Amanda Tattersall Transcript
So during the course of my degree I changed direction and I guess the degree itself facilitated a change of direction. When I started the degree I thought I was going to be a lawyer and that was the contribution I wanted to make to society. As a consequence of my studying, I also worked for a lawyer, and my exposure to extracurricular activities as a student dramatically changed the direction of what I wanted to pursue.
I saw that working as a lawyer wasn’t the contribution I wanted to make. I actually saw limitations in that role. Being a lawyer would be being a bit of a cog in a wheel, and serving the status quo rather than actually being an agent of change toward the law. Changing who was actually capable of delivering in terms of justice to our community. I decided I wanted to be a part of a movement that was going to set the direction of what the law was going to look like, and what policy was going to look like, and I’ve been pursuing that kind of work ever since I finished my degree.
What were the key moments in your degree?
Amanda: Some of those moments are very personal to me. I was sick during the course of my degree. I was in hospital for a couple of months at one point and that made me reflect on what I wanted to contribute with my life, so that was beyond the scope of the degree. But I think one of the powerful things that UTS: Law provides is the kind of teaching you get sought me to understand the sociological underpinnings of the law. It provoked me to think about what was justice as well as how the law actually works, and then combining that with a lot of extracurricular activity. So I was involved in the student movement, in social change in education when I was a student, and that certainly made me think critically of the role of law in society.
And as I was finishing my degree, as I was doing my Honors year, I got involved in social movements around refugee rights, and the law. At the time, (it) was a dramatic period in Australian history. The Howard government was responding very aggressively to boat arrivals in 2001, and I helped set up a refugee organisation which played a critical role in the refugee movement, and then since finishing my degree and moving into social change work with my career, I sought to play a role, rather than being a lawyer inside the legal framework. The policy work that I’ve tried to pursue in the union movement, and in forming coalitions for social change, which is the work I do now has been about actually questioning what kind of laws we should have, and what sort of policies of justice are appropriate for our community and seeking to make them better, and that’s the work that I do now. I see that as being the benefit of my law degree rather than just being a lawyer.
People need representation and we need great lawyers at every level of our society. At the same time, that was just not the role that was interesting to me. I felt like I could finish my life and had not actually been a part of making my life or anyone else’s lives actually qualitatively better. That the law came about too late when it was about people’s experience. It came along to be a band aid. I didn’t want to be a band aid on social problems. I wanted to get to the causes of social problems and that required a different path. But having done the study at UTS, I think it sets you up for that. A law degree doesn’t need to be preparation for being a lawyer. It can be a generalist qualification, and that certainly what was powerful for me.
I guess I have 2 hats. I’m an elected officer at Unions NSW and the deputy assistant secretary, but also I work in the largest social movement in the country which is the union movement, and my primary work inside the union movement is about revitalising the union movement, so I was active in the “Rights at Work” campaign, but also setting up a major coalition in Sydney: a broad based coalition called the Sydney alliance which is a coalition of religious organisations, unions and community organisations, primarily about achieving a more just life for the people who live in Sydney.
But also since finishing my degree, I’ve completed a PHD that looked at coalitions in three different countries. The PHD was through the University of Sydney, and I spent 2 years at Cornell University in New York, researching coalitions across the world. Next year I’ll be releasing a book entitled “Power and Coalition” through Cornell University Press that looks at that mission.
Have you ever been tested ethically in practice?
Amanda: Well I think that if you’re involved in social change work, and you’re really achieving social change, you’re always asked to step up and play an important role. I certainly remember periods in the refugee campaign where coming up against the resistance of the powers that be, people who didn’t want to have a more progressive policy on refugees in the labour party where I was fighting for policy change. I see a link between ethics and a sense of morality, and in the social movements that I was involved in, it wasn’t just about me representing myself. I was representing a movement and I guess that was a point of challenge but I felt confident enough to be able to resist pressure from people who wanted to defend the status quo or defend a lack of change to be able to push through for real change, and on the issue of refugee policy, the labour party, six years after we started the campaign, has adopted the policies that we pushed for six years ago, so I think if you’ve got patience and a commitment to what you believe in and an understanding of how to achieve change in a powerful way, you can change policy. We changed refugee policy over six years. You can be successful. You don’t necessarily have to be a cog in the wheel. If you want to apply legal learning, you can actually change the way in which the law operates and I had that experience with the refugee campaign.
What advice do you have for new law students?
Amanda: Have an open mind about the contribution you can make to Australian society. Be bold and adventurous about considering a path less travelled with the learning you’ve had in university. There are lots of people who can be lawyers and that’s great, but the kind of skills that you gain at university can set you up for a life that allows you to live your beliefs, and that’s what I’ve been able to do, in terms of choosing to get involved with social change work and working with progressive and value based organisations, and there are lots of them, and they need people with zeal and energy.
Every day when I go to work, I’m actually putting my beliefs in action, and there’s nothing more rewarding. There’s a finite amount of money that pays for the sort of satisfaction that comes from working for what you believe in, and that’s the benefit I got from my degree. It’s not a particularly great wage, but it’s a great life.
UTS: Law would like to thank Amanda Tattersall, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW for her generous contribution to this project.
This video was made possible by the 2009 Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, UTS.
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