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ONE FINAL WALK: Judge John Robertson in his last week at Maroochydore courthouse before retiring.

He has looked into the face of evil

HE has looked into the face of evil too many times to count.

But John Robertson says what stares back is rarely the monster we conjure in our minds when we hear about heinous crimes in our communities.

Instead, they are oft good-looking and charming - the very traits that aid in perpetrating unspeakable acts on their chosen victims.

Or terribly damaged humans, a tragic product of their unfortunate childhoods he can never erase from his memory.

As the retiring Queensland judge easily summons minute detail, it's clear the harrowing cases stay with him.

Judge Robertson has only ordered life imprisonment once, in 1998, and he can still picture that man sitting in Ipswich District Court.

He describes a handsome man of slight build who behaved well in the courtroom. Someone you would walk past in the street without ever suspecting the evil within.

Until he spoke.

Detailing what he did to a six-year-old girl, after having already done inconceivable things to children aged two and 15, was chilling in its lack of empathy and human feeling, Judge Robertson recalls.

"There are undoubtedly a small group of people who are so damaged they are dangerous and anti-social and should be shut away," he says.

But the Sunshine Coast judge believes the depraved ones are a small minority in our society - more often encountering heart-rending tales of woe.

 

Judge John Robertson is against mandatory sentencing. He believes it leads to personal injustice.
Judge John Robertson is against mandatory sentencing. He believes it leads to personal injustice. John McCutcheon

One girl was treated so appallingly through her formative years that her subsequent misbehaviour made her all too familiar with the revolving door of his courtroom.

A photograph of the girl at age 15 at a picnic with her foster family depicts "an apparently normal, happy, healthy girl, a beautiful one at that", Judge Robertson says.

A girl with extraordinary potential who at first glance looked like a young Cathy Freeman. But that impression quickly fades.

The girl is "reviled as a monster; a violent, dangerous person full of hate and bitterness" for her behaviour towards authority figures and what she ultimately did to her case worker, one of few people in her corner, a few years later, he says.

"It is a story of a justice system and a health system simply unable to cope. It is a story about those sad souls who fall through the cracks of our ... societal structure. It is a story that should challenge us if we could truly claim to be a caring and compassionate society," Judge Robertson says.

 

Lady Justice.
Lady Justice. John Weekes

When he looks back on how society has changed in his 70 years, he notes the most dramatic changes in attitudes towards women, victims of crime and the way we now treat vulnerable witnesses.

Once president of Queensland Children's Court, Judge Robertson has been a great agitator for change during his 24 years on the bench - fighting for both child victims and troublemakers.

"I just happened to land in a family that cared for me, loved me and supported me," he says.

"These kids are doomed from conception and if that happened to me, I reckon I'd be antisocial too.

"It intrigues me that we still cling so passionately to notions of punishment derived from a 19th century culture, many of whose other values such as suppression of women and children, minority groups and colonialism by force, we have long since rejected."

 

Judge John Robertson at Maroochydore courthouse in his chambers.
Judge John Robertson at Maroochydore courthouse in his chambers. John McCutcheon

Judge Robertson is softly spoken, reflective and speaks with great intellect about everything from the legal system to classical music to the women he credits with shaping the man he became.

But he's not meek, nor shy of uttering the odd profanity - especially when he reflects on the grisly cases before him over the years.

And it visibly agitates him seeing how much tougher it is to be a woman than a man in our society - still.

There were two women in the district court when he joined, Margaret McMurdo and Helen O'Sullivan, but we have since had women in the chief justice role in Queensland, Victoria and for Australia.

"It is changing but it's still on the inside, you hear comments all the time. Appointing women because they are women, all that stuff ... mutter, mutter, mutter," he says.

"I do see how far we've come but I feel sad for Mum, a highly intelligent woman who was really frustrated. You never picked up why as a kid but I'm sure that's the reason.

"You just imagine if you weren't allowed to pursue your intellectual interests and turn them into something you love doing - who wouldn't get frustrated - if that happened to men there'd be a revolution."

FROM BOY TO MAN

John Robertson is the youngest of three brothers born in Townsville, with David 78 in May and Peter turning 74 in September.

