Exhuming the Murphy allegations
Lionel Murphy was a singular personality – and it got him in trouble
Thirty-odd years after his death, the archivists have exhumed Lionel Murphy, the incomparable attorney-general from Gough Whitlam’s government.
Or, rather, they have not attempted to exhume the man, but only the raft of accusations that dogged him to his early grave.
Many of these were absurd, fanciful to the extent that even his toughest critics admit that they were obvious fabrications. But others have been given some credibility. This is unsurprising because Murphy was never the conventional figure his position, both as a cabinet minister and a High Court judge, supposedly demanded.
Murphy was a political giant, a man of voracious appetites on many levels. He craved power and achieved it, but along with his ambition he also loved food, wine and good company, especially that of attractive women. This infuriated many of his less successful colleagues, who could never understand what women saw in a man who was, let’s be frank, no oil painting; he was once slandered as a “puce-nosed jackal”.
But Murphy had charm, wit and a blazing intelligence: he considered himself Whitlam’s intellectual superior, partly on the grounds that while his leader had studied arts and law, Murphy had pursued the more arduous pairing of science and law. He was something of a polymath, a man of boundless curiosity and utterly fearless about where it might take him.
And this was the trouble. In his youth he had made some friendships that appeared harmless at the time but were regarded as dubious or worse when he achieved high office. But Murphy, being Murphy, refused to abandon them and at times, in open defiance of those who counselled discretion, even flaunted them.
There was, and is, no serious suggestion of corruption in the normal sense, but there was a feeling he had crossed the line where cronyism became at the very least inappropriate. And so his enemies pounced, and there were plenty of them.
Whitlam, who had always regarded him as an unwelcome rival, hoped he had disposed of him by agreeing to his appointment to the High Court, to the fury of its then chief justice, the previous Liberal attorney-general, Garfield Barwick. But when leaked illegal phone taps appeared in the Melbourne Age, one of which referred to Murphy talking about the overly colourful solicitor Morgan Ryan as “my little mate”, the shit hit the fan.
One trial convicted Murphy and an appeal cleared him, but then further stories emerged and a new inquiry was opened, only to close when it was revealed that Murphy had terminal cancer. And it was the subject of this second inquiry that had the voyeurs of the media salivating last week.
There were allegations but none of them were tested, let alone proved. But enough mud has stuck for some commentators to claim that Murphy would have been struck from the High Court for proven misbehaviour if the case had continued.
Personally, I doubt it: the Murphy I knew was certainly indiscreet, even outrageous, but he was above all a lawyer and a bloody good one. I do not believe that he would risk his career and reputation, which remains that of one of the great reformers of Australian politics.
Murphy may have been flawed, but he was a flawed colossus, a Labor hero. Whatever his peccadillos, history has already redeemed him.
The view from Billinudgel