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JOHNSTONE, Graeme Douglas (1945-2012)

JOHNSTONE, Graeme Douglas (1945-2012)

The disappearance of Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt at Cheviot Beach on the Mornington Peninsula in December 1967 was one of the many high profile investigations carried out by Graeme Johnstone as Victoria’s State Coroner.

Graeme Johnstone (Barnard)

Graeme Johnstone (Barnard)

In a legal career that took him from a rural legal practice at Dimboola in Western Victoria to the investigation of some of the most controversial deaths in Victorian history, Graeme Johnstone developed a reputation throughout the legal profession for the ethical approach he took to his office, his concern in applying the outcomes of his specific findings to the community and his determination to pursue his investigations wherever they took him. He often visited the scenes of death. He was described by the Bar Council as 'a fine magistrate, a reforming coroner and a man of great humanity and wisdom recognised nationally and internationally for his reforming work (as Coroner) in reducing preventable death' . Former Victorian Attorney General, Rob Hulls praised Graeme for the high standards of his work and particularly for investigating deaths in custody.

Graeme was born on 17 May 1945, the son of Robert and Alice nee Boyle. He was enrolled at the Geelong College in 1950, remaining as a student at College for the next 13 years until 1963. That year, he was notable as a member of the Swimming Team, the Library Committee and Council, a McArthur House Prefect and as a Cadet Corps Under Officer. It was at College that he developed an interest in shooting, an interest that he continued through life as an avid gun collector. As the Captain of the McArthur House Team he won the College’s inter-house shooting competition and led the College Team to victory in the inter-school Clowes Cup. He also won the prize as ‘Best Shot’ at the College in 1962.

Graeme Johnstone as a cadet at Geelong College. (Barnard)

Graeme Johnstone as a cadet
at Geelong College. (Barnard)

After graduating from Monash University LLB and B Juris, Graeme embarked on the successful legal career which was to lead to his appointment as Deputy Coroner in 1988 and as Chief State Coroner (Vic) in November 1994. He commenced practice in 1971 with the legal firm Muntz and Muntz. Admitted to the Bar in 1973, he practised until his appointment to the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria in 1986. He also sat on the Small Claims Tribunal and the Residential Tenancies Tribunal for 9 years. Among the many enquiries he led were those into the death of Jaidyn Leskie, the disappearance of Louise and Charmian Faulkner in 1980, and the deaths caused by the Esso Longford Gas Explosion and the Linton Bushfire. After his enquiry into a 2004 car collision on the Midland Highway he called for the introduction of electronic stability control (ESC) on all new cars. ESC became compulsory in Australia on 1 November 2011. Following his investigation of Harold Holt’s death, around which colourful theories such as suicide or kidnapping by a Chinese submarine abounded, he commented that ‘It is sad that, over the years, all of these fanciful or unusual theories about Mr Holt’s disappearance should receive public ventilation, overshadow his life and require an explanation’ .

Graeme retired as State Coroner in November, 2007 continuing to serve as a magistrate. His outstanding service to the community was honoured by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) with the biennially awarded Hartnett Medal in 2007. Graeme died on 16 November 2012 after a long illness. He is survived by his first wife Carol Barnard, former Director of Community Relations and Development at the College and his three step-daughters from his second marriage.

Sources: Bar Council 20 Nov 2012: Herald Sun (Melb) 4 December 2007; Images courtesy of Carol Barnard. OGC 1958.
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