Alistair_Nicholson.pngFrom the age of seven, my early days were spent in a boarding school in Melbourne, as my parents lived in Papua New Guinea, and there were no local schools there.

In the September and Christmas holidays I would travel to Papua New Guinea to visit my parents on their coconut plantation.  I loved that lifestyle and I spoke the local language.  

It was a big change to go from boarding school to the free life in the tropics. Those days deeply affected me in that I became interested in the lives and culture of  Papuan people, and it widened my understanding of the diversity of people’s lives.

My parents had a strong influence on my life. I had no brothers and sisters but I had a close relationship with my parents. My mother encouraged me in my schoolwork. My father was a man whom I also regarded as a close friend, and I always think very fondly of them both.  My parents always led by example. They were also very conscious of looking after the local people, and were very caring in the way they assisted those around them.

As a young person, I had always thought I would go into medicine but in my final year of schooling, I found that I enjoyed the humanities subjects and had an interest in politics and enrolled in Law at Melbourne University.

I commenced Articles in 1960 which I thoroughly enjoyed. However soon after, I developed a keen interest in going to court and arguing cases, which seemed much more interesting to me than dealing with wills and conveyancing.

From 1963, I practiced independently at the bar and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1979  As counsel I appeared in the general run of criminal an civil cases and before Royal Commissions and various Boards of Inquiry.  I remember particularly the Inquiry that I conducted into the Richmond City Council.  The irregularities, included frauds involving tampering with electoral rolls and bribery, together with various acts of violence such as the firebombing of houses and cars and led not only to the sacking of the council, but also to various criminal charges.

In 1982 I was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and also became Deputy Chair, and then later Chair of the Parole Board.

As a result of my parole involvement I was asked by Sir James Gobbo, then a colleague of mine at the Court, whether I would be interested in chairing an organisation that supported ex prisoners, later to become known as ACSO, and I was and my interest has continued to date. In 1988 I left the Supreme Court and the Parole Board and accepted appointments as Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and as a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. Thereafter my direct involvement in the criminal law ceased but I maintained my interest through ACSO.

Our first meetings were in the (ACSO) drop-in centre in Napier St. Fitzroy.

The driving force in the organisation was Stan McCormack, a former bank robber who had turned his life around in prison.  He is such a gentle man that I always found it very hard to imagine him in a robbery. The gun he used was only a toy, nevertheless he received quite a long sentence.

Stan was a visionary who really believed in what he was doing. He believed that all that was needed for the organisation to prosper would just emerge.  He had a lot of confidence, and he didn’t mind asking anyone to come along and assist.  I think this confidence was very much sustained by his faith.

I remember he rang me one time and said, “We can’t pay the light bill, or the rent for that matter.”  At that time I had been introduced through one of my fellow Judges to a Priest named Vincent Kiss who was also the Manager of ANZ Trustees.  I rang him and asked him if he could help out, and he responded with $90,000.00 which enabled the Napier Street property to be purchased. Vince later proved to be an unsavoury character who went to prison himself, but he certainly did a great job for his future fellow prisoners on this occasion.

I deliberately chose to support an organisation that wasn’t well established. I was attracted by the fact that Stan McCormack had been in jail and so knew what was needed and he understood the people who would use the service. He had such an enthusiasm and dedication to it. He also had some good people working with him like Chris Cappello and later Sister Clare McShee.

I have never believed that because someone has been in jail, they can’t make a contribution.  That belief was my main motivation.

I’m a great believer in equality of opportunity.  I think all people should have an equal opportunity to achieve what they can. It annoys me when society continues to punish ex prisoners after incarceration. I don’t think it’s fair. We have a guiding principal in the concept of Justice. In the law, this really means treating people fairly and equally and not favouring people because of their beliefs or rejecting them because of their flaws.

I have met many people through the courts and in prison during my parole Board period  and this has made me hopeful about people.

For example, Len Reynolds was a founding staff member who had also done long prison terms for armed robbery, and for shooting at a policeman. It is hard to imagine a more difficult background than his.

His application for parole came up. His prospects didn’t look too good. However he had behaved well when he was in jail and we thought he would be okay. I remember thinking ‘this guy has something going for him,’ and then you just keep your fingers crossed.

It is very interesting thing that he was able to overcome so much in his own and in his family’s background and become what I would describe as a decent citizen.  There are plenty of others who have done that also.
It is interesting when you talk to people who have been in for murder and so on, that many after release have gone on to live quite normal pleasant lives. You can’t assume that all will be villains forever.

Many challenges awaited me also.

I remember there was a lot of bad publicity when the neighbours found out what Francis House was about.  So I went on television to defend the house and it was quite an eerie experience. I can remember that the interviewer was in Sydney but I was talking to a big wall in Melbourne.

One of the our first financial supports from Government I was able to achieve, because as Deputy Chair of the Parole Board I had some connections with the Office of Corrections.  I remember going to see the Minister, Mrs Pauline Toner and she offered us a grant of $3,000, which was quite a lot of money then.
I can recall another time when Sister Clare was being seriously threatened by an unbalanced and dangerous individual, and the police were being less than responsive. I made a phone call to Christine Nixon and her response was immediate.
I can recall when we were constructing the Board, I had a friend who was an accountant whom I invited along to sit in on a meeting, with a view to him assisting us. He left the meeting only to discover his car had been smashed. He didn’t come back!!

One of the disappointments was that we were trying to offer the same type of support for women ex prisoners but we just couldn’t seem to get that working. There was not the same level of support available that is given to men.

I have watched ACSO develop over 25 years. I believe it has lasted and grown because it has always had good people on its Council. The people from the Court system, judges and so on, gave it some credibility.

We were fortunate also to have great staff. Stan McCormack was so visionary.

Tony Calabrò was and is a great asset.  He has been really wonderful over the years and done a tremendous job. He is very calm and so is very good at dealing with difficult situations.  He has had my great confidence, and still does.  Sister Clare’s work over the years has been extraordinary.

It was good to see ACSO expand its Board and also enter a time of strategic planning, in order to become more organised. I was always concerned that in operating so informally, something could go awry.  In operating more professionally, it has nevertheless retained its spirit and avoided becoming just another bureaucracy.

These days, ACSO continues to face challenges, however, I am sure we will get through them.  There are too many people interested in it to let it go, and its reputation is very good.

I have enjoyed being involved with ACSO because it is an organisation that is achieving something.

I think the real purpose of places like ACSO is to rehabilitate people to the point that they can take their place as valued members of the community. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about dealing with people who are starting out from scratch, a long way back, and you have to be prepared to make allowances for that.  I think by the same token the system serves a purpose and that’s what it’s there for.

Don’t lose sight of our purpose. That is my advice.

All in all, I don’t consider myself a particularly great achiever. I have just done the best I can with the knowledge I have.  

May we all do likewise.