Justice Robert Hope AC CMG (1919-1999) - Obituary

Author: John Farquharson
Date: 14/10/1999
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Business
Page: 33

1919 - 1999

His was a distinguished career in the law, part of a life-long commitment to his profession. But Justice Robert Hope, who has died at the age of 80, was a many-sided man who made a significant contribution to Australia's public, intellectual and cultural life.

His interests included art, music, theatre, Australia's heritage and education, including Aboriginal education and training. A liberal, lively, humorous man, he was also a great raconteur with a rich fund of wonderful stories reflecting his abiding interest in people.

Hope is best remembered as the QC and former NSW Court of Appeal judge who headed two landmark royal commissions into Australia's security and intelligence services.

These led to major reforms which made the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) more accountable: a parliamentary committee was set up in a watchdog role, an inspector-general of security appointed and the Office of National Assessments (ONA) established.

Amid great controversy he presided over three other security-related inquiries - the Coombe-Ivanoff affair, aspects of the Sydney Hilton hotel bombing and the Melbourne Sheraton Hotel break-in by members of Australia's Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

To such inquiries Hope brought fair-mindedness, commonsense and concern for people's rights, qualities that undoubtedly had much to do with his upbringing. Born in Sydney, Robert Marsden Hope was one of four children of a woolbuyer father and a gregarious mother who was keen on music, magic and spiritualism and had many bohemian friends.

He did well at school (Lindfield Public and Shore) but rebelled against conformity and disdained organised sport. He wanted to study arts but his career had been set when he was four; his mother had taken him to a phrenologist who felt the bumps on the youngster's skull and declared him set for the law.

Studies at University of Sydney were interrupted by army service in World War II (the Middle East and New Guinea). Stricken with malaria and scrub typhus, he spent six months at Concord Repatriation Hospital during which time he finished law, then lectured in property and divorce. He was admitted to the Bar in 1945; in December of that year he wed June Carter, daughter of a Barraba grazing family.

He steadily built up a solid private practice in commercial and appellant law, appeared frequently before the High Court and the Privy Council and in 1969 was appointed a judge of the NSW Supreme Court, then a judge of the NSW Court of Appeal; he was chairman of the NSW Law Reform Commission from 1990 to 1993.

In 1973 Hope had been proposed for a seat on the High Court and appeared to have the inside running; in the event the seat went to a NSW Supreme Court colleague, Ken Jacobs, whom Hope understood to have had the backing of the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam.

Hope was never to regret missing out on the High Court place as other areas of endeavour, which he found of absorbing interest, opened up for him. Before the royal commissions into the security and intelligence agencies came up, Hope was appointed by the Whitlam Government to head a royal commission into the national estate. In later life, he was to rate the national estate inquiry, his first, as the best he had ever done and said that he had been greatly helped by the poet Judith Wright.

His first security services inquiry came in 1974 when the Whitlam Government appointed him as royal commissioner to look into the activities of ASIO, ASIS, the Defence Signals Division (DSD) and the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). He found ASIO very much in Cold-War mode, when anyone who was slightly pink was bound to be given an adverse security appraisal.

He found much in ASIO that needed to be overhauled. The main thrust of his recommendations was to enable more control to be exercised over its operations while enhancing its effectiveness.

When, in 1983, the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, asked him to review ASIO's performance since the earlier inquiry, he found it had improved itself but recommended more scope for individuals to obtain reviews of adverse decisions affecting them, and improved ministerial and independent scrutiny.

He also found instances where misleading information had been passed on, and regarded as highly questionable the way ASIO kept its files. Nevertheless, he felt the work of such an agency was essential to Australia's national interest.

In relation to the Hilton bombing, Hope was asked to head an investigation into protective security, not the bombing itself, which remained a police matter. He found there were many inadequacies in Australia's protective security measures and that closer co-ordination was needed to make them effective. The inquiry left him unsatisfied, believing technicalities had impeded reality.

During his early law career, Hope had become involved with the Council of Civil Liberties, of which he was president from 1967 to 1969. In this role, he took a close interest in the way NSW police treated Vietnam student protesters whose civil rights, he believed, were being infringed. He sought to have the regulations changed and wrote a booklet on what people should do upon being arrested.

