The Harvard Man

Stephen Gageler AC

Stephen Gageler is from Giants Creek near Sandy Hollow near Denman. That’s close enough for me. We’ll claim him as one of our own. His is a classic Aussie success story of stellar dimensions. If you can make it from there you can make it from anywhere. My good mate David White told me Stephen was clearly ‘special’ when he turned up for work experience at Fitzgerald White Talbot & Partners in Muswellbrook. David doesn’t hand out bouquets lightly.

The FEATURED IMAGE is a page from ‘The Denman and District History Book 150 Years 1853 – 2003’. It was co-produced by my good mate Ray Barry who used to call the races at Scone. He once had a horse called ‘Magic Sam’ engaged. It won! Ray was just about speechless; a rarity for him. I digress. There must be some good water in Giants Creek? The Clare children in the photograph are niece and nephew of Golden Slipper winning jockey Cliff Clare (‘Sweet Embrace 1967). Old Billy Baxter reckoned you went mad if you drank the water? ‘Stick to rum and you’ll be OK’ he advised! There might be a message there?

I was very fortunate to meet Stephen Gageler. It was at a fund raiser for the Upper Hunter Country Education Foundation at Belltrees. Stephen was ‘big enough’ to sign my book for me: ‘To Bill; “The Harvard Man”; Best wishes, Stephen Gageler’ (See featured image). My Civil Rights Lawyer daughter Kirsty met him in Darwin. He was presiding Judge in a major Northern Lands Council Claim driven by Kirsty. ‘He’s from Sandy Hollow’ she told me incredulously and excitedly on the telephone! You might not have expected this level of academic excellence to sprout from Giants Creek School?

Stephen’s saw-miller father actually provided Ironbark timber for the construction of our stock yards at our small farm at Moobi. My late father-in-law Bob Mackay wouldn’t deal with anyone else. He wanted, and demanded, best quality only. It was.

Stephen Gageler AC was appointed to the High Court of Australia in October 2012. He was also Commonwealth Solicitor General. ‘The boy from the bush’ had certainly arrived! Success wasn’t based on special privilege; but Stephen made it anyway. Quality prevails in the end.

The Boy from Sandy Hollow

January 10, 2009

The nation’s second law officer is a sawmiller’s son from the Hunter. He talks to Rick Feneley about his rise in an ‘extreme meritocracy’ and about judicial power, Christianity, the blessings of family … and his black belt in taekwando.

Life-long passion … the Solicitor-General Stephen Gageler, who knew from a young age he wanted to study law, is described as having ‘an outstanding legal mind’.

Sandy Hollow is so small a town it rarely has managed to field a cricket team. Stephen Gageler recalls his one childhood year the required 12 boys were mustered.

“To give you an example of my sporting prowess, I think I was 12th man in this cricket team. I once got ‘man of the match’ for stopping the ball with my body.”

That he tells this story speaks volumes about Gageler, the skinny, sickly kid from the Upper Hunter Valley who would rise to become one of Australia’s eminent barristers and, since September, the Commonwealth Solicitor-General.

At 50, Gageler, the son and grandson of sawmillers, is the Australian Government’s second law officer, after the Attorney-General. He is the Government’s legal adviser and represents it in cases of significant litigation in Australian and international courts. By all accounts, the state school-educated Gageler rose to this position despite – or because of – his extraordinary modesty.

“He has always been extremely modest,” says Sir Anthony Mason, the former chief justice of the High Court, where Gageler served as his associate at 23. Australia’s top judge knew instantly he had recruited “an outstanding legal mind”.

Outstanding, and yet, “he was never one to stand on ceremony”, says Paul Daley, Gageler’s law clerk for 18 years while he was at the bar in Sydney. Staff “idolised” him. “He was so sought after that he ended up with one of the best practices in Australia, but he’d go and queue up to get his own coffee. He’d never ask anyone else to do it.”

Stephen Gageler, SC, was indeed sought after. His client list included: Betfair (he demonstrated to a full bench of the High Court the finer points of placing an online bet on a horse or AFL team); the Humane Society (fighting the Japanese whale hunt); the ACT Government (advising that the Howard government’s proposed anti-terrorism detention powers were unconstitutional); and John Howard (telling the Australian Electoral Commission that the then prime minister had no legal obligation to declare as a pecuniary interest a function he hosted at Kirribilli House).

“No political allegiances that I know of,” David Jackson, QC, a fellow constitutional law expert, says. “He’s straight up and down, which judges admire.”

Jackson believes Gageler’s success helps to dispel an old myth. “Often people say the bar is a place for silvertails. I think he helps to challenge this misconception. It is a surprisingly egalitarian place, where people are chosen on merit. It doesn’t matter where people went to school.”