Sir John Latham: Judicial reasoning in defence of the Commonwealth
The Fourth Annual JH Plunkett Lecture
On Tuesday 19 October 2015, Dr Kelvin Widdows delivered the Fourth Annual JH Plunkett Lecture at the NSW Bar Association Common Room in Sydney. The Lecture is hosted by the Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History and is planned as an annual lecture to be delivered by the Attorney General for NSW or by his or her nominee to honour the memory of one of the State’s pivotal Attorneys General.
John Hubert Plunkett (1802–1869) arrived in NSW from Ireland in 1832. For more than 30 years he made a major contribution to colonial law and society, serving inter alia as Solicitor General and Attorney General. In 1835, he published The Australian Magistrate, the first Australian bench book.
Plunkett was the first Australian lawyer to be granted a commission as Queen’s Counsel. He led Rodger Therry, another Irish-born barrister, in the conduct of the Myall Creek murder trials.
Dr Widdows holds a PhD from the Faculty of Law at UNSW. His thesis was the title of the lecture. He has previously lectured in the faculty, mainly teaching property law. Dr Widdows has previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and the International Labour Organisation, mainly in Geneva and New York.
Sir John Latham came from a religious family but from university was an avowed athiest. As Dr Widdows’ address made clear, the basis for the atheism was a rationalism founded in logic and not in political philosophy; he was also an avowed anti-Communist. The effect of the latter belief infected his time as Commonwealth Attorney General and also, later, his lone dissent in the High Court Communist Party Case. The belief, according to his entry in the ADB, was honed as the head of Australian Naval Intelligence in the Great War:
In this office he formed habits of mind that persisted throughout his public life: an apprehension of the grave menace of Bolshevism and a conviction that sedition should be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.
My only regret in a highly informative talk is that I was not able to stay and ask one question which has long intrigued me.
I had always understoood that Latham was deeply suspicious of Japan and the lecture confirmed my suspicion, and I have thus (always) been curious as to why he became Australia’s first minister to Japan and as to how the Japanese regarded him, before he returned as a result of the outbreak of the second war, with Japan now an enemy and not a (former) ally.