Sir Anthony Mason AC KBE, former Chief Justice of the High Court, had guests in stitches last night (9 November) at the official launch of From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story.
Despite his 85 years, Mason demonstrated that he has not lost any of the quick intellect, wit or charm which made him one of Australia's greatest-ever High Court judges.
An impressive number of guests descended on the Supreme Court of New South Wales' Banco Court to attend the launch of barrister Pamela Burton's unauthorised biography of Gaudron, who was the first female appointed to the High Court.
In delivering the official address of the evening, from which Gaudron was absent, Mason had the audience laughing from the get-go.
"It is an honour to launch this biography of Mary Gaudron, [but] in doing so in her absence, I feel like the director of a production of Macbeth without any Lady Macbeth," he said.
"In saying that, I don't mean to say that Mary is like Lady Macbeth, even if Michael Kirby called her 'Mary the Merciless'."
Mason then went on to apologise for the fact that Kirby, who authored the biography's foreword, was absent due to "important business of state".
Just as Mason mentioned this, however, Kirby appeared at the entrance of the court and took a seat.
Speaking over the laughter and applause which ensued, Mason said: "This, of course, is a very carefully staged act ... he obviously is not engaged. He is here instead.
"I was going to say that his spectre, like Banquo's ghost, was present ..."
Mason went on to recount some of his personal experiences with Gaudron, which included a case in which she appeared before him as a barrister in the High Court and won her case.
"I ... congratulated Mary on her success in the High Court," recounted Mason, "and she said, 'I was surprised by your judgment. I thought you were a much better lawyer than that'."
Mason went on to tell the crowd that he and Gaudron shared some similarities, aside from the obvious.
"I share two characteristics with Mary Gaudron," he said.
"The first is that, like her, I am an old convent girl. I entered primary school at Kincoppal Primary School at Elizabeth Bay before it merged with the Rose Bay Convent. The second characteristic is that we emerged from a convent education ... without a profound belief in religion. If religious instruction is the primary role of the convent, then we must be counted as conspicuous failures."
The fact that Gaudron, who was known for her fiery temperament, was none-too-happy about the fact Burton chose to publish her biography did not escape Mason, who said: "Whether Mary thinks as well of the book as I do remains to be seen, and perhaps heard. But if she has any strong objection to what has been written, she is not a person to suffer in silence.
Mason then again diverted attention to Kirby, unabashedly ribbing him to the crowd's delight.
"As I have mentioned, there is a foreword to the book by Michael Kirby. We live in an age where no book is publishable unless it boats either a foreword, a launch or a review by Michael Kirby. Perhaps some best sellers boast all three.
"[The foreword] depicts the impact of Mary's irreverent cigarette smoking and champagne-quaffing persona on the phlegmatic male personalities who inhabited the High Court of Australia at that time. It [gives] also the sense of deprivation that Michael felt when Mary left the High Court, and it brings out his high regard for Mary. The book describes their relationship as 'complex'. Michael has told me he is willing to answer questions on that later on ..."
Mason took on an almost serious note towards the end of his address, stating: "That Mary has had a great and beneficial impact on the law and of the practice of the law cannot be doubted. She is a fine and principled lawyer who has been a resolute defender of the rule of law and the values of the common law."
But Mason's undeniably cheeky sense of humour was not too far away.
"The biography paints a vivid picture of Mary's personality, largely through her words and actions. Her personality is described as 'formidable'. She is described as having tantrums. I was not aware of them being directed at me, but perhaps, with the advance of old age, I have forgotten them."
From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story is published by University of Western Australia Press. Keep an eye out for Lawyers Weekly's interview with the author, Pamela Burton, coming soon.