Murray Gleeson: The Smiler
Michael Pelly, The Federation Press, Sydney 2014
280 pages, ISBN 978-1-86287-960-7
All Australian lawyers are familiar with the work of Murray Gleeson, Chief Justice of the High Court until 2008 and previously, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Many lawyers are aware of the public persona that earned Gleeson the ironic nickname 'The Smiler'. A few have had the experience of appearing before him. But very few have been privy to citizen Gleeson, as opposed to Chief Justice Gleeson. What drives Murray Gleeson? What sort of person is he?
Murray Gleeson: The Smiler provides us with a few glimpses, which is perhaps as many as we are likely to get. Michael Pelly gives a good account of Gleeson's childhood and schooling; his early years as a practitioner; his period as a leading barrister and finally, his judicial career. But we never really get to know Gleeson the man. It is due to Gleeson's reticence, and not any failing of his biographer, that we still know little about the man and next to nothing about his attitudes on non-law subjects. What is important to him on a personal level? What are his views on such contemporary issues as the environment and terrorist threats? What does he consider vital for the future prosperity of Australia?
Michael Pelly's biography was undertaken with the approval of his subject, which is fortunate since without it we may not have had this book at all. Although Gleeson did give extensive interviews, his greatest assistance was in allowing access to his family who provide most of the interesting insights. They make it clear that at home, Gleeson was not the most enthusiastic participant in family get-togethers, often leaving a gathering early to go back to his study. He was also something of a hypochondriac and justified his frequent absences on the basis that he could not afford to get sick. He was also a touch squeamish, with his wife Robyn recalling the birth of their first child: 'Murray took me to the hospital, left, and then appeared some hours later in a back-to-front hospital gown. He turned a nasty shade of green and disappeared again until after the birth'. Perhaps less understandable was the new father's refusal to change nappies ('Never change a nappy, because once you change one nappy you are known as a nappy changer, available on request') or his earlier insistence that 'Barrister's wives don't work'. Nevertheless, for reasons of pragmatism or otherwise...