A Tribute to Jeff Shaw

By Easson, Michael | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2010 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to Jeff Shaw


Easson, Michael, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


The Hon. Jeff Shaw (1949-2010), QC, former union official, solicitor, barrister, politician, NSW Attorney-General, Supreme Court Judge, probably feared his death would only engender reminders of his fall from grace and further shame for his family. Instead, there was an incredible outpouring of sympathy, support and respect, and a fresh public assessment of the man and his life.

Within the labour movement, Jeff was trusted by all factions and unions; to his friends he was regarded as a man of grace, integrity and honour; the wider public learnt of his intelligence, wide reading and impish humour. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, he was multitudes--with a broad range of interests, passions and hobbies, from a keen knowledge of Bob Dylan lyrics to an understanding of the finer points of the Healyite splits in the UK Trotskyist movement (that's Gerry Healy, the dour, Liverpool founder of Militant Tendency, rather than Denis Healey, the UK's Kim Beazley).

Jeff was the son of William John Shaw and Gladys May Shaw. He was educated at Boronia Park and Chatswood Public (Opportunity) Schools and Hunters Hill High (where he was a sergeant in the cadet corps). At university, Jeff joined the ALP in 1968, inspired by Gough Whitlam. He graduated BA, LLB from the University of Sydney, and later worked for the Public Service Association and as an articled clerk. Jeff married Elizabeth Bryant on 21 December 1974 and they had two sons, James and Jonathon. He was admitted to practise as a solicitor (Taylor & Scott) in 1975 and as a barrister in 1976. He was made a QC in 1986. Highlights of his political life include appointment and election as a Member of the NSW Legislative Council, commencing on May Day, 1990 (Bob Carr, Labor Leader, wanted him there); NSW Attorney-General, 1995-2000; Judge, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 2003-04.

I first knew Jeff by way of rumour and reputation. Though the names John Russell and John McCarthy appeared on the front cover of a pamphlet 'A New Threat to Labor', its real author, Bob Carr, wrote alarming passages about a dangerous radical, Jeff Shaw, with Trot-like zeal and ideological affinity.

Having read the pamphlet late in the 1970s, five or so years after publication, I expected a clever, ideologically driven opponent. Instead, I discovered a cultured, thoughtful, happy, sensible Jeff Shaw: no wild left winger. So Bob's description was wry humour!

Throughout a busy, active life Jeff was curious about the ideas that motivated the ideologues, the characters and the spivs. He read widely. He penned numerous learned articles on industrial relations, the law, labour history, book reviews and on contemporary events. Jeff told me that the publication that influenced him most was the four-volume Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism of George Orwell, edited and published by Sonia Orwell in 1968. Orwell's essays were an eye-opener to writing well, and expressing moral indignation; polemics with a sting.

I knew Jeff in battle and in the remorseless grinding world of politics. We were good friends. He was a member of the board of the Labor Council's Lloyd Ross Forum. We co-edited a book, Transforming Industrial Relations, in 1990.

Jeff was far from a mere intellectual bon vivant. …

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