Jeffrey William (Jeff) Shaw, 10 October 1949-10 May 2010.
Jeff Shaw was a truly remarkable man: at the time of his election to the New South Wales Parliament he was undoubtedly the best industrial barrister in the country. As Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations between 1995 and 2000, he was probably the most professionally and technically qualified person for the role to hold ministerial office in New South Wales at least since World War II. And there were so many other fields where his skill and uniqueness shone.
Thus, no one in our time was as well qualified as was Jeff Shaw to perform the public roles he had or to achieve the goals he set himself. One would have to go back to Alfred Deakin or Henry Bournes Higgins to find politicians with anything like the articulated vision of the law, industrial relations and their interrelationship. And, of course, these fields were dramatically more complex and technical than in the days of Deakin and Higgins.
He could have used his skills purely for personal and professional gain like the overwhelming majority of the Australian legal profession. But he didn't. The significance of that should not be lost. Not too many years ago it was commonplace for senior members of the Bar, often out of a desire to serve, to enter political life. That practice had ceased by the time Jeff entered politics and that fact shows the significance of his contribution to public life and gives real insight into the nature and extent of his altruism.
The detail of his contribution, however, also warrants attention. By the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act 1996, he rewrote the industrial laws of New South Wales, thereby overturning the Liberal Party's 1991 degrading of the state's industrial laws. These laws had previously worked well for many decades and provided the most effective industrial relations system in the country, as well as one that, by and large, avoided the extremes of industrial misconduct that plagued other states. That statute also wrought major changes in the law on pay equity, paving the way for unions to mount cases to achieve true equal pay.
A major rewrite of the occupation health and safety law was enacted towards the end of Jeff's ministerial career. It involved a qualitative upgrade of the statute and ensured New South Wales continued to lead the way in the area.
In both of these areas, Jeff had the foresight and wisdom to recruit Professor Ron McCallum to either assist or chair the various working parties set up to undertake the detailed work of the revamps required. Although Ron was undoubtedly the doyen of Australian academic labour lawyers, when Jeff first called on him he had only been in Sydney for a few years and was seen by some in New South Wales as an unknown quantity. But not to Jeff, whose ability to discern and harness Ron's skills and learning was a major factor in the quality and success of the resulting legislation. Ron was subsequently invited by a number of other state governments to play similar roles for them.
Jeff's skills as a Minister were not limited to his specialist area of industrial or labour law. He was that relatively unusual lawyer these days, a good all-round lawyer. To hear him interviewed on radio, as he often was, on one of the government's proposals for legal change or legal reform was a treat. He was always 'on top of the brief', succinct and sure footed, explaining often difficult legalisation in a way so simple that even the interviewer could understand. There is no doubt that he played a major part in Cabinet in mitigating the harshness of the inevitable 'law and order' tendency displayed by contemporary state governments.
Jeff's important work in protecting the rights of asbestos victims is highlighted in the respected ABC TV journalist Matt Peacock's probe into James Hardie: Killer Company: James Hardie Exposed, published last year by ABC Books. Peacock tells of the inadequacies of the then prevailing system of litigation and the injustice caused by these inadequacies. Although the previous Liberal government had accepted certain changes proposed by Justice O'Meally, the President of the Dust Diseases Tribunal (DDT), the changes had stalled in the Cabinet Office. The 1995 election interceded and there was a new Attorney-General. In Peacock's words:
The new Attorney-General Jeff Shaw changed the tribunal's rules to enable 'provisional' awards, which allowed claimants to return for additional damages if they contracted a subsequent disease, such as cancer. Bernie Banton would become the first asbestos victim to test this provision in court years later. But Shaw was soon to embrace a raft of further changes to the DDT. He had met with leaders of the AMWU following the death of its national president and attended the opening of a new office for the asbestos victims group, the Asbestos Diseases Society of New South Wales, where he spoke to some of the mesothelioma sufferers and their families and was briefed on the need for reform by their lawyer. Shaw agreed to abolish the statute of limitations for all dust disease claims and to ensure that general damages--the largest of the compensation payments--should survive a claimant's death. Both measures would lessen the need for the increasingly common deathbed hearings, but both were likely to increase Hardie's costs. Initially, the Attorney-General had difficulty getting the changes listed for consideration by Cabinet. Hardie had combined with CSR to lobby against the proposed legislation and complained that the industry had not been consulted. The two companies presented their case to Shaw, who was polite but unmoved.
This passage from Peacock's book shows a lot about Jeff's general approach to important issues: he was consultative, empathetic, courteous, firm in his convictions as to what should be done, and determined to achieve reform.
In addition, Peter Lewis, as a journalist and author, has observed that Jeff's reforms allowing the claim to survive the victim's death ended the inhumane practice of limiting liability by dragging out mesothelioma claims until victims died and took away one of the main weapons insurers had employed to minimise their exposure.
