John Grisham would have struggled to come up with the saga of Jeff Shaw’s missing blood sample, as Boilermaker Bill McKell explains.

The loss of the blood sample taken from NSW Supreme Court Judge Jeff Shaw is a fiasco, or if you see darker deeds potentially at hand (as the Opposition does), sinister corruption. The bare outlines of the story reek of a third rate John Grisham novel. You have a judge from New South Wales’ highest court involved in a car accident just 200 metres from the safety of his home. His neighbour, a barrister, takes him to hospital where he has a blood sample taken. A few days later he then leaves for China.

Police go to retrieve the sample from a locked box, and fail to find it – apparently the first from over 20,000 samples taken since 1987 to have ever gone missing. After flying back from China, the judge goes to the Chief Justice – who the judge appointed when he was the Attorney General – and arranges medical leave to ride out the crisis. An embarrassed Deputy Police Commissioner holds a press conference, to admit the loss of the sample, just one hour out from the Melbourne Cup – which again is criticised by the Opposition. What twist can the tale take now?

Well, unless Jeff Shaw is shown to have been involved in a conspiracy to cover his judicial seat – in which case he can rot in hell – the only outcome I can see is a tragedy for a fine man, first class legal mind, who brought those noble attributes to the rather ignoble profession of politics NSW style.

After Bob Carr became Leader of the Opposition in 1988 he assembled a kitchen cabinet – a group of advisers who might supplement the very thin pickings left in the depleted Labor ranks after the Greiner landslide. Mostly lawyers – telling in itself if taken alongside Carr’s non-legal background – the kitchen cabinet included Shaw, John McCarthy and Michael Sexton. While Jim Spigelman (now Chief Justice, and now Shaw’s boss) was courted by Carr, he never was a member of the kitchen cabinet. Carr saw them as Ministers in waiting, and at one time or another encouraged each to join him in the Parliament.

Shaw was the only one to take up Carr’s entreaties, and was elected to the Legislative Council in 1991. He assumed the mantle of Labor’s leading lawyer in the Legislature – not difficult since the only man who thought sufficient of himself to contest the title was Bryan Vaughan, one of the laziest men to ever grace the red leather of Losers’ Lounge.

After the 1995 election, Shaw became Attorney General. From Labor’s left leaning lawyers, Shaw was undoubtedly pained at having to put Carr’s more right wing law and order program through the Upper House, but he bore the responsibility stoically. While Losers’ Lounge has never had the temperament of its roughhouse counterpart in the Legislative Assembly, Shaw went well beyond the expected courtesies and gave serious consideration to every amendment put to him, whether by the Opposition or by the rabble on the Crossbenches, some of whom thought they were saving Shaw from himself by putting up amendments from the left flank. Shaw’s staff thought (and think) the world of him, and their loyalty was repaid in spades.

And despite the impression of him being the unwilling workhorse for the less libertarian minded elements within the Caucus, Shaw achieved much of what he wanted too – industrial relations reform to undo the excesses of the Greiner-Fahey incursions, an administrative decisions tribunal, youth justice conferencing, workers’ compensation and a new Evidence Act. He had ill fated forays at defamation reform and equalising the age of consent, but the losses were far fewer than the wins.

Shaw’s shadow, John Hannaford, often gave a silent nod in Shaw’s direction when he recognised some piece of legislation he had put up when he was Attorney General only to have it defeated by The Cabinet Office even before it made it to Parliament.

But – and there’s always a but – Shaw’s drinking was renowned, and the subject of whisperings. The joke was that you were best to catch him in the morning – but I seldom observed him inebriated, much less incapacitated, later in the day. Yes he was fond of a drink, but you’d be hard pressed to point to any legislation that suffered from a less than steady hand in the evening sessions – which can’t be said for every piece of legislation that’s been passed after the dinner adjournment.

When he suddenly resigned in June 2000 for the judicial posting he richly deserved, his loss was considerable and soon evident. But he left with the good wishes on both sides of the House. It is perhaps unfortunate that Leader of the Opposition, John Brogden, had little to do with Shaw – for now Shaw is a convenient whipping boy to get to a Government caught in a political El Nino effect – where it just can’t take a trick on anything at the moment.

Shaw’s predicament sent me looking for a half remembered quote from Michael Kirby. It was Alan Corbett of all people who referred to a Kirby speech on the pitfalls of becoming a judge during the debate on removing Vince Bruce:

In our society we isolate judges . . . All of a sudden a lawyer at 40 goes from fraternising with friends to becoming a judge. He can’t golf, go to dinner or socialise with his former colleagues. An active man [sic] is now isolated and lonely. It leads to the old expression – if you’re hungry, angry, lonely and tired, you are one step from a drink.

Shaw had taken that extra step – probably well before he went to the Bench. As with Peter Black earlier this year, what was once the punchline to an unfunny joke, has now become a crisis. Earlier intervention might well have aided Shaw in avoiding what now seems inevitable: the ignominy of stepping down from the Supreme Court, and the damage to the reputation of a fine man irreparable.