Jeff was my friend, and he died last Sunday. He’d been very sick for some time, so his passing came as no surprise, but it hurts regardless. What did come as a surprise were the comments about him posted on Twitter by Gordon Moyes. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so stunned, since Moyes is a truly loathsome huckster-for-Jesus and state politician with more dubious academic qualifications than the Rev. Dr. Troll, but I’d thought as someone professing to be a follower of Christ he would at least had the compassion to keep his poison to himself for the sake of Jeff’s family. Alas no…
You see, among other things Jeff was famous: former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam once described him in a speech delivered at NSW Parliament House as “the best attorney-general in Australian history”. How we met doesn’t matter here, and each of us found the other’s life journey almost incomprehensible – but a shared fascination for the role played by popular theology in Australian history meant we could (and did) talk for hours. Like me he'd made mistakes, but he’d also found the reality that in Christ we are more than just the sum of those mistakes. Yes, as the newspaper headlines have all blazed, and Gordon Moyes obscenely gloated, alcohol played a terrible role in those mistakes: perhaps drinking was easier than going crazy, or starting to cry and never being able to stop again. Either way there’s can be no doubt about this: Jeff Shaw drunk was still ten thousand times the man Gordon Moyes will ever be sober.
Of course what those now queuing to stick their knives into his memory never mention is his lifetime of work for those whom most lawyers weren’t interested in caring about. While silks in the big end of town were falling over themselves to represent the mining companies, Jeff’s door was always open for those suffering asbestos-related illnesses. When his driving-conviction (to which he pleaded guilty, and never attempted to deny) forced his retirement from the bench his enthusiasm for the position I and another friend found for him was palpable: he knew most of the clients in this street-level practice didn’t have a hope of paying and didn’t care, he was just excited to be once again representing those who needed his help most.
Sadly the ghosts which we all hoped would cease haunting him weren’t exorcised by the change, but that’s not for a moment to suggest that there weren’t plenty of occasions on which his sparkling wit and piercing brilliance were still very present. As was his compassion for the downtrodden, the lost and those mishandled by the judicial system of which he’d once been in charge. It’s this side of him which lives on, no matter how desperately his opponents might attempt to recall the demons which are now no more.
We’ll finish that conversation on Sydney Evangelicals and the alienation of workers in WW1 some other time, Jeff, but I promise to heed your advice to keep researching the link between the Sydney Diocese and the sickeningly corrupt Askin government of the 1960s. And thanks for all the encouragement you gave me to start thinking again about why things are the way that they are.
God Bless you mate: I miss you already.