The members of the aged care royal commission and their senior counsel assisting began this week’s hearings with personal tributes to the former chair of the inquest, Justice Richard Tracey, who died last week, seven weeks after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Commissioner Lynelle Briggs said the highly respected judge was made for the role.
“He was experienced. He was wise. He was admired. He knew the law like the back of his hand. He was prepared to take a punt if it meant getting a better outcome for older Australians,” she said.
Justice Tracey continued to work after his diagnosis and, with help from Briggs, finalised the text of the inquiry’s interim report in late September, having worked on it for over a month while undergoing treatment in Los Angeles. It will be presented to the Governor-General at the end of this month. “Our interim report will be his interim report,” said Briggs. “One of his many legacies.”
The new chair of the inquiry, Tony Pagone, thanked family members and colleagues from the legal profession for coming to the special hearing, and told them his predecessor enjoyed life and was not averse to a glass of red or the occasional cigar.
“I have known him or known of him for the whole of my involvement in the law. It was his book on administrative law that I recall reading as a student and which I then used when I was a lecturer at Monash University.”
The new royal commissioner said he would also miss Richard Tracey’s friendship.
“He had a selfless drive and energy which he blended with good humour and compassion. It is no small mark of the man’s character that he worked solidly as a judge, despite at the time carrying an illness which might have crushed others until remission seemed to have lessened the danger.
“His work on this commission has also been solid, selfless and significant.”
Arthur Moses, president of the Law Council of Australia, said Justice Tracey was “a man of the highest integrity” who had left an “important and enduring legacy” to the legal community, particularly as a judge in the military legal system and in the Federal Court.
Briggs said Tracey’s “gentle guidance and direction” and his generosity made the work of the inquiry easier for everyone involved, while his forthright observations encouraged the commissioners to pull no punches.
“He was a thoughtful and considerate man,” she said. “I loved working with him. It was a genuine partnership. You could say that we bonded over morning teas, simple sandwiches, great fish meals and Iced Vovo biscuits, which Richard lavishly shared with all the staff in the royal commission. We will all remember him very well.
“It was Richard who labelled aspects of the aged care system cruel and unkind after two particularly gruelling days of evidence in Darwin, and it was Richard who encouraged me to drive our policy agenda beyond change at the margin to transformative change, given the degree of substandard care that was apparent to us.”
Senior counsel assisting Peter Rozen said Richard Tracey was a “fundamentally decent human being” and this was clear in the way he conducted community forums and visits to aged care facilities.
“Without fail, Richard engaged with these members of the public as they shared their often traumatic and distressing experiences with the royal commission. In so doing, he displayed the role of a true leader. By his example, he demonstrated to us all how we should treat the members of the public with whom we were dealing — that is, with respect and kindness.
“Richard was passionate about the work of this royal commission and the need for change in the Australian aged care system. We will miss him. We will continue our work in his absence but we remain very grateful for the time we had with him. May he rest in peace.”