Being Attorney-General: Jill Hennessy on leadership and life (and why they’re inseparable)

Victoria’s Attorney-General and Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy gives MLS News her views on political reform, challenging the “old culture” in the legal profession, and being authentic in the workplace.

By Catriona May

The Hon Jill Hennessy (MPub&IntLaw 2006) has a corner office on the 26th floor with spectacular views. And a brightly painted picture by her kids on the door.

Victoria’s Attorney-General and Minister for Workplace Safety, who counts voluntary assisted dying reform among her career highlights, has a deliberately ‘human’ public persona. Hennessy’s Twitter feed is a mixed bag of political announcements, photos of home-cooked treats, and footy fandom. “Tweet a/b music, cooking, politics & the Dogs,” she writes (she’s referring to the Western Bulldogs AFL team).

For the Member for Altona of eight years and former Minister for Health (2014–2018), authenticity is not just a political strategy; it’s central to her day-to-day working life.

“I honestly think being human is the only way for women to emotionally survive long and prosperous careers,” Hennessy says.

Appointed Attorney-General in November following the Victorian Labor Government’s re-election, Hennessy has an ambitious agenda for her time as Victoria’s chief law officer.

Included on her “very long list of things to do” is the introduction of workplace manslaughter laws, and wage theft laws to address exploitation in industries including hospitality, retail and agriculture.

She is also keen to advance sexual harassment laws.

I would like sexual harassment to be mainstreamed as an occupational health and safety issue,” she says, with the legal frame being that “a workplace that is not free from sexual harassment is an unsafe workplace.

When it comes to the legal profession itself, Hennessy would like to see a shift in culture to one that is more compassionate and tolerant.

Just last year, the International Bar Association issued a report based on nearly 6000 responses to a worldwide survey, which found bullying and intimidation were occurring at “alarming” levels in commercial law firms, and diversity policies were “wanting”.

The Australian Law Council’s 2013 National Attrition and Re-engagement Study found that one in two women and more than one in three men reported having been bullied or intimidated in their current workplace.

“I think we need to build a culture in law firms that [recognises that] technical expertise does not mean good management,” Hennessy says.

Good management is being able to manage productivity, workflow, professional satisfaction and development, and to not sacrifice all of those things when the billable hours budget is looking a bit shaky.

“The most alienating thing that you could ever ask anyone is to not be themselves. Smart managers will always make sure people can be authentic in their workplace.”

The staff in her own office are exposed to high levels of stress and, at times, trauma. Offering support when they need it is an important part of Hennessy’s leadership role.

“We need to look at mental health in the same way that we look at other occupational health and safety issues,” she says.

She does this by being aware of colleagues’ exposure to vicarious trauma, actively talking about mental health and wellbeing, encouraging staff to be attentive to each other, offering professional support for those who need it, and understanding when someone needs time away.

“Never underestimate the importance of leave and time away from work. The culture that ‘only wusses take leave’ is one that we’ve absolutely got to defeat.”

For junior lawyers in particular, it’s a culture that can be daunting. Hennessy’s advice is typically humane; acknowledge that feeling, because it’s common to everyone.

“Make friends with that feeling of ‘I’m a fake, I’m a fraud, they’ve made a mistake giving me this job’,” she says.

It comes back to authenticity and honesty.

“Being honest gives you great credibility with your team.

“Having the strength and the courage to show vulnerability enables other people to show vulnerability. You will always get the best out of people if you are human and compassionate.”

She points to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate response to the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch in March.

I think it serves as a great testament to the power and possibility of women in decision-making positions and the cultural change they can engender.

As part of the first cabinet in Victoria with gender parity, Hennessy is optimistic about the changes that having more women at the decision-making table can effect, particularly at a time when much of the population feels alienated from politics.

“We’ve got a great challenge to bring parliamentary democracy and its culture into the modern age,” she says.

“That’s not to say that women can’t be as assertive as men in the political domain, but I think there is a difference in leadership style that many women bring. Bringing that into parliament can bring a more considered tone.

The measure of success in parliament used to be who had the wittiest retort, who was able to humiliate the other person on the other side with great conviction. Those are no longer seen as contemporary parliamentary and political benchmarks of success.

But compassion, a considered tone, having the strength to show vulnerability – none of these qualities should be mistaken for weakness. Hennessy’s own record in office reveals a strong stomach for potentially controversial reform.

“I’m not a person who shies away from tough decisions,” she says.

As Health Minister she was one of the driving forces behind Victoria’s landmark Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic), which was “full of political and policy risk”. The Act comes into effect in June.

She also committed $124 million to an electronic medical records project for hospitals in Melbourne’s Parkville precinct, embracing the promise of big data and health informatics for medical research, as well as the potential to improve patients’ experiences.

“Whether we’re talking about big medical breakthroughs or knowing where a patient is meant to go and at what time, digital health is the platform we need to utilise,” Hennessy says.

That can be disruptive and challenging to our traditional constructs of how healthcare is delivered, but we will miss out on a whole range of research opportunities unless we’re investing in digital health.

Just days into her role as Attorney-General, Hennessy announced the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, in response to the revelation that Victoria Police used a defence lawyer as a registered informer during Melbourne’s gangland wars. The scandal has rocked the state’s criminal justice system and may result in a number of criminal convictions being overturned.

The road ahead might be tough, but Hennessy is determined to make the most of her time in office.

“In modern politics you don’t know how much time you’ve got. If you’ve worked hard to build political capital, then you draw down on it for the purposes of reform.”

Banner image: Victorian Attorney-General and MLS alumna Jill Hennessy. Image credit: Steve McKenzie, MediaXpress.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 21, June 2019