Vale John Mackinolty (LLM 1987, Hon Fellow 1991)

13 December 2012

Alumni and friends of Sydney Law School will be saddened to learn of the recent passing of John Mackinolty, Dean of the Faculty between 1980 and 1985.

Emeritus Professor Colin Phegan (who has also served us as a dean of the Faculty before taking up a judicial appointment) recalls Dean Mackinolty's service:

"John served as Dean of the Faculty for six years. He wasa Senior Lecturer at the time. It was not unprecedented for a non-professor to be Dean. In the period leading up to the foundation ofthe Law School in 1890, the Dean had been a Supreme Court Judgeand, between deanships in 1946-7, a senior King's Counsel was Dean. But John Mackinolty was the first to be chosen from existing full-timeacademic staff below the rank of professor. At a time when University institutions were more democratic than they are now, his appointment was the product of an election by Faculty, a testimony to the confidenceheld by his academic colleagues in his administrative and publicrelations skills.

"This confidence proved to be well-founded. During his term as Dean, he combined those skills with an unfailing commitment to the interests of staff of all ranks and students of every level of academic achievement.

"As someone committed to the Law Faculty as part of the wider University, he went to great lengths to raise the profile of the then 'downtown' Law School on the main University campus, a mission he pursued with continuing success following his appointment, at the end of his deanship, as Chair of the Academic Board."



Lawyer, unionist, civil libertarian and university faculty administrator


Well before the advent of ATMs, John Mackinolty had a neat solution for his son who, along with his friends, was in the habit of getting arrested over a variety of left wing activities. Banks closed? There would always be a few hundred in cash in the family bail fund, slipped between the pages of A P Herbert's Uncommon Law. It was a well-thumbed book, and was still on the bookshelf at the time of his death in Sydney last week.

It was a solution that summed up a life that was at times unconventional, but reflected a commonsense approach to practical problems. The fact that he brought this gift to running one of the nation's most conservative institutions, Sydney University's Law Faculty, was almost immaterial. He was trained as a lawyer, but excelled as an administrator.

Born in Richmond NSW in 1926, John Mackinolty's childhood was dominated by his father - but also by his absence. George John William Mackinolty was one of the first 19 recruits to the Australian Flying Corps in 1914, and after World War I one of the earliest members of the RAAF in 1921. From a mechanic in Mesopotamia, Mackinolty senior rose rapidly in the ranks - including an interwar stint in London in the 1930s - and by World War II became what was effectively quartermaster general to the RAAF, promoted to Air Vice Marshall in 1948 before his sudden death in 1951. His son was only 24.

He was an undoubtedly distant parent - John Mackinolty spoke of him rarely, and never told his children his father had been awarded an OBE in the Coronation Honours of 1937. John's childhood was focused, therefore, on attending Melbourne Grammar as a day student and living with his mother Eileen and grandmother Geordie. He remembered the domestic scene at the South Yarra house - "a big house with long corridors" - and had little to say of his father. By family legend John's mother - "Mrs Mac" - ruled the house and hosted her husband's fellow senior officers, but was something of a radical. She subscribed monthly to Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club, their orange and red covers still on the shelves decades later.

Too young for the war - though he remembered digging trenches at Melbourne Grammar and "being rather good with a Bren gun" - John enrolled in law at Melbourne University in 1947 and rapidly got involved in left wing student politics. A member of the Labour Club, he was a target for recruitment by Mavis Robertson of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), with the temptation of attendance at the communist-sponsored World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague in 1947.

While it was a blandishment he rejected, John was later prominent in the campaign opposing the Communist Party Abolition Referendum in 1951. It led to his expulsion from the Labor Party by the Catholic-dominated Groupers - along with Jim Cairns from the same branch. While Cairns went on to be a member of the Whitlam Government, Mackinolty did not rejoin the party until the late 1960s, and was a member until his death.

It was in the unlikely role as an organiser, with Niall Brennan, of Melbourne University theatrical revues that he met Judy Allen, whom he married in 1953. He left Melbourne to a solicitor's practice in Gippsland. Although Judy's family lived in Melbourne, the family moved in 1956 to be close to John's mother, who ran a Dalmatian dog breeding kennel at Chelsea Farm in Baulkham Hills. The Mackinolty kids were raised in the area. Curiously, the Mackinoltys pioneered breeding Basset Hounds in partnership with well known vet, Harry Spira. They imported Australia's first pure-bred bassets and John went on, as well, to be a dog judge and co-editor with Judy of the Kennel Club of NSW's journal. In an unlikely turn of events, John also became a horse judge at rural shows for a few years.

One of the first Australian Basset imports, Caroline, once broke into a Silent Knight fridge, then stole and ate an entire lamb rolled shoulder. There was no doubt of guilt, from John's legal perspective: you could see it in her stomach, as a rabbit inside a python.

