When politics and the law intersect

Bret Walker SC, delivering this year’s Hal Wootten Lecture at UNSW, offered many examples of the way lawyers can and do play a role in politics.


Bret Walker SC delivers the 2016 Hal Wootten Lecture. Photo: Anna Kucera

The idea that any lawyer with hopes of a judicial appointment should not take part in debate or voice public opinions about political matters for fear of jeopardising their chances could deprive society of some of the best contributions that lawyers could make to politics, Bret Walker SC told the audience gathered for this year’s Hal Wootten Lecture.

This perception about judicial appointments ignored the reality of decision making, Mr Walker said in his address, titled Lawyers and Politics.

“It means, I fear, that some of the best contributions by lawyers in politics may not be available to society,” the prominent barrister said.

If knowledgeable and leading lawyers did not take part in debate about proposed legislation, the biggest contribution that society would miss out on was the championing of the rule of law, he added.

“Emphatically the executive government cannot be left as the only or most powerful voice in favour of the rule of law or observance of individual liberties, let alone human rights,” Mr Walker said. “What lawyers can do … is to push back against executive proposals and legislative schemes that need justification because they entrench on liberties, restrict rights and cramp the rule of law.”

In a wide-ranging address, Mr Walker recalled the political nature of his time as Australia’s Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), bemoaned the politicisation of judicial appointments in the United States, highlighted the importance of engagement with international law and gave numerous examples of the way the legal profession can and does play a role in politics.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the annual Hal Wootten Lecture, established in 2006 by the Faculty of Law in honour of its founding dean, Emeritus Professor Hal Wootten QC. In each lecture, a pre-eminent lawyer reflects on his or her life in the law and on law’s potential as a force for good.

Anyone expecting Mr Walker to spill the beans on the inner workings of political machinery during his time as the INSLM would have been disappointed. As he explained at the beginning of his speech, federal subsidies of universities had unaccountably “omitted to fund indemnities in favour of those who deliver defamatory speeches”.

“I feel no duty to add ‘civil defendant’ to my CV if I can help it,” Mr Walker quipped.

Professor Wootten thanked Mr Walker for his “interesting and inspiring lecture”.

“I think he’s given us quite an extensive account of the kind of issues that confronted lawyers in the last 30 to 40 years,” he said.

The full audio of the 2016 Hal Wootten Lecture is available here.