Vale comrade

Andrew West

Jeff Shaw, the former NSW attorney-general and giant of NSW Labor politics who died early this morning (11 May 2010), was a close friend of mine for 21 years.

We met in 1989, at a Labor Party fund-raiser in Balmain, the cradle of the Australian labour movement. It was a real Labor fund-raiser - cheap food in a down-at-heel pub with people sincerely committed to progressive values - at a time when the party was beginning to lose its soul.

I was a 22-year-old politics student at the University of Sydney. Jeff, at 39, was already one of this country's top industrial barristers, a Queen's Counsel from a precociously young age, by any measure a successful man. And the Labor Party - the old Labor Party, the party before the age of spin doctors and flaky "Third Way" revisionists who craved comfort and power so much they would jettison its canon - was his home.

Jeffery William Shaw was an authentic, committed Labor hero who never lost the faith.

As a barrister, he defended workers and their right to fair wages, safe workplaces and freedom from discrimination.

He was a son of the working class. His father had been a printer, and a stalwart of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union, and his mother was a secretary. He loved to joke that he grew up on the wrong side of Pittwater Road in Gladesville.

In his late teens, he would head to Hunters Hill, to the home of another friend of mine, another great progressive figure, Sheila Swain, a former mayor, and her husband, Geoffrey. Jeff would teach their son, Justin, to play the drums and in the Swain's book-lined house, strewn with copies of the Nation Review and the New Statesman and the works of Galbraith, the working class boy would get informal lessons in social justice, left-wing economics and civil liberties that would shape his brilliant career.

"I will simply say that Jeff Shaw towered above most of his peers in law and NSW Labor politics."

Part of Jeff's enormous appeal was that he was a multi-dimensional character. Politics shaped his career but it did not consume his life. He was an accomplished jazz musician, a talent that he used to complement his scholarship when he was at Sydney University.

In 1993 and 1994, we edited a small magazine, Labor Forum, along with Brett Evans, then of the Evatt Foundation. Jeff was most animated about a cover story on the 25th anniversary of 1968, "the year of barricades", and lamented the way the left had fumbled its greatest opportunity since the era of Roosevelt and Atlee.

He was one of the few people, in what was becoming a monochromatic careerist-driven Labor Party, who could speak with equal authority on the three-day Trotskyist government of Sri Lanka during the 1970s and the subtext to Billie Holliday's classic "Strange Fruit". One of our most memorable conversations, in November 2004, after Jeff left the NSW Supreme Court, ranged from the leadership divisions within the Sandinista National Liberation Front to Barak Obama's election to the US Senate to the latest collaboration between Diana Krall and Elvis Costello to the memoirs of Graham Greene to the legacy of Benny Goodman.

Jeff was a Labor Party activist from a young age but he was always more interested in the bigger philosophical arguments than the corrupting quest for "the numbers" that could snare a seat in parliament.

Jeff was, in fact, an extremely reluctant starter in politics and, I got the impression, didn't much like it when he got there. Jeff may have been ideologically of the Left, fiercely committed to traditional Labor values, but he also hated conflict.

When John Hannaford, the immensely likeable and decent small-l liberal MP, who was the shadow attorney-general, criticised one of Jeff's reforms, Jeff was wounded, protesting to me how much he liked and respected Hannaford. Of course, he knew it was only part of the parliamentary pantomine, albeit a part that he detested.

In the end, Jeff was in politics because he wanted to be attorney-general, to reform laws he believed were unjust, ill-considered, antiquated or just plain wrong. He did not need to be in politics; his character and self-esteem did not require the affirmation of ego that comes with political victory.

Others more qualified will, no doubt, testify to his extensive reform legacy.

I will simply say that Jeff Shaw towered above most of his peers in law and NSW Labor politics - and certainly towered above the generation that has followed.

He was a Labor hero. He believed in the cause.


Andrew West is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist. This article is reproduced with kind permission.


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