Despite his career as a lawyer, John smuggled copyright-breaking copies of Bob Dylan albums from fellow dog breeders in Hawaii. The 1963 Freewheelin' Bob Dylan joined a steadily growing collection of folk music: both parents dragged their kids to Parramatta coffee houses and folk concerts throughout much of the '60s. Dylan didn't hit the Australian charts until 1966.

That year saw the family move to England while John studied for a PhD at the London School of Economics. While the sojourn in England was a great experience for the family, it was a disappointment for John: his studies in administrative law melted into a minor legal history essay consequent upon major law reform in the field in Australia. He focused on academic administration instead.

John had quit suburban practice in 1963: in large part over his rejection of capital punishment faced by one of his clients. He joined Sydney University as a senior research assistant, and later lecturer in 1965, rising to senior lecturer by 1970. He became Sub Dean of the Law Faculty in 1968, a position he held until 1979. From this point onwards, the Faculty's Olive Wood dryly noted, he "devoted his energies to teaching and making the School run efficiently in the interests of students and staff. This was done to the neglect of academic writing and publishing, and accordingly he never sought further academic advancement."

His appointment as Dean in 1980 was remarkable for many reasons - and continued to be so across three elected terms to 1985. It was a period in which he successfully sought to substantially extend the involvement of students and staff in decision-making within the Faculty, as well as expanding the profile and involvement of the law school in main campus activities in order to counter the isolation of the city-based School. Coupled with this, the advent of dual degrees such as Arts/Law and others cemented this widened involvement.

His positive reputation with students over this long period as Sub Dean and Dean was universal - despite their repeated requests for him to "mumble a little louder" during lectures. He abolished archaic rules about repeating subjects, reformed timetabling, and was regarded as someone who would listen sympathetically to problems and difficulties. At exam time, the Mackinolty household would help tally the test scores, with John inclined to scour the papers of students who fell just shy of a pass to extract an extra mark.

A member of the Academic Board after the abolition of the Professorial Board in 1975, John was appointed its chair in 1985, the first non-professorial chair of either board, and its first chair from the Law Faculty since 1925. He was a member of the University Senate from 1980 until his retirement in 1987 - and later appointed an honorary fellow of the Senate in 1991.

But he wasn't on the side of the bosses. He was, as colleague and friend Gavin Butler has noted, a :"committed and tough unionist" and served as president of the Sydney Association of University Teachers and vice-president of the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations. According to Butler "he understood so profoundly the dependence of a university on the well-being and commitment of its academic staff."

In the 1970s John was also active with the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, especially in the areas of police powers, censorship and early work relating to privacy. For John, the law was never anything other than a tool for justice, never for self interest.

But he recognised humour in the law. He would involve the family in devising wacky scenarios in setting ever weirder questions in real property and constitutional law exams. For a period in the 1970s he bought lottery tickets, in the hope of winning enough money to establish a "vexatious litigants' fund", to resource worthy but apparently hopeless court cases. He speculated on writing his will - properly witnessed - in textas on the sandstone walls of Sydney Town Hall: happy to wear a fine for graffiti, but woe betide the Sydney City Council official who tried to destroy it.

He was hardly God's gift to sartorial splendor. When elected Dean, the issue of having a suit arose - the only one he owned had been bought for ten bob in 1947. It was hardly appropriate for degree conferring ceremonies to wear his customary sports jacket. He bought a suit. As the university job was the only purpose for which he bought it, he claimed it on his tax. The claim was made in excruciating detail, with offers of letters of support from the Chancellor and a host of professors. The tax commissioner allowed a 50 per cent claim, without comment on which half of the suit he had rejected.

His retirement in 1987 was - as he always promised - final. With minor exceptions he held to his view that one "shouldn't rule past the grave" - and refused many offers to serve on committees or boards involving his previous academic and administrative life. With his wife he went on extended biennial holidays to France, especially Paris, until her death in 2001. In his later years he would often imagine himself in happier times, in Paris with his life's companion.

Always a man of the left, John was very much of a republican bent, including support for Irish republicanism. Over many years, including a trip to Ireland at Easter 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rebellion, he and Judy sought to find trace of his ancestors - to no avail. "Mackinolty" was the best fist Western Australian customs officers were able to make of the Irish Gaelic, Mac An Ultaigh. So the newly arrived Irish family, destined for the 1890s Western Australian goldfields were stuck with the spelling. Apart from a Tasmanian branch that seems to have disappeared, that's it: John's death makes him one of the last of the Mackinoltys.

John is survived by his son, Chips, and daughter Ann.

Chips Mackinolty

10 December 2012.

Contact: Greg Sherington

Phone: +61 2 9351 0202

Email: 6c2855036c163f57380b140b3b3e0a2e2a384b3b000b162d011b625512