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Lawyers on the campaign trail

Lawyers on the campaign trail

By Karin Derkley


Victorian solicitors and barristers took to the streets as candidates in the federal election.

It’s a long way from advocating before the Supreme Court to handing out election leaflets at suburban railway stations and shopping centres. But that’s how barristers Fiona McLeod SC, standing for Labor, and Julian Burnside QC, standing for the Greens, spent much of the six weeks leading up to the federal election in their bid to be voted in to parliament by the electorates of Higgins and Kooyong in Melbourne’s blue ribbon eastern suburbs.

They were not alone. A slew of practising lawyers threw their hats into the ring to stand as candidates in the federal election. Solicitor Kate Ashmor stood for the Liberal Party in the long time Labor seat of Macnamara (formerly Melbourne Ports), while Christian Democratic Party candidate, immigration lawyer May Hanna, was hoping for a seat in the Senate.

Several Greens candidates were also lawyers: Simon Northeast, a Geelong based criminal lawyer who was previously with Victoria Legal Aid, stood for the seat of Corangamite against the Liberal Party’s Sarah Henderson. Environmental lawyer Steph Hodgins-May ran for the Greens against Kate Ashmor and Labor’s Josh Burns in Macnamara. The Greens candidate for the seat of Mallee in Northern Victoria, Nicole Rowan, is a lawyer working in tax law analysis.

Law has long been a common career path into politics. Around half of Australia’s prime ministers have been lawyers – including Sir Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Howard, Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard.

Lawyers are disproportionately represented in parliament. While less than 1 per cent of Australians are lawyers, a parliamentary research paper on the 43rd Parliament found that 13 per cent of parliamentarians had previously worked as solicitors, barristers or in some other legal capacity. Nearly 25 per cent had law degrees. Coalition parliamentarians are slightly more likely to have been lawyers than those in the ALP, with 15 per cent of those in the Liberal National Party having an occupational background as lawyers, compared with 11 per cent of those in the ALP. Two out of the 10 Greens in federal parliament have backgrounds as lawyers.

Melbourne Law School’s Professor John Howe says the high numbers of lawyers and law students going into politics is not surprising. “There is a natural affinity between law and politics because law is the key way of expressing policy, and you're already very much engaged with politics with your law studies.”

La Trobe University School of Law director of the Centre for Legislation, Its Interpretation and Drafting Dr Jeffrey Barnes says law is close to politics from a formation point of view. “Giving assent to proposed law is one of the main, if not the main, functions of parliament. So parliament’s functions are closely tied to that of the law and being able to read proposed laws is very handy for a politician.”

In fact many lawyers regard politics as a natural progression, Professor Howe says. “They see themselves as a distinct and powerful profession, so there’s a natural step to aspiring to have power politically.”

That desire for power might come from a sense of altruism and social justice as much as from a desire for power for its own sake, he says. “Some people go into the law because they want to make a difference and represent people whose rights have been abused, so there’s a natural step to politics where you might be able to make an even bigger difference. They see themselves as people able to uphold the rights of citizens.”

Ms McLeod says she was motivated to go into politics by her work heading up the Victorian Bar, the Law Council of Australia and Transparency International. “Being a barrister you are usually acting reactively and operating on one case at a time. But my work leading national organisations meant I had the chance to work proactively to try and shape good laws. That’s something I really enjoyed.”

Her work with the LCA’s Justice Project gave her insight into the impact of political decision-making on ordinary people across Australia. “I watched community legal service lawyers deliver to the most vulnerable people under extreme pressure and saw the difference it made to those people’s lives to have access to justice."

That experience made her determined to help address inequalities not just in legal services, but also in health and mental health, education and other social services, she says. “I realised the opportunity of having good people in parliament having civil debates about the future of the country in a way that creates good laws.”

Mr Burnside says he was motivated to run for the Greens by growing concerns about climate change and refugee rights and by a belief that as a lawyer he would bring a “forensic mind” to the debate in the lower house. “That is, the ability to tune into a debate to understand what is actually being said, to be able to go straight to the heart, ask questions that are targeted accurately and to notice whether questions have been answered or not.”

“The skills you learn as a lawyer are applicable and useful in politics,” says Professor Howe. “You're learning close analysis and rational argument, learning about being an advocate, and about being able to put concise but persuasive arguments.”

But the disproportionate number of lawyers in parliament could be a problem, Professor Howe says. “In general, having greater diversity in politics is a good thing. And some lawyers are not particularly in touch with ordinary people. Depending on their background and the area of law they have worked in, they may not have had much direct involvement with people experiencing poverty, for instance.”

Lawyers can sometimes be “more formalistic and interested in processes and rules and procedures”, he says, which can stand in the way of them nutting out solutions with other people.

And while law is a major part of politics, it is only one facet of politics, Professor Howe points out. “Making a law is not the only way, or even the most effective way, to achieve change. Often the most effective way to get things done in parliament is through compromise and negotiation and relationships – and not all lawyers are good at those sorts of things.”

“I think in general lawyers bring some great skills to politics – but you don’t want to have too many of them,” he says.

But Dr Barnes believes that 13 per cent is not too high “considering the amount of legal work there is in being a parliamentarian. After all, they should be able to understand what they are passing”. 

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