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Evan Whitton
11 July, 2005  
A special memory of Sir H. Talbot Gibbs

“Bill” Gibbs’ 1963-63 inquiry into the doings at the National Hotel made him a laughing stock. Worse, it condemned Queensland to another 23 years of police corruption before Gerald Fitzgerald did the job properly

Everyone everyone! – says Sir H. Talbot Gibbs, who died late in June, was a paragon of the judicial art.

Everyone, that is, except the million or so, including me*, who believe he was a fool or worse when he ran an inquiry into Brisbane’s National Hotel in 1963-64.

It was then no secret that 40 years of benevolent Labor Party rule had left Queensland corrupt to the rafters, and that it didnt miss a beat when Honest (sic) Frank Nicklin (Country Party) became Premier in 1957, and chose the corrupt head of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Francis Erich Bischof, as his loyal police chief.

imageFor example, Justice (as he now is) John Jerrard, for Sir (as he then was) Terence Lewis (pictured), put it to Terry’s bagman, Jack Herbert, in 1991:

“If you are raised in Queensland, it was practically taught in schools, this allegation [that Terry was Bischof’s bagman]?”

“Yes,” Jack replied dolefully, “it was widely known.”

(That may have been one question too many, but I would never knock Mr Jerrard. He earlier said: “Mr Whitton is a particularly good writer. His analytical pieces are very good.” Admittedly, he only said that to support his claim that Terry couldn’t get a fair trial, but an accolade, however dubious, is so rare that I remain pathetically grateful.)

It thus came as no surprise when Frank Bischof was said to be getting his fair share of the proceeds from girls working out of the National. The unsurprised apparently included Justice Harry Gibbs, who got the job of investigating.

The Hon David Jackson QC, leader of the constitutional Bar, told me in 1993:

“He [Harry] had been a barrister for a lot of years and I know from discussions with him at the time that he had a very worldly view of what the real truth might have been in relation to the matters he was inquiring into.”

But Harry occluded the truth. His “inquiry” was a travesty of inquisitorial procedure: he knew it was wrong to conceal evidence, but suppressed it anyway. It was even a travesty of adversarial fairness. He unleashed the cream of the Brisbane Bar in relays on an unrepresented former National employee John Komlosy, who seemed to be desperately trying to help Harry find the truth.

By the time Arnold Bennett, for Honest (sic) Frank and the Ministers, Wally Campbell for Bischof, Jim Douglas and John Murtagh Macrossan for 88 detectives, and Doug McGill for the hotel, had finished hammering Komlosy “just doing our job” – he wouldn’t have known if it was Christmas or Shrove Tuesday.

imageHarry (right) even let himself be gulled by cops assigned to help him “inquire”. They included Don (Shady) Lane, who graduated to become a famously bent politician in the Bjelkist regime.

The cops gave Harry pix of known prostitutes craftily restricted to women who could only get work in the decent obscurity of bawdyhouses because they had in common with Mr Winston Churchill the quality discerned by Mr Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. He said Churchill was “the raddled old whore of English literature”.

“Worldly” Harry did not ask Shady or anyone else: “Are you seriously asking me to believe that these elderly, ugly ladies could possibly pass as foaming fillies in flash joints like the Grand Central and the National?” Komlosy naturally did not recognise any of them.

Even so, there seemed enough corroboration to persuade an open mind, but Harry said the witnesses were “unreliable” and could not corroborate each other.

Knowing what he knew, he might have said he could find no evidence to support the allegation, but he made a positive finding that girls were not working at the National, and hence that police did not corruptly condone any such practice.

That made him the laughing stock of Queensland, but the sceptical might think he had established his credentials for higher office. He went up to the High Court in 1970.

In a fortnight: Harry and Don Vito Corleone.

  • Lest it be thought that I waited for Harry to hang up the cue before holding him to account for his fraud on the public, I might say I often muttered that he might at least apologise to the people of Queensland for condemning them to another 23 years of police corruption, i.e. until the Hon. Gerald Fitzgerald QC did the job properly.

    Harry did not apologise, but he did send me a message, accompanied by a stout elbow to the ribs, at Max Walsh’s Mosman salon a dozen years ago.

    His handsome daughter, Barbara, delivered the elbow and the message. She said Harry saw himself as the victim of vendetta, and was thinking of suing.

    Happily, Harry did not proceed with the threat. Perhaps he forgave me, or perhaps he wanted to spare from embarrassment the legal luminaries my guy would tragically have had to put in the box.

    They would have included the celebrated novelist, playwright, memoirist, and jurist, the Hon I.D.F. Callinan. He gave Harry a fearful bath at a legal convention in Hobart in 1988 for the way he ran the National Hotel inquiry.