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Government sector: In the public interest

Government sector: In the public interest

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Interviews 


Government lawyers have been at the forefront of the Victorian response to COVID-19 – amending laws and negotiating new regulations to keep the community safe. 

For a sector that has such an impact on how our society operates, the public service and the lawyers who work within it have a surprisingly low profile. Most of the lawyers we spoke to for this feature on working within government said they had little knowledge about public sector law before they found their way into it. But once they did, it proved an area of ongoing interest and gave them a great sense of purpose. 

With the people of Victoria as your ultimate client, public sector lawyers have input into government policy, negotiate on substantial contracts, contribute to royal commissions, advise on risk mitigation, draft legislation for new regulations or engage in litigation (or not). They also have the satisfaction of improving the lives of Victorians, very often on live issues leading news bulletins. COVID-19 brought government lawyers to the fore as they amended laws and negotiated new regulations to keep the community safe and the wheels of justice turning.

For those who love the law but have other interests and commitments in their lives, the public sector also offers an enviable level of flexibility. The public service recognised the value of supporting its people to have a full life well before the private sector, which has given women as well as men the ability to move through long and rewarding careers without sacrificing their families or other commitments. 

Adam BushbyAdam Bushby, parliamentary counsel

Every time Adam Bushby moves around Melbourne there are reminders of his work as a legislative drafter. “I worked on the legislation to extend No Smoking signs in specific public places and for the redevelopment of public land, and various aspects of cultural heritage legislation.”

As senior parliamentary counsel, Mr Bushby gets to set in stone the rules and regulations by which Melbourne and the state of Victoria operate. “It makes you feel very connected to Melbourne,” he says.

It’s a role he says he wasn’t even really aware existed until he read the job description. “At the time I was an editor of the LIV’s Young Lawyers Journal and was interested in a role combining writing skills with legal knowledge. I remember the advertisement said something like: ‘Your word could be law’. I thought it sounded like a quirky job that would be an interesting combination of writing and legal knowledge.”

That was more than 10 years ago, and over the years Mr Bushby has worked with numerous departments helping to draft new laws and rules. The work is diverse and constantly interesting, he says. “It could be about environment protection, or state parks, or gambling, or court rules, or criminal law.

“You have to get across subject areas quite quickly and you have to be able to work collaboratively with experts within the department. You also have to be fully aware of the legal ramifications of what you’re drafting so you can’t just be a drafter, and you can’t just be a lawyer – the two are inextricable.” 

While Mr Bushby works as part of a team of around a dozen drafters on the government’s legislative programs, he is also called on to draft independent private bills for Opposition members, or those from minor parties. “You’re not just working for the government of the day, you’re a public servant working for the whole of Parliament and ultimately the people of Victoria as your client.”

For Mr Bushby the other great benefit is that, busy and fulfilling as it is, the job has given him the time and flexibility to pursue other interests in his life. He took a year off to complete a masters in art history in London, spent three years as a part time curator of the Peter O’Callaghan portrait gallery at the Victorian Bar, and now hosts a critical reading group on medieval and Renaissance art at Melbourne University. 

“That’s one of the big reasons I’ve been able to stay in the job that long. Because while you get to do important work, you are allowed to have a life as well, and it’s really important for me to have interests outside of my work.”

“Law is such a high pressured job, and it has a high burnout rate. But the great thing is that as a government lawyer you can have a serious job, but you don’t have to give your whole life to it.”

Annette WiltshireAnnette Wiltshire, Department of Education and Training

Annette Wiltshire was eight weeks into her new job as the executive director of the legal division at the Department of Education and Training when the coronavirus restrictions hit and the state’s schools were shut down. Within days the department was having to set up the frameworks for remote learning, all with its own staff working from home.

“It was not how I was anticipating the year would unfold for me,” she says. “But it’s been amazing to see schools shift so quickly to remote delivery of learning. That’s involved a huge amount of work supporting the legal dynamics around working remotely, ensuring duty of care for staff and teachers.” 

COVID-19 has challenged every aspect of public service delivery, and the provision of legal services within departments is no different, she says. 

“Pretty much anywhere you turn with COVID-19 there’s some legal dynamic, whether it’s interpreting legislation or revisiting commercial agreements. There's a lot of engagement across other departments because we all have to work together – these things don't live in boxes.

“People are doing extraordinary things and working extraordinary hours within and across departments to try and mitigate all the consequences, the health consequences, the economic consequences.” 

Ms Wiltshire came into the public service via the Victorian government’s graduate recruitment program in the mid-90s. “Before that I hadn’t really known very much about working as a lawyer in government, but I loved it from the moment I started.”

Over that time she has moved across several departments and statutory authorities, either as part of an in-house legal team and sometimes as the solo lawyer within a non-legal team. 

