Justice Tony (Gaetano) Pagone
Surprisingly, law wasn’t always on the cards for highly esteemed Supreme Court Judge, Justice Tony (Gaetano) Pagone. But, as he has risen to the top of a tough profession, he has also kept a strong hold on his Sicilian heritage.
When Tony Pagone was growing up, “being Italian wasn’t cool.” It is a common statement from the children of migrants who arrived into the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s. However, out of that commonplace struggle with the clash of cultures, many among that first Australian-born generation have gone on to become the champions of multi-culturalism and individual human rights.
When Justice Pagone is sitting on the bench of the Victorian Supreme Court, others in such a hallowed place may find it strange to hear the man who has made many judgements comment that “being a migrant kid was something that many people felt embarrassed by and often ashamed of.”
These days, the “migrant kid” is noted for his legal expertise in the taxation, commercial, constitutional and human rights arenas. He is also the President of a recently formed national Sicilian association that aims to preserve and promote that culture to a wider audience as well as to forge stronger ties with the island and its scattered descendants.
Justice Pagone can now look back and “feel proud of the background that you have, the culture that you come from and really celebrate the differences.”
During the early 1950s, Justice Pagone’s Sicilian-born parents migrated to Melbourne in search of a better life. Their story was repeated thousands of times as Sicilians fled the devastation of World War II and the resultant downturn in agriculture and economic opportunity. However, the Pagones had already made one migrant journey from their birthplace, Catania.
They had first settled in an Italian colony in Abyssinia, the east African country now known as Ethiopia. In 1935, Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, invaded Abyssinia to set up an Italian empire. The families of Justice Pagone’s mother and father migrated to Abyssinia in 1938. It was here that they met, married and had two daughters, before setting off for Australia in 1953.
“Abyssinia had lost the promise that the Italians thought it would bring, so my parents didn’t like the idea of staying there. Italy in the 1950s wasn’t the economic miracle that it later became, so going back to Italy didn’t seem like an option either,” explains Justice Pagone. “They had heard about Melbourne through friends who had travelled to Australia and decided to settle there.”
A year after the family settled, Justice Pagone was born.
No one in the Pagone family had ever studied law. They were a family of pastry chefs. “Although my father had trained as an accountant, he worked in Australia as a pastry chef. My grandfather and my great grandfather were also pastry chefs. My great grandfather seemed to have done quite good business as a pastry chef in Catania.” Justice Pagone’s parents were keen for him to study law. “But, I didn’t really like it at all,” he says.
But, hard work during his high school years saw him accepted into the law faculty at Monash University, completing a combined arts/law degree. “The arts part of the course was political science which is what I really loved. I thought I’d become an academic, teaching political science, not law. But, I completed the degree and began practicing law. One day I realised how terrific it was.”
He went on to complete a post graduate degree at prestigious Cambridge University. “I remember thinking that law was really interesting. The law is the way that a society organises itself. I began to see law as the means by which people’s rights are regulated. The law governs their lives and is such an incredible part of everything we do. The intellectual part of it is what really got me. The practice of law is terrific fun. I can’t even describe the highs you get, particularly as a barrister running a case.”
Even now, with a remarkable track record already under his belt, the extent to which he revels in his profession shines through. “I tell my children I still haven’t worked out what I want to do when I grow up,” he says jokingly.
Justice Pagone came to the bar as a barrister in 1985. “I qualified and did mainly commercial cases. My main interests were in constitutional and administrative law, but then I started taking on tax cases. I continued to do more and more of these cases, and eventually ended up doing more tax cases than any other types of cases. Tax was a big part of my practice; ‘tax was bread and butter’ but there were also many other cases as well. Some of the cases I remember most fondly are not the tax cases, but the cases involving ordinary people. It’s the smaller cases you tend to think about more often than the big ones.”
He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1996. High profile cases, or “the big ones” he was involved with, included the 1998 waterfront dispute where the Federal Government backed a lockout of waterside workers in an effort to dilute union power on the docks and as counsel for the Mexican Government as it sought to extradite fugitive banker, Carlos Cabal. The banker had fled to Australia after his $1.5 billion empire collapsed. Justice Pagone would also demonstrate his long-held membership of humanitarian organisations and involvement in multi-cultural causes when he represented Amnesty International in the case involving the rescue of 438 Afghan refugees from a sinking fishing boat by the Norwegian freighter, Tampa and the subsequent decision by Australia to deny them entry.
