- Law, Politics and Intelligence: A Life of Robert Hope, by Peter Edwards. NewSouth. $49.99.
Serious, thorough biographies in fields like law, politics and intelligence usually chronicle the lives of renowned national leaders. By contrast, Peter Edwards celebrates a man who "never held a political or official position in a policy-making institution" and who retired more than 30 years ago. This particular man lived for more than four decades in the same house, married to the same woman, working in the same profession. His name now adorns Canberra's former Patents Office, but his true achievements stretch well beyond the cocoon of the Office of National Intelligence.
Let me confess bias. Edwards quotes my assessment of Judge Hope as the best boss I ever had. I stick by that opinion. Despite wrangling extremely tough issues and difficult individuals over long hours, I found the Judge invariably open, fair, curious, quick, tolerant and decent - liberal, in all the best connotations of that word. That appraisal, based on Hope's work as a Royal Commissioner, would surely apply as well to his efforts as a barrister, lecturer, NSW Supreme Court judge, Wollongong University Chancellor, chair of the Heritage Council and motor behind creation of Australia's National Estate.
Edwards brings vividly to life each of those roles in turn. As a practised biographer, with an account of Arthur Tange already published, Edwards is methodical, astute and articulate. Dealing with a judge, Edwards is consistently judicious. He is especially talented at making sense of esoteric legal argument and abstruse legal decisions. Even the lessons of a case on sand mining in Wyong shire are lucidly explained. Prodigious research is deftly weighed and fairly considered.
This biography does cover each segment of Hope's life, unearthing a few quirky anecdotes along the way. Hope's mother had his head bumps read; the future judge preferred gardening to cadets at school; his practice as a barrister was almost entirely before judges rather than juries; and his halfhearted application to judge the Communist party was rejected because he was not a union member. Edwards re-produces folk wisdom which the Judge was fond of recounting, on the divergent effects of drinking vodka or other forms of alcohol. With vodka, your knees evidently crumple quite graciously, while, after having taken other grog, you risk falling flat on your face.
Nonetheless, Edwards focuses heavily on Hope's three major inquiries into Australia's intelligence and security community, two of them with the status of Royal Commissions. The 16 reports from those inquiries moulded much of the legislation, structure, operations, accountability and culture now guiding the operations of those agencies. An outside historian, even one with a distinguished record like Edwards, is necessarily limited in his examination of whether Hope's intelligence and security blueprints were the correct ones, the best fit for purpose, the most equitable balance between security demands and civil liberties. Any full answer remains classified.
The Hope "masterplan" could never be the final word. Younger generations would have no memory of Combe-Ivanov or the Sheraton Hotel incident. We now have many new and different adversaries, weapons, dilemma, rivals, techniques and conundrums to cope with. Recommendations contentious in their day may now be either conventional wisdom or old-fashioned.
In addition to an instructive review of available material from the two Royal Commissions, Edwards suggests that Judge Hope learned lessons relevant to any future such inquiry. Beware of senior public servants protecting their fiefdoms. Ensure you are given clear authority, preferably statutory. The Royal Commissions Act is a fearsome instrument.
Hope's personality also helped his cause. Edwards rightly emphasises the Judge's easy manner, polite informality and happy rapport with the young as much as he does Hope's keen, smart mind. A fit, funny, polymath Royal Commissioner, one seeking out "constant stimulation, extension and diversion from the cerebral demands of the law", may find common sense and practical solutions more ready to hand than would a pedant or a bully.
On the more severe side of justice, Edwards reminds his readers of Hope's "forensic intensity" in the courts, in addition to his strict rebukes to barristers "who transgressed proper standards". "Suppressed or controlled anger" could also be deployed as an asset in advocacy.
A judge with a head off a Roman coin, hawk-like eyes and an intolerance for foolishness possessed a wide repertoire of skills to make his point.
The Judge always spoke with intense pride about his part in establishment of our National Estate. Edwards demonstrates how lucky we were to have him.