Mum Gwen was a devout Anglican and dad Mervyn described himself as a callithumpian.

"Mum was a housewife. She was an extremely intelligent woman but in those days that's what was done. Dad was a shipping agent," he says.

The family moved to Bowen and then Mackay to follow his dad's port work for Adelaide Steamship Company.

 

Judge John Robertson is planning to do some trekking with his son, golf with friends and read crime novels in retirement. But law won't disappear from his life.
Judge John Robertson is planning to do some trekking with his son, golf with friends and read crime novels in retirement. But law won't disappear from his life. Megan Slade

Judge Robertson remembers his grandmother Agnes Garbutt just as fondly, spending six to eight weeks in Townsville every summer as a youngster.

"She was one of the guiding lights in my life. She was a wonderful woman but again a highly intelligent woman who never had the chance to pursue her education," he says.

"She didn't work but a family friend, who was an astute stockbroker, invested the meagre amounts she had and did really well for her.

"She was a thoroughly decent person who had been through enormous travails after my grandfather died young and she had eight children to raise.

"My grandmother went through all that and there was not a hint of bitterness about her and she had a larrikin side to her," mentioning her penchant for betting a threepence or sixpence through her SP bookie every Saturday.

Judge Robertson never met his grandfather Ernest, with whom he shares a birthday, but describes him as a conservative party voter and classic white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who owned several properties in the Townsville region and travelled a lot with his wholesale meat business.

As the family legend goes, his grandfather "made and lost at least two fortunes", was "a bit of a lad" and made it into a DH Lawrence book.

"DH Lawrence described in his novel Kangaroo a political meeting in Charters Towers where a budding politician stood up to address the crowd and they counted him down," he said.

"He was told if he didn't get out after the count of 10, they'd beat him up and throw him out.

"It's asserted that's a description of my grandfather."

Judge Robertson learned how to handle himself at school in Bowen until Grade 6 before completing Grade 7 and 8 at Mackay, both state schools.

He remembers being one of only three students in his Bowen class interested in education - the rest planning to be farmers or miners.

"Bowen was a pretty rough place. I was short-sighted from the get go and I was, of course, academically minded," he says.

"Mum got me glasses when I was seven in Grade 2 and they were pink rimmed. Pink. Rimmed. And I was the only kid in the school, which went up to Grade 10, with glasses.

"It was a nightmare there for a while but it prepared me for boarding school - that first year was pretty brutal."

At age 12, he was "homesick like buggery" when he headed to Brisbane on a scholarship to begin Grade 9 at Anglican Church Grammar School - known locally as Churchie.

"I always got into fights. I'd always get beaten up but I used to have a go, so after a while they'd just give up because you weren't much fun," he says.

"Bullies like people to be in fear but I was never afraid, that just wasn't me.

"I just got into sport, I was hopeless at it, but I loved it. I ended up being captain of the thirds football team and captain of the thirds cricket team."

It was 1960s and "a time when we now know pedophiles were active". "Bloody evil people," Judge Robertson says, grateful for not being a target himself.

"It's just bizarre but there are two people who were boarding masters at the time I was at (Churchie), that have been sent to prison by colleagues of mine," he said.

"There was one guy I remember that everyone knew was a fiddler. He used to go around the dormitories at night - the boys would set traps for him, set tripwires and they would have buckets of water that would fall on him."

 

Judge John Robertson will no longer preside over Queensland district court cases as retirement beckons.
Judge John Robertson will no longer preside over Queensland district court cases as retirement beckons. John McCutcheon

Judge Robertson has sentenced plenty of pedophiles throughout Queensland. He has conducted about 500 jury trials, more than 3000 sentence hearings, hundreds of civil trials and chamber hearings, and countless civil and planning appeals.

He has written the state's foremost textbook on sentencing, the Queensland Sentencing Manual, updated at least twice a year since 1999, and is still revered as an authority on the subject.

Civil liberties champion Terry O'Gorman says Judge Robertson could be counted among Queensland's most influential men during his legal and judiciary career for his work on sentencing - including restorative justice and vulnerable witnesses.

"What has mapped him out as a good judge - and he enjoys a very good reputation across the legal profession - is that he is balanced, thoughtful and not a soft touch, but also that he's given a lot of critical thought to the issues of sentencing," the long-time friend and former business partner says.

