Fighting for Justice for Indigenous Australians
(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)
In his fourth year of law school, volunteering for the first time at Fitzroy Legal Service, John Corker discovered the theme that would be the key driver in his legal career: social justice.
“It wasn’t until that time that I had any idea about how the law might help low-income and socially disadvantaged people, which gave me some real meaning to the law, what it could do and was capable of,” he recounted.
Up until that point, he had been primarily fascinated by the logic, analysis and comprehension required in legal practice – “I really loved the way in which logical arguments were developed in law, as well as the power of reason” – but it was exposure to opportunities to assist those in need that really captured his imagination.
After spending his early years at the Victorian Bar, John subsequently lived what he describes as an “atypical legal career”, starting with seven years in Alice Springs, first at Aboriginal Legal Aid, and then helping build Aboriginal owned media companies such as NITV, Imparja Television and CAAMA Productions.
It is this work that John is most proud of when looking back on his career.
“There have been some fantastic developments in the media space for Indigenous communities over the years, such as films and programs that tell stories from an Aboriginal perspective, which are just brilliant pieces of communication that bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and are so important in explaining, to a broader audience, where they are coming from, what their perspective is,” he explained.
“They have so much to offer Australian society as it continues to search for its identity.”
He is so excited to see the Aboriginal trainees, that he worked closely with and supported, go on to produce critically acclaimed works such as Redfern Now, Samson and Delilah, Black Comedy and Young and Black. His contribution to expanding Aboriginal broadcasting, and the Indigenous film and television production industry has had a significant impact. Our entertainment industry and nation is richer for it.
“The main issue for me is disadvantage suffered in Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and their unshakeable picture of Australia, their spiritual connection with the land and their history, together with the terrible injustices they have suffered over the years, well-illustrated by the difference in Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates, which I think is a national scandal,” he said.
Discussing what has changed since he first went to Alice, he noted that whilst there has been progress across the board, there is still a long way to go in achieving equity and justice in Australian society.
“Since I’ve gotten involved in the issues in the early 1980s, a whole Aboriginal middle class has developed, some of whom have had opportunities to get an education and participate in wider society that their forbears were denied, which is a huge positive change,” he said.
“But a lot of disadvantage remains in remote and regional areas, and for those people not a lot has changed for the better. "
John’s mid-career phase saw him working as a lawyer at the Australian Broadcasting Authority for ten years where he ended up as General Counsel, examining on oath such media luminaries as James and Kerry Packer, and managing the Cash for Comment inquiry, and then he underwent a stint at a large national law firm. As stimulating and interesting as this work was, his career would return to the theme of social justice.
“The issue for me now is about how to extend a sense of fairness, which I think is a strong Australian trait, into practice in Australian society.”
For the past 12 years, John has served as CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre, a position which he says has allowed him to bring together the themes of social justice, helping people, and creating logic and strategy in a national context.
And while being in a management role has been a significant change of pace from being a practising lawyer in court every day, arguing for clients on the ground, he is now in a position to effect meaningful change through policy.
“In the last 12 years, I’d like to think my work at the Centre has advanced the pro bono legal movement in Australia and that the Australian legal profession is better for it,” he reflected.
He also offered advice to new lawyers coming through the ranks who too want to focus on social justice issues: start your career working with the best lawyers you can find in order to succeed.
“Doesn’t matter where you work, just find a really good lawyer and work closely with them, improve your drafting, reading, interpreting, analysis…just hone those skills,” he suggested.
“The better your legal skills, the more capacity you have to make a difference.”
As John’s career reminds us, being able to make a difference can effect change in ways that not only improve the lives of those directly affected, but also enrich the broader Australian experience.
Copyright Doraisamy and Field 2016-2017