The Accountability Round Table

Acceptance Speech for the Button Award – Mark Dreyfus
Wednesday 11 December 2013

Thank you very much. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.  I acknowledge our distinguished guests and in particular Sir Gerard and my parliamentary colleagues who are here, parliamentary staff, and friends in politics in various ways.

The last awards presentation I went to was the ARIA awards a couple of weeks ago, in my capacity as Shadow Minister for the Arts.  Accepting awards is very difficult, and I’m finding it difficult, but it’s seemingly particularly difficult for musicians. Jessica Mauboy distinguished  herself by saying “shooby-dooby-doo” as she received her award, and a number of the award winners said, “I don’t know what to say” – you won’t find me saying that too often –  but Kevin Parker, who is the main song writer for Tame Impala, a rock band I’m sure well known to everybody here, who received not one but three awards for their work, he offered “thanks to the band of idiots I work with” – and I won’t be doing that.

I want to start by saying that in the six years I have worked in this building, I’ve worked with some very committed, very talented and exceptionally hardworking parliamentarians, public servants and advisers, and I can’t begin to single out all of them but I’m going to do the invidious thing of singling out two. The first is Andrea David who would be with us here, but she is in New York taking a well-earned break before she returns to work as a lawyer in Victoria. She was my adviser while I was Attorney-General and worked with extraordinary devotion on what was a very difficult project, which is the whistle-blower protection legislation, that is now law in Australia.  I’ll come back to this, but the second is Anna Dacre, who is a very long serving member of the staff of this Parliament and served as the Secretary for the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee when I was the Chair.  That Committee is the committee which produced the report in 2009 on  a scheme of whistle-blower protection legislation for the public sector in Australia. I mention these two only by way of example. I could stand here for a very long time and mention others who assisted in all of the tasks that were mentioned in the citation, because one cannot do this work alone.

The second thing I’d say is to say how very proud I am to receive this award, not just because it is called the Button Award – named for someone who has been a great figure in my life, one of my predecessors, albeit in the other house in this Parliament, someone who I knew well, who encouraged me to come here and leave a relatively comfortable life as a Melbourne barrister – Sir Gerard’s probably thinking it is not such a comfortable life because you have to appear before the High Court and other things, but compared to coming here it is a relatively comfortable life.  But I did leave. And I’m proud to be here and to receive this award.   And to say I  feel supported by receiving the award.  I feel supported in all the work that I’ve done and it’s good to have the work acknowledged.  And I would say that it’s not a personal award, it’s an acknowledgement of the work that I’ve been able to lead or that I’ve been able to achieve.

It is curious to be acknowledged for doing the things that I came here to do. I don’t need any acknowledgement because the work itself is satisfaction enough.  I’ve spent my orking life working on the issues that I work on here like improving access to justice, transparency, openness, accountability in government, on better government and to have had the privilege of coming here to work in this Parliament, to make changes in the law, to achieve changes in administration has been a rare privilege.  I’ve had the opportunity to carry forward the work that I’ve wanted to do all my life. It is work that never ends. I’ll quote one of the ancient Jewish texts which says, “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” It’s a famous quotation, but it’s apt for the work that we do in this building. In a true sense though, I stand on the shoulders of  others  and  it was nice to be  reminded by Tim Smith of the length of the project of
achieving whistle-blower legislation in the Commonwealth public sector.

The Commonwealth Parliament was the first to  examine this and I look back to reports done by Senator Barney Cooney in 1993 and 1994, never able to be acted on by the then government and not acted on by the next government, and in the meantime by the time I came as Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to be looking at a scheme of whistle-blower  protection  for the Commonwealth, every state and territory had legislated, which probably made our task somewhat easier.    But even then it was a somewhat slower project than I had anticipated given that we produced a unanimous cross-party report on what should be the elements of a scheme of whistle-blower protection for the Commonwealth. It took longer than I would have hoped. It took from the delivery of the report in 2009 and the announcement of the government response in March of 2010 until June of 2013 to legislate for it. But I am in the unusual and quite gratifying position of having been the Chair of the parliamentary committee that recommended the scheme and then being the Minister bringing the legislation into the Parliament and making sure that it passed.

The third and final thing that I want to say is to thank Sir Gerard for his remarks. I accept Sir Gerard’s reticence in commenting on individuals and I would not seek it, but I don’t think he needs  to be at all reticent about commenting on the interactions between government and the judiciary or indeed reticent about commenting on the activities of government. Sir Gerard is someone that worked at the intersection of government and the courts for very much of his working life.  As you’ve been reminded by Tim, Sir Gerard was President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and then on the Federal Court and then the High Court.  I had the privilege of appearing in a number of cases before Sir Gerard which were at the intersection of government and the courts.   Cases like Johns v Australian Securities Commission about the powers of a Victorian Royal Commission and the use that it made of compulsory evidence obtained by a Commonwealth Government instrumentality of the Australian Securities Commission.  Or Theophanous vs. Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, one of the free speech cases, another case quintessentially about the role of government and what the law should say about political speech.

It was good to be reminded by Sir Gerard of the public fiduciary duty that I owe and share with all of my parliamentary colleagues. It’s a very fine way to look at the role that we play here and it is something that I would wish that all of us, at least some of the time, reflected on because it gives you an excellent frame from which to view our activities. And good also to be reminded of the moral challenges that arise in asylum seeker policy and I do think we have to keep reminding ourselves that there are moral challenges here, they are not merely party political issues.

Perhaps finally to say I was given an advance copy of Sir Gerard’s remarks.   I was struck by his reticence to comment on individuals in this context, and I accept that one should not expect  comment on any one actual individual, but he has commented in one of his extrajudicial writings about the importance of who is here serving in this parliament and I just want to read a single sentence.  This is from the foreword written by Sir Gerard to an excellent  book by Gerard Carney called “Members  of Parliament  –  Law and Ethics,” in 2000:  “the  efficiency and integrity of  political institutions are functions of the qualifications and character of those in whom political power is reposed and of the manner in which that power is exercised.” And I’d take Sir Gerard to be saying that individuals who serve here do matter and for that reason I would say that recognition of the work of individuals is a worthwhile activity.  I commend the Roundtable for these awards because they do draw attention to the importance of the work that each one of us does and the difference each one of us can make to the activities of this Parliament and the government of Australia.

Thank you very much.

Mark Dreyfus

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