Melbourne to lead statelessness fight

By Rachel Hewitt

More than 10 million people are stateless, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation. The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness will help fight this issue by seeking to develop policy solutions and ultimately contributing to a United Nations goal of eradicating statelessness by 2024.

Throughout his extensive legal and business career, Melbourne Law School alumnus Peter McMullin has demonstrated a deep commitment to public service, championing causes as diverse as international cooperation, economic and regional development, education and the arts.

But it is the issue of statelessness – a problem that affects more than 10 million people globally – that has led McMullin (LLB, BCom 1974) and his wife Ruth to make their largest philanthropic donation to date – and one of the most significant gifts in the history of the Law School.

The couple’s generosity will establish at MLS the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, the world’s only academic research centre dedicated to the problem.

Peter McMullin discusses statelessness and philanthropy with Nick Blinco, Vice-Principal (Advancement) at The University of Melbourne.

“Statelessness grabbed my attention largely because of my past history as a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal (from 1993-1996), where Australia was a leader in the field of refugee law,” McMullin says.

“I think even the most dispassionate observer of the scene would say that that is no longer the case.

“And so my, in management speak, ‘big hairy audacious goal’ is that one day Australia can be a leader again, in statelessness. This is an area of growing importance in the world and very few people really know about it as an issue.”

He says the fact a child is born into statelessness every 10 minutes – meaning no country recognises them as a national – is “a phenomenal figure”.

The plight of stateless people and refugees has long been an area of concern for McMullin, who was the principal of his own firm for 24 years and practised extensively in immigration law.

I’m one of many people in Australia disappointed about Australia’s stance on these issues. I felt ‘well, you can whinge about it or do something about it’, and so this is what I’ve done.

The centre, which will open in 2018, will be headed by globally-respected MLS international human rights law scholar Professor Michelle Foster.

“We want to develop a research agenda around both understanding the causes of statelessness and seeking to formulate policy responses to ultimately contribute to the goal of eradicating statelessness,” Professor Foster says.

She hopes the centre’s work will contribute to the United Nations’ plan to end statelessness by 2024. Although it will have a global outlook and reach, the centre will focus on the Asia-Pacific, with plans to establish a network of scholars in the region and a visiting fellowship program.

While basing the centre in a university setting will ensure robust, high-quality research that meets stringent academic standards, Professor Foster says “that doesn’t mean we’re going to be sitting up here in our ivory tower”.

“We certainly have an eye to undertaking research that will hopefully translate into policy reforms and policy suggestions. To that end, we want to be very outward-looking and working with organisations like the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and others, so the centre will be very collaborative.”

It will have a clear education and reform agenda, she says, and develop training modules for governments, NGOs and other relevant agencies in the region.

Peter and Ruth McMullin
Above image: Peter and Ruth McMullin's philanthropic gift will establish the new Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School. Image credit: Steve McKenzie/Mediaxpress.

We think it’s really important to raise awareness of the issue because many people are simply unaware of statelessness and certainly of its causes.

Even today as we speak there are stateless people in detention in Australia but virtually no public understanding of these issues.

Professor Foster describes the McMullins’ donation as “a wonderful endorsement of the importance of the issue”, which she says has been long overlooked in the context of broader refugee law.

“There’s (currently) no research centre that’s established and supported by a university that is working only on statelessness – we felt that this was a pretty significant gap.

“There’s certainly an overlap between statelessness and refugee law but they are distinct areas as well.”

McMullin, a former Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne and former Mayor of the City of Greater Geelong, says the other motivation behind the donation was his desire to “repay the favour”.

“Melbourne University was very significant in my life,” he says. “I can trace almost all my public activities since Melbourne University to that time and the links that I made and the whole range of political and social issues that were current and remain of interest.”

The Chairman and Director of diversified investment company McMullin Group, McMullin is also Special Counsel at law firm Cornwall Stodart. He is the current Vice-President of the Confederation of Asia-Pacific Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a former member of the Victorian Residential Tenancies and Small Claims tribunals, and has held prominent board and senior roles at close to 20 public and private sector entities, including Philanthropy Australia.

With governments under increasing pressure “to deliver in a whole lot of areas”, McMullin believes significant institutions in society, like universities, are under threat.

“And I think the private sector, the philanthropic sector and the non-government sector need to take this seriously and respond.”

He and Ruth, a trained family therapist and social worker, share a passion for philanthropy that they hope to pass on to their children.

“There are people with wealth in Australia who really could and should do more,” McMullin says. “I think people have to make their own decisions about that but I’m encouraging others to do what we’ve done.

“My hope is that others will follow.”

For more information contact:

Read more about the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Pursuit.

Banner image: Members of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority walk along a broken road at Shah Porir Deep, at Teknaf in Cox's Bazer, Bangladesh on 11 September, 2017.

Credit: Sk Hasan Ali /

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017