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From barrister to politician: Duncan Kerr

From barrister to politician: Duncan Kerr

Politician Duncan Kerr has kept his practising certificate as an "enduring safety net" and "insurance policy" to prevent him becoming a prisoner of the vagaries and whims of political life,…

Politician Duncan Kerr has kept his practising certificate as an "enduring safety net" and "insurance policy" to prevent him becoming a prisoner of the vagaries and whims of political life, despite having been the Member for Denison in Tasmania for the last 23 years.

Currently Kerr is the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and as a member of Kevin Rudd's ministry can't maintain a private practice. His legal career, nonetheless, has been interesting and varied.

He started at the Solicitor General in Tasmania and ultimately became Crown Counsel. He then took up the role of dean of the faculty of law in Papua New Guinea and was legal counsel for the Ombudsman Commission, PNG's anti-corruption agency. When he returned to Australia, he was principal solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service and has continued to practice as a barrister, mainly on a pro bono basis, while in politics. Kerr says one case in which he appeared in the High Court might be the most important legacy he leaves in public life.

"One of the most significant cases, in certainly the recent past, but probably since the court was founded, is a case called Plaintiff 157 of 2002, which was the occasion where the High Court reinforced the availability of judicial review over all administrative conduct of the executive, notwithstanding the existence of a privative clause in the legislation ... which really has become the clarifying case in an area of public law and administrative law," he says.

But Kerr also appreciates the significant influence he is able to wield as a politician on a policy front and cites his time as Justice Minister from 1993 to 1996 as key for law reform. Kerr cut red tape in the Copyright Act, reformed the law of evidence and carried oversight of the Justice Statement and moved to establish a model Criminal Code.

He concedes that making the career choice to become a politician is not without its challenges.

"I'm being judged on every public occasion. If I go out and eat a meal at a restaurant, you're being seen, people know these things and are making judgments about you because they choose whether to re-elect you or not. So that sense of constancy of public attention is very different to what a barrister experiences - they may be in the news every now and then and for some moments may be extremely well-known due to the fact that hey are representing a high-profile client or involved in a high-profile cause, but after that's finished they go back to a private existence," he says.

"[As a politician] you [lead] a life of influence and policy direction instead of what is the opportunity to have a more disengaged attitude to your professional tasks, so as barrister and solicitor you can quite easily treat clients as pretty disembodied ...

"You represent a whole range of people that you have no affinity with and don't share any of their values, whereas when you get into politics you really do have to think 'What are my values? Where do I stand?' And I'm making those value-related choices all the time."

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