Hugh de Kretser
“You don’t have to be called a human rights lawyer to do human rights law”
In Conversation with Hugh De Kretser (BA/LLB 1997)
I first learned of Hugh De Kretser when he appeared on a television panel discussion in his capacity as Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre. I remember Hugh being an articulate, thoughtful speaker who seemed at ease in front of the camera. When Benji and I sat down with Hugh face-to-face in an empty classroom at MLS for this interview, I already had a deep respect for Hugh that translated to a bit of anxiety. I worried whether we did enough preparation for the interview and I desperately wanted us to leave a good impression on Hugh. These worries quickly evaporated as the three of us delved into an engaging conversation in which we frequently got so deep in discussion that we forgot what the question was. Despite his long list of credentials, Hugh is disarming, approachable and incredibly generous with his experience and insight.
Benji and I managed to catch-up with Hugh at a turning point in his career—just as he was leaving his role as Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre to take on the responsibilities of CEO of the Yoorrook Justice Commission. In this conversation, we chart Hugh’s journey from aspiring journalist to employment lawyer to human rights advocate, and he shares important reflections on what it takes to forge a career in the field of human rights.
Hugh did not walk into the University of Melbourne with his heart set on a career in the law. Studying a double degree in Arts and Law, Hugh was interested in journalism, politics, history and diplomacy. Yet he “absolutely loved” the law. Hugh enthusiastically recalls studying Human Rights Law with Tim McCormack, International Law with Gillian Triggs, and of course, Torts with Ian Malkin as “experiences that really stand out” from his time at MLS.
After graduating in 1997, Hugh worked as an employment lawyer at Mallesons, a firm he continues to hold in high regard. In his four and a half years at Mallesons, Hugh learned a lot, he knew the Workplace Relations Act “back-to-front” and enjoyed his role in corporate law. However, it was never where he wanted to be long term and so when the opportunity to complete a six-month secondment at a Community Legal Centre came up, Hugh decided to apply: “I was just so keen to use my legal skills to help people in a deeply rewarding environment”. During those six months, he worked as a lawyer at the Brimbank Community Legal Centre, where he assisted clients with matters ranging from family violence to minor crime. Despite feeling out of his depth at the start of his secondment, Hugh quickly realised his corporate legal training went a long way in enabling him to effectively advise clients on a wide array of legal issues.
The six-month trial was all it took for Hugh to take the leap from corporate lawyer to community lawyer in 2004. He left Mallesons and took on the role of Manager of the Brimbank Community Legal Centre where he had completed his secondment. Physically, Hugh’s workplace went from level 30 of the Rialto on Collins St to “a demountable shed on the side of Ballarat Rd in Deer Park”. Of this pivotal career decision, Hugh says:
“My pay was cut in half and my responsibility doubled...It wasn’t a particularly strategic decision or anything like that. I went with my heart and I just made a choice about the kind of work that made me happy, and I was at a point in my life where I could make that choice.”
From Hugh’s description of his time at Brimbank, we could tell he found the experience of assisting individual clients to be deeply rewarding. After Brimbank, Hugh held several management roles in public interest legal bodies: Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, then CEO of the Yoorrook Justice Commission. Benji and I noticed that Hugh had progressed from hands-on, client-facing work and management work. I asked Hugh if he ever missed the former.
“The more you get into management, the less hands on you are, the less connected you are with injustice that is the reason why you’re doing that management job. At Brimbank, what frustrated me was seeing the legal system not working properly for people experiencing disadvantage. I really loved helping them in case by case to try and fix that, but I knew we needed to fix the system through law reform. We worked on prisoners’ rights law reform and that was the work that I got the greatest satisfaction out of.”
The Human Rights Law Centre was set-up to take on a lower volume of cases than a standard Community Legal Centre, with a stronger emphasis on systematic change and advocacy. When he was at the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh’s role involved fundraising, media appearances and oversight of the Centre’s 25 staff. Yet he still took the time to connect with the causes the Centre was advocating for. When the Centre was working on the Certain Children case to challenge the Victorian government’s detention of children in Barwon maximum security adult prison, Hugh was in the prison interviewing clients. He says it is important to be grounded, as a member of management, in the human rights issues that the organisation is advocating for.
“This work is important, I think, because it grounds you and connects you to the reason you’re doing the work. You need to get that balance right. The more senior you become, the less connected you are to day-to-day operations, but you take satisfaction from the setting up the systems that enable others to do that work.”
Benji and I would describe Hugh as someone driven by a desire for justice. Hugh attributes this drive partly to the “brilliant advocates and lifelong champions for justice” whom he worked with at Brimbank Community Legal Centre: “they instilled within me a sense of responsibility to use my skills and expertise to do good”. While hands-on casework at Brimbank Community Legal Centre allowed him to pursue justice for individual clients, his career progression towards senior management enabled him to agitate for change that pursues justice on a systemic scale. It is clear Hugh is deeply connected to the various human rights causes he has worked towards throughout his career; he speaks with enthusiasm and pride about campaigns from prisoners’ rights to refugee rights to marriage equality in Australia. From his experience across these projects, Hugh offered valuable insight to the tides of progress.
“Sometimes change will happen really quickly, things will crystallise and you can grasp the moment to enact unbelievably fast reform. But sometimes, you’re just fighting to hold the line and stop bad things from happening.”
Our discussion turns to Hugh’s new role as CEO of the Yoorrook Justice Commission. The Yoorrook Justice Commission is a formal truth-telling process that aims to record the historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Nations peoples and make recommendations for systemic change and law reform accordingly. Hugh describes the value of the Commission’s work and its potential impact not only in Victoria, but across the country:
“There needs to be a big reckoning in Australia. You can’t have justice without truth. Yoorrook Commissioners have the responsibility of recording and telling the story of over 230 years of injustice against First Nations People in Victoria. This is a huge responsibility but it’s also an incredible opportunity. Victoria is leading the way on Voice, Treaty and Truth. This can pave the way for similar reforms around the country.”
Reflecting on his career trajectory, Hugh offers a simple piece of advice for students interested in human rights:
“You don’t have to be called a human rights lawyer to do human rights law. There is a range of interesting careers out there where you can do meaningful work. And you can make a difference wherever you work. We need good people in the corporate sector, in government, in private law firms…”
As law students passionate about social justice, Benji and I realised, from our chat with Hugh, that we should allow this passion to guide us throughout our careers. Perhaps it is as simple as that. As Hugh said:
“My career has been guided by choices to do work that aligns with my values, that makes a difference and that makes me happy.”
Prepared by: Benji Batten and Nuria Yu
JD Students MLS