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2023 John Monash Oration

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of this land, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I acknowledge my friend Jill Segal, other directors of the General Sir John Monash Foundation, John Monash Scholars, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to present the 2023 John Monash Oration.

It’s a particular delight to join you as the Foundation celebrates 20 years since the first cohort of John Monash Scholars was chosen.

I have had the privilege of meeting many of your Scholars.

And I’ve been so impressed by them I have employed two of them.

John Monash famously said:

The privilege of education carries great responsibilities – it is given not for individual benefit alone, but to befit persons for the higher duties of citizenship and for roles of leadership in all fields to make Australia great.

My chief of staff when I last served as Attorney-General was 2014 John Monash Scholar Jim Round. Since leaving my office Jim has had a very fine career with the Victorian Government.

Like so many other Scholars, Jim’s contribution to Australian life honours the faith invested in him by the Foundation.

Another Scholar has since joined my office.

Chloe D’Souza, a Noongar woman who was the 2020 – and inaugural – Bob Hawke John Monash Scholar, has been my Indigenous justice adviser since soon after the last election.

With her scholarship Chloe completed a Master of Laws at Harvard University.

Chloe applied for the John Monash Scholarship because she wanted to be a leader for her community.

During her studies she focused on ways law and policy have historically harmed First Nations people and sought to understand how better outcomes could be achieved, particularly in relation to the interaction of First Nations people and justice systems.

Chloe took classes that discussed therapeutic responses for young people interacting with the justice system and also heard from people who had served time in prison in the United States.

Chloe graduated a few days after the last election and wanted to return home and work for a government committed to improving outcomes for First Nations people.

I am delighted she did.

And I couldn’t be prouder of the work she has done.

Over the past year Chloe has been an adviser to the Government on the Voice referendum and our new National Justice Reinvestment Program.

She has worked alongside First Nations leaders, and leaders in the Government, including the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney.

Chloe and Jim, and all the other Scholars, give meaning to Monash’s words about the real value of education – the opportunity it gives you to make a bigger contribution, including in leadership roles.

I completed my formal education long before the General Sir John Monash Foundation was established.

But like many in this room, I recognise that my education opened a world of opportunity for me.

It has been the bedrock upon which my long career in the law and politics has been built.

Not all leaders have a good education, but everyone with a good education has the opportunity to lead.

Tonight I want to talk about two aspects of leadership that I value most – transparency and accountability.

At the Bar, and in the Parliament, I have pursued greater transparency and more accountability from those who exercise great power.

As a barrister I worked on the Stolen Generations Case between 1998 and 2002. The case was brought on behalf of Lorna Cubillo and Kumanjai Gunner, now both deceased. We sought to address injustices associated with actions taken in the Northern Territory up until the 1960s.

Sadly, at that time, Aboriginal children were removed from their families, taken long distances from the communities of their birth and made to live among strangers in institutions which bore no resemblance to a home. They were denied the opportunity to grow up surrounded by the love of family, to speak their own language and to learn about their own country. Tragically, they were treated as orphans when they were not orphans at all.

We sought to hold the Commonwealth accountable for its actions and deliver long delayed justice to Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner and other members of the Stolen Generations.

We failed.

The case was lost, but the cause was not.

The very first day I sat in the House of Representatives, 13 February 2008, was the day Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly the members of the Stolen Generations. Lorna Cubillo sat on the floor of the House as an honoured guest.

As a barrister, I represented clients who challenged the limits of state power and championed the right to know.

From FOI matters in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, to environmental and climate cases in the Supreme Court of Victoria, and free speech cases in the High Court of Australia, I prodded and probed laws that worked against transparency and accountability.

A maxim from Rabbinic Jewish tradition provides “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

I came to the Parliament determined to pursue the things I really cared about: transparency, openness, accountability, access to justice, climate action, and Indigenous rights.

I hope, six terms later, my time in Government and Opposition reflects a certain doggedness when it comes to those issues.

I have never played to the press gallery, or sought plaudits from social media.

I am a member of the Labor Party. A party born of the union movement that prizes solidarity. A party of government.

I haven’t won every argument I have presented internally.

But I have won enough arguments to demonstrate the value of focus, and persistence, and commitment to our democratic process.

Improved whistleblower protection has long been an interest of mine.

Fortunately, in my first term in Parliament, that interest was shared by Senator John Faulkner as Special Minister of State. Senator Faulkner asked me, as chair of the House Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, to examine the feasibility of a Commonwealth Public Interest Disclosure scheme.

Building on the work of Senator Barney Cooney a decade earlier, I recommended a new Commonwealth scheme.

It took longer than I hoped for the Labor Government of which I was a member to adopt my recommendations. As it happened, I was chair of the parliamentary committee that recommended a new scheme, and later the minister who brought whistleblower legislation to the parliament.

One of my proudest achievements in my first period as Attorney-General is the creation of the Commonwealth’s first Public Interest Disclosure scheme.

One of my proudest achievements in my second period as Attorney-General is enhanced protection for whistleblowers, acting on recommendations the previous government ignored.

Last week I released an issues paper seeking views on a further tranche of whistleblower reform.

As Attorney-General, I don’t comment on matters before the courts.

And I don’t comment on commentary about matters before the courts.

