Philip Selth
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Justinian in Legal history, NSW Bar Association, On the Couch, Philip Selth

The retiring Philip Selth ... Living underground for 19 years ... Long haul boss of the NSW bar bows out to write biographies and history ... Former bureaucrat who knows where a lot of bodies are buried ... He's fidgety but has succumbed to the couch 

Philip Selth: The Carnival is Over (pic by Mark Tedeschi QC)

PHILIP Selth, after 19 years in the job, has retired as executive director of the NSW Bar Association. He came to Phillip St from the Australian National University, where he was pro-vice chancellor in charge of planning and administration. 

He has spent time in the Queensland and Northern Territory public service and from 1981 to 1987 he was an assistant secretary and then a first assistant secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

His career in public administration also spanned the New Zealand Ombudsman's Office and the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department. He started on the long and winding road as a graduate clerk at the Department of Customs and Excise. 

He's an enthusiastic historian and his biographies of Eric Miller QC, Kevin Murray (barrister and soldier) and Daniel Joseph Leahy (PNG explorer and gold miner) have appeared in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His degrees in arts and law are from the ANU. 

For now Selth remains the chief executive officer of the Australian Bar Association. While he's been attending the VicBar-ABA conference we wrestled him onto a couch in the Betty Cuthbert Lounge at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 

Describe yourself in three words.

Grumpy old workaholic.

What are you currently reading? 

A pile of books on Donald Trump - and for pleasure, the latest Inspector Montalbano mystery.

What's your favourite film?

"Cat Ballou."

Who has been the most influential person in your life? 

My Dad - who gave me a love of history and of writing.  

When were you happiest? 

The day my son was born. 

What is your favourite piece of music? 

The Seekers "The carnival is over" (that dates me). 

Has the Bar Association changed over 19 years and if so in what way? 

The size and geographic dispersion has unfortunately diminished the collegiality of the bar. The opportunities for young barristers to be on their feet in court are few and far between. 

What is in your refrigerator? 

Stuff that has taken on an identity unknown to human kind because I have delayed cleaning it out.

What makes you frightened? 

Donald Trump. 

Who would you most like to be with in a lift that has broken down? 

Lyndon Baines Johnson - preferably alive.

If barristers are so independent, why do they need an association?  

Because administrative and political skills are not mandatorily attached to practising certificates.

What is the work of which you are most proud? 

The introduction of BarCare and of the national ABA conduct rules that became the Legal Profession Uniform Conduct (Barristers) Rules 2015. 

What have been your best and worst moments as CEO of the NSW bar? 

Being made a life member and saying goodbye to my staff. 

What was the most important opportunity you didn't take? 

Finish my PhD.

If you were on death row, what would you request for your last meal? 

A good sirloin steak, mashed potato, garlic, fried onions, peas, mustard and a very expensive Shiraz - assuming the government was paying.

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be? 

A TeeVee snack - because I am no longer able to eat them.

Who do you most admire professionally?

General Ulysses S. Grant. 

What are you going to do now?

Try and finish draft books on PNG WW11 coast-watchers and Japanese war crimes on Ambon. 

What would you change about Australia?

The present toxic nature of federal politics.

What would your epitaph say?

He now need not get up at 5.30am each day to read newspapers that he does not wish to read.

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"? 

The reluctance of some politicians and elements of the media to accept and enhance the rule of law.

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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