In a part of the country where customary law is still strong, payback can involve punishment – but can also carry rewards. Just ask Northern Territory QC, John Reeves. He is currently holidaying on the Greek islands, but tomorrow will be elevated to the Federal Court bench.

In a bit of hurried housekeeping before going into caretaker mode, Attorney General Ruddock is to fill four vacancies on the Federal Court, and not just the one opened up by the promotion of new High Court judge, Susan Kiefel.

In an unprecedented move, Ruddock is to overlook the logistical need to appoint two justices in Sydney. Rather, Ruddock is awarding just one new post to Sydney, and will anoint Reeves as the first Northern Territory-based Federal Court judge.

No doubt the appointment will be dressed up as a “win” for the Territory. But it was only three weeks ago that the Federal Government admitted it will close the Alice Springs branch of the Family Court due to “poor demand”.

But what about the workload for a Darwin-based judge of the Federal Court? Adelaide-based and respected Federal judge John Mansfield has been doing most of the Federal Court’s work in the Territory, but he has barely achieved two months worth of sittings a year in the Top End.

The Alice Springs Family Court closure is being opposed by the Northern Territory Law Society, which has written a letter of protest to Reeves’ soon-to-be boss, Federal Court Chief Justice Michael Black.

Reeves has been nothing if not a loyal foot soldier for the Howard government for a decade, especially in the area of Aboriginal land rights.

He is currently a member of the Howard/Brough hand-picked Northern Territory National Emergency Response Taskforce. It’s a responsibility he clearly enjoys sharing with his friends. On 31 August Reeves presented what he called “a personal report from the field” on the work of the National Emergency response to the annual general meeting of the Bennelong Society in Sydney.

There is no evidence in his Bennelong Society talk that Reeves had actually participated “in the field” – to be fair, perhaps he had – but much talk of opinion polling, and opinion leaders in “convincing middle Australia” of the need for a national response.

Whilst the first opinion poll taken after the announcement of the NT National Emergency Response indicated a level of cynicism about the Prime Minister’s motivation for the intervention, the subsequent opinion polls accorded with my anecdotal “polling” in the NT – that there was, and is, a very high level of public support for the Commonwealth’s National Emergency Response …

While middle Australia was being moved slowly but surely to the position where they accepted there was a problem and a need for action, some devoted souls were thinking and talking about the solutions. And they include many, many others including many members of the Bennelong Society too numerous to mention. However, there is one who I must mention because his role was, I think, significant when one is trying to calculate the gestation period of this intervention plan.

That person is Dr Peter Shergold, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Dr Shergold made a passionate speech in July last year highlighting the consequences of our policy failures in this area and pointed to some of the solutions.

Just under a decade ago Reeves was paid $295,000 to review the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The $1.3 million review was ultimately and unanimously rejected in 1999 by the federal parliament’s Indigenous Affairs Committee. But he had been noticed by John Howard: among the many recommendations of the Reeves review was the abolition of the permit system and a severe weakening of the powers of the land councils.

But he had been noticed locally well before this. Just before taking on the Land Rights Act review he was appointed as Queen’s Counsel by then Chief Minister Shane Stone – on the same day Stone conferred the same honour on himself, “because I can”. Current NT Supreme Court judge, Dean Mildren, described the response in his short history of the Supreme Court:

Whilst the Bar took steps to prevent applications for silk being made in any way other than on the recommendation of the Chief Justice, Shane Stone who was then Attorney-General and Chief Minister, appointed himself as a silk in 1998. Stone had not practised at the independent bar in the Northern Territory, although he had practised as a solicitor. His appointment horrified the legal profession and was publicly criticised.

As a local legal wit put it at the time, Stone’s action was “like awarding yourself a Distinguished Flying Cross without flying an aeroplane”.

But then, in an act too cute by half – typical of Stone – he simultaneously appointed Labor lawyers John Reeves and John Waters, a prominent Darwin lawyer whose 1991 application for silk had been rejected by a CLP Cabinet, despite a recommendation from the then Chief Justice and support from the Law Society and NT Bar Association. An application to overturn the Cabinet decision was knocked back as being “not justiciable” – by a non-resident Federal Court judge.

Famously, Stone summoned Reeves and Waters to his chief ministerial parliamentary suite to “celebrate” over a bottle of Dom Perignon. Waters refused, and walked out.

A somewhat lacklustre Federal Labor politician after Hawke’s first election in 1983, Reeves was turfed from the House of Representatives in December 1984 on the back of the Country Liberal Party’s Paul Everingham anti-land rights campaign over the return of Uluru. Ironically Reeves, a one termer was succeeded by Everingham, another one term wonder in federal parliament. Although he was pre-selected for the 1987 elections Reeves pulled the pin, his place taken by current NT Labor president and left wing MHR, Warren Snowdon.

His time at the Territory bar would not have seemed to have prepared him well for the Federal bench: despite suggestions to the contrary, his work on native title and land rights law is limited in a jurisdiction where such litigation is high; he has done little constitutional or trade practices law and negligible, if any, intellectual property law.

More worrying, given his membership and enthusiastic endorsement of the National Emergency Response Taskforce, any judicial reviews or challenges arising from the Intervention that might come the Federal Court’s way would have to be flicked to non-resident judges in any case.

Shane Stone, later Howard’s favoured Liberal Party president; Paul Everingham, the Territory’s first Chief Minister; John Reeves, soon to be appointed Federal Court judge; and perennial Labor politician Warren Snowdon, all commenced their political careers in Alice Springs , where Central Australia ‘s outpost of the Family Court is still destined for closure.

Despite its important work dealing with issues such as family violence and protection of children – something that one would think valuable in the current climate of the “National Emergency” over Aboriginal children – federal Family and Community Services minister and local senator Nigel Scullion appears uninterested – likewise Attorney General Ruddock.

On the other hand, during Reeves’ tenure as president of the NT Bar Association, it adopted a strategic plan that aimed “to lobby for the appointment of a resident Federal Court/Family Court judge”. They’ve got it half right.

Peter Fray

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