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Geoffrey Sawer (1910–1996)

by John M. Williams

This article was published online in 2023

Geoffrey Sawer, 1990

Geoffrey Sawer, 1990

ANU Archives, 1885/13027

Geoffrey Sawer (1910–1996), lawyer, academic, magistrate, and journalist, was born on 21 December 1910 at Maymyo, Burma (Myanmar), elder son of English-born parents Edgar Geoffrey Sawer, sergeant in the Royal Irish Rifles, and his wife Edith, née Langman. Geoffrey was a sickly child, so the family migrated to Adelaide in 1914 where his father joined the Administrative and Instructional Staff of the Australian Permanent Military Forces. With the outbreak of World War I, Edgar quickly enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and served at Gallipoli and in France. Suffering from a chronic illness, he died in Melbourne while on medical leave in May 1918. Derek, Geoffrey’s younger brother, was born the following month.

The family found lodgings in Melbourne with Rose Bowman and her sister. When Edith died of cancer in 1925, ‘Aunty’ Rose, as Bowman became known, informally adopted the two children and proved instrumental in advancing Geoffrey’s education. He commenced schooling at Taronga Road and Caulfield North State schools before attending Scotch College, something made possible by her discovery of the McCaughey bursary for war orphans. There he excelled academically, achieving the position of equal dux and several top State awards. Bowman further applied on his behalf for the McCaughey scholarship, which enabled him to attend the University of Melbourne (LLB, 1933; LLM, 1934).

At university Sawer continued to excel in his studies while engaging in the vibrant social and intellectual life on offer. He joined the Labor Club and pondered the growing influence of communism on the industrial and political movement. One of his lecturers, the Marxist Guido Baracchi, introduced him in 1931 to the High Court of Australia justice H. V. Evatt, who would influence the direction of his career as well as his taste for modern art. Unencumbered by self-regard and buttressed by intellectual capacity, Sawer engaged senior law students such as Douglas Menzies in legal matters. He enjoyed literary exchanges with the journalist Geoffrey Hutton and the author Graham McInnes, who encouraged him to pursue his interests beyond the law, including in journalism. In robust exchanges with conservatives, he was said to have ‘demolished and obliterated his opponents with easy logic, while maintaining a not unfriendly smile’ (McInnes 1966, 152). He relished the freedom of student life and the occasional excesses it permitted, describing himself as not a ‘terribly reputable character’ (Sawer 1971) at college. During this time he met his first wife Beatrice Mabel (Mamie) Pitcher, co-editor of the student magazine Proletariat.

Completing his law degree with a clutch of prizes, Sawer commenced his legal career as an articled clerk in 1934 with the firm Stewart & Dimelow, and then Herman & Coltman. While moving towards practice, he kept one foot planted in the academy, working as a residential tutor at Ormond College (1934–40). Around 1936 he became a regular contributor to The Round Table, an English publication focused on public policy matters across the British Empire. The association connected him with businesspeople and political leaders. He went to the Victorian Bar in 1937 and remarkably had several early appearances in county and supreme courts, including a matter before the High Court. At the university, he was encouraged by (Sir) Kenneth Bailey, then dean of the law school, to teach constitutional law and was offered a full-time senior lectureship in 1939.

Sawer married Mamie on 6 January 1940 at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg. During World War II, he continued at the university while serving as chief commentary writer and deputy of the short-wave division of Radio Australia (1941–45), which broadcast to Japan and the occupied territories. The role entailed upholding a delicate balance between the competing views of the European, American, and Australian governments, the difficulty of which came into focus in 1945. With Evatt’s encouragement, Sawer supported Indonesian independence over Dutch colonial interests. For this he found himself in political controversy and was gently reprimanded by Prime Minister Ben Chifley. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization concluded that Sawer was ‘a progressive thinker along left-wing lines who voices his opinions openly and very frankly on all topics’ (NAA A6119).

In 1947 Sawer was appointed associate professor. A former student, (Sir) Ninian Stephen, described him when lecturing as a ‘raconteur’ who, with the use of political sidenotes and shady anecdotes, took dry doctrine and contextualised it within ‘the social and economic forces of the day’ (1980, 261). Sawer maintained an interest in the practice of law and was recruited by Evatt to assist in the Bank Nationalisation case, travelling to London in 1949 to join the legal team before the Privy Council. He became disillusioned with Evatt’s ‘long, rambling and repetitive’ (Coper 2014, 404), and ultimately unsuccessful, argument. While Sawer was in London, the inaugural vice-chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, (Sir) Douglas Copland, offered him the position of the university’s first professor of law, which he took up in 1950. Sawer became dean of the Research School of Social Sciences (1951–56) and held various other senior positions, including pro vice-chancellor (1974–75).

