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30+ years of fighting for workers: Gordon Legal

30+ years of fighting for workers: Gordon Legal

Lawyer Peter Gordon at the 2023 delegates conference. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Job Reps and HSRs attending the 2023 delegates conference perhaps didn’t expect a talk by a lawyer, about lawyers, to be an event highlight. But Peter Gordon is no ordinary lawyer.

One of the founding partners of the legal firm used by the ANMF (Vic Branch), Peter started Gordon Legal in December 2009, a week after he retired from Slater and Gordon, where he had worked for 30 years. ‘I never intended to work as a lawyer again,’ he said.

‘But a week later, I met a thalidomide survivor and thought this was a challenge I was uniquely placed to take up. And so I started Gordon Legal with my son Patrick, just to do the one case.’

For the next six years, Peter and Patrick focused on the thalidomide class action – which eventually tripled the number of people in Australia and New Zealand to receive compensation – before eventually becoming a thriving practice of multiple lawyers, led by Peter, Marcus Clayton (one of Australia’s best known union industrial lawyers, and chair of the Migrant Workers Centre) and longtime ANMF counsel Philip Gardener.

‘Philip’s connection to this Federation stretches back to the mid-1980s,’ Peter told us. ‘Many of the gains made by this Federation – including with the recent Aged Care Work Value Case – have been made with Philip quietly in the background providing sound advice.

‘So it seemed right to us, in 2017 or 2018, when Marcus, Philip and I all joined up together, that we should try to work out a continued partnership with the ANMF. And we’re proud to say that the ANMF became the first union to retain Gordon Legal in its new iteration on an ongoing basis.’

Radical beginnings

A ‘kind of a dad’s army of old union lawyers’, if these three hadn’t already been ‘young radicals back in the 1980s’, the election of Jeff Kennett in the early 1990s would have definitely made them so.

‘The torrent of attacks that Kennett visited on working people, including members of this industry and this union, can scarcely be overstated. He slashed workers’ rights and cut essential services. And he took a baseball bat to the state’s industrial awards and to ambulance and health services.’

Philip Gardner, Peter told us, was amongst the first of Victoria’s union lawyers to start getting even with Kennett. ‘He did this by working out a way to transfer the nurses’ awards from the state to the federal jurisdiction, thereby protecting nurses’ rights, and quarantining new award conditions from clutches of Jeff Kennett.’

Taking on Robodebt, Big Tobacco and the Catholic Church

While Philip was doing that, Peter was finishing his cases with the victims of the Wittenoom blue asbestos mine, Australia’s greatest industrial disaster, having previously obtained Australia’s first successful asbestos cancer damages verdict. Over the following two decades, he achieved success in a number of David v Goliath-style cases, including:

  • Winning compensation for all 566 people suffering from medically acquired HIV/AIDs from an Australian contaminated blood supply.
  • Running the first Australian mass legal challenge to the tort immunity claimed by the Catholic Church and Christian Brothers Orders, on behalf of sex abuse victims.
  • Achieving the first mass settlement against Dow Corning, for women injured by defective breast implants.
  • Acting for the Cancer Council to oppose Big Tobacco’s challenge to the Gillard government’s plain packaging laws; this followed 13 years of litigation against the tobacco industry internationally, leading to law reform in Victoria to prevent abusive corporate destruction of evidence.
  • Achieving a $2 billion settlement for present and future asbestos victims of James Hardie.

In addition to the above, Peter Gordon and Marcus Clayton also represented former Coalition staffer Rachelle Miller in her abuse case against former Education Minister Alan Tudge, winning Rachelle a $650,000 settlement.

‘While this was going on, we were also running what turned out to be Australia’s biggest ever class action: against the Morrison government over Robodebt.’

This case ultimately reaped more than $1.7 billion in financial benefits for claimants, including:

  • $112 million in compensation
  • $751 million in debts repaid
  • $744 million worth of invalid, partly paid, debts dropped
  • $268 million worth of invalid, unpaid, debts dropped.

Fighting for workers in the courts, and in the lab

In the course of Peter’s work with mesothelioma and other industrial cancer victims, he met Professor Rod Hicks, who was at the time a professor of oncology at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. ‘Turns out, like me, he was a bit of a nonconformist’, he says, who was hitting a wall in his aim to bring new research technology to Australia.

So Peter went into business with him, buying a $14 million next generation PET scan, and starting the Melbourne Theranostic Innovation Centre. ‘Our scanner is 10 times more sensitive than the best PET scans available’ resulting in ‘radiation doses for patients that are 75 per cent less than for traditional PET, and the radiation safety for staff is state of the art.’

Peter says it was a perfect match. ‘Gordon Legal understood Professor Hicks’s desire to focus the balance of his brilliant career on cancer research. And Professor Hicks understood Gordon Legal’s desire to take our work for injured workers to an entirely new dimension. We’re on the cusp right now of announcing new research projects, including into the effects of long COVID on health workers, and a possible new treatment for mesothelioma caused by industrial exposure to asbestos.’

Continuing, he concluded: ‘These days if you are unfortunate enough to get mesothelioma, at Gordon Legal we can not only say that we’ll fight to get you compensated, but we could also say we’ve invested unprecedented money and intellectual and emotional energy to find you a cure.’