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Professor Penelope Mathew: Refugees and the University of Auckland

02 August 2019 - By Teuila Fuatai

Perched among the human rights law books in Professor Penelope Mathew’s office is a silver motorcycle helmet.

“I ride a Vespa”, she says cheerfully. “But, I still have to get it through compliance over here – that’s what I’m going to do next.”

The Australian export took over the deanship at the University of Auckland’s law school in April. It has been a busy four months.

Penelope Mathew

Sorting vehicle registration, and even permanent accommodation, are still on her to-do list. Hobbies like surfing and playing the fiddle have also been put on the backburner.

Professor Mathew, an internationally renowned academic in refugee law and human rights, was headhunted for the Auckland job. She received a call from the university while on sabbatical. Prior to that, she was Dean of the Griffith University Law School in Queensland.

“I took a sabbatical, as you are entitled to after a period of deanship, and really got to pay attention to my area of research. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was doing a lot of work on the Global Compact on Refugees,” Professor Mathew says.

“I had six weeks in Geneva, then came back. I had moved to the Gold Coast – Mermaid Beach – which is beautiful. I’m learning how to surf and writing up all of my things on the Global Compact on Refugees, thinking I’d have a couple of years’ research-intensive, and then I heard from Auckland [University].”

It was an opportunity too good to pass up, she says.

Law students and emerging technologies

Unlike Griffith, Auckland’s law school is as an independent faculty. The dean works closely with the Vice-Chancellor and university senior leadership team. The role offered new challenges, she says.

The city’s beauty and multicultural communities was another draw card.

“Australia is multicultural but in different ways to Auckland. I’ve really been struck by Māori and Pasifika communities and just how incredibly diverse it is.

“At some point, when I’ve unpacked my boxes perhaps, I’d really like to do a Te Reo course and try and learn some Māori.”

So far, Professor Mathew has prioritised meeting faculty staff and members of the profession. A comprehensive planning session with the department is also not far off.

One subject warranting attention is the role of artifical intelligence in legal services.

“There’s a question about making sure the law degree that you’re graduating your students with is actually appropriate," she says.

“I think we need to do more in terms of teaching students about how things are changing in the profession and ensuring they’re aware of those developments and may be able to capitalise any opportunities.”

She readily admits there is no “crystal ball”. However, proper consideration of technological developments which will challenge business models and student learning must occur.

Related to that is better student exposure to workplace practice.

“It’s another area where I think we could probably do more as a law school – the Americans call it Clinical Legal Education, which is really exposing the students through work-based learning,” she says. “You get them working in practical settings, whether it’s in a barrister’s chamber or community legal service.”

Improvements in those areas will help graduates, she believes.

Women in the law: ‘Easy to slide backwards’

Professor Mathew also discusses the “constant process” of achieving gender parity at the profession’s top levels. She has taught feminist legal theory at the Australia National University,

“It is frustrating that 30 years ago when I graduated, it was probably half and half in terms of men and women at the University of Melbourne Law School.

“And 30 years on, we’re still talking about the same kinds of issues in terms of reaching the top echelons of the profession.”

When asked if things had changed during her career, she smiles reservedly and offers some earnest comments.

Real progress, including the appointment of two, successive, female Chief Justices, is something to take pride in, she says. However, a significant shift in culture and understanding of the value of women in the workplace requires critical mass.

“Clearly, there have been changes in society. I think some of the law firms are doing better in trying to allow people to have a proper work-life balance. Recognising that lawyers do work in teams anyway, which is a really important part of legal practice, and allows some flexibility will help in the longer term.

“That said, it’s never going to be done. Young men and women may have a different outlook on the world today, but it’s so easy to slide backwards. It’s incumbent on all of us to keep working away at these issues.”

Working with refugees

Another issue which has paralleled Professor Mathew’s career is the mandatory detention of refugees and asylum seekers.

Hanging on her wall are a pair of black and white photos taken at the Jesuit Refugee Service camps in Hong Kong in the early 90s. A much younger Penelope Mathew features in one of images. Behind her is a corrugated iron building and tall barbed wire fences. The other image is a group of young, smiling children. The photos were from a three-month volunteer stint at the camps, she explains.

“They’re kind of like airport hangars with three levels on it,” she says of the camps’ makeshift buildings.

“A family of four would have a 2m x 2m platform to sleep on. And they would be there for years. I often look at them [photos] and think about what happened to the families. The stories that you heard were pretty heartbreaking.”

She recalls when Australia introduced its mandatory detention laws in 1992. It was just before she left for Hong Kong.

“I, as a young academic, had written my first conference paper on it, arguing that this was a violation of Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“I certainly became convinced that detaining people is not appropriate.”

Subsequently, the UN Human Rights Committee – which supervised the treaty – found Australia violated its terms. The decision was based on the case of a Cambodian asylum seeker. He was detained by Australian authorities for four years, Professor Mathew says.

The case also featured in the next phase of her career. While studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University, New York, she volunteered at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. She assisted with the organisation’s submission on the arbitrary detention of Vietnamese refugees for the United Nations.

“It was all coincidental, but it all came together. It’s a great feeling when you’re developing expertise and you’re able to use it to try and push things along and improve things for people.”

Professor Mathew eventually returned to New York to earn a Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD) from Columbia University.

US civil rights movement and parents

Looking back, her parents and family background set strong foundations for a career in human rights law.

“My dad was a doctor and … my mother was a social worker for a while. Both were very interested in civil rights,” Professor Mathew says.

“I was actually born in Boston. It was at the time of the civil rights movement. My parents, as young Australians, were deeply affected by what African Americans were fighting for. They realised there were things that really weren’t right at home for indigenous Australians.

“I think that has definitely stayed with me [and developed] an interest in human rights law.”

Several impressive teachers, including leading Australian human rights professors Hilary Charlesworth and Gillian Triggs, also left their mark.

Professor Mathew’s first refugee client, while a young volunteer lawyer with the Refuge Advice and Casework Service in Melbourne, was another important influence.

“He was a Somali refugee and he was trying to get his mother out. Just him describing the things that he’d seen in Somalia. You could even see some of the signs of torture on this man. His story was so terrible but compelling, and once you’ve listened to a story like that, you think: ‘Yes, I would really like to be able to do something’.”

For Professor Mathew, that dedication to her beliefs has been pivotal to her 30-year-career. She has held senior teaching and administrative roles at Melbourne University, the Australia National University and the University of Michigan. There was also an advisory role for the Australian Capital Territory Human Rights Commission.

Now, from the dean’s office at the University of Auckland, she takes a moment to reflect.

“I’ve moved around a lot,” she says. “I’ve looked for things that are interesting and challenging. I think you need to find an area of specialisation that you’re just really passionate about, and for me it is refugee law.”


Teuila Fuatai teuila.fuatai@gmail.com is an Auckland-based journalist.

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Last updated on the 2nd August 2019