The author, John N. Molony signals in his introduction that this biography has its limitations. John Hubert Plunkett, Solicitor General, Attorney General, politician, and education board member left virtually no personal papers. As a result,
If he is to be found today it must be through public sources such as the newspapers, the parliamentary reports, the official communications between Sydney and Downing Street and the legal opinions he gave during his twenty-five years as Solicitor and Attorney-General. It is chiefly on such sources that I have perforce relied in the writing of this book (p xiii) ….It has been my loss as much as it will be to any reader that Plunkett rarely comes alive in the narrative. No attempt has been made, no attempt can be made to see him in his home, to dwell on his own innermost thoughts and hopes, because Plunkett did not leave any record of these things. Some scholar of the future may perchance discover Plunkett the man; some scholar, irritated by the gaps in this work, may till this field again and reap a richer harvest…” p xiv
We have been forewarned: this book will focus on actions and decisions at a top-down level, rather than at the level of man and motivation. However, I think Molony sells himself a bit short here because the book does give an interesting insight into the Catholicism of a man who sensed that he had been enabled, rather than disadvantaged by his faith at a particular moment of English political history. The Catholic Emancipation Bill provided space for his patrons to further his career, and he was conscious that opportunities were open to him that had not been available for earlier generations of Catholic lawyers. He therefore had a strong loyalty to ‘the system’ and British law and worked within it as lawyer, then politician.
The book also highlights the theme of personal consistency in the midst societal change. Two hefty winds of change swept through his world: after the initial co-operation of the different churches in the establishment phase, their doctrines and personalities became more rigid from the 1860s onward, and sectarian hostilities became more strident. Secondly, the change to representative and then responsible government meant that his world view and ways of negotiating with politicians rather than officials, needed to change. Such fundamental challenges to his world view did not come easily to him, and I closed the book with a sense that the wealth of experience he brought to his political roles was more hindrance than benefit in a changed world.
I was interested in reading this book because firstly, I’m interested in reading biographies about Judge Willis’ contemporaries in NSW at the time (although Plunkett was absent during Judge Willis’ dismissal and, indeed, was spot-on in his predictions of what the outcome of the Privy Council appeal would be). Secondly, I’m not really sure what an attorney general DID in the colonial constitutional system of the time. Certainly, Judge Willis clashed with acting Attorney General Therry in NSW, and with the Attorney General in Upper Canada earlier. Was there something about the Attorney General role that acted as a flashpoint? Or was it the individuals filling that role?
I don’t know if I’m much further advanced in my understanding of colonial Attornies-General, but I am clearer about the fact that they acted as legal advisors for the Crown- in this case, for Governor Gipps, and if the Governor was acting to discipline or dismiss Willis, then he was presumably acting on the Attorney-General’s advice. Hence, some tension could be expected! I was also surprised to read that the Attorney General could act as a Grand Jury in his own right (i.e. he could launch proceedings in his own right). For example, Plunkett acted as a Grand Jury against cattle-stealers and against a conspiracy of six men “all of substance” who conspired to parcel out land at advantageous prices to themselves. I wonder if perhaps Judge Willis would have relished having such powers, particularly in relation to the corruption and sharp-dealing that he felt himself surrounded by. Methinks I need to look at constitutional development a little more closely, although I must admit that my toes curl up at the thought of it.
Reading this book has also made me think about the scope for the “scholar of the future” that Molony envisages “till[ing] the field again and reap[ing] a richer harvest”. How would/will I do anything different?