CABINET seemed to sit on its hands as the investigation of High Court judge Lionel Murphy flowing from publication of allegations popularly known as The Age tapes got a life of its own during 1984 and 1985.
The issue threatened to develop into a political football match with cabinet trying to delicately pick its way through the debris and the Senate, where the government lacked a majority, setting up its own inquiry.
Education minister Susan Ryan recalled: " I think the really sad discussions in cabinet were those concerning Lionel Murphy and The Age tapes saga. Murphy was very highly regarded by all of us in cabinet and, I think, throughout the Labor Party generally. He had been a great reforming attorney-general and was a man of immense intellect, empathy, bravery and so forth."
In February 1984 The Age published material from tape recordings of telephone calls allegedly made without the authority of the NSW police. Most of the alleged criminal activities fell into the NSW jurisdiction.
However, they also indicated that a Commonwealth judge, later identified as Mr Murphy - who was attorney-general in the Whitlam government - may have acted improperly in attempting to influence court proceedings in relation to his friend, Sydney solicitor Morgan Ryan.
Two years of inquiries, legal opinions and proceedings followed.
Attorney-general Gareth Evans asked the director of public prosecutions, Ian Temby, QC, to investigate for possible federal offences. Mr Temby reported on July 20, 1984, that the voices on the tape could not be authenticated, nor could it be proved that the tapes recorded actual phone conversations, and there was no major offence under federal law.
Mr Evans and Mr Temby, however, recommended their report be released but the Australian Federal Police opposed the release of their input and cabinet eventually agreed. Meanwhile, the Senate heard evidence in camera and its report, in August 1984, was divided on party lines. On the casting vote of the chairman, it found that Mr Murphy's behaviour did not warrant his removal as a judge.
The Senate resumed its hearings on September 6 and, following evidence from NSW chief magistrate Clarrie Briese and two judges about the Ryan case, senators found that on the balance of probability Mr Murphy had attempted to influence the course of justice.
On December 14, 1984, cabinet noted the DPP had decided to charge Murphy with attempting to pervert the course of justice. Murphy was convicted in July 1985 and sentenced to 18 months in jail. He was acquitted 11 months later.
"We were very distraught to have to be a part of the events that led ultimately to his prosecutions, findings of wrongdoing against him, subsequently overturned," Ms Ryan said.
"It went on and on and on and during that time Lionel became very ill with cancer and even though he was ultimately acquitted he died."