“It’s been endlessly interesting,” she says. “The great thing with government is that once you get a foot in the door and understand how government works and departments work and the type of subject matter they do, it’s pretty easy to move around and get different opportunities, and get the broader experience to build on your skillset around strategic thinking and understanding the breadth of government.” 

A big part of the appeal of working in government is the sense that you are contributing to something purposeful, Ms Wiltshire says. “It’s part of the wheels of democracy. Whether it’s in transport, education, workers compensation, health services, police – they’re all important for a community to function. I like the opportunity to be a small cog in that very big set of wheels.”

There’s also the flexibility that has made it possible for her to raise three children while rising steadily up to senior management level. “The government has long been recognised as leader in that field. This year has put in place flexible work arrangements at warp speed, and it’s a thing that is now expected and has been demonstrated can work successfully.”

Julie FreemanJulie Freeman, VGSO

You won’t get too far into a newspaper or news broadcast before you come across something Julie Freeman’s team has been involved in. “It's very current and very real,” she says of her work as the assistant Victorian Government Solicitor.

Ms Freeman went to work at the VGSO after 19 years as a commercial lawyer at Allens. While much of her work at Allens was with the Victorian government, mostly in the transport and energy sector, she says her VGSO role is much more complex and diverse. 

“As the VGSO, we work for the whole of government. The types of matters might range from transport, things like ports or public transport, to gambling, native title agreements, youth justice or state responses to royal commissions.”

What she loves about her role is not just the diversity of the work, but its quality. “Everything is just so interesting and often new. The diversity of the client and the stakeholders means the drivers of your work are different – it’s not purely the commercial end that you’re looking for. You’ve got political issues, and you've got public interest issues.”

There is a great sense of collegiality among lawyers who work in government and she also appreciates the flexibility of the public sector. “There is a broad culture in government that is very supportive of diversity and flexible arrangements.”

While Ms Freeman may be working for the government, she says she doesn’t see herself purely as a government lawyer. “I'm actually still a commercial lawyer, but I just happen to work in government.” 

VGSO operates almost as a large law firm, except that its only client is the government. It often partners with internal legal teams in government departments or agencies on larger projects or overflow work. Sometimes it also partners with a private firm on some of the major projects.

Over the past few months VGSO teams have been busy working with other departments on the responses to COVID-19, including setting  up regulations to deal with managing commercial leases during the pandemic restrictions. 

“Most of the things I deal with are on the interface between government and the private sector. The government is constantly buying things, engaging people and issuing things like licences.

“If you think of what the private sector does, they work on major transactions, they work on litigation, they work on privatisations for government clients – we do the same stuff but we do it internally.”

Patrick FongPatrick Fong, ASIC

It was while working as a policy officer at the LIV that Patrick Fong discovered his passion for public interest work. “I was involved in various law reform initiatives at the LIV, and that inspired me to use my knowledge and skills to make a meaningful contribution to the Australian public.”

Having combined an accounting qualification with his law degree, it made sense for Mr Fong to gravitate to ASIC where he works as an analyst within the licensing team. In his “gatekeeper” role, Mr Fong assesses applications for Australian Financial Services Licenses and Australian Credit Licenses. “We are the first line of defence to make sure there are no rogue financial planners running around who are engaging in consumer harm.

“Basically my role is to understand the business model proposed to be operated under the relevant license, what sort of financial product or service they are attempting to provide, and assessing whether the application satisfies the requisite legislative and regulatory guidance prescribed by ASIC under the relevant licensing regime.”

It’s a role that uses his financial services knowledge and legal skills and has extended his knowledge of financial services law, corporations law, administrative law and consumer credit law. “There's a heavy emphasis on analytical skills, interpreting large amounts of information provided by the applicants and then applying the legislative and regulatory sieve, and forming a recommendation at the end of your assessment of whether to approve or recommend the refusal of the application.”

Mr Fong says the work he does at ASIC has given him a unique insight into the financial services industry and has great topical relevance. “There’s only one ASIC and it’s been really exciting to work at an organisation that is at the forefront of regulatory practice but is also involved in a range of areas that can affect everyone from mum and dad consumers right up to the big end of town.”

The scope to move up within ASIC or to transfer across to related agencies like the ACCC means he is happy to stay within the public sector. “The scale of the organisation means there are so many opportunities that can be pursued. There’s ample scope to really move around and sample different areas within ASIC and other APS agencies.”

There has also been plenty of encouragement to follow up professional development opportunities, he says. ASIC is currently supporting him to do his masters of law. As a keen competitive tennis player, he also appreciates the work-life balance. “There’s a recognition that life is more than just work. They try to make sure we have a sensible balance. It’s a very productive working environment where staff aren’t burnt out or overly stressed.” ■

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