As the preeminent scholar of Australian constitutional law and the teaching of it, Sawer transcended disciplinary boundaries to unify theories of Australian public law and of politics. Both a legal theorist and constitutional lawyer, he studied these disciplines and their relationship to advance legal and social change. A wave of publications included his Australian Government Today (1947), which commanded fourteen editions; the first compendium of selected cases on Australian constitutional law in 1948, which became a standard text; and a book released the following year outlining the regulation of journalism under the law. In a 1953 inaugural lecture at the Institute of Anatomy, he outlined lawyers’ relationship with the social sciences. He emphasised that law brings about social control and influences social activities, as well as how legal theory must draw on social science research. His work straddled history, government, and public law, including his Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901–1929 (1956), its sequel Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1929–1949 (1963), and his Modern Federalism (1969). Outside Australia, his interests extended to the constitutions of Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. Always insightful, ‘never narrow or pedantic’ (Zines 1977, xix), his output developed themes that would influence generations of academics, practitioners, and law reformers. In addition to academic work, he was appointed a special magistrate for the Australian Capital Territory Court of Petty Sessions in 1957, a position he fulfilled with decreasing frequency until 1962 though formally held for life. He was elected president of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1972–75).

Mamie died in 1969 at Oxford, England, while Sawer was on study leave. He subsequently married Nancy Martyr Parker, née Bolton, an artist and teacher, in a civil ceremony on 2 July 1971 in Canberra. After twenty-five years at the ANU, he retired in 1975. His timing coincided with the dramatic constitutional moment in Australia with the sacking of the Whitlam government. He later commented feeling ‘uneasy about what happened on 11 November,’ stating that the dismissal should not have happened until at least 26 November, for a ‘credible alternative to Supply might have been discovered’ and that the ultimatum put to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam should have given him ‘the option of advising dissolution’ (Sawer 1975, 2).

The events provided ample material for another work, Federalism Under Strain (1977). In retirement, Sawer continued in public life as chair of the Australian Press Council (1982–84) and was a member of the Australian Dictionary of Biography editorial board (1966–85) and national committee (1967–83). In 1985 he was appointed AO. His regular column, ‘Between the Lines,’ in the Canberra Times, written with typical wit and poise, covered topics ranging from high constitutional questions to more earthy matters such as growing vegetables in Canberra, often in the same column. A gregarious, humane, and modest individual, he is remembered as a leading constitutionalist. On 8 August 1996 he died at Denhams Beach, New South Wales, and was cremated. His wife and the son and daughter of his first marriage survived him. In 1998 the ANU College of Law established an annual lecture in his honour, which is presented by acclaimed legal figures.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Coper, Michael. ‘Geoffrey Sawer and the Art of the Academic Commentator: A Preliminary Biographical Sketch.’ Federal Law Review 42, no. 2 (June 2014): 389–420
  • Federal Law Review. ‘Geoffrey Sawer 1910.’ 11, no. 3 (September 1980): 259–60
  • Mason, Anthony. ‘Geoffrey Sawer: The Priceless Professor.’ Canberra Times, 21 December 1990, 7
  • McInnes, Graham. Humping My Bluey. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 421 REFERENCE COPY
  • Sawer, Geoffrey. The Constitutional Crisis: An ANU Convocation Luncheon Address given on 19 November 1975 by Geoffrey Sawer. Transcript. ORAL TRC 384. National Library of Australia
  • Sawer, Geoffrey. Interview by Daniel Connell, 14 May and 4 June 1990. ANU Oral History Archive
  • Sawer, Geoffrey. Interview by Errol Hodge, 3–4 May 1988. Australian War Memorial
  • Sawer, Geoffrey. Interview by Mel Pratt, 16 November 1971. Transcript. Mel Pratt collection. National Library of Australia
  • Stephen, Ninian. ‘A Recollection of Geoffrey Sawer.’ Federal Law Review 11, no. 3 (September 1980): 261–62
  • Zines, Leslie, ed. Commentaries on the Australian Constitution: A Tribute to Geoffrey Sawer. Sydney: Butterworths, 1977

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Citation details

John M. Williams, 'Sawer, Geoffrey (1910–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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