Preface: In mid-September 2017, reports resurfaced of Lionel Murphy’s alleged corruption from his time as Attorney-General under Gough Whitlam’s prime-ministership. That there has been such an extensive focus on the actions of Lionel Murphy 30+ years after his death is fairly bizarre considering we live in a current political climate of such turpitude. The implications, then, of this resurfacing information are twofold; has the death of Murphy been used as a spectral scapegoat for the demonisation of left wing politics in a predominantly conservative country, and beyond that, what should be made of such an intent, renewed focus on this figure with a questionable reputation? These events perhaps only reaffirm Dellora’s film as a curious document/post-mortem of Murphy, an analysis that remains viable as a way of understanding questions pertaining to political integrity and the fallibility of one’s ideals that will remain unanswerable, especially in this context.
“Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.”1 – Oscar Wilde
The above quotation was something of a mantra for the Honourable Lionel Murphy QC2, Daryl Dellora’s subject matter within his film Mr Neal is Entitled To Be An Agitator. Murphy paraphrased the Wilde quote when defending the titular Mr. Neal, originally sentenced to two months hard labour for swearing and spitting at a white general store owner. This case opens film with a brief re-enactment (the film’s narrator, Ernie Dingo, taking on the role of Mr. Neal) in what initially seems to be a bizarre way to open the film, let alone also being the basis on which Mr Neal becomes the film’s titular figure. The fim doesn’t come back to Mr Neal’s trial, instead focusing entirely on the life of Lionel Murphy his eventual career downfall while serving as attorney general under Gough Whitlam’s Prime-Ministership. But what the opening sequence reveals in the film’s larger context is rather an aesthetic and thematic clincher for the following 58 minutes. In hindsight, it makes sense to open and title a film based on a case in which he quoted a socialist text – fanning the flames of post cold-war ‘red panic’ no doubt – in the defense of an aboriginal man only bolsters the inflammatory reputation of Lionel Murphy (and those of his ilk) in the eyes of a currently ethically stunted, patriarchal Australian government.
Through a series of talking head interviews, sparsely placed reenactments and newsreel footage, Dellora channels the concise nature in which Lionel Murphy composed a legal argument. The filmed recreations maintain a strict formal vocabulary of tight close-ups, harshly lit purple gel lighting and an abundance of shadowy figures looming within the tightly packed frames. The talking head interviews keep within a relatively close circle of friends and family, all placed in front of a pastel blue tarp. The runtime makes the proceedings easy to follow, each taut piece of information passing by at a clipped pace in order to get to the essence of not only Lionel Murphy himself, but of a long-ingrained xenophobia that constitutes the foundations of present day White Australia.
Murphy is smartly employed as an aperture through which the fear of change – or rather, the idea of change itself – is explored, shedding light on the horrifying notion that societal progress is in some way perpetually stunted by mysterious, shadow-like figures. At one point during the film, a seemingly everlasting scrawl of text showcases the way in which Lionel Murphy was instrumental in passing many of the most basic human rights laws, notably the establishment of “no fault” divorce and the abolishment of the death penalty. The portrayal of Lionel Murphy as a man who attempted to create a barometer for basic human rights is made clear within the film, a barometer that unfortunately continues to be seen as absurd and unrealistic by the current conservative government.
Although the film was first broadcast on the ABC nearly 30 years ago and produced by Daryl Dellora and Sue Maslin’s Film Art Doco production company,3 many of the film’s concerns regarding stunted societal progress remain scarily prescient. It’s hard not to constantly and worryingly draw connections between incriminating wire taps put upon the likes of Lionel Murphy and a seemingly never-ending parasitic growth of ideologically bankrupt, conservative political movements. Such movements are defined by a purported contrarianism against ‘political correctness’ and the fight for free speech, a fight that in most cases ends up becoming an ignorant cry for one’s own voice to rule over others. This inherent desire to oppress is by no means individualistic or contrarian, rather a rejection of empathy and thought that allows one to submit themselves to the darkest, imperialistic urges of humanity. Whether it’s glorified neo-Nazi groups going by the more fashionable Alt-Right and United Patriots Front banners, or groups like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or Corey Bernardi’s Family First Party, such movements paradoxically represent a kind of stasis that Lionel Murphy and the Whitlam government attempted to combat. A futile attempt, perhaps, considering there always has and will be a longing for blinkered, corrupt sense of ‘tradition’ and oppressive values that attempt to stunt an “advance towards civilization”, to borrow a page from Murphy’s book in paraphrasing Oscar Wilde.
It’s fairly apt that the film ends with Lionel Murphy’s wife, Ingrid Murphy, describing his final moments, not long after successfully trying his final court case. She – and Murphy’s friends, also – describe his constant fight for a kind of decency, a fulfilment of his supposed mantra (parroted by one of his friends during the documentary); “Don’t let the bastards win”. It’s both sobering and assuring to hear such a thing, to realise that Dellora’s film not only gets at the forces that perpetually set out to undo ones attempts to progress, whether it be societal, personal or otherwise (self-imposed or not). Now, it would be worth putting into question potential ideas of hagiography in Dellora’s examination on Murphy, potentially inciting an ‘us vs. them’ political mentality, but ultimately these ideas come from the individual viewer and perhaps can’t be resolved in a generalised manner. These biases, perhaps, reinforce the idea that Dellora’s film is an artefact, of sorts, mining a specific familial terrain to get at the essence of Murphy in a personal manner, potential misgivings as part of the package. Either way, in the eyes of this viewer, the film was able to capture something greater than the circumstances that surrounded Lionel Murphy during his lifetime.
Mr Neal Is Entitled to Be an Agitator (1991, Australia, 58 mins)
Prod Co: Art Film Docos Pty Ltd. Prod: Sue Maslin Dir: Daryl Dellora Scr: Daryl Dellora, Ian Wansbrough, Jenny Hocking Phot: Vladimir Osherov
Cast: Ernie Dingo, Tony Blackshield, Ingrid Murphy, Gough Whitlam, Jenny Hocking, Michael Kirby, David Lange, Jocelynne Scutt, Neville Wran
- Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891. ↩
- In July 2017, the legacy and controversies surrounding Murphy were discussed in: Kate McClymot, “Lionel Murphy: Nation’s most enduring judicial scandal reignited after 31 years”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 2017. In mid-September 2017, a wealth of previously restricted material about Murphy were released leading to a burst of press interest in the many often unusual claims against the controversial figure, covered in articles such as: Claire Bickers, “Bizarre allegations revealed in declassified files from former High Court judge Lionel Murphy”, News.com.au, 15 September 2017 www.news.com.au/finance/work/leaders/bizarre-allegations-revealed-in-declassified-files-from-former-high-court-judge-lionel-murphy/news-story/7658006aa9fd158641256b417a391d81 ↩
- Dugald Williamson, ”Interview With Daryl Dellora (Melbourne, June 2011)”, Australian Screen Online https://media1.aso.gov.au/docs/Daryl_Dellora_ASO_Interview_APPROVED080611.pdf (links to pdf). ↩