ANYONE who knocked around Fitzroy some four decades ago might remember Cr Paul Coghlan, who wore the mayoral chain in 1975. An activist and reformer, Coghlan was the local face of what Gough Whitlam purported to represent in Canberra – enlightened government with a social conscience and an eye for fashionable causes. In Fitzroy, where it was writ somewhat smaller, the philosophy translated as a vehement opposition to the further construction of the Housing Commission’s high-rise slums, which had earlier marred the view from the front steps of the VD clinic on Gertrude Street. He was also opposed, and loudly, to the construction of the F19 freeway (now built and called the Eastern Freeway), a project pushed by the Bolte and Hamer governments. As Coghlan was a member not just of the Labor Party but also of a reformist faction much given to branch stacking, that was both understandable and predictable.
It was the Age of Gough and the old Labor of kit bags and calloused hands was being swept aside by people like Coghlan and his council pal Barry Pullen, who rose to warm a series of ministerial benches in the Cain and Kirner governments. Today, the descendants of those enlightened inner-city rebels vote for the Greens and Adam Runt, who is Fitzroy's local federal member. But in those innocent days, if your passion was for closing streets, installing speed humps, blocking arterial traffic to make life difficult for outer suburban bogans, revering trees and passing bylaws against the deployment of nuclear weapons in Fitzroy, the Labor Party was your vehicle for engineering a better world.
Like Pullen, Coghlan also rose in his chosen career, which was at the bar. Soon after the Bracks government took office, the former Labor mayor was elevated to the post of Director of Public Prosecutions, and six more years saw him installed on the Supreme Court bench by the former and unlamented Attorney General Rob Hulls. You will find no one in or around the courts with a bad word to say of Mr Justice Coghlan, who is admired especially for a devotion to his daughters which often sees him picking through antique stores and stalls for the little items of jewellery that are said to be their delight.
Today from the bench Coghlan delivered another gem – a 13-year sentence for the teenager who took the life of Indian student Nitin Garg in a Yarraville park. The young killer will likely be out after just eight years – by the time he is 25, in other words – which must make him rather envious of the teenage friend who was with him on that night two years ago. His companion will pay his debt to society by serving 18 months probation.
Coghlan avowed that he saw no racial element in the attack, which the thinking in places like Fitzroy understands would have made the taking of an innocent life a serious offence indeed. We cannot have murderers shouting racial abuse while they drive home the knife. Good heavens, never that! In this instance, according to Coghlan, it was just that the unfortunate Mr Garg, who will spend a lot more than eight years in a pine box, happened to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Just one of those things that happen, with the easy availability of knives also being named by the judge as one of the culprits in the case.
In legal circles Coghlan also is known with a smile as a man whose chambers are magnets for clutter. Today, with the case over, one wonders if the judge returned to his office and dug out from amidst those piles of documents and transcripts some little Christmas baubles he had put away for his daughters.
One also wonders if, should they ever be murdered for no good reason, he would consider eight years behind bars sufficient punishment.
UPDATE: Another of Mr Justice Coghlan's memorable rulings.