"If what you expect in a judge is someone who is fair between the prosecution and the defence, someone who tries to fashion sentences that meet the expectation of punishment and retribution, while at the same time giving the person being sentenced a chance to be rehabilitated, well, he walks that tightrope exceedingly well."

 

Civil liberties champion Terry O'Gorman.
Civil liberties champion Terry O'Gorman.

SINGING THE PRAISES OF FAMILY

Outside the courtroom he is frequently called Poppy, or Popstar, and his youngest grandchildren think he's a policeman.

He is a baritone, or a second tenor if his musical director demands, who reckons he can sing more than 100 songs but his wife will saliently remind him he mucks up the lyrics when he breaks into tune around home.

He always considered himself a dog man but his black RSPCA rescue cat Remy, named after a House of Cards character, has converted him to the feline side.

Judge Robertson knows he is in a privileged position on the bench but he finds it "slightly annoying" when judges are criticised for being out of touch and living in "ivory towers".

"Judges, especially in the criminal courts, are exposed to the very worst of human conduct," he said.

"(But) judges actually live and move in their communities and have friends and families to keep them grounded.

"I do yoga. I swim with a whole lot of people daily. I go for long epic treks with my son Jono and hopefully I will do the same with his children if they will have me.

"I sing in a community choir who know what I do and care very little just as long as I sing in tune.

"I have a wife who teaches public health at the university and through her and our six children and 18 grandchildren I think I am actually in touch with community values."

 

Judge John Robertson and his wife June Redman with their cat Remy.
Judge John Robertson and his wife June Redman with their cat Remy. Megan Slade

Judge Robertson speaks proudly of his family - an impressive mix of lawyers and medical professionals among them.

With his first wife Marguerite, a doctor who also lives on the Sunshine Coast, he had three children - the youngest born two months before he began his own law practice that is now well known as Robertson O'Gorman.

Jeremy, 44, Caroline, 42, and Jonathon, 40, all have four kids each, aged between 17 and four.

June Redman, his wife of the past 16 years, was a triple certificate nurse in a past life but now has a bachelor degree in business, an honours degree in science and a PhD in public health.

He treasures her children too. Leigh, 42, Rob, 39 and Kate, 29, have six children between them so far, aged 10 to 11 months.

"I am so fortunate that each one - and their partners - are my friends," he says.

Judge Robertson jests he's the subject of "statutory senility". The law won't allow judges to sit past age 70 and that date was May 18.

Every time he donned his "fancy clobber" - an indigo robe with slashes of mauve and red tucked at the waist with a black belt - he looked at a drawing from his eldest granddaughter Niamh.

"To poppy, you are so funny. Love Niamh," reads the artwork stuck to his mirror.

 

Judge Robertson looks at this drawing, from his eldest granddaughter, every time he dons his robes for court.
Judge Robertson looks at this drawing, from his eldest granddaughter, every time he dons his robes for court. Rae Wilson

His love for his family is evident in every corner of his chambers, with a walnut-stained round timber table filled with mismatching frames of varying sizes and age of his family.

Thickly bound law books, commonplace in the legal fraternity, line one of the walls next to the cupboard where he hung his robes the final time.

CHAMPION FOR CHANGE

Judge Robertson has worked hard to effect change when he has seen injustice. Among his proudest achievements is entering a once-controversial debate about children testifying in courtrooms.

"The stresses on a judge pale into insignificance when compared with the stresses on young police and ambulance officers and indeed medical and nursing personnel who are called to deal directly with immediate and awful suffering and death," he says.

"The sexual abuse cases are of course very stressful but for a judge it is stress at a distance, unlike the stress on victims and their families and the police who have to gather evidence.

"When I first started as a judge, small children were actually expected to come into court and give their evidence before a room full of strangers, some dressed in wigs and gowns. It was shocking and always stressful especially for the child.

"I am proud to this day of my role in a Four Corners program dealing with this issue which in large part led Queensland to adopt WA laws designed to protect children by having them give evidence in advance of the trial and not in the court room and where they cannot see (their abuser)."

He and Judge O'Sullivan were criticised heavily for entering a controversial debate as judges, even after parliament finally agreed to the changes.

