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From court to Canberra

From court to Canberra

By Cassandra Seery

Justice Leadership 


Labor candidate for the seat of Swan in WA Tammy Solonec talks to the YLJ about her journey in the law and how it can benefit those wishing to enter politics.

YLJ: Have you always had an interest in the law?

TS: In my family we always watched the news and discussed political issues, so I’ve always had an interest. Being Aboriginal I think we are inherently political. Growing up in regional and remote WA and seeing the grave injustice against Aboriginal people also inspired me, and seeing the difficulties my dad and his family faced as immigrants (he was born in a refugee camp in Northam just out of Perth). I was also inspired by my mum, who studied Aboriginal and intercultural studies as a mature aged student and taught us about atrocities committed against Aboriginal people.

I was actually going to study to become a PE teacher when I was offered a place in the inaugural Aboriginal Pre-Law Program at UWA – the first of its kind in Australia. I jumped at the chance. I loved studying law and have never looked back.

YLJ: During your legal career, has advocacy always been an important part of your journey?

TS: Yes, ever since I started. As a law student I had my first legal article published as a result of an assignment for Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Law about racial discrimination in the private rental market. I ended up with the top mark in the unit and was awarded the Women’s Justice prize.

When I see an injustice I speak out – I am compelled to. Some of the work I am most proud of includes working on the Ward Inquest, the tragic death in custody of an esteemed elder from the Ngaanyatjarra lands, my work in justice system reform including the Community Is Everything campaign I managed at Amnesty International, working to stop the demolition of the remote Indigenous community of Oombulgurri and end forced closures of remote communities, and my work in the positive promotion and celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for NAIDOC Perth.

However, my first experience in advocacy was personal. The first case I ever ran was my own, when I fought in the Family Court for custody of my children. This was the hardest and most important case I ever ran and it taught me so much. I am blessed to have my teenage kids still living full time with me.

YLJ: Formerly, you were the Indigenous rights manager at Amnesty International Australia. What impact did this role have on you?

TS: Working at Amnesty International had a great impact on my political aspirations. Working at Amnesty and learning about campaigning made me realise how important it was to influence political leaders. I knew that by being in the political system I would have far greater influence than I ever could from outside, so when the opportunity came to run for Labor I knew I had to give it a go. I do still miss the #Famnesty and working closely in international human rights law, but I am really enjoying being part of the Labor Party and campaigning for election.

YLJ: When did you become interested in pursuing a political career?

TS: It was probably about 10 years ago.

I wrote a manifestation one new year’s eve which said that I would enter politics when I was 40 – I turned 40 this year.

I actually started politics as part of the Greens WA even though I come from a strong working class background.

But I soon found myself leaning towards the Labor Party as it more closely reflected my own values of fairness and opportunity. I have become friends with a lot of Labor politicians and started to better understand the union movement and how important civil and political rights are to the Labor Party. I started to see great women I admired in Labor like Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Sue Lines, and when Labor really started to engage Aboriginal leaders like Ben Wyatt, Carol Martin, Linda Burnie, Nova Peris and Josie Farrer, I knew that switching to Labor was the way for me.

YLJ: In February this year you were announced as the ALP candidate for the WA seat of Swan. How did this come about?

TS: I was approached by the Labor Party as part of its commitment to increase its quota of women in parliament. I had appeared before a parliamentary committee in front of a Labor senator who was impressed by me and we started talking and it all unfolded.

It wasn’t an easy decision because I loved my job at Amnesty International. However, I believe I have a lot more to offer to the world. I am passionate about Indigenous affairs, housing, community safety, wealth distribution, refugees, national symbols, culture and the arts, social cohesion, public transport and so many other issues. So after much discussion and thought I made the decision in late 2015 to leave Amnesty to take up this opportunity and I haven’t looked back. I believe I can contribute to a better society for all and I am honoured to have the opportunity to run for federal parliament and represent the people of Swan.

YLJ: What role has your legal training and expertise played in getting you where you are today?

TS: My law degree has shaped my life immeasurably. It has empowered me to do all sorts of things – fight my own custody battle as a self-represented litigant, work in the public sector, publish legal articles, incorporate an association, work important cases including coronial inquests, sit on boards and committees, run campaigns, and work at the United Nations. A law degree is a gateway to so much opportunity and gives unquantifiable skills in research, writing, advocacy, public speaking, conflict resolution and generally helping others.

YLJ: What advice would you give to those law students and young lawyers who are interested in pursuing a career in politics?

TS: Law is a great pathway to politics. It gives you a deep understanding of the political system and how laws and policies are shaped. It also brings you into alignment with others who are politically minded and who want to make a difference. It’s funny how lawyers and politicians get such a bad rap, because there are so many I know and have worked with who want to help others and make the world a better place. If you really want to get involved in politics as a law student or young lawyer, my advice is to join a political party. You don’t have to give it your all when you are young, but just to meet people and see how political movements work is a great start. Go where your heart is, go where you are valued, but most of all ensure you have balance in your life and that you make time for your loved ones so that when success does come, you have people to share it with.

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