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Francis Xavier (Frank) Costigan (1931–2009)

by James Morton

from Guardian

Frank Costigan, by Francis Reiss, 1995

Frank Costigan, by Francis Reiss, 1995

National Library of Australia, 12115557

In March 1980 the Melbourne docker Billy Longley, then serving a life sentence for the murder of Pat Shannon, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers union, blew the whistle on the activities of the union to the Bulletin, owned by the Australian newspaper baron Kerry Packer. Longley's claims of murders, institutionalised corruption, illegal bookmaking and extortion caused a sensation and led to the appointment of a royal commission in September that year, headed by the barrister Frank Costigan, who has died aged 78. His investigations showed that in the previous decade up to 30 murders might have been committed by dockers, some as part of a struggle for control of the union. His inquiry uncovered widespread links between the union and organised crime, including wholesale theft, robberies, horse-race fixing, drug dealing, both nationwide and in Asia, and prostitution run from the office of the crown solicitor in Perth.

Costigan was by no means the first choice to head the commission. Some Victorian judges who might have been expected to lead the inquiry declined the post and there were also questions of security. The dapper Costigan may have joked about the possibility of being compromised by a young blonde on his doorstep at 3am but, during the four years of the inquiry, security was vitally important and he regularly changed his routes and cars. The major casualty was, however, the new secretary of the union, Jack "Putty Nose" Nicholls, who, rather than give evidence, committed suicide — leaving a lachrymose note blaming the government for his death.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, successive governments in Australia had doubted that organised crime existed to any great extent. But, as Costigan widened the scope of his inquiry outside the immediate activities of the dockers to those of their friends and acquaintances and "followed the money" to the most unlikely places, it became apparent that there was a real and developing problem when he uncovered gigantic tax frauds known as "bottom of the harbour" schemes, together with links to Asian and American crime.

Costigan also made allegations involving both drugs and money-laundering — strenuously denied — against Packer, whom he code-named Goanna, which resulted in his being vilified both by the union and the Packer-owned press which, ironically, had started it all. In the Australian spring of 1984, the inquiry — which had expanded over the years — was suddenly and quickly shut down by the Bob Hawke government.

The findings of the commission, likened by its critics to a star chamber, were vigorously opposed and challenged not only by the union but by others, including Packer. In a row that simmered for the next 20 years, bursting out again at the media tycoon's funeral in 2006, Packer and his family claimed that Costigan's allegations were ill-founded. Costigan replied that a royal commissioner "does not make allegations, far less initiate prosecutions. What he does is investigate and report to the government on his investigations." Others suggested Costigan was trying to usher in a Big Brother society and compared his inquiry to that undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the US, as well as to Nazi Germany.

What Costigan did was to establish new procedures as to how organised crime was investigated and the commission led to the establishment of the National Crime Authority. The commission and its controversy ended any thoughts Costigan might have entertained for an appointment to the judiciary, but as the years have passed many have come to think he was treated unfairly.

The son of an accountant from an Irish Catholic background, Francis Xavier Costigan was born in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, one of eight children. He was educated at the St Patrick's, a Jesuit college, in East Melbourne, where he and his twin brother Michael were outstanding pupils. Francis read law at Melbourne University and qualified as a solicitor and barrister in 1953. Over the next 30 years he built up a substantial practice specialising in workers' compensation cases. In November 1973 he was appointed Queen's Counsel and became chairman of the Victorian bar in 1977. Another brother, Peter, became lord mayor of Melbourne.

As with many lawyers, he was also a political animal. In the 1960s he was a leading member of the Participants, a group of professionals who tried to break the stranglehold the left then had on the Victorian Australian Labour party (ALP). He chaired the Victorian ALP foreign policy committee and, in 1970, stood unsuccessfully for the federal seat of Chisholm, nevertheless polling a decent 34% of the vote. After the commission, Costigan turned to a mediation practice. In 2005, he became chairman of Transparency International, an anti-corruption coalition. He was also a director of Jesuit Social Studies.

A keen supporter of Carlton Football Club, he enjoyed travel, art galleries and — something of a beach bum — relaxing with both poetry and crime novels. An inveterate smoker in his younger days Costigan later suffered from lung cancer.

He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, the daughter of a Sydney barrister, from whom he was separated. They had two daughters, Phillipa and Genevieve, three sons, Tim, Joseph and Justice, and 10 grandchildren.

Francis Xavier Costigan, lawyer, born 14 January 1931; died 13 April 2009.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Francis Xavier (Frank) Costigan

Additional Resources

Citation details

James Morton, 'Costigan, Francis Xavier (Frank) (1931–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Frank Costigan, by Francis Reiss, 1995

Frank Costigan, by Francis Reiss, 1995

National Library of Australia, 12115557

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1931
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


13 April, 2009 (aged 78)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (brain)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism