The Hon. Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC (long-time friend of Frank Costigan)
He had a very disarming manner but a very acute mind and he was very effective.
He had a very pleasant style of cross-examination, though. Sometimes he had the
capacity to be able to persuade, get a witness to relax a bit and extract things
from them that they wished they’d not said which I think is good cross-examination.
He was always, I think, with a slight sense of humour, a bit of a twinkle in the eye
but with a very acute approach and a very focused approach to the problem.
Michael Costigan, Frank’s twin
When we were at primary school, probably in about grade 4 or 5, we had a very young pink-cheeked
Sister, probably she mightn't have been 20 and obviously finding her way as a teacher and she was
trying to get us to write sentences, proper sentences, and she would write a word up on the board
and then she’d ask us what sentence we’d written. And this day she wrote up the word “clothes” on
the board and she said, “now, Frank Costigan, what's your sentence?” And Frank said, “nudists wear
Juliette Brodsky (interviewer)
She wasn’t expecting that, I imagine.
No, the pink-cheeked Sister became a red-faced Sister who said, “Frank Costigan, I didn’t think
you were like that”. I'm not sure what she meant by “like that”, but it was kind of indicative of
his sharp and humorous mind, even at that age.
You are fraternal twins so there's not much resemblance between you, but both of you look bright-eyed,
cheeky little babies at the time. What was the difference between your personalities, would you say?
Probably I'd be a little bit more introspective and Frank would be a little more - and this would be
true into adult life - a bit more gregarious. I mean, he wasn’t a wild party lover, but I'd say he made
friends, a wider circle of friends than I ever did.
Did he exercise a more dominant role in your relationship, or were you pretty much equals as twins?
I'd say we were pretty much equals. The strongest element of rivalry, as is typical of Melbourne,
related to football. Frank became a mad Carlton supporter and I became an equally mad Collingwood
supporter, so the two teams, the biggest rivals of all, reflected a kind of rivalry between us.
After graduating as dux of his matriculation class in 1947, Frank attended the University of Melbourne
where he studied law. He was a partner at law firm Gillott, Moir & Ahern (now Minter Ellison)
Frank signed the Victorian Bar Roll on 13 May 1957 and read with Sydney Frost.
I would like to rewind to the 1960s. That was when you first met Frank Costigan.
Yes, that’s right. Yes, I, of course, met him when I went to the Bar in ’63 but
I didn’t know him very well. I think it was round about 1966 that he and Howard
Fox and myself all independently decided to do Indonesian 1 together at Melbourne.
Frank Costigan and Alastair Nicholson got to know each other well and took a
great interest in Indonesia and the fall of President Sukarno.
Around about that time I decided to join the Labor Party, mainly over Vietnam.
And at that time Frank was a member of the Camberwell Branch, which I joined.
And so we continued our friendship.
In 1970, while still at the Victorian Bar, Frank Costigan decided to run for Federal Parliament.
He was the Labor candidate for Chisholm, following the death of Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes who had
been the incumbent Liberal member.
Chisholm was a very safe seat for the Libs and it had never been vigorously contested until Frank ran.
I was on his campaign committee and we’d decided that we’d do the job properly and try and give the
then government a bit of a shake. And that was probably a very good time to do it because they were
already becoming fairly unpopular and so there was a chance of getting a reasonable vote. At the
same time, there was a group called the Participants who started really largely at Owen Dixon
Chambers and surrounds. It was led by the late Xavier Connor and Dick McGarvie, but other notable
participants were John Button, John Cain, Jim Kennan - he was a more junior member, as I was - and
Frank. We used to meet regularly in Frank’s chambers.
The object of the Participants really was to try and return Victoria into a possible vote-winning
state for Labor. We were regarded with enormous disdain by the Left, to the point where we almost
met in secret. I remember, again with Frank and others, going to a meeting in Parkville, which was
addressed by the then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam. It was done in some secrecy
because Whitlam would not have been welcome in Victoria at that time by the party leaders and anyone
who was there would have been virtually proscribed.
It was rather an exciting time in the annals of the party and Frank was very much in the thick of it.
Frank Vincent, I should have mentioned, was another one who was also involved at that time. There were
some very good friendships as a result. Following (Richard) McGarvie and (Xavier) Connor going to the
bench and so on, Frank became the chair of the Participants at that stage and again, regular meetings
were held there. And then when he tired of it, I became the chair. This ran up until about the time
when Labor came back into power in ’72.
Was Gough Whitlam suitably grateful for the efforts you all made on his behalf in the lead-up
to the ’72 election?
I don’t think Gough ever showed much gratitude to anyone. I liked Goughie, but he had a certain
ego about him, as we know, and I think he regarded anything done for him as something that should
have been done anyway. So I don’t think there was too much gratitude shown. But by the same token,
I think that he must have appreciated the fact - in fact, he did, I know, appreciate the fact that
if he hadn’t won Victoria, he wouldn’t have won the ’72 or ’74 elections, so it was a fairly
Frank Costigan lost the Chisolm by-election to the Liberals’ candidate, Tony Staley. After his
tilt at politics, Frank continued his career at the Victorian Bar, specialising in workers’ compensation
and in due course taking silk. He also chaired the Victorian Bar Council in the late 1970s.
“The Bar was much loved by Frank…. He gave unremitting service to it, being elected to its governing
body between 1968 – 1979. In the last two years, he was Chairman … It was a difficult time with disagreements
between the two branches of the profession, but in consequence of his skills, those difficulties dissipated
by the end of his chairmanship.” (From Fr Frank Brennan SJ, eulogy delivered at Frank’s funeral)
Any thoughts Frank Costigan may have had for a quieter life at the Bar were soon to be cast aside.
He was appointed by the Fraser Liberal Govt to head up a royal commission looking into the activities
of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers union, commencing in 1980. This was soon known as the
“Costigan Royal Commission”. Douglas Meagher was senior counsel assisting Frank Costigan.
Douglas Meagher QC
The (Costigan) Commission was started because of publication in the media of some thirty-five to forty
murders that had taken place on the Victorian docks over the preceding ten years or thereabouts.
It was known that there was extensive ghosting going on - that is, people drawing wages under several
different names, particularly at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard. It was thought, therefore, it was
likely there would be some compensation fraud. The union only recruited people who had served terms
of imprisonment and, as they would say, only for the right sort of offences. So a policeman that had
gone to jail couldn’t get into the union as bad as he might have otherwise been. They were thugs and
they relied on force to carry out their crimes and to keep everyone quiet and not reveal it.
So, when the Commission started, it had to find ways of getting around the code of silence and the
way one usually does that is to seize documents because in this day and age everything anyone does,
even Painters and Dockers, is documented by someone or a number of people. So by gathering all those
documents together, we felt we’d be able to - for a start – identify who the members of the unions
were and their real names, that’s the names under which they were born, and then to identify their
aliases and then perhaps to do something about the ghosting and the compensation fraud.
As to solving the murders, that was unlikely. They had all been investigated by the police, and the
prospects of us doing much about that were not very high.
But when we did this, I had a corporate crime background, so we moved into looking at their bank
accounts and we found one of the Painters and Dockers had $400 million passing through the bank
account. At that point, I recall Frank and I standing in front of a large chart on the wall,
which showed the money coming in and going out and saying to ourselves, “What is this? Is this
SP bookmaking or is it drug-related?”
Well, it turned out to be taxation fraud and that took us into the bottom of the harbour (schemes)
and all that. But no, we had no idea until that point just how extensive this was. I shouldn’t say
we had no idea; we knew it was a criminal organisation, but the extent to which it had extended its
services to high-flying people in the community was unknown to us. But it quickly became apparent
they were (a criminal organisation), particularly in the taxation fraud area. That and SP bookmaking
provided a lot more substance to the inquiry than just ghosting and compensation fraud, both of which
we’d really fixed within six months of the Commission starting.
During his work with the Royal Commission, Frank Costigan was placed on a hit list, which necessitated
around-the-clock police protection, and prompted fears for his children.
The National Times newspaper published leaked extracts of the Commission's draft report, which implicated
a prominent Australian business identity. The late media magnate Kerry Packer subsequently revealed himself
to be the subject of tax fraud and corruption allegations, all of which he strenuously denied. He was in
fact code-named “Squirrel” by the Royal Commission in its case studies, but the National Times changed his
name to the Goanna.
He ultimately was not prosecuted.
The Costigan Royal Commission was eventually shut down by the Hawke Labor Government in 1984.
Many of its findings nevertheless led to the establishment of the National Crime Authority (now the
Commonwealth Crime Commission). It also established that there were indeed criminal organisations,
according to Douglas Meagher QC.
Douglas Meagher QC
There was a lot of doubt about it in the early 80s and Professor Harding over in Perth strongly said
it’s disorganised crime, not organised crime, and really wouldn’t accept that criminal organisations of
a sophisticated nature were working.
Well, I think we dispelled all that. I think we demonstrated that it was indeed the case and that
you needed, therefore, to have a different approach by law enforcement in dealing with them.
Some people say, well what about prosecutions? Well, during the life of the Commission, there were
2200 successful (I’m not talking about the ones that failed) prosecutions. $300-400 million of tax
recovered. There were a lot of prosecutions after that. It’s the only Royal Commission that had
special prosecutors appointed because of the volume of work being produced. There were two of
them - Redlich and Giles - and they undertook massive prosecutions based on the material.
It was indicative of perhaps why there had to be a (National) Crime Authority because the amount
of work (that) needed to be done was just too great. There was no way Frank and I could have
just kept going, it was far too much.
Following the Royal Commission, Frank became a board member of Jesuit Social Services in the late 1980s.
Julie Edwards is its current CEO.
Julie Edwards, CEO, Jesuit Social Services
Frank didn’t say much often in meetings, but when he spoke, everybody listened. He was very measured
and calm and at times something happens in an organisation and people start to panic and what about
this and what about that, but Frank was always someone who would in a sense take a deep breath and
help give context and perspective to what was going on. He was someone who believed the best and
hoped with and for you so it wasn't somewhere where you felt, oh, he's waiting to trip you up or
something, but he was someone who really started from that basis - that he did honour people that
he was working with.
Did that surprise you in some way, given all his experiences as a barrister in the past, particularly
his dealings of course with the now-famous Costigan Royal Commission? Did you in some way expect him
to be the sort of person who saw through a glass darkly?
Yes, I think at some level I did, and to have that very critical eye which of course he did have.
But yes, I was always delighted to see that he was a life lover, not someone who was looking for
the negative in you or in a situation.
In the last decade of his life, while still in active practice as a QC, Frank was invited by Grahame
Leonard of anti-corruption body Transparency International Australia - or TI - to become its chairman.
Grahame Leonard, board member, Transparency International Australia
I met Frank through TI - he was a regular attendee at functions we hold, where we’d have a guest
speaker to talk about corrupt activities and I first met Frank in the mid-late ‘90s here at those
functions. Clearly he had a strong personal interest and belief in the underlying principles of TI
and I think a lot of that was linked back to his compassion for people generally and his sympathy
for causes and the underlying philosophy of TI to try and help create level playing fields for
businesses and individuals all around the world.
So, when we were looking at a successor for Henry Bosch as chairman, we developed a profile of the sort
of person we were seeking, including a good public image and a history of having taken an interest on
the right side of corruption and when we looked at possible candidates, Frank was the outstanding person.
We were delighted in November 2003 when he accepted the Board’s invitation to become our chairman.
You very kindly brought along a copy of a speech that he made at that time and just glancing through it,
there are many interesting elements he alludes to with regard to the Royal Commission that he conducted
but I sense, too, some frustration because I believe of course there were a number of reports from that
Royal Commission that remain confidential to this day and have never been released.
That’s my understanding, yes. Whether in time the 30 year rule will catch up with those – perhaps that
will be the case, I don’t know, but I think he said he delivered about 20 volumes of reports as a result
of that Royal Commission and several still are confidential. It was understandable at the time that some
would remain confidential because they related to ongoing investigations by the police and other authorities
and the probability of trials resulting from those, but that of course has long gone but some of them still
“It is somewhat surprising, however, that 19 years after the final report was delivered, these volumes
still remain confidential. It beggars belief that the investigations have not completed, or that the
trials are not over.” (From Frank’s speech to TI, 2003)
To sum up, how do you think, as a close friend and colleague, Frank would most like to be remembered?
Douglas Meagher QC
Oh, undoubtedly for his social welfare work and the support he gave to the Bar. When problems arose at
the Bar and it was a place where problems always arise – it’s what they’re in business for, really -
Frank would be the one people would seek counsel from as to how they should deal with it. He always
did give wise counsel. He was a very strong supporter of an independent bar and regarded it as absolutely
essential to proper administration of justice, as most thinking people believe.
Julie Edwards, CEO, Jesuit Social Services
I think he shaped Jesuit Social Services enormously and we've benefitted so much from him that to be able
to honour him in this way is something we’re all really, really proud of.
Frank Costigan was posthumously awarded the Companions Medal of the Australian Province of Society of Jesus.
The Victorian Bar slideshow tribute to the late Frank Costigan QC
Recorded, produced and devised by Juliette Brodsky
Slideshow formatted by David Broder
Sound editing by Scott Debernardi
Website build: Peter Robertson
With thanks to Douglas Meagher QC, The Hon. Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, Michael Costigan, Grahame Leonard,
Julie Edwards, Genevieve Costigan, Geoff Pryor, the Victorian Bar Council, the Victorian Bar office,
Victorian Bar News, Fairfax Photos and the National Library of Australia.