Volume 4, Issue 6, (Originally published on Monday 2 September 2013)
Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Australia’s 35th Attorney-General and the Labor member for the seat of Isaacs, spoke with De Minimis ahead of Australia’s federal election next Saturday, 7 September 2013. In a wide-ranging interview, Dreyfus shared stories from his past as an MLS alumnus and his more recent work as a member of the Labor Government. Dreyfus graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1978 with degrees in Arts and Law. As a barrister, he acted in a number of important High Court cases, and was also a director of the Law Council of Australia. Dreyfus has held a number of positions since his election to the Parliament in 2007, including: Chairman of the House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee; Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency; and Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Innovation. Earlier this year, he assumed the position of Attorney-General after Roxon (also an MLS graduate) stood down.
DM: What was your time like at Melbourne Law School?
MD: I went to Melbourne Law School when it was still located in the heart of the Parkville Campus, at a time when our nation was rapidly changing and the university was a hotbed of political activism.
Gough Whitlam had only recently been elected, and his Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, was challenging legal conventions and implementing sweeping reforms with enormous energy. With so much going on I found it challenging to stay focused on my classes, and I clearly remember a second-year exam in November 1975 being interrupted by a megaphone announcement that the Australian Government had just been dismissed. I also had some excellent classmates, including Hilary Charlesworth and Lindsay Tanner.
DM: What was the most interesting case you were involved in as a barrister?
MD: It’s too hard to choose just one, but my top three are: Theophanous v Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 104; Austin v The Commonwealth (2003) 215 CLR 185; and Cubillo v Commonwealth (1999) 89 FCR 528; Cubillo v Commonwealth [No 2] (2000) 103 FCR 1; Cubillo v Commonwealth (2001) 112 FCR 455 (the Stolen Generations Case).
DM: What have been your proudest achievements as an MP, Parliamentary Secretary and now Attorney-General? MD: As an MP, chairing the inquiries of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into whistleblower protection in the Australian government public sector (2009) and into access to public areas for people with a disability (2010). As Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, putting a price on carbon – a fundamental reform essential to transitioning Australia to a low-carbon economy – and representing Australia at international climate change negotiations. As Attorney-General, increasing funding for Legal Aid, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Community Legal Centres, adding sexual orientation as a ground of discrimination, and representing Australia in our case against Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling at the International Court of Justice.
DM: Young people are particularly interested in the issue of internet freedom. In your view, where does the appropriate balance lie between privacy and security?
MD: We in Government have an obligation to protect the safety and security of Australians, and we also have an obligation to safeguard the privacy and democratic freedoms of our citizens. In some circumstances there is a tension between these two critical responsibilities, and in these circumstances striking the appropriate balance between the core values of privacy and security requires the weighing of a range of factors, many of which are not easily quantified. Federal Labor has initiated a number of reforms to improve the protection of privacy in our nation, without compromising the safety of our community. The Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protections) Act will come into force in March next year, significantly strengthening privacy protections for Australians by bringing Australia’s privacy regime into the digital age. I have also been working to ensure that there is always appropriate accountability and independent oversight of our security agencies, so that they always operate within the rule of law.
DM: You recently returned from The Hague where you argued Australia’s case against Japan’s whaling program. How would you describe this experience?
MD: It was a great honour to represent my country in the world’s highest court, the first time an Australian Attorney-General has done so since Lionel Murphy appeared in the 1974 Nuclear Tests case against France. I must say that it was also a pleasure to step back briefly into my first profession and to prosecute Australia’s case with our excellent legal team.
DM: If the ALP is successful in the upcoming election, what will be your main priorities as Attorney-General? MD: Improving access to justice for all Australians – which includes more efficient, better resourced courts, more funding for legal aid and other legal assistance providers, and increasing legal support for Indigenous Australians. Improved access to justice will create a more just and egalitarian society, while also strengthening the rule of law in our nation.