This brief sketch does not do sufficient justice to Jeff Shaw's public role but it does provide, it is hoped, at least a real insight.
Jeff was really concerned about people. In many ways Jeff was an old-fashioned socialist; he genuinely believed in 'the betterment of mankind' and saw his role in life as helping the underdog. This insight provides the simple rationale for his public work initially as a parliamentarian and later as Minister. It also explains his work before politics as a trade union official, solicitor, barrister and Queen's Counsel, and after his resignation from the bench when he founded The People's Solicitors, an inner-city law firm which advertised itself as combining a high standard of work and low costs (or, in appropriate circumstances, representation on a 'no win/no pay' basis), and where 'we are anti-establishment and work for the battlers'.
To refer to someone as an intellectual today is often to invite questions as whether one is being serious, derisive or merely ignorant of the appropriate use of the word. It is, therefore, with some hesitation that one embarks on the section of this tribute about Jeff Shaw the intellectual. Jeff was, nevertheless, an intellectual. He was truly interested in ideas and in the power of ideas. He was widely read in very many fields such as politics, history, philosophy, economics and current affairs. His chambers reflected the wide range of subscriptions he took (many of which would never be seen in the chambers of another barrister or the office of another politician) such as Overland, The Australian Quarterly, Labour History, The Australian Economic Review, Quadrant, Private Eye and The New Statesman. He also published widely. The People's Solicitors website has a compilation of some 88 articles published by Jeff on industrial matters and related issues between 1975 and 2003, including a number of articles he wrote on more technical legal and industrial subjects for the Australian Law Journal and the Journal of Industrial Relations.
He also contributed articles to Quadrant on the essays of British Labour leader, Michael Foot, and on whether labour relations in Australia should be centralised. The 15 articles he contributed to Labour History and the ASSLH Sydney Branch publication, The Hummer, ranged from the historically important to the quixotic (for example, a review of Pamela Stephenson's biography of her husband, Billy Connolly, and her reference there to growing up in the 'wilds' of Boronia Park (where Jeff also grew up) which she described in a way, no doubt intended to intrigue English readers, which Jeff described as 'pure fantasy'). The historical articles included biographical articles on John Garland (long-time federal secretary of the AEU and AMWU), Justices John Cahill and Barrie Hungerford and, the most detailed, on Jack Sweeney QC, a now mostly forgotten but, in his time, pivotal figure in New South Wales industrial relations, industrial law and politics, who was importantly a mentor to Neville Wran QC. Jeff correctly perceived that the fact of Jack Sweeney's disappearance from view marked a major gap in New South Wales' legal and labour history.
Jeff's range of interests and sense of history is shown not only by his contributions to Labour History and The Hammer but also by his published book reviews (some now untraceable) and his articles in the Australian Directory of Biography (ADB). His ADB articles concerned barrister and ALP politician Sydney Max Falstein and Justice Sir John Clancy. One of Jeff's book reviews available on the web is a review of Mark Weblin's A Perilous and Fighting Life, a collection of essays by the influential Sydney philosopher John Anderson. Jeff was a person who enjoyed the intellectual stimulus that Sydney, at its best, could provide and this review does, partly interstitially, show his fascination with the history of Sydney intellectual life. He also enjoyed the company of those whose intellects he admired and found stimulating.
Last, Jeff Shaw the man. Much of what has been said already is relevant here. It is useful, however, to also add a little more about his background and mention his mentoring, his friendship, his cheerfulness and sense of fun.
Jeff was proud of his Scottish ancestry and working-class origins. He fondly recalled that his paternal grandfather Jock spoke with a brogue. His father worked as a printer and later as a foreman printer, and Jeff had a special fondness in doing legal work for the unions closest to the areas of his Dad's work, the PKIU and the AJA.
He was a fine mentor to many young people in the law and in the unions. Prominent figures mentored by Jeff include Justice Michael Walton (Vice- President of the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission), Robert McClelland (federal Attorney-General) and Justice Shane Marshall of the Federal Court of Australia.
Jeff had a great many long-term loyal friends. Jeff was in turn a very loyal friend who was always ready to help friends in difficulty. Even through his worst trials he managed to maintain his characteristic cheerfulness. He was great company; he had a fine, and sometimes boisterous, sense of humour and a sense of fun, and was capable of making and enjoying jokes, even at his own expense. But even at these times Jeff's always active mind and vigour of thought was ever present. As Michael Walton noted in his eulogy at the state funeral for Jeff, he was a person of great courage, resilience and humility. He is already being greatly missed.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and sons, James and Jonathon.
Lance Wright QC initially met Jeff Shaw when they worked together in the early 1970s in the trade union movement. He was later a practising barrister, appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1991 and was President of the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales from 1998 to 2008. <email@example.com>
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|Publication:||Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2010|
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