INSURANCE LAW JOURNAL

OBITUARY

Mr Ralph Jacobi AM

         It is comparatively rare that one can single out a back bencher in Parliament and say of him or her that they made a notable contribution to a technical area of private law in Australia.  When this happens, it is sometimes connected with an ill-considered, last minute amendment which a distracted government is faced to accept to ensure passage of its legislation.

         But the death in Adelaide on 16 January 2002 of Ralph Jacobi, long-time member of the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament, brings to mind the substantial contributions which he made as a politician to the reform of Australian law in relation to insurance.  Quite literally, without his passionate interest in the subject, it is most unlikely that the Australian Law Reform Commission would ever have received its reference on insurance law from Attorney-General Ellicott.  Without his unremitting dedication to implementation of the reforms suggested in the Commission's reports, Insurance Agents and Brokers (ALRC 16, 1980) and Insurance Contracts (ALRC 20, 1982), it is unlikely that the Commission's proposals would have been so quickly translated into federal legislation on the initiative of Attorney-General Evans.

         Ralph Jacobi was not a lawyer.  His early employment was in the merchant navy and in trade union office.  But he became a crusader for effective national legislation on the two topics covered by the Australian Law Reform Commission.  He lent unswerving support to the Commission and especially to Professor David St L Kelly, Commissioner in charge of the two references.  At a time of widespread cynicism about politics and politicians, it is proper to remember a politician such as Ralph Jacobi.

         Jacobi was born in 1928 and became an organiser, and later chief executive of the South Australian Trades and Labor Council in 1965.  In 1968 he won Australian Labor Party pre-selection for the new federal electorate of Hawker.  It was a marginal seat which he held for eighteen years, in eight successive contests.  He was never aligned to factions within the ALP.  He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of an amazing range of subjects, such as corporation law, taxation law, Australia's position on Antarctica and the Middle East, the Murray Darling Basin, civil rights in the former Soviet Union and constitutional reform.  Yet at the head of his list was reform of insurance law.  He had seen cases where that law had resulted in outcomes that would be commonly regarded as unjust.  This fired him up to the belief that the federal constitutional head of power over insurance, substantially unused at least in matters of general insurance before the 1980s, needed to be utilised to replace the hotch-potch of State statutes and common law that governed the subject in Australia to that time.  In an age when insurance was becoming regional and global, persisting with separate and different legal regimes in different sub-parts of the Commonwealth was one that Jacobi believed Australia could not afford.

         Jacobi made many informal submissions to the ALRC on its proposals, frequently button-holing Commissioner Kelly and me, then the Commission's Chairman, to draw obtuse problems of insurance law to notice and to demand that they be "fixed up".  In a rather old-fashioned way, he was given to calling everybody by their surname.  He was self-effacing and absolutely honest:  qualities that won him the admiration of members of all parties in the Federal Parliament and others far beyond.

         In 1987 it became know that Ralph Jacobi was suffering from lymphatic cancer.  A petition proposing his appointment to the Order of Australia was signed by almost every member of the House of Representatives.  It resulted in his appointment as a Member of the Order.  Despite intensive treatment over a long period, he ultimately succumbed to the disease.  Yet during his last illness, he served as chair of the Advisory Council of the National Archives of Australia - a post enriched by his intense curiosity about every aspect of public life.  According to reports, in the 1970s and 1980s he at least twice refused to put himself forward for election to the Opposition front bench.  When elevation was first proposed by colleagues his response was:  "If they can't get anyone better than me, they're in trouble".  Obviously, he was an unusual politician.  Our Federal Parliament was greatly enriched by his participation in its affairs.  So was the nation.

         Ralph Jacobi is survived by his wife Stella and sons Malcolm, Andrew and Colin.  His work behind the scenes on insurance law reform would be unknown to most lawyers and citizens.  But it is proper for those who know of it to record it.  The commitment to greater justice, which originally motivates most who go into public life, and is found in all political parties, can sometimes be turned to good account in law reform.  Ralph Jacobi's interest in, and support for, insurance law reform in Australia, is one such case.  Today, it is difficult to remember the confusion and uncertainty that preceded the national Insurance Contracts Act 1984 (Cth).  For the insistent voice of Ralph Jacobi in the Federal Parliament, that Act is but one of many lasting memorials.

Michael Kirby*



*   Justice of the High Court of Australia.  Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission when it produced the reports on Insurance Agents and Brokers (1980) and (1982).