Honouring 160 years

Her Excellency the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria

MLS welcomed Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau AC (LLB(Hons) 1973),  Chancellor of the University of Melbourne Allan Myers AC QC (BA 1969, LLB(Hons) 1970, LLD 2012) and more than 250 MLS alumni and friends to the launch of its newly installed Honour Boards on 21 March 2017.

The Honour Boards celebrate and acknowledge a strong tradition of leadership and service among MLS alumni, not only to the law school and to the legal profession, but to the wider community.

Counted among the names are former Prime Ministers, Victorian Premiers, Governors and Governors-General, Chief Justices of Victoria, High Court Judges, University Chancellors, Rhodes Scholars, Supreme Court Prize Winners and Law School leaders including Presidents of the Law Students' Society and editors of the Melbourne University Law Review.

Governor Dessau congratulated those whose wonderful accomplishments are reflected in the Honour Boards.

"They (the Honour Boards) tell us of the strong sense of public duty this School has fostered in its students. Its graduates have aspired to serve the people. That is the most important boast that any university faculty can make,” she said.

In a thought provoking speech that reflected on what the past 160 years reveal about the pace of change for women, ethnic communities, Indigenous Australians, people with a disability and other under-represented groups, Governor Dessau used the occasion to stress the importance of diversity at the University, in law and in society more broadly.

"Even a cursory glance tells us of eras past, when names from large swathes of our community simply did not appear. In that way, they (the Honour Boards) reflect the society in which this Law School grew, and the social mores of the times," she said.

Charting the appearance of women on the Honour Boards as an example, Governor Dessau singled out Airlie Blake (nee Smith) the first woman to appear on the Honour Boards in 1939 for winning the Supreme Court Prize.

"Two years later, in 1941, Airlie Smith became the first female Law Students' Society President. What a trailblazer for women!" she said.

"When it comes to other firsts for women, the first female Rhodes Scholar from the Law School was not until Karen Yeung, in 1993. The first female Prime Minister was not until 2010… Nicola Roxon, the first female Commonwealth Attorney-General was not until 2011."

But, as Governor Dessau observed, the Honour Boards can be seen as a source of optimism, with progress in the diversity of names becoming apparent.

"There may not have been a female editor of the Melbourne University Law Review until 1973, but women have comprised 47 of the 117 editors since then," she said.

"Since the second female Law Students' Society President in 1980, 17 of the next 38 have been women."

"For women, a steady advance towards more equal representation is clear, and hopefully it will continue and gather speed."

Governor Dessau urged the audience to take the opportunity to look back on the past and reflect on how today's society can help inform and influence the future.

"This century sees us with a heightened awareness of the need for diversity, for different perspectives, for the use of 100 per cent of our talent pool to meet the unique cocktail of challenges presented by technology, disruption and globalisation," she said.

"And it sees the commitment of this University and Law School to equity and diversity, with programs specifically designed to support students from under-represented backgrounds, including rural and regional Australians, refugees, Indigenous Australians, those with a disability or those from low socio-economic backgrounds."

The Governor highlighted diversity as a foundation for building democracy and community.

"When the legal system is unrepresentative, it risks losing its democratic legitimacy," she said.

"The legitimacy of democracies is being questioned like never before in our recent history."

"It warns us to be more vigilant than ever about genuine representation in every part of our system." 

The Governor concluded her remarks reflecting on the values and ethos that underpin a law degree from Melbourne Law School.

"The ultimate ideal of the lawyer- to safeguard the rule of law – is not something limited to the practice of law. It is a commitment that a graduate from this law school can take into every part of their private, professional and community life."

View a recording of Governor Dessau’s full speech here.

Image: Her Excellency the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria