There is one common thread between the very different experiences of three of the lawyers chosen to participate in the first ever Australia 2020 Summit; a long-standing commitment to human rights.
To date, the bill of rights debate has been largely confined to the halls of academia and the judicial chambers. However, the introduction of charters of rights in ACT and Victoria and the Federal Government’s public commitment to explore the charter options has fuelled debate in the lead up to the 2020 summit.
Lawyers Weekly set out to discover what some of the countries’ top legal minds plan to contribute to the overall direction of the summit, and to get their take on the bill of rights debate.
Susan Brennan SC
Topic: Australia’s future in the world
Susan Brennan was admitted to practice in 1994 and signed the Bar roll in 1998, but her involvement in the summit stems from her role as president of the World Young Women’s Christian Association (World YWCA). The global organisation has more of than 25 million young women and girls in 25 countries around the world.
“I happen to be a lawyer, but my presence there in the international stream around Australia’s future in the region and in the world, is really on account of the role that I play in a voluntary capacity,” she says.
Brennan agrees that there seems to be a strong consensus among summit participants on the issue of a bill of rights. “I recently went to a meeting of organisations in the social inclusion stream, which included lots of NGOs and community organisations working on issues from homelessness through to education through to human rights,” she says.
“The constituency in the group were very likeminded, and that group seemed very likely to come up with a consensus.”
For her part, Brennan will be advocating a charter of rights that references gender equality in our region. “The primary thing I’ll be concerned about is the role that Australia can play in modelling women’s leadership within our region,” Brennan says.
However, in the international stream, Brennan expects divergent view points to emerge, and will need to make the most of her expertise as a barrister to make headway in the rigorous debate.
“There are a lot of people there for whom a focus on national security is all about anti-terrorism laws rather than the notion of human security being human wellbeing, human rights and freedom from poverty,” she says.
“I’m not sure actually in the international stream there will be a clear sense of common ground amongst the participants and we might end up with a lot more discussion. One of the things I’m still unsure about is how do they [the summit organisers] deal with really divergent views.”
Julian Burnside QC
Topic: Australian governance
Julian Burnside QC, president of Liberty Victoria, barrister, human rights and refugee advocate predicted that his contribution to the governance discussion will centre on “predictable” topics such as the introduction of a national bill of rights, and the need for further funding for legal aid and community legal centres.
However, Burnside intends to add some spice to the debate by advocating the creation of a new criminal offence to catch-out politicians who engage in misleading or deceptive conduct in their capacity as politicians
“It’s actually an idea I put forward on an earlier occasion, but I would actually like to see it get some serious discussion. I am going to propose that it should be an offence for politicians to engage in misleading or deceptive conduct in their capacity as politicians”, Burnside says.
“What politicians say in the media and what they say in the run up to elections should not be misleading. I would pick up the jurisprudence of section 52 of Trade Practices Act, but would bring with it criminal sanctions rather than civil sanctions. The point of it is to try and improve the honesty of the public discussion of political matters.”
Burnside looks set to be a particularly active summit member, contributing ideas to both the governance and arts topics. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this and I’m not much of a political operator so it will be an interesting experience. I just hope that some useful ideas come out of it all.”
Phoebe Knowles, corporate lawyerMinter Ellison
Topic: Australia’s future in the world
Phoebe Knowles is one of the youngest participants in the summit, but at 27 years of age she brings a wealth of experience to the table. She is currently on secondment as a human rights lawyer at the Public Interest Law Clearing House, working for the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic and the Human Rights Resource Centre in Melbourne. She also has a Masters in International Humanitarian and Criminal Law from the London School of Economics, and runs a project interviewing Australian Darfuris in regards to the ongoing conflict in Darfur.
“I would be hoping that we could be looking at instability and security through a broader lens which addresses the underlying causes of instability and the underlying causes are often human rights abuses,” Knowles says.
Her first-hand experience of human rights abuses in Sierra Leone as a student volunteer at the Special Court for Sierra Leone informs her passionate and persuasive argument for the need for greater protection of human rights.
“Sierra Leone was a place where the courts hadn’t been able to protect its population against violations and, as a result of that there is long-term suffering [and] long-term oppression,” she says.
“Those experiences [in Sierra Leone] inform my current views, because living in a post-conflict society and interviewing numbers of victims of armed conflict you realise that armed conflict doesn’t simply just erupt without reason,” Knowles says.
“It is often a response to long-term human rights violations and long-term suffering and oppression where there’s a lack of institutional and legal response to those violations.”
Other lawyers invited to join the 10,000 Australians selected to attend the summit include Victorian lawyer Fiona McLeod SC, Brisbane barrister and former Attorney-General of Queensland Matt Foley, Tasmanian solicitor and former Australian Young Lawyer of the Year Benedict Bartl and Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke.