Graduation address given by Dr John Michael Bennett AM

Dr John Michael Bennett AM gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 1 June 2007. Dr Bennett is a lawyer and legal historian, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Occasional address

TIris University not infrequently confers on distinguished lawyers the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. But for Sydney Law graduates to receive here the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters is a very rare thing. It follows that I count the recognition conferred on me today as one of the proudest accomplishments of my life, for which I express my sincerest thanks to the Senate and to the University. I acknowledge too that the recognition extends as well to my efforts to help save from extinction an endangered species - the study and understanding of Australia's legal history.

I am delighted to be among the first to extend public congratulations to all of you who have just graduated. The accreditation of your efforts by the nation's oldest and justly venerated University is one that will stand by you for life. For those who have attained higher degrees, there is the added acknowledgement not only of individual excellence in your particular fields, but of gratitude also for your returning something to an established body of scholarship by the research and other contributions you have made. Best wishes to you all for the future.

I am indebted to the Registrar's office for some helpful hints about what I should say to you. One is that it is "good to include some humour - in particular from the speaker's own school days". A greater contradiction in terms is hard to imagine. My school days were uniformly humourless and oppressive, reflecting the kind of education which, should one survive it, stimulated the confident and accurate expectation thAt life could have nothing worse in store.

Coming then as an undergraduate to this University after years of stultification was a liberating and exciting experience for me. There were two years of serenity in studying Arts subjects, then a bridging year at the Law School in which some subjects having a slight affinity with the humanities were taught - Legal History being one. The Law School, in the 1950s, had very limited full-time staff and relied on part-time lecturers drawn largely from the ranks of practising or retired barristers. Among !he latter were some dear old gentlemen - as they then seemed to me. One had held the Supreme Court office of Master in Lunacy. We thought him admirably qualified to introduce new students to the law. Another, despite a persistent stammer, had conducted a successful Bar practice. He lectured in Roman Law, the opportunities being endless to tease him by constantly demanding that he repeat or spell unfamiliar Latin words.

For me, the dearest of those old gentlemen - one whose mantle I came to inherit - was Charles Herbert Cuney, Doctor of Laws of this University, a barrister who never practised, but who devoted himself to education, particularly at the Teachers' College, where he asserted a powerful influence over the teaching of history and civics at schools. At the Law School he lectured part-time in subjects that included Australian Legal History, opening, for me, a door into a new world of scholarship that I have pursued ever since.

My publications, a.s you have heard, have reached a point at which I am interpreting the lives and contributions of the Chief Justices (some 20 in all) who sat in the Supreme Courts of the then Australian Colonies in the 19th century. It is not an exercise in hagiography: I take my subjects as I find them, having no preconceptions as to their being saints or heroes. But there are many challenges. Few personal papers survive; only rarely can living descendants be traced; and even very significant 19th century careers, often in politics as well as in law, require arduous research from sources that are hard to find. One is inexorably drawn to large public libraries because of their collections of manuscript and other unique material. Some of those libraries are housed in magnificent buildings - the superbly restored State Library of Victoria being notable. But, at the same time, most are woefully deficient in supplying adequate facilities for, and assistance to, readers.

Time does not pennit me even to summarize those deficiencies. Suffice it to say that, when I started to work in my field, librarians Australiana collections were not merely masters of those collections but were scholars in their own right. I learnt much from their advice. Only rarely could that happen now. Today, librarians seem to have been replaced by computers or by persons behind counters who believe that every source of information is to be found on a computer screen. For pre-Federation Australian purposes, they are much mistaken.

It is galling, in those circumstances, to find libraries offering ''pie in the sky" electronic solutions to place their unique holdings "on line" at some vague future time. Funds and resources are allocated to those grand provisions for later generations, while researchers of the present either have to make do with perpetual inadequacies or simply give up in frustration. Most of our greater public libraries, I suggest, ought to lift their game, Providing efficient services for the present is as least as important as planning for the future.

Fortunately biographical research can have its lighter moments. I recall an Irish visit years ago when some very hospitable descendants of my subject took me, one afternoon, to see the family's ancestral homes on the outskirts of Dublin. I had asked specially to see and photograph the house where my subject had been born, but the building was at a distance from the road. and screened by trees. That, said my host, was the end of the matter. They did not know the present owners of the residence and it would be impolite to intrude. When I persisted, on the pretext of being a mannerless colonial who would never have the opportunity again, they relented and, indeed. the husband courageously decided to accompany me.

We tiptoed up the long gravel drive, fearing that our progress would be checked by savage dogs or security guards, until there stood before us a charming Queen Anne house. I knocked nervously on the door which was opened by a woman, in somewhat gossamer attire, who, without giving us time to announce ourselves, said most emphatically, and I quote her very words, "Hello darlings, do come in and have a drink". It appeared that the owners had retired from what had been Rhodesia, with a considerable fortune, a vast collection of taxidermists' specimens of African animals. and an insatiable thirst. The visit was nltogether an eccentric one, but I did succecd in taking my photographs.

Writing a series of biographies presents its own literary challenges. One must be on guard not to repeat the same style, figures of speech and the like over the several volumes. It is a salutary exercise in sampling the treasury of the English language to use to the full its extensive range of options to convey ideas. Writing in that fashion is, I fear, a diminishing art as the community is regimented increasingly into computer dominated style and the uncritical adoption of lowest common denominator language, grammatical looseness, and imprecise meaning.

In that context, the continuing craze for "plain English", as it is inappropriately called, has reached pandemic proportions that need heroic remedies. No reasonable person will resist the call for our language to be used with accuracy and clarity. But "plain", in the expression "plain English", has come to require the loading of vernacular words with meanings that are too great for them to bear. Accuracy and clarity are among the first casualties: leaving mediocriry and obscurity to prevail in discourse and the communication of ideas. I suggest that the "plain English" experiment has failed, and that the time has come for those who value the integrity of our language to influence the restoration of its natural vigour and variety.

May I ask your indulgence while I acknowledge the presence here of some particular friends of mine. They will understand if I do not mention them all. But it is a special privilege to welcome the Hnnourable Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court, the Honourable Dennis Mahoney QC, former President of the Court of Appeal, the Honourable Associate Justice McLaughlin of the Supreme Court, and Mr Bohdan Bilinsky, former Fellow of the University Senate. They, and others, have been most generous in their encouragement of and support for my writing - an encouragement that helps to lift me from the isolation imposed by the cloistered nature of my work.

Among the others just mentioned are my long-standing friend Mr Christopher Holt, principal of The Federation Press, which pUblishes many of my books. And not least among the others are my now scattered family, represented here by my son Peter.

Today, for a brief and precious moment, we have participated in the history, ever constant yet ever changing, of this Great Hall and all that it represents. For those of you who have just graduated, and for your relatives and friends, may the memory of the occasion remain as pleasurable as it ever will be for me. Vivat academia.