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The view from the top, Heath Ducker

The view from the top, Heath Ducker

Heath Ducker's autobiography tells the story of a young man's ambition to rise out of poverty and all the way to the top. He speaks to Angela Priestley At just 27, it's difficult to believe…

Heath Ducker's autobiography tells the story of a young man's ambition to rise out of poverty and all the way to the top. He speaks to Angela Priestley

At just 27, it's difficult to believe that Gadens lawyer Heath Ducker would have enough personal history to write a 364-page autobiography.

But, even prior to joining Gadens Lawyers as a graduate fresh from university, Ducker could boast a 13-year career in youth affairs.

That career took him from a boy growing up in poverty in Sydney, and facing his own personal crisis having been sexually abused at at early age, to a leadership position at community organisation Youth Insearch. A career as a prominent spokesperson on youth affairs followed, in which he captured the ears of Australia's highest order of politicians - including two prime ministers.

Clearly, they listened. Ducker's book A Room at the Top, released this week, opens with a letter from Kevin Rudd commending Ducker for overcoming adversity: "In place of feeling his life was of little worth, Heath comes to see value in his life."

Former prime minister John Howard, meanwhile, has his own opinion of Ducker. In 2006, he formally introduced the profile of Ducker that appeared on ABC program Australian Story. Howard met Ducker formally as a university student, after personally inviting him to his office to discuss youth affairs. When asked where he was heading off the back of a combined communications and law degree, Ducker replied: "I'm going to have your chair in ten or fifteen years' time," to which Howard laughed, and replied: "I'll keep it warm for you."

Only later did Ducker realise that Howard appreciated the gesture. "I didn't think too much before I said it, but he liked it! He went on to introduce my Australian Story, so there is something to be said about being assertive."

The second eldest of nine brothers and sisters, Ducker was raised by his single mother in a government house where food was scarce - he ate little but Weet-bix - and discipline barely existed. He remembers his primary school principal and neighbours writing endless letters to DOCS, and the constant smell of a household in which windows remained broken, rubbish piled up and cleaning rarely occurred. But through organisations such as Youth Insearch - which provides self-help camps for disadvantaged young people, and the "Aunties and Uncles" program - which offers kids the support of an extended family of volunteers who offer respite from stressful home situations - Ducker was able to personally find his own sense of discipline - and an ambition to make something of his life.

He undertook extensive leadership training to become a Youth Insearch leader and take on the responsibility of assisting troubled youths, and he began a series of seemingly endless speaking engagements to audiences of actors, musicians and politicians. Against the odds, and with the assistance of his "Aunty and Uncle" who opened their home for Ducker to study away from his family life, he completed his HSC, studied a combined communications/law degree and landed a graduate position at Gadens Lawyers.

It's a long list of achievements that are impressive for the fact they were not only created on top of a difficult family life, but also that at an early age Ducker was sexually abused by a close friend's father.

Ducker saw the opportunity to write his book as a means to further extend the reach of his story. "I've always believed, and this has come to me after speaking about my story for some time, that the less these things are discussed openly and publicly - particularly the sexual abuse - the longer the problems continue," he says.

"With sexual abuse, or in growing up in poverty, society's general response is one of judgement and a continued belief that someone can't overcome it, or that someone is lesser because they have grown up within it ... that contributes to the problem and it creates barriers to understanding."

Ducker first spoke out about sexual abuse in one of the many youth camps he attended and performed leadership duties in while growing up. It was, he says, a restricted and confidential environment which was, he realised, extremely powerful in its ability to bring people together and encourage them to talk openly.

Ducker's story of sexual abuse and his experience growing up in poverty has become very public following not only his speaking engagements, but also the Australian Story aired a couple of years ago, and, now, the commitment of the story to page. He feels little concern for such personal knowledge being known within his professional life. "If I was to succumb to that whole way of thinking, then I'd defeat the whole purpose of why I do this," he says. "I remain steadfast in the belief that I should not be ashamed or embarrassed about any of this, and that it's for a higher purpose."

He's also steadfast about what he believes are circumstances and opportunities available to him that other people in his position are rarely granted. Initially, he points to the people who became a part of his life, those who, he says, were passionate about what he did and could see his potential. He was the product of opportunities that can be found in society if disadvantaged youth are able to access the necessary connections.

"The one thing about my story that I recognise is that there are a lot of people out there who have stories like mine," says Ducker. "It's just that mine is the only one being told. I don't, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself special in that regard, I'm just happy that I'm in a position to talk about it."

Ducker is still interested in politics, but, having just completed his rotation at Gadens, is keen to continue with the vocation of law for the foreseeable future. "I still want to get into politics," he says, "probably not as soon as what I said to John back then, but it is on the horizon, when the timing is right."

And law, he believes, is the ideal steppingstone. "It allows you to work within the mechanics of society," he says. "Law is what establishes how society operates, so understanding it, getting involved in it and advising on it, is a great passion of mine."

But with all that community work behind him and a strong passion for youth affairs and assisting young people in circumstances similar to his, is a commercial firm really the ideal place to work within law?

It's a question that Ducker seems to be regularly asked, and one he starts answering by noting the point that well before he ever arrived in a law firm he had already had what he considers a long career in the community welfare sector. "I thought I'd balance my experience with commercial experience," he says. "Obviously, the social welfare side of things is not the whole picture. If you're ever going to wish to lead people or society adequately, then you need to have a balanced view."

So far, though, it's already a remarkable career, but, as Rudd comments in his opening letter in Ducker's book: "The best chapters are yet to be written."

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

The legal budget breakdown 2017

The view from the top, Heath Ducker
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