When I heard that a woman from the Federal Court in Queensland is to be the latest appointment to the High Court, naturally I assumed that it would be the Ruddock family favourite, Berna Collier.
You can imagine my disappointment to discover it is Susan Kiefel.
Still all the boxes seemed to be ticked: Queenslander; woman; conservative; all her Federal Court work up-to-date.
The name Kiefel suggests German ancestry and the word for pine tree in German is “Kiefer”. When such a topographical word is incorporated in a surname it has the sense of a person whose ancestors came from a region in or near a pine forest.
And so it is that Susan Kiefel bears many pine-like qualities: straight, regular, strong, wooden, predictable and fragrant.
As a woman from the boondocks she found great comfort and solace at the Brisbane bar. It may partly explain her conservativeness – the outsider who was conditioned by the mainstream.
Those who knew her at the bar remember Kiefel for her hard work and determination, not her legal brilliance. She was tough and engaging, but not an especially perceptive lawyer. A productive barrister, but not specially imaginative or intellectual.
As a judge she is known to have “a strong sense of her judicial self”, which translates as “haughty”.
Now she bears the moniker of “black letter lawyer” – which is code for more authority for Canberra, an aversion to implied powers in the Constitution, minimal special leave in criminal cases, a penchant for reading things “down” unless, of course, the government wants them read “up” for purposes of “terror management” and sidelining the states, etc.
Ruddock and Little Johnnie pretty well know what they’ve got in Susan Kiefel.
Among her friends are Senator (Soapy) Brandis and the Federal Court judge and grump Jack Dowsett. Soapy even attended (Fabulous) Phil Ruddock’s Canberra press conference yesterday (August 13) and it is more than likely that Fabbo sought his views.
It’s peculiar that there was relatively little speculation or discussion prior to Kiefel’s appointment. As of a week or so ago not even (Smiler) Gleeson knew who the contender was to be. Fabulous Phil’s “consultations” are more perfunctory than meaningful.
Similarly, not much of an extra mural nature is on Kiefel’s record. Her welcome to the Queensland Supreme Court provided little enlightenment or laughs. One of her notable lines was:
“For my husband [a social anthropologist], I have special thanks. His discussions of alternative dispute resolution amongst tribal peoples such as the Dawayos have often brightened an evening after a frustrating day in court or a dull day of paperwork, and have reminded me that there is hardly a limit to the study of comparative law.”
There was nothing too effusive about her family, nothing too personal, nothing passionate.
At least we didn’t get, as with Susan Crennan’s welcome to the Federal Court, exciting stories about her Honour banging Irish drums at St Patrick’s Day hootenannies.
Kiefel’s Who’s Who entry is minimalist – LLM (Cantab), judge of the Federal Court, former judge of the Queensland Supreme Court, QC 1987, CJ Hamson Prize in comparative law (Cambridge), married to Michael Albrecht.
More insight can be gleaned from the chapter on Kiefel in A Woman’s Place – 100 Years of Queensland Women Lawyers, edited by Susan Purdon and Aladin Rahemtula, and published by the Supreme Court of Queensland library in 2005.
If slightly hagiographic, this chapter by Deborah Whitehall and Helen Gregory, recited the main features of Kiefel’s personal and professional history.
Among the characteristics she has declared to be of value are:
“Life is a bit like a running conversation with yourself: you can do this; don’t give up; don’t be a whinger; look at the opportunity here – it’s not a burden.”
She has issued little lectures about the media’s reporting of the courts – failing to appreciate that much coverage of the law and its workings is a sub-branch of the light entertainment industry. She whinged about:
“a lack of knowledge and understanding of the courts, as institutions, the procedures involved in the trial process and a judge’s part in them.”
Her biographers also noted:
“Many friends both inside and outside the legal profession appreciate her dry wit and gentle digs at herself, sometimes stated publicly.”
Apparently one could see an example of this dry wit in her 1993 speech to new Queensland silks:
“One of the most difficult hurdles I have had to overcome is the desire to stand up when the court is adjourned. I cannot tell you how difficult it is, after 18 years, to remain seated. But at least it gives the bailiffs a laugh.”
Possibly a more telling insight can be had by close study of one of her favourite poems – Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.
Ah, love, let us be true
To be another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Kiefel has been overseas for the past six weeks and will not return till the end of the month. She’ll be sworn in as a judge of the High Court on September 3.