“I’m Going to Be a Bulldozer”: Former NSW Magistrate Pat O’Shane Eyes Off Canberra

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Pat O Shane

Pat O’Shane has long been a force to be reckoned with. And the former NSW Magistrate intends to take her trailblazing attitude into this nation’s seat of government with the aim of forging much-needed change in the areas of climate, corruption and social justice.

Running on the Socialist Alliance ticket in the far northern Queensland lower house seat of Leichhardt, O’Shane plans to bring about greater national equity, after knocking out Liberal National MP Warren Entsch, whom she claims is sitting too comfortably in the local electorate.

A Kuku Yalanji elder from the Daintree area, 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. And she now has her eye on law-making at the federal level.

Known for her campaigning on First Nations issues, O’Shane is further keen to reform the Australian criminal justice system, and she’s specifically calling for the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from the current 10 years old, which overwhelmingly targets Indigenous youth.

A nation in trouble

The term under the Morrison government has been one of turmoil. Elected as the south-eastern drought continued, the PM’s time has further been marked by the climate-driven Black Summer bushfires that destroyed 20 percent of mainland forest, and then, of course, the COVID pandemic.

In response to the most tumultuous term of government in respect to natural disasters, Morrison has bolstered the fossil fuel industry, whilst purposefully preventing climate action. And during the fires, he took off for a family holiday overseas, only to return to claim he wasn’t needed.

On the social front, the prime minister has been conducting the religious freedoms debate, as he attempts to rollback all forms of antidiscrimination protections enacted over the last fifty years, with the aim of legalising bigotry in the name of religion, or more specifically, his favoured Christianity.

A career of firsts

The Socialist Alliance candidate points to all these social ills being fostered under the current government. And she’s running at a time when minor party members and independents are set to play a more significant role in steering the nation away from its current uncertainty.

Indeed, O’Shane’s career has been all about reforming Australian society. She was the first Aboriginal magistrate, and she served on the NSW Local Court bench for 26 years. She was also the nation’s first Indigenous barrister, law graduate and teacher in Queensland.

And O’Shane was 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, at which time she oversaw the drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW).

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Socialist Alliance candidate Pat O’Shane about her thoughts on the state of the nation under the Morrison government, why she’s running on the SA Party ticket, and what she plans to do in the House of Representatives.

Pat O Shane

After a highly successful career, encompassing law, government and education, you retired from the role of NSW Magistrate in early 2013. You’ve now decided to run in the coming federal election in the Queensland seat of Leichhardt.

Pat, what is it about the present that’s spurred you on to run?

It’s not just specifically the present time. There has been a gradual decline in society, not only here in Australia, but around the world.

The key player is the US. What I see in Australia is this toadying to the US – following them into very ugly situations.

I see a major decline in western society. I am not au fait with eastern society. Although I have visited China, Japan, Vietnam and various other Asian countries. At the times when I was visiting them, I saw them as go-ahead communities.

But, here in Australia, especially since the Howard government, I’ve seen a steady decline.

Of course, it has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as it threw everybody into chaos, wherever they were. They wondered what had hit them, and they’re still wondering now.

So, the decline of society here in Australia specifically made me think, I can do something about that.

So, what are some of the indications of that decline?

It’s firstly corruption. We’ve had corruption in every government since Howard. We see corruption in big business every day. And we see it even in small organisations.

We see corruption amongst the wealthiest people. They buy whatever they’re prepared to pay for. They think that they can buy elections.

Let’s face it, they can up to a point, because they pay millions in advertising. And the ordinary Jane Doe doesn’t distinguish what they’re saying from her own life experience.

Let’s take housing. I’ve just been reading about it this morning. In referring to the article by John Hewson in last weekend’s Saturday Paper, what we’re facing now is 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. I hear every day 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.

Then we hear about things like what happened last week with the Morrison government trying to protect faith-based schools and other organisations that want to discriminate against very young children. That’s a form of corruption.

I see corruption at every level of society. And I’m very angry about it.

You’re running as a Socialist Alliance candidate. What is it about that party that drew you to it?

It’s a bit of a story. I read again in the Saturday Paper some weeks ago that Simon Holmes à Court and Mike Cannon-Brookes were interested in supporting individuals who would stand for election in the upcoming polls.

So, I wrote to both of them and found out that I needed to belong to a community organisation to do that. I thought with Holmes à Court, I might have a chance, because I know his mother, Janet. We invited her to the University of New England, at the time when I was chancellor.

Then it was as if something fell out of the sky. I got a phone call from Rob Pyne. He’s well known around Cairns. 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 just got a phone call one day asking if I would be happy to meet with him and a young lawyer, Renee Lees, whom I hadn’t met, but I’d heard quite a bit about.

Members of my family were working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, and this young woman was a lawyer there. She’d also done a lot of work to see cycle paths around the city. I’d heard about that and thought, she’s a young goer.

I agreed to meet with them. I didn’t quite know what was on the agenda. But they told me they’re members of the Socialist Alliance and asked if I’d like to join them with the election coming up.

So, I agreed because I’m at heart a socialist, and believe that in society, we need to look after each other. But, apart from that, we need to look after Earth first of all. I am passionate about climate action.

I come from the Daintree area. Bjelke-Petersen alienated large areas of the Daintree Forest and allowed those lands to be sold off to speculators, who then built huge houses overlooking the Great Barrier Reef. And what did they do? They destroyed the reef.

Warren Entsch is the sitting member here. He’s been here far too long. He was supposed to be the envoy for the Great Barrier Reef. But he’s only seen it twice. I grew up here. I’m sitting here now not too many metres from the ocean.

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. So, that’s a major issue. I spelt that out to Rob and Renee when I met them.

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. And we never felt like we didn’t want to go to school.

School was the objective. It wasn’t about the school. It was about education. That’s what my parents said.

Then, when I got that education, it was beholden upon me to engage my skills and knowledge to help change the world, to make it a better place for our people.

The last three years under PM Scott Morrison have been turbulent to say the least. This is in terms of matters outside of government control, but also matters within it.

What are your thoughts on the performance of the Morrison government overall?

Appalling. He’s absolutely incompetent. He has absolutely no idea of the government. He’s a scrambled egg.

Morrison is very egotistical. He thinks he can do the job, but he doesn’t have the skills whatsoever.

This last debacle was with the two young women. One has alleged being raped in a minister’s office inside parliament. That’s an appalling situation.

Morrison thought he could just wipe that matter. He should be locked up for that, with his silly wife to go with him.

That was one issue. The other issues are justice and equity. Being a lawyer, I looked at what was going on in the world around me. I knew people who went to gaol in my own family.

I saw them when they came out of detention, 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, for instance, are being incarcerated. Some are being locked up in glass cells in Western Australia in solitary confinement, without any opportunity to exercise.

read in the Australian last week 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.

That particular decision by that judge is now laying the groundwork for a number of other youths subjected to the same treatment to mount a class action against the state government.

I’ve done dozens of these cases. In fact, I dare say that over my time on the bench, I would have done hundreds of them. I had to operate courts all over NSW. 

I was also invited by clients after I finished on the bench to do cases where the young members of families got caught up. I was able to put forward to the judges an alternative way of dealing with matters.

We all influence our youth, even if we don’t know them. We pour out garbage on television sets. We have these horrible electronic devices, where their minds are being stopped from any kind of engagement with the rest of the world.

Australia is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But this society locks up children as young as 10 years old. They’re babies. They’re barely out of their mothers’ wombs.

I’m astonished and absolutely enraged by people who want to lock up children that young, and not only that, then put them in solitary confinement for days on end.

There are other issues that I get really fired up about, like housing. Once upon a time, there were departments of housing all over Australia that provided accommodation for people on low wages.

Some of the people today have no wages at all. Meanwhile, that ugly cow from Western Australia, who’s supposed to be one of the richest people between here and hell, 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 that it’s place on belong to the world. 

It should not belong to Gina Rinehart. It doesn’t matter how much money she has. Let her take her money to hell because she’s making hell for us.

You’re a Kuku Yalanji elder. Over your career, you’ve been a great advocate for First Nations rights. How do you consider the current government’s performance in terms of its dealing with affairs concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

I didn’t know they did.

Let’s face it. We knew a couple of years ago that COVID-19 – already a pandemic – was sweeping through Europe, and we were just starting to get it here. We knew that we had a very serious change to the health and structures of society. We knew people were going to die.

When I was in NSW, I had to work in every part of the state. We worked on three-year placements. I went up to the northwest. I have some First Nations friends there now.

I asked one of them whether they’d received any vaccinations in that part of the state. He said no. They had received absolutely nothing.

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 at any level, he would have thought immediately about Indigenous communities around this country who live in remote areas.

Morrison would have got onto the job straight away and said the first people that we have to ensure are vaccinated are those who are living in remote First Nations lands. But he did nothing – nothing.

I wrote to politicians, and not a single one had raised that issue. They’re disgusting – absolutely disgusting.

Many of our people across Australia 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 that we’re seeing in Australian society.

You’ve touched on this already, but, if elected, what sort of issues will you be prioritising in parliament?

First of all, I would ensure that we apply international legal principles, like those contained in the Rights of the Child, as well as those for other cohorts in our communities. We can easily adjust them and adopt them into our legal system to make it better.

I’ve seen the breakdown of our legal systems throughout this country.

I just read about the High Court judge who was accused of bad behaviour towards young women. He was actually my lecturer in constitutional law when I was doing my Master of Law. He was an ugly bastard then and he still is.

We have to stop the decline of this society. That’s the first thing. And we have to do it in tandem with efforts in climate action.

If we destroy our world, well that’s it, we destroy ourselves. We won’t be here in a few more years. Where are we? Twenty Twenty-Two. Twenty Fifty is not that far away.

And lastly, Pat, after having served as both a magistrate and a barrister in the Australian legal system, as well as holding key positions in government and tertiary education, what do you see as the way forward for the First Nations people of this continent?

I’m not going to talk about getting together to start the revolution. They don’t have the resources. There has been a horrible lack of good education in this country for First Nations people.

It’s endemic in this society. It’s one of Australian society’s ills. It will take a while. We must make sure there’s housing and health first of all. You can’t have good health without decent housing. It doesn’t have to be mansions. There are adequate housing facilities.

All of us have the knowledge to do it. If we sit down and say, “Okay, we can’t have this terrible standard of so-called housing where they don’t have adequate facilities.”

Almost everywhere I’ve been in this country, I’ve come across overcrowded housing. They’re slums. There are people lying on the floor because they have nothing else.

They don’t have access to decent jobs. Most of them don’t have access to any jobs. They don’t have access to decent food. I am a strong advocate for growing our own food. My family has done it, and we still do.

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.

Photos of Pat O’Shane supplied by the Green Left

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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