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1996 – The Deanes of Yarralumla

Ray Cassin  |  18 September 2018

William DeaneWalk into a room lined with books, so conventional wisdom has it, and a quick scan of the titles on the shelves will give you an insight into their owner. Apply that rule on entering the study of Australia’s new Governor-General, however, and you’ll come up with more questions than answers.

I spoke to Sir William Deane and Lady Deane at his chambers in the High Court building in Canberra, shortly after his appointment was announced last year.

The first book that caught the eye was John Kerr’s Matters for Judgment. Nearby stood a copy of Paul Keating’s speech to the House of Representatives on the government’s preferred model for an Australian republic. The two were kept apart by a volume of the poems of James McAuley.

It was tantalising combination. But the prospective viceroy had indicated that he didn’t want to talk about the role of the Governor-General. Or about Mabo, or any other case that had come before High Court bench during his time there. With a characteristic wryness, he added that he understood such restrictions might make for a dull interview.

He was wrong. For one thing, he did have something to say about his new job – though, with a lawyer’s subtlety, he managed to do it without breaking his own rules. And, while he was saying it, he revealed something important about William Deane. Sir William spoke about community attitudes he would most like to see change in Australia during the next decade.


‘I’m not prepared to talk about what I want to do as Governor-General, only because I need to be in the job for a period before I can appreciate what I’m able to do, and the limits about what I should try to do. But the focus of what I want to lies on the disadvantaged.

‘I don’t just mean reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, but all the disadvantaged. That sounds wet, but it’s what I’m about.

‘By disadvantaged I don’t mean poor, in the ordinary perception of that term. With our national health and social services legislation, true poverty, where it exists in this country, will ordinarily have more complex origins than in those countries where it is commonplace. Those more complex origins can lie in a variety of circumstances, such as the breakdown of family relations, abuse within the family, alcohol or other drug addition, illegal immigration or, in the case of Aboriginal peoples, past oppression.

‘It’s those things that I would like to devote my time to, rather than to those aspects of the Governor-General’s role more commonly seen as what the job’s about, such as opening big conferences and the like.’

It’s a challenge for a Governor-General to have an impact on such matters without straying into the political arena. Sir William proposed an example of how it might be possible.

‘Last Sunday, Fr Chris Riley (a Salesian) showed me over the Better Homes farm, which he, with the help of St Vincent de Paul, Rotary and Murdoch Magazines, has established near Moss Vale.

‘Living there were 11 young males between the ages of 14 and 18, rescued from the streets of Sydney. Most had been subject to sexual abuse in the home. The farm is a means of bringing them back – the relationship with nature helps to build their confidence, and so on. When you go to a place like that, you think, “This is what it’s really about”.

‘Unfortunately, people like Chris Riley can only make a beginning. There are so many areas like that, it seems to me, that are just waiting for a concerted community awareness. And if I were to try to change the balance of society, the balance of awareness of proper values and proper needs, that is where I’d hope to make an impact.’

A Governor-General whose energy is devoted to endorsing projects such as the Better Homes farm, and perhaps to inviting other Australians to take up similar challenges?


It is a radical change in emphasis for a vice-regal representative. One sense that, whatever the head of state is called in 10 years’ time, Australia is likely to be a different place after William Deane’s time at Yarralumla.

But the shrewd lawyer forestalls any more long-range questions by changing the focus to his wife: ‘There, you’re probably going to disagree with everything I’ve said.’ On some issues, he confides, Lady Deane is more radical than he is. The grins creasing both their faces undermine that comment, for there are issues on which Lady Deane has not only influenced his thinking, but his actions as well. Ensuring equal opportunities for women, for example.

‘When I was appointed to the Federal Court, I adopted a positive approach, largely under Helen’s influence, whereby, if other things were equal, I gave preference to a woman applicant for [the job of my] associate over a male.’ An early hint, perhaps, of the kinds of symbolic endorsement that Sir William thinks a Governor-General might perform.

It is a long time since he sat on the Federal Court bench ­– he was translated to the High Court in 1982 – but he believes that women are still under-represented in the higher levels of the legal profession.

‘In my time on the High Court – put to one side Mary Gaudron, who is currently on the court – you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of women barristers who have had a speaking role in any major case. If you go through the leading firms and look up to the top of the letterhead, to the most senior partners and so on, there is still a very real imbalance. If you go to the Queen’s Counsel or to the bench, there’s an even greater imbalance.’


But his concern is not just with his own profession: ‘I think if you carried out an analysis of the boards of the leading companies in the country, you’d find that the imbalance was even more – beyond everything that’s justifiable.’

Helen Deane knows about being a woman in a male-dominated world. She was a solicitor in Sydney in the 1950s, when women were a rarity at any level of the legal profession. In her year at Sydney University law school, there were just five women students out of a class of about 150.

The Deanes met at the law school, where William, fresh from postgraduate studies in Dublin and the Hague, was teaching a course in public international law. Helen was one of his students. The Deanes began to go out together after she finished her course.

‘I think she skipped most of the lectures,’ he remembered.

‘I don’t think I got top marks, either,’ added Lady Deane. ‘It was rather an exotic subject that he was lecturing in.’

Both had been to Catholic schools – she at the Sacred Heart Convent, Kincoppal, and he with the Marist Brothers at St Joseph’s, Hunter’s Hill, and earlier with the Good Samaritan Sisters in Canberra, where his father worked in the Patents Office. The faith nurtured in home and school remains with them, though about the personal expression of that faith each prefers to say simply that they are Catholics of the traditional, Mass-going kind, and that the Mass is important to them.

Sir William responded to a comment made about him by Professor George Winterton, of the University of NSW law school, that he was a judge ‘trained the in the Catholic natural-law tradition’, Was there such an explicit influence in his training? Or were such comments a long shot on the part of journalists and pundits – a desire to say something about the fact that Sir William would be Australia’s first practising Catholic Governor-General?

books on william deane's shelf


‘Where human rights are involved, I don’t think it is a long shot. If you start with a conviction of the inherent equality of people, and the inherent importance of the human being, it must influence your views in developing areas of law. But I really don’t think there’s a great difference, insofar as the Catholic is concerned. I’d be more included to say “so far as the convinced Christian is concerned”.

‘For example, I was privileged to be on the [High] Court for quite a long time with Sir Ronald Wilson, who for part of that period was president of the Uniting Church. And on the moral considerations which were in the back ground of some cases, I would never see any real distinction between his background thinking and my own.’

However that background is characterised, the Deanes – both of them – will offer a new sort of leadership and inspiration in their time at Yarralumla.

First published in Australian Catholics Autumn 1996 magazine, pp8-10.


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