Remembering the Honourable Alan H Goldberg AO QC

7 August 1940 – 23 July 2016

By Ron Merkel QC and Ray Finkelstein AO QC

It is not possible in a few words to do justice to Alan Goldberg’s outstanding life – a life he left after nearly 76 years.

In truth, Alan had two lives. There was the private life of a loved and loving husband, father, grandfather and friend. Alan married Rachel Rynderman in 1967. They had two children, Anthony and Caitlin. Alan’s family was his greatest pride and the source of his greatest happiness.

And there is Alan’s, perhaps better known, public life, which reached its highest point in the law but also travelled down the paths of the arts, music, civil liberties and, most important of all, the affairs of the Jewish community.

Throughout his career he never ceased to be humble. In many speeches Alan referred to Golda Meir’s observation to Moshe Dayan: “Don’t be so humble you’re not that good”. Not surprisingly to those who knew him well, Alan was both humble and “that good”.

Alan was a brilliant law student under the mentorship of Sir Zelman Cowen. When Alan completed his degree, Sir Zelman arranged for him to undertake postgraduate studies at Yale University in the United States.

His time in the US was a critical period for his political (in Alan’s word, “intellectual”) awakening, which he described as an “awakening to the horrors of racism and the very large number of people in the world in need of help”. He was touched by Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, the march on Washington and the effect on US society of the war in Vietnam.

On his return to Australia he decided to become politically active so that he could bring about some change in the attitude of Australians.

He joined the Liberal Party and stood for pre-selection. No one can know what effect he would have had on the Australian way of life if he had been successful in his attempt to join the political system. Instead, he had a profound effect on the legal system of which he then became a part.

Alan was a brilliant barrister, beginning his career reading with Sir Daryl Dawson. Some of the cases in which Alan appeared are legendary:

  • He acted for Robert Holmes à Court in the attempted takeover of BHP, then Australia’s largest company.
  • He acted for the Liberal Party in the famous “chook raffle” election case where the electoral officer awarded the seat of Nunawading to Labor when, after a tied vote, the two candidates’ names were put into a hat and the winner’s name was drawn out.
  • He acted for Dollar Sweets in its successful crushing of a union blockade, a case in which Peter Costello was his junior.
  • And, proudly, he acted for Rodney Croome in the challenge to Tasmania’s anti-homosexuality laws, a challenge that led to their repeal.

In the 1980s, Alan developed a new idea for barristers’ chambers that became the model for the rest of the Bar. In the main it involved the sharing of space and facilities. The chambers he organised and led became legendary. Its occupants were Alan, Ron Merkel, Ron Castan, Ray Finkelstein, Cliff Pannam and John Middleton.

Alan’s life as a barrister came to an end in 1997 when he was appointed to the Federal Court of Australia.

As a judge he was fearless and wise. One newspaper referred to him as “having the wisdom of Solomon”. At his Federal Court farewell six years ago, the Chief Justice Patrick Keane, now a High Court Judge, said:

Alan’s combination of legal learning, energy, imaginative insight, sense of duty, wisdom and fundamental decency is such that I teeter on the edge of despair at the thought of the difficulty of  finding a replacement. This combination of qualities is such as to make him, I fear, virtually irreplaceable.

When Alan was first diagnosed with his Parkinson’s disease, he made sure it did not affect his life significantly and he was not fearful of it. In an interview last December, after Alan’s Parkinson’s disease had progressed significantly, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. His response was: “I’m just happy to be remembered as someone who was able to help others.”

We no longer have Alan, but we have the memory of him that he left for us as his legacy.

Banner image: Portrait of Alan Goldberg AO QC oil on linen 71x115cm

Credit: Tony Lloyd

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 16, October 2016.