"But I do not regret what we did for a minute," he said.

"Everyone thought the world would change - we'd lose that fundamental principle of the accuser faces the accused. But when the accuser is six and the accused is her father, come on."

 

The scales of justice, a judge's gavel and law books are familiar tools for those on the bench.
The scales of justice, a judge's gavel and law books are familiar tools for those on the bench.

Judge Robertson was admitted as a solicitor in 1973, working for Brisbane firm Elliot & Co until 1978 when he began his own business JM Robertson & Co.

He had a focus on white collar crime - once representing Gold Coast developer Michael Gore, best known for developing Sanctuary Cove, for a $300,000 sales tax fraud of which he was acquitted.

That legal firm later became Robertson O'Gorman with Mr O'Gorman - who is renowned for tirelessly protecting Australians' civil liberties - joining in 1981.

It was a time when police misbehaviour - including bashing and verballing suspects, and making up confessions - was still rife, Mr O'Gorman says.

When Judge Robertson reflects on the Bjelke-Petersen era, he shakes his head.

"It was cowboys and Indians," he says.

 

Joh Bjelke Petersen at Bethany in 1998.
Joh Bjelke Petersen at Bethany in 1998. THE COURIER MAIL

His most memorable case was R v Jack Reginald Herbert and others - a 126-day trial in 1976 arising from attempted corruption allegations of then-head of the licensing branch, Arthur Pitts.

All those on trial were acquitted and many, especially Herbert, featured prominently in the Fitzgerald inquiry in 1987.

"The long and the short of it is that the jury acquitted them because I don't think they could possibly believe what was going on was really going on," he says.

Judge Robertson represented former minister Don Lane and other more minor players in the wake of the Fitzgerald inquiry.

But in 1994, he became the first solicitor appointed as a district court judge - an honour then reserved for barristers.

Though Judge Robertson began his legal career in Queensland's capital, he served the bulk of his years on the bench in regional centres - mostly Ipswich and Maroochydore.

In 1998 he was the first district court judge to conduct circuits to the Gulf communities of Normanton, Mornington Island and Doomadgee.

 

Judge John Robertson at Ipswich District Court on July 30, 1998.
Judge John Robertson at Ipswich District Court on July 30, 1998. RICHTER NATHAN

Judge Robertson still vividly remembers shifting from foot to foot trying to expend his nervous energy the first time he had to stand in judgment of his peers.

He was wearing gifts to celebrate his appointment - a wig from retired supreme court judge and mentor Bill Carter, which he still wears on ceremonial occasions, and a friend's jabots.

"So I had on these frilly jabots and Bill's wig and I was standing there outside next to my acting associate, I was so nervous," he narrates while demonstrating.

"I'm waiting for the call and for some reason I did a big swing, probably my theatrical background, and of course all the robes did a big turn.

"I said 'How do I look?' and he said 'Priscilla of Ipswich'. It was a mighty good thing to say and that's what took me into my first trial."

MANDATORY SENTENCING

You don't spend long with John Robertson before realising he is fiercely against mandatory sentencing and can come up with any scenario to argue how easily personal injustice can occur.

A civilised society should put their trust in judicial officers to use their discretion based on individual circumstances, he explains.

Using one of Australia's notorious child killers as an example of how even Queensland's mandatory life sentence for murder can be unjust, he questions how that can compare to every other murder in the state.

"A person like (Brett Peter) Cowan who murdered (Sunshine Coast schoolboy) Daniel Morcombe, he's liable to the same sentence as the woman, who after years of domestic violence, when her abuser, her husband, is asleep, shoots him in the back of the head and she's convicted of murder. They get the same sentence. Is that right? Of course it's not," he says.

 

Sunshine Coast schoolboy Daniel Morcombe who was murdered in 2003.
Sunshine Coast schoolboy Daniel Morcombe who was murdered in 2003. WILSON JOHN

"Murder is one of those crimes that again can touch anyone - a moment of wild passion, you lose control and there's a weapon nearby.

"It is the easiest thing in the world to increase penalties for particular crimes; it is much more difficult to deal with youth unemployment and homelessness, domestic violence and drug addiction.

