Member for Isaacs

Address To Western Sydney University

18 November 2022

My university years coincided with the Whitlam Government, and the wave of social change it would bring inspired in me my passion for politics and its potential to improve lives.

That experience stayed with me all my life, that a progressive government can change the country. That experience that politics is a worthwhile activity has never left me.

It’s why I left the law to become an MP, and now, as Commonwealth Attorney-General have the great privilege to speak with Australia’s next generation of legal practitioners.


Address by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

Western Sydney University

Friday 18 November 2022

A very warm thanks to Professor Anna Cody for your Welcome to Country.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Dharug people.

I pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and also to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

On behalf of the Australian Government, I commit to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

Thank you also to my friend Professor Catherine Renshaw and Mr John Juriansz, Director of the Whitlam Institute, for the invitation to speak here today.

It is pleasing to see so many members of the legal profession here, as well as members of the wider Western Sydney University community and the public.

I sincerely welcome the many law students, who have taken time out from their studies, to be here.
Whitlam Legacy

It’s particularly good timing to be giving this speech just days after the 50th Anniversary of Prime Minister Whitlam’s famous ‘It’s Time’ speech which took place not far from here at Blacktown.

20 years before that night, in one of his very first speeches to Parliament as the Member for Werriwa, Whitlam said this:

“Everybody in Australia is entitled, without cost to the individual, to the same educational facilities, whether it be in respect of education at the kindergarten or tertiary stage or the post-graduate stage”.

As Dr Mark Hutchinson noted in his paper “Gough Whitlam and the ‘grounds’ for a University of Western Sydney” Whitlam would have been well aware that he was echoing the opening words of Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which his father and another great Labor figure, Doc Evatt helped draft in 1948: “Everyone has the right to education”.

At the time Whitlam gave that speech his electorate of Werriwa, then one of the fastest growing regions in Australia, didn’t even have a high school.

It was therefore no surprise that some of the most iconic reforms of the all too brief Whitlam Government were in the field of education - the granting of ‘state aid’ to independent schools, the creation of the Schools Commission and of course the abolition of university fees.

At that time a university education in Australia was only open to those who could afford to pay expensive up-front fees, or were fortunate enough to have qualified for a Commonwealth scholarship.

Whitlam’s reforms opened the door to anyone who was qualified that they might achieve the dream of many parents of that generation that their children would become the first in their family to ever go to university.

The Whitlam Government provided a $100,000 grant to the New South Wales Government for exploratory work on the foundation of a university for the Macarthur region.

At that time New South Wales had just three universities – Sydney, New South Wales, and the recently opened Macquarie.

It took the Wran Labor Government in New South Wales a decade later before the idea was seriously progressed, culminating in the 1987 agreement between Premier Barry Unsworth and Prime Minister Bob Hawke for a Chifley University to be created as a University College based at Werrington.

To the regret of many on our side the act establishing the university was not passed until after a change of government and so Chifley was dropped in favour of the more straightforward “University of Western Sydney.”

Today, this may seem to have been an inevitable development - that as the population of Sydney grew, a university would be built in the area of strongest growth.

But at the time, it was almost revolutionary.

When Whitlam came to power few Australians could even dream of having a tertiary education.

As my colleague Jason Clare noted just this week in his Jack Ferguson memorial lecture, back then only 18 percent of young people finished high school.

Only two percent had been to university.

At a seminar at Westmead in 1985 Ferguson, the recently retired deputy premier, exploded when one of the participants suggested that all the West needed was a few more TAFE-trained engineers. Ferguson pointedly replied that “the people of the western suburbs are more than hewers of wood and carriers of water”.

Still, even as late as 2007, when the Rudd Government was elected, fewer than three in ten students went to university.

It’s taken successive Labor Governments from Hawke and Keating through to Rudd and Gillard to build on Whitlam’s vision, and bring Australia to the point where now close to half of all students completing high school go on to a tertiary education.

My university years coincided with the Whitlam Government, and the wave of social change it would bring inspired in me my passion for politics and its potential to improve lives.

That experience stayed with me all my life, that a progressive government can change the country. That experience that politics is a worthwhile activity has never left me.

It’s why I left the law to become an MP, and now, as Commonwealth Attorney-General have the great privilege to speak with Australia’s next generation of legal practitioners.

I was delighted to learn that this year WSU placed 1st overall worldwide in the Times Higher Education prestigious annual ‘Impact Rankings’, which assess universities on their commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

That result reflected, among other things, the wonderful diversity that is to be found in the WSU community.

You can all be very proud of this.

Our justice system, and Australia more generally, benefits from ensuring that the legal profession – both practitioners and the judiciary – reflects the society that it serves.

We are slowly seeing this greater diversity spread throughout the profession, including among the lawyers who provide legal services for Government departments and agencies.

A recent survey of government lawyers shows that:

  • 68 per cent identify as female
  • almost ten percent identify as having a disability
  • 6 per cent identify as LGBTIQA+, and
  • 17 per cent were born overseas, with 13 per cent speaking a language other than English.

Around two percent of Commonwealth government lawyers identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons, which is growing, but we clearly have work to do there.

It is also pleasing to note that the Commonwealth Government has continued to improve its performance on Gender Equitable briefing targets.

In the 2020-21 financial year almost 40 per cent of total briefs went to female barristers.

These numbers have been steadily increasing over the past five years and I look forward to even more improvement in the years to come.

The Government recently released our response to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s groundbreaking report on judicial impartiality and the law on bias.

The ALRC pleasingly found that, in general, the Australian public has a high level of confidence in Australian judges and courts and the Australian judiciary is highly respected internationally.

The Government has given in-principle support to all the recommendations we are responsible for, most notably, recommendation 5 to establish a federal judicial commission as a transparent and independent means to address concerns about the conduct of federal judges.

