Pat O’Shane has long been a force to be reckoned with. The former New South Wales magistrate and Kuku Yalanji elder intends to take her trailblazing attitude to government to force much-needed change in the areas of climate, corruption and social justice.
O’Shane is running for the Socialist Alliance (SA) in the far northern Queensland lower house seat of Leichhardt. After knocking out Liberal National MP Warren Entsch, she plans to bring about greater national equity.
O’Shane is renowned for her ground-breaking career that has, so far, spanned the bar, the bench, secondary and tertiary education, as well as heading up a government department.
Known for her championing of First Nations rights, O’Shane is keen to reform the criminal justice system; she’s specifically calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 years old.
The SA candidate points to climate change, the government’s bolstering of the fossil fuel industry and its religious discrimination bill as social ills that are being deliberately fostered.
O’Shane is running at a time when minor party members and independents are set to play a more significant political role.
Indeed, O’Shane’s career has been all about reforms. She was the first Aboriginal magistrate, serving on the NSW Local Court bench for 26 years. She was also the nation’s first Indigenous barrister, law graduate and teacher in Queensland.
O’Shane was also the first woman and Aboriginal person to head a government department, when she ran the NSW Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in the first half of the 1980s, overseeing the drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW).
Paul Gregoire from Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with O’Shane about the state of the nation, why she’s running for SA and her plans for the House of Representatives.
After a highly successful career, you’ve decided to run in the Queensland seat of Leichhardt. What spurred you to do that?
It’s not just specifically the present time. There has been a gradual decline especially since the John Howard government, not only here in Australia, but around the world. Of course, it has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as it threw everybody into chaos. It made me think I can do something.
What are some indications of the decline?
We’ve had corruption in every government since Howard. We see corruption in big business every day. We see it even in small organisations. We see corruption among the wealthiest people.
They buy whatever they’re prepared to pay for: they think they can buy elections. Let’s face it, they can up to a point, because they pay millions in advertising. The ordinary Jane Doe doesn’t distinguish what they’re saying from her own life experience.
Let’s take housing. An article by John Hewson in the Saturday Paper shows people aren’t going to be able to afford housing, not even those on middle incomes.
People have already been shoved out of their homes. Every day, I hear about yet another family who’ve lost their jobs and don’t know where the money is coming from to support themselves, or put meals on the table.
Now the Morrison government is trying to protect faith-based schools, and other organisations, that want to discriminate against very young children. That’s a form of corruption.
What is it about Socialist Alliance that drew you to it?
I read that Simon Holmes à Court and Mike Cannon-Brookes were interested in supporting individuals to stand in the federal election. I wrote to both, thinking with Holmes à Court I might have a chance.
Then I got a phone call from Rob Pyne, who is well known around Cairns as he’s been a councillor for a long time. He’s a socialist by inclination and so am I.
I had never met him. I was asked if I would be happy to meet with him and a young lawyer, Renee Lees, about whom I’d heard quite a bit about. Members of my family were working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, and Lees was a lawyer there. She’d also done a lot of work to get cycle paths around the city.
I agreed to meet with them but I didn’t quite know what was on the agenda. They asked if I’d like to join SA and I agreed because I’m a socialist at heart and believe that we need to look after each other. Apart from that, we need to look after the Earth first of all.
I come from the Daintree area. Joh Bjelke-Petersen alienated large areas of the Daintree Forest and allowed the land to be sold off to speculators who then built huge houses overlooking the Great Barrier Reef.
Warren Entsch is the sitting member and he’s been here far too long. He was supposed to be the envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, but he’s presided over its destruction.
When I was a kid, we used to swim out. We were very game: there were sharks and porpoises. We could swim to a certain distance, look down and see the reef below us. That’s all gone. The whole ecology of this part of the ocean has been destroyed. That’s a major issue.
Then, of course, there’s social justice. I grew up exceedingly poor. My parents impressed upon me that my function in life was to make the world a better place. I’ve always had that in mind.
