not even necessarily to my friends.

You don't have a secret diary somewhere?

No, certainly not. I've never kept a diary.

Well, of course, people often do think that when you don't talk about these things, there must be some wonderful stories there. Maybe that's a good mystique to maintain?

If they enjoy it, it's alright.

Director: Just a question about how you feel when, you know, last night we were observing people coming to you and curtseying to you and making you feel very important, just how you feel about that kind of situation and your place there?

As a good Australian with quite a history of appreciation of the equality of everybody, how do you feel about your elevation as Governor and a situation where people curtsey to you and pay you a great deal of respect and put a great deal of weight on your words?

Well, I think the respect is paid to the office. Not to the person. And to a lawyer of course it doesn't seem very odd because you have to remember that we've been accustomed to bowing to the judge when the judge comes into court and the judge is accustomed to receiving that sort of respect and giving it in return, so I think it's always to the office. Apart from those formalities, I like to feel that my contacts with people are just as natural now as they ever had been, that there's really no difference. And I don't think people think there's a difference. I think people find it's just as easy to talk to me now as it ever has been. And in fact I think sometimes people who are not accustomed to talking to Governors think it may be going to be difficult and sometimes they say to me afterwards, after I've been doing something like yesterday when I opened that new wing at the Northern District Hospital, somebody, I think it might have been the Superintendent of Nursing said, "Oh, I was quite nervous about this in advance," and, of course I can't see why she'd be nervous, but it's nice to know she's no longer nervous. That's the point. And I think I get that again and again, that people are no longer nervous.

In terms of the appointments that have been made, the appointments you've received to high offices, they've actually come from both sides of the political spectrum?

Yes, I've never had any political affiliations. I've never been interested in politics really. Sometimes people have asked me whether I ever thought of entering politics. I didn't. When I say I'm not interested, I mean I'm not interested in it for me. I could never see myself as a politician. Never had any wish to be. So therefore I've never had any political affiliations at all. Which in the end has made it easier, because of some of the things I've done.

You've had no political affiliations, but you must have had some political sympathies. Have they changed?

Yes, but they vary from time to time. Depending upon the way the particular party behaves.

So in terms of political principles, what are the kinds of things that endear a party to you and what are the kinds of things that alienate you?

Well, of course, I think anything in the human rights field has been of interest to me. If it's done properly. I think that they're big steps forward. And I think by and large the social legislation appeals to me. You see, you've got to remember, I've lived through a period where there were no pensions for wives or we used to call them 'deserted wives' at the beginning, where there was no child endowment. It's very hard to think back to that, isn't it? Really, there was very little and I think all that social legislation has been very important. Although it's strange how the impetus changes a bit. I can remember my mother saying to me that she thought ... have we finished have we [INTERRUPTION]

... You were telling us about something your mother used to say.

Yes, I was talking about social legislation and how the need for it, or the effect of it, changes. I can remember my mother saying that the Adoption of Children Act was the greatest piece of social legislation, because she talked of people who'd taken children who were not wanted, brought them up to the stage where they had earning capacity and then the parents, often husband and wife, would come and claim the child. And the parents, the people who'd looked after the child, had no rights at all. You see the Adoption of Children Act was only this century, comparatively recently. And then when I was chairing the Human Rights Commission, we had all the problems raised about children who wanted to find the identity of their own, natural, parents. And it seemed to me that it had turned full circle. What had been regarded as protective legislation really has rather ceased to be regarded as protective legislation. It doesn't matter quite so much now, because there's not so much adoption happening. But it does depend a lot on the era whether legislation is protective or otherwise.

Do you get a great sense, through having lived a long life, of cycles of things?

Oh yes. There's a great sense of cycles. You see it particularly in things like education where they seem to be recycling all the time.

And what does that make you think? Does it make you feel sometimes that people fight and fight for things they really believe in and then there's a sort of inevitable weight of change that will come and swing the pendulum back in the other direction? Or do you think that's just the way in which we find our balance?

I think it's the latter. I think it's the way in which we find our balance and I wouldn't like to think that people ceased to fight for things that they believed in. Maybe they do have to level out, just as we said earlier that some of the feminists behave in a bizarre fashion, I've said it anyway, but then if they didn't behave in a bizarre fashion, nobody would take any notice of their proper aims. So I think it's a bit of both. Things even out and the pendulum also does swing back a bit.