"Again and again, governments of all persuasions have promised a crackdown on crime by increasing penalties; followed some years later by a great deal of private concern and chest beating about the enormous cost of imprisoning people.

"When more money is spent on prisons than on education, as has happened in many common law countries, it is a sad reflection on policy directions."

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

The work can be stressful, demanding and sad, with Judge Robertson admitting he has adjourned the court more than once because he was "about to lose it".

Swimming a kilometre at Cotton Tree and Buderim pools about four times a week and yoga once a week for the past 16 years play a part in helping him through. He's also a keen golfer.

 

Judge John Robertson and his wife June Redman at home, enjoying his first week of retirement.
Judge John Robertson and his wife June Redman at home, enjoying his first week of retirement. Megan Slade

"Court rooms are places of anxiety and tension and it is the role of the judge to control that environment. I have not always succeeded in remaining calm but I have tried my best," he said.

"They all know I do it in the court room. If the temperature starts to rise, I just sit there breathing - in for six, hold for three, out for six. And it works nearly every time.

"At night when I'm in a big case and my mind is whirling, again I do the breathing."

Choir is his other great escape. Relaxing. Thrilling. Beautiful.

But it's also a passion. He describes how tears spring to his eyes and the hairs on the back of his neck jolt out when he listens to his current favourite composer - Norwegian Ola Gjeilo.

The Oriana Choir moves easily between classical pieces, Broadway musicals and retrospectives of the '60s, '70s and '80s.

 

The Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir.
The Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir. CONTRIBUTED

He toured with the choir to Europe in 2012 where they competed in the Welsh eisteddfod. They sang at St Martins in the Field "which is like Mecca to a muso" in Trafalgar Square and in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 2016, the choir went to Europe and sang in Salzburg Cathedral where Mozart was baptised. Next year the group has a booking at St Peter's Basilica.

"Everyone in the choir loves John. He mixes so well with everybody and shows no airs and graces because of his high position in the community," choir friend Howard Baker says.

"When there is heavy work to be done, as there always is when putting on a production, John rolls up his sleeves to help like the rest of us."

Before his choir days, Judge Robertson was in folk music group The Johnsmans at university - playing protest songs of the '60s in the basement beneath a coffee club in the Valley - and loved musical theatre - especially Gilbert and Sullivan.

He once played the jury foreman in Trial by Jury.

FLY ON THE WALL

Entering the courtroom for one of the final verdicts in his distinguished career, Judge Robertson says he knows the jurors have given careful consideration to the fraud case before them.

"Members of the jury ... I'm always so grateful, having done this job for more than two decades, that I don't have to make these difficult decisions," he says.

"For what it's worth, I happen to agree with your decision."

 

Judge John Robertson does not want to be a fly on the wall in the jury room. He believes jurors have a tough job and he's grateful for the role they play.
Judge John Robertson does not want to be a fly on the wall in the jury room. He believes jurors have a tough job and he's grateful for the role they play. John McCutcheon

Asked if he would like to be a fly on the wall in a jury room, he is quick to answer 'No'.

"You can see how much takes out of them," he says.

"They take it so seriously and I reckon our community is basically a fair one and they don't like unfairness."

Judge Robertson is confident law will remain firmly in his life in retirement - just more as a public service than a paid job.

No longer constrained by judicial office, he hopes to have opportunities to explain the complexity of the justice system and sentencing to the community.

Just last week, he was appointed chair of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council which will involve monthly meetings and give him an opportunity to do just that.

He plans to traverse the newly connected Great Walk track in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, play lots of golf and, unsurprisingly a crime novel buff, he also will indulge in plenty of Kindle time.

At least those protagonists, evil or otherwise, will be imagined through an author's words and no longer be metres away.

A FEW OF JUDGE ROBERTSON'S FAVOURITE THINGS

PODCASTS: Chat 10 Looks 3 with Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales. The Party Room with Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas.

AUTHORS: Helen Garner, David Malouf, Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey.

HOBBIES: Choir, swimming, yoga, bushwalking, golf.

WINE: Coonawarra or Margaret River semillon; a sav blanc from the Adelaide Hills or any riesling from Stanthorpe and the Polish Hill region of South Australia's Clare Valley.