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Legal Leaders: The long road - native title barrister Tony McAvoy

Legal Leaders: The long road - native title barrister Tony McAvoy

As one of the country's leading native title barristers, Tony McAvoy has seen his fair share of inequity. He tells Claire Chaffey why law and education are the way forward for Indigenous…

As one of the country's leading native title barristers, Tony McAvoy has seen his fair share of inequity. He tells Claire Chaffey why law and education are the way forward for Indigenous Australians.

Native title barrister Tony McAvoy
There are myriad reasons why people choose to pursue a career in law, but for Sydney-based barrister Tony McAvoy, it was a desire to own a motorbike.

Having enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts after completing high school, McAvoy took himself down to the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Brisbane to see if he could earn some summer-holiday dollars to put towards a motorbike, which would be his transport to and from university.

Once at the ALS, however, the principal legal officer took one look at McAvoy's grades and politely suggested he might want to enroll in a law degree instead.

Five years later, McAvoy had completed his degree and his articles and, in 1988, was admitted as a solicitor in Queensland.

McAvoy is now one of Australia's leading native title barristers, having acted as counsel on numerous drawn-out and high-profile cases in what is an extremely demanding and, for McAvoy, a somewhat personal line of work.

Just last week, he successfully earned native title recognition, through consent determinations obtained in the Federal Court, for the Quandamooka People of North Stradbroke Island. They are now recognised as the rightful owners of 54,408 hectares of land and waters on the island and the determinations bring to an end claims which have been running since the mid-1990s.

For McAvoy, working on this case has been one of his career highlights.

"It is significant for me in a number of respects, firstly because it is a very important, strategic win for native title in that it is on the doorstep of Brisbane city. It is the furthest south that any native title claim has ever been successful in Queensland," he explains.

"Most of the native title determinations are up in the Cape or in the Gulf of Carpentaria, with people who have not suffered as much through the impacts of colonisation."

McAvoy adds that there is also a very personal dimension to this win.

"I grew up in Brisbane. A lot of the people who are now part of my client group grew up with me, so I [have] known them since I could walk. To be able to come from a marginalised community where, when I was born, my father was required to have an exemption certificate to be off [the] mission, to be at a point where I can assist in delivering - for people who I know and grew up with - recognition of their native title, is quite personally comforting."

McAvoy is perhaps an unlikely lawyer, having grown up on the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve - also known as Barambah or Cherbourg mission - in south-east Queensland. Only a generation before, Indigenous people did not have access to mainstream education and were arguably treated as quasi-prisoners on their own land.

"A lot of people don't know that the generation behind mine was so limited in their access to education, but that's the way it was," says McAvoy. "My father couldn't go past year four."

Despite the obvious challenges, McAvoy did very well at school and looked to various Indigenous political leaders - one of whom was well-known poet and political activist Lionel Fogarty who also grew up on Cherbourg mission - for inspiration.

McAvoy went on to do stints in private practice in Queensland before moving into policy work for the New South Wales Government. Before long - though not before becoming a registrar under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act - McAvoy became disillusioned with the amount of time it took to achieve results.

It was this disillusion which persuaded McAvoy that he should go to the Bar and he did so, reading with Tom Molomby SC at Frederick Jordan Chambers, where he remains to this day.

A lot of people don't know that the generation behind mine was so limited in their access to education, but that's the way it was. My father couldn't go past year four."

McAvoy admits that for him, it has been "a long road" to the Bar. He adds, though, that he has taken to it much like "a duck to water" - and his peers and the wider legal profession tend to agree.

Last year, McAvoy was named the inaugural Indigenous Legal Practitioner of the Year by Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland - something which McAvoy sees as another career highlight.

"[It] was quite an important moment for me personally, and also for my family," he says. "Just receiving that sort of recognition from my peers, and being acknowledged and singled out amongst all of my colleagues who are Indigenous professionals - and who I respect immensely - was quite a significant moment for me."

Despite McAvoy's pride at receiving the award, when it comes to talking about industry speculation that he might just be the first Indigenous barrister to become a silk, he is much more muted.

"I am kind of embarrassed by the suggestion. It is very difficult to talk about because there are so many barristers who I work with, many of whom are silk, who I respect immensely and feel as though there is a vast chasm between where they are and where I am," he says.

"Apart from that, the type of work that I do, which I really enjoy and is incredibly rewarding, is not something that you would do as a silk. I get to travel out into the country and sit around and talk to senior men and women about matters of law and custom. It might take days to get statements from them for their native title. You just don't send a senior counsel to do that ... To be able to do that type of work is such a privilege, and I would be quite happy continuing to do that work."

While McAvoy admits that his current thoughts about becoming a silk may change in the future, one thing he won't ever change, he says, is encouraging Indigenous students to study and practice law. He is involved in official mentoring of Indigenous law students through the NSW Bar Association mentoring program, and also unofficially mentors many others - a large number of whom are on the committee of the National Indigenous Legal Conference, which will be held for the sixth time in August this year.

"I encourage students to contact me if they've got problems," he says. "The main reason I try and be as accessible and open as possible is that when I was a law student, there weren't any other Indigenous law students, there weren't any Indigenous practitioners that I could go to.

"I understand the isolation people might feel. Law school is a foreign place for many people. Indeed, it was for me. Having people that you can go to ask the questions that you might think are embarrassing questions is an important resource."

As far as seeing an increase in the number of Indigenous students going on to practice law, McAvoy is buoyed by the likes of Canada and New Zealand when it comes to the future of Indigenous people in the legal profession. And, he says, it all comes down to opportunity and education.

"I take some comfort from looking at the situation in New Zealand with the Maori and the Aboriginal people in Canada, where their numbers [of Indigenous lawyers] are vastly increased on what we have. I believe that is really only the product of their getting access to mainstream education a bit earlier than Aboriginal people in Australia," he says. "There is no doubt there will be an increase in Indigenous legal practitioners and barristers and judges ... Some of the students and young lawyers that I come across are stunningly brilliant in their own right, and I have no doubt they will have stellar careers."

As for his own career, McAvoy is happy to keep on doing what he is doing, and work towards evening out the playing field when it comes to fighting for the rights of his people.

"I am very comfortable at the Bar and enjoy it, and regard it as somewhat of a privilege," he says. "I am just taking every year as it comes, brief by brief."

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