Speech Given at the Launch of the Filipino Australia Lawyers Association

Justice McEvoy 05 July 2023

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Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge the Consul General and thank her for her kind hospitality, marked by all the warmth and generosity so properly associated with the people of the Philippines.

I am delighted to be here today on behalf of the Chief Justice and the Judges of the Federal Court of Australia. I bring with me the warm wishes of my colleagues at the Court for the flourishing of the Filipino Australian Lawyers Association. I should say that we are no strangers to Filipino lawyers at the Federal Court. In the period 1999 to 2008 the Court hosted four visits from the Supreme Court of the Philippines. And in 2000 the Court hosted a study visit as part of a judicial training program arranged in conjunction with the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University, granting visiting judges from the Supreme Court of Philippines an opportunity to observe proceedings and attend discussions with Federal Court judges. And only last month the Court hosted a visit from Chief Justice Gesmundo of the Supreme Court of the Philippines and other Associate Justices of that Court.

But enough about the judges. I commend all those responsible for bringing this Association of practitioners to birth. It is a worthy achievement. I must confess though to being a little surprised such a group did not already exist, given the depth and scope of contribution by people of Filipino background across almost every field of professional endeavour and community service in Australia.

In creating the Filipino Australian Lawyers Association, you are stepping into a long and rich tradition in multicultural Australia – a tradition of people who proudly identify as Australian, but who also embrace the cultural and linguistic traditions of their parents and their ancestors, and rightly see the two in comfortable, and indeed very fruitful, coexistence.

You are also stepping into a long tradition in the legal profession, whereby people with shared interests and aspirations have come together across the generations to advance worthy objectives. And in your objectives I wish you every success.

Your objectives include supporting each other's career development, promoting diversity, and staging networking and professional development events, together with other things common to all professional associations. These are all most laudable activities, of course. But I hope you will indulge me if I take the opportunity to delve a little more deeply into the significance of the Association you have created and that is being launched tonight.

It is appropriate, I think, that this new organisation is being launched today, the 5th of July, the same day on which, in 1945, General Douglas MacArthur announced the successful liberation of the Philippines. Whilst that was, of course, a military campaign and not a legal one, any opportunity to remind lawyers of their crucial role in the upholding of the Rule of Law in a free society is surely one which should be taken.

In fact, the liberation of the Philippines on the 5th of July 1945 and the launch of the Filipino Australian Lawyers Association on the same day seventy eight years later actually have a resonance beyond just their temporal coincidence, and it is on that subject that I wish to say a little more.

Migration in large numbers from the Philippines to Australia began principally after the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972 – not a high point for the Rule of Law, we can probably all agree. But before any non-Filipino is tempted to be too smug, it is worth recalling that one of the reasons there had not been greater Filipino migration to Australia before that was because it was not until 1966 that the White Australia Policy, which had effectively excluded Filipinos from emigrating to Australia, was finally dismantled.

Prior to the 1970s, the only significant presence of Filipinos in Australia had come about as a result of refugee arrivals during the Second World War, together with Malays and what we would now call Indonesians.

At the end of the war, however, through the Aliens Deportation Act 1948, the Commonwealth Government sought to have all these refugees removed, in many cases together with the children who had since been born to them and the Australian spouses with whom they had begun new lives. This action was challenged through the courts and in the case of O'Keefe v Calwell (1949) 77 CLR 261, the High Court effectively blocked the Government's attempt to deport these refugees under that Act.

The plaintiff, Mrs O'Keefe, was born in modern day Sulawesi, now part of Indonesia but then part of the Dutch East Indies. She was represented in the High Court by Reginald Sholl KC, who was later to be knighted as the Honourable Mr Justice Sholl of the Supreme Court of Victoria. A more perfect biography of a son of the conservative Melbourne establishment you might be hard pressed to find than Sir Reginald's. In fact, when he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in 1950, a Communist Party newspaper described him as a 'die-hard tory' who knew 'nothing of the lives of the people', and the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that one of his interests later in life was the perils of non-white immigration!

And yet it was he who, through his advocacy and despite his private views, helped ensure that a sizeable number of Filipinos and other wartime refugees from Asia were able to remain in Australia after the war. It would be nice to think that perhaps some people in this room might be standing here today in part as a result of the diligent work of a lawyer who, though apparently no fan of non-white immigration personally, was resolutely committed to the Rule of Law and to the proper limits that apply to the Executive Government.

There is a further dimension though to these various intersections that I would like to mention. One of the authors of the demise of the White Australia Policy was the late Sir James Gobbo, also a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, later Governor of Victoria, and, I am privileged to say, a friend and mentor of mine.

In common with some of you I suspect, he was born in Melbourne to immigrant parents, in his case from Italy, who worked hard in difficult manual jobs to ensure their children could have a first class education and a better and more prosperous life than they had had themselves.

In 1959 James Gobbo, then a young lawyer and recent Rhodes Scholar, together with others, formed the 'Immigration Reform Group'. They published a pamphlet called, Control or Colour Bar? A Proposal for Change in the Australian Immigration System. Historians now regard that pamphlet and the developments which flowed from its publication as a watershed in Australia's immigration debate and as having made a singular contribution to the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, a dismantling which, again, I hope might be directly or indirectly responsible for some of you standing here today.

This might all seem like a slightly more dense collection of remarks for a happy occasion such as the launch of the Filipino Australian Lawyers Association. But I tell you all this in the hope that you will, as proud Australian lawyers of Filipino heritage, and as members of this new organisation, lift your gaze very high.

Because some Filipinos were able to settle in this country after World War II thanks, in part, to lawyers. Other Filipinos were able to settle in this country in the seventies, thanks, in part, to lawyers. And now Filipinos are as at home in mainstream Australian life and mainstream Australian legal practice as are those descended from the English, Scots and Irish settlers who arrived several generations before.

So, just as Filipino refugees were aided by those who advocated for them in the face of government overreach, or just as non-white immigration ultimately became a reality due in part to the advocacy of the son of a European immigrant, it now falls to you as Australian lawyers whose cultural identity originates beyond these shores, to take your part in the honourable traditions of Australia's legal profession, with a particular eye to those who, like your ancestors and mine, might find themselves in need of a lawyer. I think if my law student daughter were here she would say that I am simply asking you, as Filipino Australian lawyers, to 'pay it forward'.

I wish the Association every success.