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Edward Henry (Ted) St John (1916–1994)

by Michael Kirby

from Law and Justice Foundation website

Edward St John, 1977

Edward St John, 1977

family photo

Edward St John [pronounced sinj'n] was a restless spirit. He attracted calumny and praise in equal measure. His admirers saw him as a modern Pilgrim. At various times he was dubbed a "McCarthyist", a "communist", a "tool of communists", a "neo-Nazi", a "pornographer" and a "puritanical wowser". Even he could not make all of these epithets true. Yet he was a man of intriguing contradictions:

His family background, as the son of an Anglican priest, stamped an evangelical conservatism on some of his views. Yet he was an unabashed internationalist, a fighter for United Nations treaties and international legal principles. His last great quest was to have the International Court of Justice provide an advisory opinion on the criminality of nuclear weapons;

He was a late entrant into politics and by then a senior and successful lawyer. But once he got inside the House of Representatives he did not, like the rest, pursue his own ambitions. He resolutely pursued truth as he saw it, smashing his chances of political power;

His finely tuned experience in the Equity courts could have brought him a lifetime's calm as a Judge of the Supreme Court where he sat briefly in an acting capacity. Yet at the Bar he often took on the causes of the unpopular and disadvantaged. His last two major cases included his successful defences of Thomas and Alexander Barton and a major action arising out of the Chelmsford débacle;

He was seen as prudish and puritanical for his reported criticism of John Gorton's personal relationships and alleged larrikinism. Yet he fought fearlessly for free expression in the Oz and Thurunka obscenity cases (thereby earning the badge "pornographer"). And in his legal chambers he delighted in a luminous painting by Salvatore Zofrea which many of his visitors found disturbingly erotic;

In 1981 he said that he thought "without giving the matter close consideration that Australia would and must in due course become a republic". But in response to a call from Mr Whitlam at that time he cautioned that such a change "might ... have greater repercussions than we should ever have anticipated, not only for our Federal system but also perhaps ... for our democracy itself";

He could have enjoyed a life of genteel affluence of a leading Silk, safe in his castle in Phillip Street. But instead, he led successively wandering tribes of younger barristers to new and more affordable chambers named Wardell and Edmund Barton. Like a prophet of old he offered the young advocates a new promised land with new outlook and professional openness;

He was a member of the Association of Cultural Freedom, a strongly anti-communist and, some thought, highly conservative body. He had a deep friendship with Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council. Yet it was he who set up the South Africa Defence and Aid Fund to help victims of apartheid. He did so after observing the shining spirit of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues facing the treason trials in South Africa in 1959;

He helped establish the fundamental global principles of the rule of law at the successive meetings of the International Commission of Jurists in Bangkok, Rio and New Delhi. Yet he so loved the Australian environment that he urged the strongest possible measures, including peaceful resistance, to protect its beauty. He led the campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder. Having abandoned politics for himself he supported Peter Garrett's environmental candidature for the Australian Senate, which almost succeeded. He was no hide-bound reactionary upholding the courts and the law at any cost. This was not the rule of law that he believed in. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in September 1990 he cautioned against attempts to stifle criticism of particular court decisions:

"... The search for truth and justice is sometimes long, arduous and costly. Politicians and journalists speaking and writing in good faith to further that search deserve our thanks, not our condemnation. We must never forget the Chamberlain case, the Voyager Royal Commission, the Dreyfus case or the recent Irish cases in the United Kingdom — to mention only a few times when citizens, lawyers, politicians and the media refused to accept 'decisions of courts of competent jurisdiction' and were, in the event, fully vindicated."

What are the clues that explain these apparently contradictory elements in the make-up of a man, constantly on the move, striving to shake up and even shock into action the law, the bench, politics, Australian society and the global community?

The clues can be found in his early life as the son of Canon St John. From his father's mind and tongue — and from his mother too — he heard the Psalmist and the Book of Common Prayer. He found conviction and certainty where others were plagued with doubt. He accepted the abiding moral obligation to action. It filled his prose with biblical allusions. It filled his mind with biblical fervour to pursue truth selflessly and to ensure, in Wesley's words, that "These things shall be".

In his blood, as he told the House of Representatives in 1967, were the genes of Oliver St John who defended John Hampden when he refused to pay ship money to King Charles I. Oliver married into the Cromwell family. So Cromwellian spirit is also there. Ted St John resisted the comfortable establishment for the never-ending attraction of righteous causes. He named his first son Oliver and lavished great care upon his life, learning from it and teaching to the advantage of a wider community. He dedicated his book Time to Speak to his wife Valerie, to his daughters Madeleine and Colette and his sons Oliver, Edward and Patrick. Typically enough, the title was taken from a famous passage in Ecclesiastes. Ted St John was not a comfortable, easy man. Like all of us, he made mistakes. In such a turbulent life it would be astonishing if there were not actions which each one of us would disagree with. Such were the contradictions of this man.

But Australia — especially in the law — is too often bland, unquestioning and complacent. Its leaders all too often thirst for passing majorities and transient popularity. Ted St John did none of these things. He was valiant for truth, as he saw it. He finished his book with the words of the Psalmist who "asked the question, and supplied the answer":

"Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle,
or who shall rest upon Thy holy hill?
Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life,
and doeth the thing which is right,
and speaketh the truth from his heart."

I am sure that he is looking at me even now, his fine intellect questioning and criticising what I am saying and the picture I so inadequately present. May his restless, reforming spirit rest, at last, in peace.

Original publication

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Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Kirby, 'St John, Edward Henry (Ted) (1916–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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