- Autumn 2023
- The Honourable Ian Vitaly Gzell AM KC (1941-2022)
The Hon Ian Gzell died peacefully with his family present at Beresford Hall on 22 December 2022. In his last years he had sadly been affected, more and more, with Alzheimer’s.
He, I and Tony Fitzgerald met at Queensland University in 1960. Fitzgerald and I were men of the world – we had each spent the previous year doing Engineering 1, a kind of gap year – and then met again studying law the next year. Gzell, on the other hand – only a few weeks younger than me: he used to call me the ‘old man’ – was a fresh faced young man straight from school at Brisbane Boys College. We thought he must have been kept back for a year by his mother, or by his school. He soon presented, however, as a person of great precocity, and much determination. He had barely been at the university for what seemed a few minutes before, still very much an undergraduate, setting up a committee to agitate for a new University Theatre, to cost a million pounds. The existing theatre, it must be said, was a building (the GP Hut), built by the US Forces during their occupation of the St Lucia Campus during World War II. His agitation was successful. The University had to silence him by buying a nearby cinema, and renaming it.
Ian’s parents – his father was a leading architect – were hospitable to many of us as young students in Brisbane. We were all happy to be at their home, which may not have been unconnected with the fact that he had two rather attractive sisters. Ian was always regarded as someone who presented as going places. For many years at the start of each University year – there was only one University in Queensland then –the media would interview bright students about their intended future careers. Gzell told them he was looking for a career in radio or the theatre, but that in the interim he would do law.
He was actually immensely qualified for radio work. While at school he had been involved in some ABC adaptations – he was, I think, the Magic Pudding – and when he wanted to could adopt a voice we used to call his radio announcer’s voice. It was wonderful, sonorous and orotund, and Lawsey and Jonesey are lucky that he didn’t stay with radio announcing.
It was in 1961 our friendship really developed. The then Sylvia Butts (later Gzell) and Ian and I were three of the four members of the Queensland University Debating Team at the Intervarsity Debating competition in Melbourne. It was where, so many years ago, the romance between Ian and Sylvia commenced. We did not come first in the competition, not surprisingly when two members of the team can hardly keep their hands off each other. I was not able to strike a similar chord with the fourth member of the team. He was a Presbyterian clergyman. After the Melbourne experience he became a missionary, I believe, but I doubt the story that he was later eaten by a member of his flock.
In the event, of course, Ian did practise law. He came to the Bar in Brisbane in 1965, having been Associate to Sir Charles Wanstall for two years. There he performed a public service, including helping to prune some of Sir Charles’ judgments which tended to be, shall we say, a touch comprehensive.
Ian loved degrees and institutions. In addition to degrees in Arts and Law he acquired a degree in Commerce, he became a Fellow of the Australian Society of Certified Practising Accountants, a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Fellow of the Taxation Institute of Australia. With all those qualifications he might have been expected to move into the business area, say as Chief Executive of a large insurance company and, since he also had an LTCL, if his ship of commerce started to go down, he could have arranged the music for the lifeboats.
But he came to the Bar. Initially he practised, as we all then did, ‘across the board’, but his practice moved quickly to the revenue area and to an interest in computerisation and technology. An early sign – well before Bill Gates was much heard of – was that he acquired some form of electronic calculator. It was a large device which he would take to court, plug in and place on the Bar table. It appeared to carry with it the risk of electrocution. It was looked at askance by some of the older judges who were just starting to come to terms with looseleaf services.
There was nothing squalid about Ian’s revenue practice. He was not in the realm of blueberries, pine trees, jojoba plantations or Captain Marvel films. Rather his was the big ticket stuff. He and David Russell were leading practitioners in the field of international revenue law. A measure was in May 1989 when President or past President of the Taxation Institute. He arranged a trip to China where conferences were held in Beijing and Shanghai, each with Chinese and Australian attendees. The Australian attendees included the Handleys, Andrew Rogers and Helen Coonan, some other Australian judges, quite a few barristers and accountants, and the Australian Commissioner of Taxation. Laura Tingle reported on proceedings for the Australian Financial Review. The conference concluded with a dinner hosted in effect by the Chief Justice of China. The Chief Justice spoke; it was obvious someone would have to reply and while several important Australians were clearing their throats in case, the Chief Justice recognised relative importance and called on the Taxation Commissioner to reply.