I literally grew up in a tin shed. No floors. We had one bus. If it didn’t break down, that was the bus we took to school. If we missed it, we had to walk. We never felt like we didn’t want to go to school. It was about education. When I got that education, it was beholden upon me to engage my skills and knowledge to help make it a better place for our people.
What are your thoughts on the performance of the Morrison-led Coalition government?
Morrison is absolutely incompetent: he is also very egotistical. He thinks he can do the job, but he doesn’t have the skill.
The last debacle with the two young women, where one has alleged being raped in a minister’s office inside parliament is appalling. Morrison thought he could just wipe that matter away. He should be locked up for that.
The other issues are justice and equity. Being a lawyer, I knew people who went to jail in my own family and I saw them when they came out and, really, they were broken people. I still see them around me, and I know there’s another way that we can embrace people — young people, in particular.
Children as young as 10 are being incarcerated. Some are being locked up in glass cells in Western Australia in solitary confinement, without an opportunity to exercise.
I read in The Australian about a Western Australia judge who sat on the case of a youth who was held in solitary confinement. He said, if we treat them like animals, they will behave like animals. The decision by that judge is now laying the groundwork for a number of other youths, subjected to the same treatment, who are mounting a class action against the state government.
I’ve done dozens, if not more, of these cases as I had to operate courts all over NSW. I was also invited by clients after I finished on the bench to do cases where young family members got caught up. I was able to put forward to the judges an alternative way of dealing with matters.
Australia is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. But this society locks up children as young as 10 years old. I’m absolutely enraged by people who want to lock up children that young and then put them in solitary confinement for days on end.
There are other issues that I get really fired up about, such as housing. Once upon a time, there were departments of housing all over Australia that provided accommodation for people on low wages.
Some people today have no wages at all. Meanwhile, Gina Rinehart is buying an island off the coast of Rockhampton. Great Keppel Island is pretty much the end of the southern Great Barrier Reef. That island and the ocean belong to the world. It should not belong to Rinehart. It doesn’t matter how much money she has.
You’ve been a great advocate for First Nations peoples’ rights. What is your view of the federal government’s record dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ affairs?
Let’s face it. We knew a couple of years ago that COVID-19 was a pandemic and had a very serious impact on people’s health. We knew people were going to die. When I was in NSW, I went up to the north west where I have First Nations friends. I asked one of if they’d received any vaccinations. He said 'no'.
The federal government took the responsibility to ensure the rollout of health programs for Indigenous people right across the country. If Morrison was a halfway decent administrator, he would have thought immediately about Indigenous communities who live in remote areas.
He could have got onto the job straight away and said the first people we have to ensure are vaccinated are those living in remote communities. But he did nothing. Nothing.
Many of our people have died from this pandemic. They will never be able to see other members of their families grow up and work to change this decline we’re seeing.
What issues will you prioritise if elected?
I would ensure we apply international legal principles, like those contained in the [United Nations] Rights of the Child. We can easily adjust them and adopt them into our legal system to make it better.
The High Court judge who was accused of bad behaviour towards young women was my Constitutional law lecturer when I was doing my Master of Law. I’ve seen the breakdown of legal systems throughout this country and have to stop the decline.
We have to do it in tandem with action on the climate. If we destroy our world, well, that’s it, we destroy ourselves. We won’t be here in a few more years.
Having served as a magistrate and a barrister, as well as holding key positions in government and tertiary education, what do you see as the way forward for the First Nations peoples?
There has been a horrible lack of good education for First Nations peoples. It’s one of society’s ills. We must make sure there’s housing and health first as you can’t have good health without decent housing. All of us have the knowledge to do it.
Almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve come across overcrowded housing. People lie on the floor because they have nothing else. They don’t have access to decent jobs. Most don’t have access to decent food. People need the chance to be proactive in changing their circumstances, but they can’t if the only thing they’ve ever known is rejection, slander, ill treatment and police going out and shooting their youths.
Those are the issues I’m going to take up. You might get the impression that I’m going to be a bulldozer. I hope so. From the time I set foot in that place, I will be on my skates.
[This article is slightly abridged from Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where it was first published. ]