A federal judicial commission would be a significant reform though, of course, any model for a federal judicial commission must respect the independence of the courts and judiciary in accordance with the Constitution.

The Government also supports recommendation 7 to develop a more transparent process for appointing federal judicial officers on merit and recommendation 8, which states that I, as Attorney-General, should collect and report on statistics regarding diversity of the federal judiciary.

The Government is already committed to strengthening the integrity of judicial appointments and improving diversity in the federal judiciary.

I want to ensure that appointments are drawn from the widest pool of candidates with the appropriate skills and experience, thereby broadening the diversity and experience of those on the bench.

Improved data collection on judicial diversity will help identify potential barriers to appointment. It will also allow us to better understand the over or under representation of particular groups of people within the judiciary.

We are doing this by ensuring that the processes for appointments to the federal judiciary are transparent and merit-based.

This process includes extensive consultation with the legal community to identify suitable candidates including the heads of jurisdiction of the federal courts, the legal profession, and key members of the legal community.

I was pleased to recently announce the appointment of Justice Jayne Jagot as a Justice of the High Court of Australia.

Justice Jagot is the 56th Justice of the High Court and the seventh woman appointed to the Court.

Her appointment marks the first time since Federation that a majority of Justices on the High Court will be women.

I consulted extensively in the lead up to this decision – beyond what is required by statute.

In addition to consulting Attorneys-General of other jurisdictions in our federation, as I am required to under the High Court Act, I also consulted with the Shadow Attorney-General, the heads of jurisdiction of the Federal Courts and State and Territory Supreme Courts, and other key members of the legal community.

I am certain that Justice Jagot, as a widely respected and eminent jurist, is the best possible person for the appointment, and will serve with distinction.

Of course, our Government’s core principles of transparency and integrity extend beyond the legal profession.

My first Bill as Attorney-General in the Albanese Government was the Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment) Bill 2022, which passed through the House of Representatives in early August.

This Bill seeks to restore the Australian Human Rights Commission's standing and reaffirms our commitment to restore transparency and integrity to government.

An independent AHRC is fundamental to Australia's human rights agenda - both internationally and domestically.

Another central part of the government’s agenda is to restore public trust and strengthen standards of integrity in our federal government.

In September, I introduced legislation to establish a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The Commission will operate independently of government, and will have broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corruption across the Commonwealth public sector, including corruption that occurred before its establishment.

This includes power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory office holders, and employees and contractors of government agencies.

It will also include the power to investigate any person who seeks to corrupt a public official, by engaging in conduct that could adversely affect the honest or impartial exercise of a public official’s powers, functions or duties.

The Commission will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own or in response to referrals from anyone, including whistleblowers and members of the public.

It will have the power to hold public hearings, where the Commissioner determines it would be in the public interest and exceptional circumstances justify doing so.

The Commission will operate with procedural fairness and its findings will be subject to judicial review.

And ultimately, the Commission will be empowered to make findings of fact, including findings of corrupt conduct, and to refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

A Parliamentary Joint Committee will oversee the Commission and will be empowered to require the Commission to provide information about its work.

The legislation provides strong protections for whistleblowers against reprisal and other adverse consequences, including immunities from criminal, civil and administrative liability.

I will also be introducing separate reforms to the Public Interest Disclosures Act 2013 (Cth) to improve whistleblower protections, with the aim of having these reforms in place when the Commission commences operation.

Shortly after the legislation was introduced it was referred to a Joint Select Committee made up of members from both the House and the Senate to inquire into the provisions of the Bill. Last week that Committee delivered a unanimous report, which I believe is a great sign for wide support for the National Anti-Corruption Commission bill which will ultimately pass the Parliament.

Our Government is also taking important steps to enrich our entire nation through recognition of our First Nations people in the Constitution.

As the Prime Minister has said on numerous occasions, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was a generous invitation from First Nations people which called for three things: Voice, Treaty and Truth.

We are committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

While this absolutely includes a commitment to pursuing truth telling and treaty-making, in the nearer term the Government’s top priority is to progress the Voice.

Enshrining the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in our Constitution would be a historic, nation-building reform for all Australians, and an important step towards reconciliation.

It will ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a formal channel for advising the national Parliament and government on the matters of greatest importance to them.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice will have a practical impact on First Nations people by giving them a direct say in laws, policies and programs which affect their day-to-day lives, driving change to close the gap.

The Voice must be in the Constitution, to ensure that it is permanent and will endure through the ups and downs of electoral cycles.

The composition and role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice will be legislated by Parliament in the ordinary way. It will be subject to consultation, and can be amended as circumstances change.

The Australian Government has committed to holding a referendum in this term of Parliament, to incorporate the Voice into the Constitution.

But the Government cannot make these vital changes alone.

We must partner with the Australian people, who will ultimately decide on this constitutional change. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change.

Everyone has a part to play: from community groups and the corporate sector, to schools and universities.

A successful referendum requires broad community support, at the heart of which lies support from First Nations people.

We are working in partnership with First Nations people, and will consult widely with the broader Australian community in the lead up to the referendum.

This process will be based on respect and focused on building consensus.

As the Prime Minister stated in his speech at the Garma festival, the question for the referendum should be something simple and clear, and he proposed some possible wording.

The Prime Minister also proposed possible wording that could be inserted into the Constitution.

This is the start of a conversation to move toward agreement of a final referendum question and new constitutional text.

These proposals have sparked the debate and discussion that we need in order to progress the strongest possible foundation for the Voice.

As you can tell from my remarks, there is a lot of work to do.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak.

Professor Renshaw and I are very pleased to welcome any questions you may have.