But the fact I am the only Commonwealth Attorney-General to have introduced public interest disclosure legislation, and have now done this both times I have held this position a decade apart, demonstrates my commitment to protecting whistleblowers.

As Attorney-General in the Albanese Government I have worked with my Cabinet and Caucus colleagues to advance reforms I believe make Australia a better place to live.

Many of them promote greater transparency and accountability.

The foremost among these reforms is the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The former government promised to establish an anti-corruption commission. It delivered nothing but empty words.

Ahead of the 2022 election I said that if elected to office we would legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission by the end of 2022.

We honoured that commitment.

The legislation for the commission was introduced within months of the election, and passed before the end of the year, as promised.

The new National Anti-Corruption Commission began its work on 1 July this year.

The commission has strong powers to detect, investigate and prevent corruption across the entire Commonwealth sector.

It operates independently of government, with discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone.

It has the power to investigate allegations of serious or systemic corruption that occurred before or after its establishment.

It is overseen by a powerful parliamentary joint committee established by statute.

It has the power to hold public hearings in exceptional circumstances and where it is in the public interest to do so.

It can make findings of fact, including findings of corrupt conduct, and refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Australian Federal Police or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

The legislation establishing the commission provides strong protections for whistleblowers and exemptions for journalists to protect the identity of their sources.

It may seem trite to say, but sometimes what you don’t do matters as much as what you do.

Not appointing the Prime Minister to hold secret ministries is a good example.

Prime Minister Albanese has not been appointed to ministerial portfolios without the knowledge of his Cabinet or his ministers or the public.

In addition to abandoning one of the more bizarre practices of the former government, the current government has agreed to publish ministerial appointments, including acting appointments, as an act of transparency.

Following a Royal Commission the Government has also resolved to take comprehensive steps to ensure a scheme like Robodebt can never happen again.

I will bring legislation to the parliament before the end of the year to advance the biggest reform to Australia’s system of administrative review in half a century – the abolition of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the creation of a new Administrative Review Tribunal. Crucially, all members of the new tribunal will be appointed through a transparent and merits-based selection process.

I have reformed appointment processes for the Federal Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, introducing advertisements, expressions of interest, and selection panels.

The Government has legislated transparent and merit-based selection processes for the Australian Human Rights Commission – not just to prevent the downgrading of the commission in international forums, but in recognition of the important role it plays in the protection and promotion of the human rights of all Australians.

In June this year we implemented a long-neglected recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody by introducing real-time reporting of deaths in custody.

National real-time reporting of deaths in custody enables greater public transparency of deaths in custody and accountability of all governments for their criminal justice systems.

Internationally, we have acted to hold the Russian Government to account by pursuing Russia for its role in the murder of passengers aboard MH17, and its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

I took active steps to cause a version of the sentencing remarks of the convicted person known as “Alan Johns” to be published for the first time. Under the former government, this person was tried, convicted and imprisoned in secret. Something that must never, ever, happen again.

I commissioned a comprehensive review of Commonwealth secrecy offences with a view to identifying unnecessary, ineffective and duplicative provisions. This week I released the report of that review and committed to eliminating one in five secrecy offences on the Commonwealth statute book.

I have legislation before the parliament to enhance oversight of intelligence agencies by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. I hope that with its passage a better balance will be struck between individual liberty and national security. I believe effective oversight improves the performance of our intelligence agencies and enhances our national security.

As Attorney-General I have removed gag clauses that stopped legal assistance providers in receipt of Commonwealth funding engaging in advocacy.

I was appalled by these gag clauses in Opposition. In Government, one of the first conversations I had was with an Aboriginal legal services provider who told me they couldn’t talk to me about funding because that was prohibited by their funding agreement.

This had to change. And it has.

Rightly, there is a great deal of focus on the need for government to be accountable for its actions. I agree entirely. But government is not the only powerful institution in this country.

We have passed legislation to make not only government employers but also business more accountable for poor conduct in the workplace, including acting on a recommendation in the Respect@Work report by introducing a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.

I have legislation before the Parliament to hold business to account for foreign bribery activity, and am consulting on reforms to ensure more businesses and professionals play their part in preventing serious criminals engaging in money laundering and the financing of terrorism and child exploitation activities.

We are about half way through the first term of the Albanese Government.

The reforms I have outlined aren’t the sum total of my work to date, and don’t include significant reform like prioritising the best interests of children in the family law system.

So much of what I have done – and hope to do as Attorney-General – concerns transparency and accountability.

Not as an end in itself.

A bad government that is transparent is not better than a bad government that is not.

But transparency has a tendency to make governments and institutions be better, if only out of a sense of self-preservation.

I want to end with a reflection on a passing connection I have with John Monash – we went to the same school in Melbourne, albeit many years apart.

While I was at school Monash was often referenced for his wartime service, but what resonated with me most was his ethos of service to the community.

Growing up in Melbourne, his tangible legacies, including the State Electricity Commission and the Shrine of Remembrance, were ever present.

But for me, his commitment to service was, and is, his lasting legacy.

This commitment is reflected in the scholarship program we are celebrating tonight.

It’s reflected in the stories of the Scholars who have studied abroad and made a contribution to Australian life on their return – stories that now stretch across two decades.

It has been an honour to join you this evening.

Congratulations on twenty years.

I extend my best wishes to the 2024 Scholars, and the many Scholars to come.