Justice Pagone’s career journey took another interesting turn in 2001. “I received a telephone call one day from the Attorney-General’s assistant saying that the Attorney-General wanted to speak with me. It was a day that I wasn’t appearing in court, so I had turned up in jeans and a scruffy old jacket. At that stage I was a member of the Bar Counsel so assumed the Attorney-General wanted to consult about matters to do with the law. I had been consulted by state ministers about some aspects of tax and superannuation arrangements in the past, so thought that maybe the Attorney- General wanted to discuss some aspect of Government policy.”
Justice Pagone soon discovered his assumptions were astray. “I headed to Spring Street, informally dressed and had a very pleasant chat with the Attorney- General. Then he asked if I had thought about being appointed as a judge and suddenly the penny dropped. It came completely out of the blue, but today here we are.” At 46, he was the youngest Supreme Court judge on the bench.
He would become an even bigger rarity by subsequently being appointed to the bench twice. First appointed in 2001, he served until June 2002, when again, his skills brought about a request to become Special Counsel to the Commissioner of Taxation. “It struck me as a really exciting possibility and worth trying, so I decided I should give that a go.” He did so for 18 months, then returned to practice as a barrister and was reappointed to the court in 2007. “I don’t think there is anybody who has been appointed twice to the same court by the same Attorney- General.”
But, throughout an already remarkable career, Justice Pagone has still found the time to promote and celebrate his beloved Sicilian heritage. He proudly displays the Sicilian flag in his office at the court in Melbourne’s CBD.
When Justice Pagone’s parents arrived in Melbourne, no other family members were here. It wasn’t until the age of 27 that he was able to travel to their hometown of Catania to connect with aunts, uncles and cousins. The connection he felt was almost instantaneous. “What struck me was how much these people looked like my family. You carry that with you. You carry the food with you, the flavours, the history and the stories that people tell you. It always has an impact in the back of your mind, even if you don’t realise it,” he says.
“Being a first generation Australian, I think you feel the link to your parents’ country of origin much more strongly. I grew up with stories of Italy as something in the background – it was my parents’ life and childhood, it was always being talked about, but I still had no sense of it. There was a sense of trying to connect to something that was a part of me, but I didn’t really appreciate or know it. Migrant kids are migrant kids and they are conscious that they belong in two cultures, but still don’t belong in either.
“Part of my identity, as it is for every migrant or migrant kid, whether you deny your migrant background or embrace it, is that you are conscious that it is part of you. It is both psychologically and emotionally important for me to keep my heritage alive in Australia because it defines me even when I’m not aware of it. Much of what we carry with us is our background, whether we like it or not,” he explains.
Living up to its motto of “preserving the past and creating the future”, the Sicilian Association of Australia recognises the contribution that Sicilians have made to Australian society and seeks to ensure the survival of Sicilian influence and migration into Australia. Officially established on 24 October 2010, the association seeks to promote the culture in Australia through literature, art and architecture, food, commercial activity and tourism.
“My role in the Sicilian Association of Australia has been nothing but an honour for me,” says Justice Pagone. “The force behind this association is the group of people who are on the committee. They are the ones who got it all together. I was asked whether I would be willing to join and asked to stand for the role of President. I gave them my complete and total support because what they are doing is terrific.” Besides, he says, “I have been able to enjoy some wonderful Italian food. As my father was a pastry chef, I grew up with Italian pastries. When someone gives me an amaretto biscuit, it brings back memories of my childhood.”
But, the Sicilian influence is more than just food. “There is a great tendency for the Italian influence to be regarded as just pizza and coffee, but it is not that at all. If you look into Sicily’s history, you will see that Dante - the man regarded as the founder of the Italian language - regarded the Sicilian dialect as being a great language for literature and poetry. The history itself is also interesting. When you visit Sicily, you can see perfectly preserved Grecian ruins – and there are so many of them. If you look closely at the Grecian amphitheater, you will see touches of the Romans too. They are just the straight columns typical of the Greeks, but they have Roman arches as well. These are things that are worth celebrating and preserving, things we should be proud of in addition to the distinctive language that we had.”
Justice Pagone is quick to assert that the Sicilian Association of Australia is not a club. “The main feature of the association is simply to promote and celebrate Sicilian culture to the wider community, not just among ourselves, but to everyone who has an interest in it right across the board.”
But, how does a Supreme Court judge find the time to balance his career, his role at the Sicilian Association of Australia and family life? “I find the time because it’s important enough to find the time. I’ve tried not to sacrifice time spent with the family and hope that when my kids grow old they can look back and say that they had a father who was there too often rather than not often enough.”
For further information on the Sicilian Association of Australia: email@example.com.