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Sir Philip David Phillips (1897–1970)

by Laurence W. Maher

This article was published:

Sir Philip David Phillips (1897-1970), lawyer and teacher, was born on 22 March 1897 at Prahran, Melbourne, second child of Melbourne-born parents Morris Mondle Phillips, barrister, and his wife Rebecca, née Ellis. The writer Arthur Angell Phillips was his younger brother; Marion Phillips was their aunt. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1921; LL.B., 1922), Philip enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 31 January 1916 and served on the Western Front as a gunner in the 8th Artillery Brigade. In June 1917 he was transferred to the 3rd Divisional Signal Company. Near Corbie, France, on 30 March 1918 Lance Corporal Phillips braved enemy shell-fire to repair telephone lines and won the Military Medal. Returning to Australia, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 1 June 1919.

After completing his university studies with first-class honours and four prizes, Phillips was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1922. He signed the Bar roll on 21 March 1923. At Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, on 13 December that year he married with Anglican rites Leonore Rennick, a 29-year-old architect and daughter of Lionel Lukin; they were to be divorced on 1 December 1949.

Practising at Selborne Chambers, Phillips never confined himself to the life of a full-time barrister. He lectured part time in the university's arts and law faculties for many years. His wide interest in human affairs was exemplified by his active participation in the Institute of Public Administration, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, the League of Nations Union and the Medico-Legal Society of Victoria. He commented on public affairs in the Age, Argus and Herald, joined in public debates, and was a member and chairman (1941-46) of the editorial board of the Austral-Asiatic Bulletin. Prominent in the Nationalist Party, through which he came under the influence of (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, he chaired (1934-37) the Victorian Transport Regulation Board at the invitation of (Sir) Robert Menzies. Phillips served as deputy-chairman (1940-45) of the Commonwealth Liquid Fuel Control Board and as a member (1946-52) of South Melbourne Council. On 16 December 1949 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Olive Catherine Rosenthal, a 38-year-old secretary.

Phillips (or 'P.D.' as he was widely known in the legal profession) had taken silk on 14 February 1946. He soon became a leader of the Bar in Australia. With the Federal attorney-general Bert Evatt and the solicitor-general (Sir) Kenneth Bailey (his close friend from the Young Nationalist Organisation), he was a member of the team of counsel briefed for the Commonwealth in the Bank nationalization case (1948-49). He appeared frequently in constitutional, industrial, tax, commercial and other civil cases in the High Court of Australia, in addition to maintaining an extensive civil practice before the Supreme Court of Victoria where perhaps his most notable appearance was in McDonald v. Cain (1953). His knowledge of transport regulation was applied on behalf of the Commonwealth which intervened in the test case, Hughes and Vale Pty Ltd v. New South Wales (1952-54), to support the validity of the State Transport Co-ordination Act (1931-52). He represented R. E. Fitzpatrick before the High Court of Australia when Fitzpatrick and F. C. Browne were gaoled by parliament for breach of privilege. Again with Bailey, Phillips appeared for the Commonwealth in the Second Uniform Tax case (1957). His familiarity with American jurisprudence and constitutional law was reflected in his teaching, scholarly writing and appellate advocacy. Phillips was widely read and gifted with an exceptional memory; if he had any failings, they probably arose from his extraordinary capacity to talk, a thickness of hide and a resulting impaired capacity to sense when he had said enough.

Renowned for taking a keen interest in his appearance, Phillips could be very good company, but some were put off by his underdeveloped sense of humour, fondness for patrician forms of speech, and tendency to be self-opinionated and arrogant. While most of his contemporaries in the important constitutional cases of the decade went to the bench, Phillips retired from practice in 1958. He returned to the University of Melbourne as senior (1958-63) and special (1963-70) lecturer in law. For the next decade he conducted the law school's moot-court programme, bringing his considerable talents to the task of introducing students to the world of advocacy.

Phillips resumed public office in 1960 when the Menzies government appointed him chairman of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, a post he held until 1966. In October 1963 the Victorian government, led by (Sir) Henry Bolte, invited him to conduct a royal commission into the sale and consumption of liquor. This role thrust Phillips, the bon vivant, into the limelight, and gave him the opportunity, which he enthusiastically grasped, to apply his interests in the law and personal freedom, economics, public administration, social policy and the methodology of social research. The recommendations in his three detailed reports were promptly enacted by the government, liberalizing Victoria's liquor laws. Phillips was, however, unable to bring himself to recommend relaxing the laws on Sunday drinking.

Throughout his adult life Phillips contributed to the scholarly literature of law, economics and public administration, with articles in Australian Quarterly, the Economic Record, Public Administration, Res Judicatae, the Melbourne University Law Review and the Australian Law Journal. In 1964 he was appointed C.M.G. Two years later he conducted an inquiry for the Tasmanian government into that State's Sunday observance laws. In 1967 he was knighted. Sir Philip was a company director, a president of the Royal Victorian Bowls Association and a member of the Alcoholism Foundation of Victoria. He co-edited The Peopling of Australia (London, 1968), tended the garden of his home at Eltham, played bowls, and made furniture. Survived by his wife, and by the two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 19 September 1970 at Eltham and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • W. Osmond, Frederic Eggleston (Syd, 1985)
  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 1 (Melb, 1993)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 30 Mar 1927, 15 Feb 1946, 22 Sept 1970
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13, 24 Sept 1960, 20 Mar 1965, 13 Sept 1969, 21 Sept 1970
  • Australian, 31 Dec 1964, 22 Sept 1970
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Laurence W. Maher, 'Phillips, Sir Philip David (1897–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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