Conservation pioneer remembered

The Greek community is at a loss after Stephen Comino - a lawyer who pioneered the use of the legal system to defend wildlife and human rights - passed away

From a young age, Stephen learned to defend himself and fight hard for others. Stephen Comino was born in Laidley, Queensland, on 29 May 1928, the youngest of four children, the son of Arthur Comino from the village of Dourianika on the Greek island of Kythera, and Marigoula Comino from the neighbouring village of Perlegkianika.
His parents operated a cafe; he saw how disrespectfully police would question his father over his treatment of unruly drunks. The human misery that he witnessed in the Depression and his Kytherian heritage inculcated by his parents taught him the importance of avoiding waste and unnecessary expenses and saving money and things.
From 1925 to 1948 his parents operated one of the four cafes in the Queensland country town of Laidley. The residential quarters were at the rear of the shop. All the water needs had to be satisfied out of one water tank under which Sunday lunches were had. There were no fridges in those days. The food skills of his Greek heritage ensured that no customer of the café ever suffered from food poisoning.
Stephen always proudly related how his father had a fruit vending business associated with the family café in Laidley. Stephen would visit the local farmers with a horse and buggy carrying fresh fruit which he’d sell to the local farmers.
Also, he was the lolly boy during intermission in the local picture theatre, while his future wife, Penelope, was the lolly girl in her father’s Princess Theatre at Woolloongabba, Brisbane.
Also while growing up, his parents arranged for Stephen and his sisters to be taught Greek by a visiting Greek teacher, Mr Xanthopoulos, every Sunday.
During World War II, Stephen’s father obtained permission from the Australian Prime Minister, Sir Arthur Fadden, to build a three storey building at Redcliffe known as Comino’s Arcade. It was a mixed use development with terrazzo floors before town planning was even a discipline. It combined ground floor shops, first floor offices, second floor flatettes and a function room. The originality of the building caused it to be heritage listed without any representations from the family.
Stephen, in his holidays, assisted his father in the construction of the building. His father would come down from Laidley on the weekends to work on the building. They slept out overnight and feasted on sand crabs caught in pots thrown in from the Redcliffe Jetty. Stephen pushed loaded wheelbarrows of cement up narrow timber planks. All the concrete was hand mixed on site. All the concrete reinforcement rods were hand tied one by one. Thousands of bricks were moved by hand.
His father wanted Stephen to study law so that he could help out whenever the family crossed swords with the system.. He failed first year university legal studies because the travel to and from Redcliffe daily made it too hard for him to do the requisite study. At the university, only the future Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Gerard Brennan, a Catholic, befriended him and spoke to him.
He applied to become an articled clerk in a number of firms. Only the Catholic firm, Burbin Pappy & Finn, gave him a job. At that time it was not possible for a non-Protestant to work in a firm of Protestant lawyers. While working as an articled clerk he completed the five year Solicitors Board course which involved no formal classes, only end-of-year exams, and was admitted as a solicitor in 1953.
Stephen was the first Greek speaking solicitor in Queensland and practised as a lawyer for more than 50 years. He started out in practice alone. He participated in numerous legal partnerships.
From 2005 he worked for his son in the firm of Stephen Comino & Arthur Comino, always the de facto master of the practice despite his status as a consultant. Until late 2012 he visited the office daily.
Thereafter until his last days he discussed daily with his son, Arthur, legal matters of the day and provided helpful advice and direction.
As a lawyer he helped ever so many people from all walks of life and all stations in life with their legal problems. He always gave his best.
He always worked unstintingly in their matters as if they were his very own. For this he was criticised by the uncaring for being too close to his clients. One grateful client, for whom he gave a lifetime of service, honoured him with a trip around the world, a gesture that humbled him and delighted him greatly.
Stephen’s legal work was very broad and he assisted people from all walks of life. His initiation into conservation came in the 1960s when he joined the Cooloola Committee, which succeeded in pressuring the Queensland government to stop sandmining. Together with his good friend Llew Wyvill QC, he continued with many other causes, advising the Moreton Island Protection Committee, the Friends of Hinchinbrook and branches of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) in their fights against ill-conceived development.
In cases that went as far as the High Court, Stephen acted for John Sinclair in the 1970s and 1980s to protect Fraser Island and to protect Sinclair’s reputation against Premier Bjelke-Petersen.
In 1989 Stephen acted for the Central Queensland Speleological Society in its Supreme Court and High Court litigation to protect Mt Etna’s ghost bats. He did so in the face of heavy criticism from other law firms – conservation cases were then unpopular in the profession and his work was done on a pro bono basis. Although this case was unsuccessful, the public outcry led to nearby caves being saved.
Stephen also advocated for the Kukujungan Aboriginal tribe of North Queensland before Queensland’s Environment Minister, obtaining a lease back to the tribe of their traditional lands. For this, he was made an honorary member of the Kukujungan and given the name ‘tsama-tsama’ (brown snake).
As WPSQ president (1992-1994), Stephen helped carry the organisation through a difficult period after the 1992 Mabo native title decision, when there was heated debate over conservation and Aboriginal custodianship.
He met the love of his life, Penelope Sourry, at a Greek dance. Contrary to normal Greek practice at that time he got Penelope’s mother’s permission to date Penelope. They married on 19 April 1953, he being 24 and she being 22. Penelope learned shorthand and typing and worked as a legal secretary for Stephen.
Arthur was born to them in 1955, Anthony in 1957 and Maria in 1960. They raised three children on acreage on the outskirts of Brisbane, where they cultivated crops with a draught horse and bred goats and chickens. In 1994, Stephen received an Australia Medal for service to conservation and to the law. In the law – as in life – he chose to do the right thing rather than take the easy path, no matter what the price.
Stephen’s philosophy on life was simple. He loved talking to people because, he said, it is only by talking to people that you can learn things from them.
He was a great storyteller in the old way of reporting conversations exactly as if a tape recorder was running.
In trying to solve legal problems he always sought to understand the characters of the persons involved and their motives, so as to be able to decide what to do and how to do it.
Like his parents he believed that the most important things in life are the simple things.
Further, one of the most important things in life, he said, was knowing and associating with good people and conversing with them. By dealing with good people you can avoid problems.
As a lawyer, he said that the most important thing you have is your integrity and your professional independence. If you don’t have those, you have nothing. A lawyer will only be remembered for those things. He lived his credo to the end.
Stephen is survived by his wife Penelope; his three children Arthur, Maria and Anthony; and his three grandchildren Penelope, Stephen and Peter.