‘I still want to be a rock star,’ admits The Hon. Peter Gray as he pulls a harmonica from his top pocket. ‘I like the feeling of having a tin sandwich close-by to munch on. Besides, you never know when you might want to play a riff.’
Current president of the Camberwell Music Society, His Honour is an accordionista of convenience; as much as he would have loved to, it’s difficult for a Federal Court judge to take a trombone on the road. There’s a hint of regret there. By his own words, it was a lack of real musical talent that took His Honour to the law – that combined with a passion he held in spades: ‘You might have gathered that I like to talk,’ he says with a wry smile.
Childhood piano lessons gave way to countless public speaking and debating competitions – forums where talkative klutzes train to be tomorrow’s advocates. There was the occasional perk too. One high-school debating trip took place in Adelaide, where you could get your driver’s licence at sixteen. ‘My host had his, and his girlfriend was the prefect of the local girls’ school.’ After a short pause, ‘We lost the debate.’ But he quickly adds that they won the title back in Melbourne the next year.
It was perhaps this experience in public speaking that won a young Peter Gray the illustrious position of co-editor of De Minimis. It was 1966, and four duos stood in front of the collected students to show their worth and try to earn the title. ‘I don’t know how,’ he says, ‘But we won it’. There were about 6 issues for the year. Each one was handwritten, compiled, and taken to the shop to be typed and printed. The material itself was all pretty light-hearted. ‘John [Healy] had a wonderful poison pen… I saw my function as being to provide the dirty jokes and satirical content.’
‘I sort of specialised in digging out old cases that had connotations in them. There was an old mercantile case called Glasscock v Balls – such a great delight for a law student!’
His Honour tells us to go and look it up for ourselves. Apparently Ruth, his wife of 43 years, thinks he still has the humour of a twelve-year-old.
Whilst we have a chuckle at this, he is certainly not proud of some their material. ‘We were horribly sexist’, he says. Partly this was a product of the time and the blokey culture of the law school culture back then – women comprised only about 12 per cent of law students. Nevertheless, among the graduates of 1967 are some distinguished names. Gillian Triggs stands out as one: ‘She’s performed immaculately in my opinion, in the face of ridiculous criticism.’
We mention that females now outnumber males as law students in Australia. His Honour nods his head and says to us, ‘Sorry fellas, but the women also do better than you guys do’.
We get onto His Honour’s previous life at the bar. For starters, commercial law never took his fancy – ‘Ultimately, it’s moving money from one corporation to another,’ he says. ‘What’s so exciting about that?’ Labour law allowed him to deal with issues that mattered to individual people.
Still, he thinks he did his greatest work as Aboriginal Land Commissioner – a position he embraced whole-heartedly, even explaining to us a few of the common language traps he encountered when speaking in an indigenous-English dialect.
And what of His Honour’s time at the MLS in 2015? Firstly, he encourages everyone to have a chat with him; he’s only here for a semester, and he wants to meet as many of us as possible. So far it’s been highly rewarding: ‘All the people that come to me are people who want to make the world a better place.’ From a justice of the Federal Court for 29 years, there’s a wealth of experience to be had for any law student. But perhaps more importantly, it comes mixed in with a mighty good chat. And who knows, if you’re really lucky you might chance upon a rendition of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ on that trusty tin sandwich.
Tim Matthews Staindl is Treasurer and Equity Uncle of De Minimis.