As a result of inquiring into the system of justice, you visited a lot of prisons and looked very closely at exactly what you were condemning [people] to when you passed judgement on them. Did that affect your view of what you were doing? And do you think that the prison system is the best system that we could find for dealing with criminal justice?

I'm sure it isn't. There must be a better system, but we haven't found it yet. I think it is inevitable that some people must be kept away from the community at some stages because the community has to be protected. I think that's the most we can hope prisons to do. I'd like to think that they could be reformative. I doubt if they are. I'd like to see more education programs for those who want them. But it's still difficult. I'm certainly very keen on what we call Community Service Orders in this State, where people can give some reparation to the community, but there are some crimes for which you can't do that. You can't send a burglar out into the community. He might be busy finding where next to burgle. So you've got those problems. There should be another way but in the foreseeable future I cannot see any change in it.

As far as the actual prisoners were concerned, when we were doing the visits to the prisons, and later when I chaired the Parole Board in South Australia, I saw a number of the people whom I'd sentenced as well as others. They were willing very freely to discuss their situation and I found that as long as they felt that they hadn't received any harsher penalty than somebody else who'd committed a similar offense, they were very well reconciled to it. In their minds there is a tariff, but the tariff needs to be even.

What do you think about prisons yourself?

I think they are, for today, when we're surely not willing to use capital punishment and we're surely not willing to use corporal punishment, I think they are the ultimate. I think to be deprived of liberty is a grave penalty indeed. And I take no notice of people who talk about whether a prison's comfortable or not. However comfortable it is, it would be a terrible penalty to be deprived of liberty.

So when you were passing judgement, and depriving people of their liberty, did you feel the weight of that?

Oh, yes, I think every judge feels the weight of sentencing. But of course, as I say, the community has to be considered as well as the person who's being sentenced. And however much we might like not to have a retributive element very strongly in it, there is a retributive element as far as the person wronged is concerned and so that also has to play some part in it.

Director: What personal feelings were going through your mind as you were walking through those prisons and you saw those prisoners? Apart from the fact that they were happy about it, what did you feel?

I don't think she was suggesting they were happy ...

They were perfectly happy to discuss the situation with me.

How did you personally feel about seeing prisoners deprived of their liberty, in this situation in the prisons, as a result of your judgements.? What kinds of thoughts went through your mind as you watched them?

When you say as a result of my judgements, of course the decision that a prisoner is guilty is not the judgement of the judge. The decision is the decision of the jury. Then of course the judgement is as to the sentence. So that I, where I had sentenced anybody to imprisonment, it would have been on the basis that I believed on legal principles that there was no other alternative. So I was going to see them in prison anyway. And sometimes one wonders how the prisoner himself will feel about it. The first murder case I ever sat on was one that was referred to as the Trigg murder case here, Trigg Point murder case — it was down the coast and two men were charged with murdering somebody who'd been a fellow prisoner. And, the identification was quite ingenious, it was by reason of tattoo marks on the prisoner and various things, because the body was decomposed.

And anyway, at the trial, each blamed the other. And they were both found guilty and they were — at that stage it was the death penalty, but I knew it wouldn't be carried out. So they were both life imprisonment. Well now, I saw, one was in the Mount Gambier jail and then one in the Yatala, and the one in Yatala had written an account for one of the newspapers of what had happened, which involved the two of them, but it was rather different, quite different, from what they'd said, so when I saw him, he asked me if I'd seen his account and I said, yes, I was interested in it. What had happened according to his later account was that the person whom they killed had been threatening to expose him as having a jail record when he was in employment himself. And anyway, he was quite interested to chat to me and he then started to correspond with me and went out on parole and still corresponded with me for a time, but I've lost touch with him since. I don't even know whether he's still living or not. But you know, people in those circumstances are perfectly willing to adopt, one might almost say, a friendly attitude.

So in all the time on the bench, you've never been threatened?

No, no.

That only happens to Family Court Judges?

No, I think that has happened to other judges but I think it's ... well, there's either the crank who's going to do it or there's somebody who feels that he or she has had a bad spin, and I think I revert sometimes to this question of the language you use to people, when they're in a position in which they can't answer back.

You seem very fearless. Is there anything you're afraid of?

Yes, rats and mice. Petrified. Petrified.

I hope there aren't any in this place.

No, I don't ... there are rats in the grounds . I've even seen them myself, but there's, you know, a mice plague in South Australia. I haven't seen them yet.

And you hope never to?

Yeah. No, I don't, I don't think I'm frightened of people, no.

[end of interview]