Brown Study

Brown study

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

A few days ago I went on another of my nostalgic returns to St Kilda. As you know, I no longer live there, as I foolishly believed Professor Flannery and his acolytes when they said it was a scientific fact that St Kilda would soon be awash as the Antarctic ice-cap melted and our properties became worthless waterlogged ruins; accordingly, I moved to higher ground in South Yarra, lay in provisions and awaited the inevitable apocalyptic rise of the sea. I am not aware of any change that took place in anything, to be honest, except that the Antarctic ocean is now blocked by impenetrable pack ice and, consequently, the sea levels at St Kilda have not risen at all, although house prices certainly have. It is true that St Kilda was awash for my recent visit, but it was awash not from the rising sea but the firemen’s hoses as they battled in vain to save the old Stokehouse from burning to the ground. The Stokehouse, on Jacka Parade, named after Albert Jacka, the first Australian to win the Victoria Cross in the first world war, was an elegant, two storied, wooden restaurant in the Edwardian style, the scene, for many of us, of Bacchanalian excesses and lots of good times and one of the symbols of bygone, bohemian St Kilda. The fire that destroyed it was caused by the most prosaic and mundane of events, the accumulation of fat in the restaurant’s oven. Several of my visits have been marked by my desire to see what remained of one or another of St Kilda’s landmarks that have been destroyed by fire.

First it was the St Moritz ice-rink, then the Palais de Danse, the old tearooms on the pier and now the elegant Stokehouse, not to mention other landmarks lost due to municipal arrogance and commercial greed, as the stately mansions facing Fitzroy Street were defaced by their tatty additions. I must have been typecast very young, as I have just remembered gawking at the still smouldering ruins of Wilson Hall, the stunning Victorian structure that was Melbourne University’s soul until destroyed by fire in 1952, although the Napier Waller stained glass windows were saved and now grace the Ian Potter Museum of Art. What annoys me most is that the fires could have been avoided. The authorities should make it compulsory for owners to have not only insurance but specific plans for fire prevention and regular patrols to ensure that fires do not start or spread. Fires need not happen. They can be avoided with care. If there is not more care taken and enforced, the next landmarks to go up in flames in St Kilda will be Luna Park, the Palais Theatre and the art deco wonderland of the Astor. What a pity the greenies and lefties do not fight to protect man-made structures with the same vigour they show in fighting for lonely, endangered species, forests and wilderness. But then it is not surprising, as they hate man and all his works.


The odd thing about my love affair with the law is that, unlike most lawyers, I become more interested in it as I grow older. This notion has been exercising my mind as I contemplate the approach of 3 March 2014, which is the 50th anniversary of my admission to practice. Not only am I now more interested in the law than at any time in that half century, but I keep thinking about new ways for the law to achieve socially useful purposes or, as we lawyers put it, new causes of action. I have called this one a claim for breach of public trust. Take the St Kilda fires. If caused by the negligence of the owners, we should demand more than a promise to rebuild, which would be covered by taxpayers in any event. If we have all lost community assets and a part of our heritage, as we have, those responsible should pay in damages to ameliorate our loss and teach them a lesson, whether they are public servants or not. In recent litigation, the Victoria police admitted they had engaged in racial profiling of young Africans and paid them substantial damages; but what about the loss suffered by the public in having to pay the victims’ damages? The miscreants themselves should pay. And if ever a public official should have to pay, it must be Stephen Conroy, whose handling of the tender for the overseas TV service was the worst piece of public administration this country has ever seen. No public servant should be exempt from being liable for their own wrongs.

The year has scarcely started but major events are already tumbling from the sky. First, the sad death of one of the great warriors of Israel, Ariel Sharon. It reminded me of Moshe Dayan’s answer when asked what he would have done if Israel had lost the 1967 war: ‘I would have started it again under my wife’s name.’ We are regaled with evidence from the Magistrates’ Court of the mysterious person swanning around the flesh pots of Melbourne with Craig Thomson’s credit card; Craig has certainly given a new meaning to the expression ‘the modest member’. Australia Post is floating the bizarre idea we should pay it a special charge to deliver the mail every weekday, as bizarre as spending billions to keep illegals out of the country and then paying them if they get in. The City of Yarra has cancelled a handicapped drivers’ parking space in Collingwood; it is needed for a propaganda caravan for the feral demonstrators against the East-West tunnel as their actions ‘align with council objectives’.

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