Civil liberties activists became aggrieved with Hope over his role in the security inquiries and some of his recommendations. He kept his membership of the Civil Liberties Council, but came to feel that it lost much of its effectiveness when it changed from being apolitical to being dominated by the Left. He resigned as president of the council on being made a judge.

His role in education began with the University of Sydney and his law lectureship. On giving this up, he was elected to the university senate in 1970, serving until 1975. This involved him in some spirited discussions and disputes - a notable one with the redoubtable Dame Leonie Kramer over the introduction of women's studies as part of the philosophy course.

Kramer and Hope would meet again. In May 1993, Sydney University made him honorary Doctor of Laws. However, he'd never collected his bachelor's degree, having been absent on active service. He received both degrees - the LLB 55 years late, at the age of 73 - from Dame Leonie as the university's chancellor. Hope remembered her greeting him with just one comment: "Who would have thought it would have come to this."

It was in 1975 that he was approached to become chancellor of Wollongong University. Though he took it on with some misgivings, he found it immensely stimulating and rewarding.

He stayed a record 22 years, retiring only in 1997. Working with successive vice-chancellors, but particularly with Ken McKinnon, he presided over the university's major development phase, during which the student body grew from some 1,500 to about 12,000 and a campus was established in Dubai. His steady guidance was a factor not only in the university's growth but also in its rising academic reputation.

His other educational interest was Tranby, the Aboriginal education and training organisation based in Glebe. He maintained an active role over many years as a board member of Tranby, which concentrates on preparing Aborigines for tertiary education.

The demands of his professional life never deterred him from pursuing other interests. He joined the governing body of Musica Viva at the invitation of Ken Tribe, its then chairman, and served as a member of its national council.

Over the years, he had similar involvement with the Nimrod and Old Tote theatres, serving as chairman of each company, and of the NSW Heritage Council.

He was not just a nominal member of all these bodies, but used his wide experience to contribute in every way possible. Nor did these activities preclude him from spending time with friends and colleagues of the law fraternity.

He had been close to Sir John Kerr, who sought his opinion on whether he should take up Gough Whitlam's offer of the governor-generalship. Hope advised against it but Kerr, lured by the power of the position, went ahead anyway.

Hope was proud of being a direct descendant of the Rev Samuel Marsden, second chaplain of the fledgling NSW colony, despite his "flogging parson" reputation. He also held in high regard his uncle, the Anglican priest Fr John Hope, who, as a rector of Sydney's Christ Church St Laurence, befriended and often gave haven to the well-known Sydney eccentric of the time Bee Miles. He was equally appreciative of the achievements of his cousin, the historian Manning Clark, yet not one to gloss over his faults and shortcomings.

In his approach to the law, he sought to be creative and to give a down-to-earth human face to it. Law reform was always a matter of concern to him and, at the end of his career, he still saw plenty of scope for it.

Judges, he thought, could improve the way they made decisions, possibly by adopting a collegiate system with judges discussing a case brought to them on appeal, rather than each writing his own judgment and handing it to the president.

He deplored the fact that where they considered it necessary judges could not call witnesses and that an administrative appeals tribunal had not been set up in NSW.

Though he probably came to know more about Australia's secret intelligence network than anyone else in the country, and was once dubbed "Godfather to the spies", he never sought to promote himself as an expert on security matters.

What probably gave him as much personal satisfaction as anything else was his work in building up Wollongong University as a highly respected tertiary institution. In his quiet, unassuming way he must be rated one of the nation's more notable achievers.

He is survived by his wife, June, daughters, Deborah and Elizabeth, and son John.1


Justice Hope received his Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney before being raised to the New South Wales Bar on 26 October 1945.

Appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1960, he was raised to the position of Justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court in 1969. Hope was finally made a Justice of Appeal of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the New South Wales judiciary system in 1972, a position he held until his retirement in 1989.

He led two Royal Commissions and one review of Australia's intelligence and security agencies and operations.

Justice Hope was awarded the honour of Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1977. In 1989 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), Australia's highest civilian honour.2

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