But Ian was not just a taker: he was also a giver and a contributor. He gave great assistance to the Bars of Queensland and later New South Wales, where he and Sylvia moved in 1990. In Queensland he was Treasurer and then Secretary of the Bar Association for five years, a member of the Supreme Court Library Committee for 18 years and a member of the Barristers Board for 13 years. He was a
Director of Barristers’ Chambers Limited, a company established to provide chambers for barristers. At the New South Wales Bar he gave sterling service as a director and later Chair of Counsel’s Chambers for three years, a body with similar aims, until his appointment to the Supreme Court in 2002. He had also been President of the Commercial Law Association from 1994-1996 and a director 1991-1998.
On the Supreme Court he sat in the Equity Division and heard a great many cases, often of importance. Two cases in which his judgment at first instance was restored by the High Court after being overruled by the Court of Appeal are the elegantly named Tasty Chicks Pty Ltd v. Chief Commissioner of State Revenue (2011) 245 CLR 4461 and ALH Group Property Holdings Pty Ltd v. Chief Commissioner of State Revenue (2012) 245 CLR 2382. What I regard as a fair comment on his performance on the bench came independently from a member of New Chambers who volunteered: ‘He’s a good judge. He’s quick. He’s always on top of the material. He gets right to the point. He’s polite to everyone but won’t take any bullshit.’ A pretty good tribute to the work of a Supreme Court Judge.
As mentioned earlier even as a student Ian was very active in affairs going beyond mere academic study. In his life he made a great contribution to the arts. He was on the Board of the Lyric Opera, the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Chairman, and Director, Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the Queensland Theatre Company.
After moving to New South Wales he became a Director and Patron of the Arts Council of New South Wales and a life member. He was on a number of Commonwealth educational bodies, including the Commonwealth/s Tertiary Education Commission.
He was also very interested in sporting pursuits. Bridge, billiards, snooker, croquet, golf, skiing, crosswords, sudoku and a variety of other things. At some stage years ago he took up an Oriental game which even the Chairman X: may have found somewhat inscrutable. It was called, I think, ‘Stop’. Perhaps it was ‘Go’. One does need to bear in mind, however, that at any form of sport Ian was a very determined person. He hated losing and if you wanted to get home at a moderately early hour it was wise to lose the game. And to refuse a replay.
Let me conclude with some observations about Ian and his immediate family. He and I were of an age group where we did not display private emotion very publicly. But I think it right to say that in the many dealings I had with Ian and with Sylvia, it is apparent that there existed a deep and abiding love between them. They were, to use an Australianism, ‘old mates’. And I feel privileged to have had them as friends for so long. We all take pride in our children, in their successes and in their achievements. We are concerned if they encounter difficulties. Ian and Sylvia were blessed with four children, Catherine, Angela, Justine and Cecilia and with their families. It was a measure of the man that I had many conversations with him over the years but he did not ever say a harsh word about any of his daughters. Rather his remarks were always those of a father who has deep affection for them.
Until the onset of Alzheimer’s Ian Gzell was a most sociable and agreeable person. He loved a lunch, and consequent discussion. He made very significant contributions to Australian legal and artistic life. May he rest in peace.
by D.F. Jackson AM KC3
1 Tasty Chicks Pty Ltd v Commissioner of State Revenue (2009) 77 ATR 1007 (Gzell J.); Chief Commissioner of State Revenue v Tasty Chicks Pty Ltd (2010) 80 ATR205 (CA).
2 ALH Group Property Holdings Pty Ltd v Chief Commissioner of State Revenue (2010) 79 ATR 51 (Gzell J.); Chief Commissioner of State Revenue v ALH Property Holdings Pty Ltd (2011) 82 ATR 73 (CA).
3 This Note is based on a speech which I gave at his cremation on 16 January 2023. Some further information has been helpfully provided by Peter Fraser of the New South Wales Bar, Tim Grace of the Victorian Bar and the Hon Geoffrey Davies AO, KC, formerly of the Queensland Court of Appeal.