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From the bookshelf: ‘Law, politics and intelligence: a life of Robert Hope’

Posted By on September 14, 2020 @ 12:30

This is an excellent book.

Peter Edwards is recognised as an outstanding Australian historian, especially in the field of defence and national security.

Edwards presided over the Official history of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948–1975 in nine volumes. His task as the official historian was achieved in an exemplary manner, which is also reflected in his influential Australia and the Vietnam War.

And now Edwards has taken the same insightful and reasoned approach to a biography of a very influential Australian: Justice Robert Marsden Hope.

In his biography of the legendary Sir Arthur Tange, Arthur Tange: last of the mandarins, Edwards demonstrated his mastery of the byzantine federal bureaucracy and its Sir Humphreys, just as he demonstrated repeatedly in his military histories that he understood the nature of Australia’s strategic history and the impact of our deployments abroad.

In Law, politics and intelligence: a life of Robert Hope [1], Edwards delivers a masterclass in the governance, or lack of it, of Australia’s security and intelligence services in the post-war era. Hope, in two major royal commissions on our security and intelligence communities and a related inquiry (into the Hilton Hotel bombing), set the foundations on which Australia’s intelligence framework now operates, very much for the better, both domestically and in foreign climes.

Hope was a graduate not only of the University of Sydney law school, courtesy of a scholarship, but earlier of the Australian commitment to fighting the Axis in World War II, both in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific. Designated as a gunner in the 2/6 Field Regiment of the 7th Division, Hope served in Syria fighting the Vichy French alongside other remarkable Australians such as Roden Cutler, who was later governor of New South Wales. The campaign in Syria and Lebanon deserves greater attention in our military history. British command was at best inept, but the troops on the front line, from wherever in the empire and its dominions or from Free French allies, fought with their usual bravery. But so did the Vichy French colonial troops from throughout the Middle East. It was a stiff fight.

Serving later in New Guinea, Hope paid a price for his courage. For the rest of his life, he suffered the scourges of tropical diseases, particularly malaria and scrub typhus.

Hope’s original penchant for the law saw him move to the Sydney bar in the post-war years. His first encounter with an unsympathetic magistrate at the Paddington Police Court lends humour to a very serious book. Hope recalled that the case was based on a reform initiative of the federal Labor government that enabled servicemen and ex-servicemen to apply for the tenancy of unoccupied dwellings:

There was a magistrate called Anderson, who thought this was an outrageous piece of socialistic legislation and disbelieved it entirely. Whenever I addressed him or … was examining or cross-examining a witness, he swivelled his chair around and turned his back to me. When I addressed him, he did that: then he turned around and said: ‘I don’t want to hear you,’ to the man on the other side. He said [to me]: ‘I dismiss this application. My only regret is that I have no jurisdiction to award costs against you.’

This was Hope’s introduction to Australian law and to a future brilliant career.

Edwards doesn’t confine himself to Hope the jurist. He traverses many of the dimensions of Hope’s interesting life, including his (often inebriated) friendship with his cousin, Manning Clark, which would have doubtless earned the disapproval of their colonial ancestor, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, known infamously as ‘the flogging parson’.

The anecdote about Clark drinking enormous quantities of vodka with Hope at a Sydney bar and then collapsing to the floor is worthy of a comic sketch. Also very amusing is Hope’s account of his ill-fated attempt to join the Communist Party.

Hope was in fact a classical liberal, wedded to just outcomes based on respect for the law, with a tolerance for dissent and a receptivity to debate.

But it’s Hope’s reforming work with Australia’s security and intelligence agencies that’s his appropriate epitaph.

Hope’s first royal commission on intelligence and security was for the Whitlam government, which was determined to ensure that the agencies, dominated by Cold War rigidities, were made more responsive to changing strategic and social circumstances. Hope’s landmark work achieved much towards strengthening our security services while reforming them in critical areas such as accountability, oversight, control and coordination, and appeals processes. Indeed, Allan Gyngell, then director of the Office of National Assessments, said he saw several major achievements in Hope’s reforms:

The first was the breadth of the field that he envisaged. Both in the scope of assessments and in the source material on which assessments were based. The second was ‘the centrality of assessment’, placing an agency concerned solely with assessment at the central focus of the system, with the independence of those assessments guaranteed by legislation. The third was a vast improvement in the accountability of the whole system, and each of its constituent parts. A fourth that might be added is depth.

Hope’s final royal commission was for the Hawke government and was a judicial audit of the performance of the security and intelligence agencies on the basis of his original recommendations. Unfortunately, the Combe–Ivanov affair, involving a former national secretary of the Labor Party and a Soviet agent, took six months of the inquiry and led to adverse commentary. But Hope persevered and ultimately the fruit of his work is to be found in the more open nature of the relationship between our peak security bodies and the broader Australian community. Fittingly, the building that houses the Office of National Intelligence is named after him.

Edwards has delivered a book that will endure not only as a powerful narrative on a great contributor to Australian law and government but as a comprehensive assessment of the evolution and deepening of Australia’s security framework. Robert Hope was known as the godfather to Australian spies. Edwards brings the Don to life in all his dimensions.



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[1] Law, politics and intelligence: a life of Robert Hope: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/biography-robert-marsden-hope-qc/

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