Melissa Parke is a former Member of Parliament, served as Minister for International Development, and is a former United Nations lawyer. Writing for the Law Society of Western Australia, Melissa outlines her fascinating career path and explains how lawyers can make a difference in the community.
It was only while studying some law units in my business degree that I realised I loved the law. Specifically, I loved the notion of justice and the capacity of law to deliver justice. My fellow business law students and I formed a group called the Volenti Non Fit Injuria society and proceeded to apply that maxim in taverns around the campus.
When eventually I had completed both business and law degrees (at Curtin and UNSW respectively), I worked in small general practice law firms in Sydney and Bunbury, valuable experience to be sure, but I wasn’t comfortable with billing and wanted to broaden my horizons. When the Solicitor in Charge position at the Bunbury Community Legal Centre became available, I jumped at it. For the princely sum of $30,000 a year (this was in the early 90s) I assisted disadvantaged people who couldn’t afford to pay a private lawyer. I also conducted community legal education and wrote a weekly legal advice column for the local newspaper, defended people protesting the logging of old growth forests, and advocated for law and policy reform. I trained in mediation and mediated family and neighbour disputes. This led me to realise the benefits of adopting a constructive rather than an adversarial approach to issues, something my legal education and prior experience had not prepared me for. The several years I spent at the legal centre were wonderful and liberating, as I felt I was ensuring access to justice at the local level.
I also had a dream to pursue justice at the international level. I went to Murdoch University to study a Masters in Public International Law (human rights) and worked at the university as a law lecturer. I subsequently landed a legal job in UN peacekeeping in Kosovo. That was the beginning of eight exciting years with the UN, in various locations: Kosovo; Gaza; Lebanon; New York; and Cyprus and in various legal roles: inter alia, setting up a country’s institutions from scratch; chairing a taskforce on trafficking in persons; negotiating access for refugees, UN staff and supplies through checkpoints and border crossings; assisting with the protection of refugees; monitoring and reporting violations of international human rights and humanitarian law; establishing the UN Ethics Office in New York; and advising the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
I returned to Western Australia in mid-2007 to stand for the seat of Fremantle in that year’s Federal election, which saw the election of the first Rudd Labor government. Clearly a legal background is useful in a parliamentarian’s work in terms of representing constituents effectively, drafting and reviewing legislation and committee reports, thinking analytically, advocating policy positions and speaking publicly and in parliament. My prior experience as both a community and international lawyer assisted me to tackle issues on multiple levels. After all, international agreements can only be implemented at the local level, whether it be planting trees to tackle climate change or vaccinating a child pursuant to the sustainable development goals. Similarly, local issues can benefit from an international lens, whether it be preventing the impending destruction of internationally protected Ramsar wetlands for the building of a highway, or analysis of our nation’s treatment of Aboriginal people or asylum seekers and refugees in the context of Australia’s human rights obligations.
During my nine-year parliamentary career I was fortunate to serve on the Executive as Minister for International Development and as Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health, Homelessness and Social Housing. Since leaving parliament, I have been appointed as an Ambassador for ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner) and I am working as a member of the ‘Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen’ investigating human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, as mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. Fascinating and challenging work, where legal skills are extremely helpful.
In closing, my message to lawyers is this: Use your legal skills to follow your dreams, whatever and wherever they may be – there are countless options in life if you are open to them.