In defence of Jeff Shaw


Those of us who know and have worked with Jeff Shaw over the years have found the unfolding spectacle of his very public fall from grace profoundly distressing. Surely they have the wrong guy.

With media coverage moving from the salacious to the downright malicious as a conspiracy is conjured from a stuff-up, Jeff’s reputation seems to have become collateral damage in a ritualised scandal story. The tragedy is that few of those indulging in this orgy of denigration have made any attempt to understand the man they are toying with, as if his years of public service count for naught.

There is a context to the Jeff Shaw story and it lies in his decade in politics where he achieved more for working people than most of his colleagues achieve in a lifetime. It is these achievements I want to record, not to minimise his current problems, but to at least place them in some sort of perspective.

Jeff Shaw became NSW Industrial Relations Minister at a time when conservatives had won power federally and held office in every other state and territory, inheriting the first attempt to deregulate industrial relations, an unworkable system that had lost the confidence of unions and employers.

Patiently and systematically, consulting with all the stakeholders over eighteen months and drawing on his own extensive industrial expertise, he drafted the first re-regulated industrial relations system.

Unlike the perversion of industrial relations that is the federal system; the NSW system was based on the principles of fairness and equity alongside productivity, making the Commission a meaningful umpire with the power to settle disputes, deliver wage decisions and improve the social wage through test cases and ministerial references. Despite the bleatings of some employers, the sky never fell in and the Act has delivered a thriving economy and profitable businesses hand in hand with basic union rights.

Alongside the IR laws, Jeff rewrote occupational health and safety laws, creating significant powers for workplace safety representatives and a duty for employers to consult, opportunities unions are still grappling to realise.

Having established this legal framework, Jeff went about dealing with emerging issues tackling gender pay equity and video surveillance at work, delivering ground-breaking laws through a consensus process.

And then there was asbestos. A little reported prequel to the James Hardie scandal was Jeff’s commitment to ending the inhumane practice of limiting liability by dragging out mesothelioma claims until victims were dead. Jeff pushed through laws that allowed the claim to survive the death, taking away one of the main weapons immoral insurers had employed to minimise their exposure.

None of this was simply a matter of coming up with a bright idea and bowling it up to Parliament; each was navigated painstakingly through the layers of bureaucracy in which Premier Carr has always wrapped himself. And when a piece of legislation was open to challenge, Jeff would actually put on the QC wig and front the court, giving a first hand run down of the legislative intent.

Jeff not only managed to formulate a positive agenda, in his other role as Attorney General, he did much to soften the knee-jerk populist law and order posturing of the first term, razor-thin majority Carr Administration. Jeff wouldn’t put up the barricades, he would analyse proposals, take expert advice and fashion legislation that actually was useful, workable and consistent with legal principles.

Along the way he reformed administrative law, updated the evidence laws and introduced youth conferencing. He also gave gay law reform and defamation law a red hot shot, before being scotched by the nervous nellies in Cabinet Office. And he did it all with a quiet under-statement and almost absence of ego; confident in his command of his brief, yet never prepared to put political point-scoring ahead of achieving a good legislative outcome.

When Jeff left Parliament, Bob Carr lost one of his best assets. His brief return to the Bar and then the Bench was welcomed by both sides of politics where he continued his productive working life.

None of which seems to count for much as the media has a field day with the knock on effects of a night on the turps and a health problem that was probably graver than even Jeff realised.

So what am I trying to say here? Good people can make mistakes and the mistake does not stop them being good people.

While Jeff, of all people, is accepting that justice will now take its course, there seems something unjust about how this most private of public figures is being subjected to such an ordeal. Then again, as one colleague noted, ‘This is Sydney, everyone is forgiven look at Harry M Miller!’

The circus will move on, Jeff will get better and get on with his life. The only things that will endure are his substantial achievements as a lawyer, judge and, above all, a legislator.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.