Sir Gerard Brennan: A great Australian

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The late High Court chief justice Sir Gerard Brennan, who died on 1 June aged 94. Photo: AAP, High Court of Australia
The late High Court chief justice Sir Gerard Brennan, who died on 1 June aged 94. Photo: AAP, High Court of Australia

Tributes have flowed for the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Gerard Brennan, following his death.

Australia’s 10th chief justice to hold that role, Sir Gerard Brennan, died in Sydney on 1 June at the age of 94.

The eminent jurist who presided over significant judgements on native title, notably the Mabo Decision, has been remembered as a brilliant yet humble man dedicated to human rights and justice.

Lisa Buxton, executive officer of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Sydney, told The Catholic Weekly that Sir Gerard, along with his son Fr Frank Brennan SJ, had been a generous supporter of the ministry over decades.

“Sir Gerard did a lot of good work for Indigenous people and their rights and we appreciate his extremely generous support,” she said.

John McCarthy QC, former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See and head of the archdiocesan Anti-Slavery Taskforce, paid tribute to Sir Gerard as “a truly great man and amongst the finest of all our countrymen” whose passing was a tremendous loss to his family and “an enormous circle of friends and admirers”.

“Gerard Brennan was one of the most admired men in the Common Law and had a very strong international reputation; he was also one of the greatest figures of faith in the history of Australian law and public life,” he said.

Mr McCarthy, who was a president of the St Thomas More Society at the time Sir Gerard was chief justice, said he was also “very interested and wrote very perceptively about St Thomas More”.

“GERARD BRENNAN WAS ONE OF THE MOST ADMIRED MEN IN THE COMMON LAW AND HAD A VERY STRONG INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION; HE WAS ALSO ONE OF THE GREATEST FIGURES OF FAITH IN THE HISTORY OF australian law and public life”.

“He was always conscious of the price St Thomas More paid for his integrity and independence,” he told the paper.

Sir Gerard joined the High Court in 1981 and was chief justice from 1995 to 1998. He was a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1981 to 1995, President of the Australian Bar Association from 1975–76 and a member of the executive of the Law Council of Australia from 1974–76.

Appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1981, and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988 in recognition of his service to the law, Sir Gerard was one of Australia’s most distinguished and respected jurists.

Among many achievements, he represented the Northern Land Council before the Woodward Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory in 1974.

“Despite his formidable abilities, his unwavering reputation for decency and thoughtfulness provide a shining model to follow.”

He was the first president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Review Council, and a founding judge of the Federal Court of Australia. He was also Chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) from 1998 to 2004.

The Mabo decision also gave rise to the Native Title Act, which was introduced in 1993, to provide a framework to recognise the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to ownership of their lands and waterways.

In 2017 when conferring a Doctor of the University (Honoris Causa) on Sir Gerard, the then-ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Greg Craven praised his “thoroughly Catholic character … He is someone who has always placed value on the dignity of the individual and equality before the law. He applied these values throughout his career,” Prof Craven said.

At the time, Sir Gerard said the law was “most needed when it stands against popular attitudes sometimes engendered by those with power and when it protects the unpopular against the clamour of the multitude”.

Law Council of Australia President Tass Liveris last week said Sir Gerard’s legacy “will echo long into the future”.

“Despite his formidable abilities, his unwavering reputation for decency and thoughtfulness provide a shining model to follow.”

Australian Bar Association President Dr Matt Collins QC praised “one of the finest jurists this country has produced”.

“He inspired generations of lawyers with his intellect, but also his deep sense of humanity. His passing is a great loss to the whole of the justice community.”

Michael Musgrave of St Canice’s Parish in Elizabeth Bay, said the humble father of seven was a “major part of the faith community who would never be forgotten”.

“he inspired generations of lawyers with his intellect, but also his deep sense of humanity. his passing is a great loss to the whole of the justice community”.

About his beloved inner city parish, Sir Gerard said in an address there in 2011 that it is a place where pilgrims could be supported by others on the same life journey and be encouraged when they failed.

“We are human beings who need saving and the forgiveness that comes from the love of God in Jesus,” he said.

“All of us – the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, the defensive and the enquirers, the peacemakers and the dividers, the hard of heart and the compassionate – have been given life and hope and faith and love beyond our dreams and we want to share what we have been given.”