Ten Questions with Anne Gallagher AO

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ANU Alumni Series

Anne Gallagher AO, International lawyer and United Nations Adviser

Our third feature profile in this series is on lawyer Anne Gallagher, who is widely recognized as the global expert on international law of human trafficking. Now one of ANU’s most distinguished alumni, Gallagher has received numerous accolades for her work, including ANU Alumnus of the Year, which included over a decade in the United Nations. While she has a high profile in Australia and abroad, few people know that her legal career kicked off at ANU when she completed her master’s degree and became a lecturer in international law.  

1. From where did you come and why did you choose/get sent to ANU?

I had studied Arts/Law at Macquarie and wanted to do international law more than anything else. ANU was the only place in Australia with a serious postgraduate international law program. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when they offered me a place.

2. What did you love and hate the most about Canberra?

I loved the uni more than anything. I loved living in Canberra – very quiet – especially compared to my life back in Sydney, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter, we made our own fun.

3. What was your go-to meal while you were an ANU student?

I lived at the old Graduate House (on the corner of Barry Drive and Northbourne) with lots of international students and we’d often cook for each other. My specialty was spicy veggie curry for less than $1 per person, washed down by a rugged shiraz that, if my memory is correct, came in one of those jumbo foil bags.

4. What was the biggest political issue affecting you and your mates when you were at ANU and what were your views on that issue?

Student fees came in while I was at ANU – I hadn’t had to pay anything for my first two degrees and felt selfish complaining on my own behalf. But even back then, I had a sense that this was the first step towards US-style commodification of higher education (which ended up being true) and that worried me a lot. Internationally, the big issue was apartheid. Nelson Mandela was in jail with no prospect of being released and the political climate in South Africa was horribly bleak. One of my friends from Graduate House was a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress (which split off from the ANC) and had been accepted into Australia as a political refugee. He introduced me to the Australia-based anti-apartheid movement. I never imagined that in just a few short years I’d be working at the UN while we oversaw free and fair elections in South Africa.

5. Did you have many friends and do you keep in touch with any of them?

I made lots of friends while a student at ANU. I kept in touch with some of the international students and even managed to visit a few in Africa, Asia and the US later on, while I was traveling for the UN.

6. If you had your time over again, would you still come to ANU and study what you did?

Absolutely! I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. I look back on the road I’ve travelled and realize that so much of what has happened to me in my life – my career, my family – can be traced back to that one decision to come to Canberra and study international law at the ANU.

7. For someone following in your footsteps about to start at ANU, what advice would you give them?

Develop a taste for true intellectual freedom, a taste for non-conformity. Be suspicious of dogma, distrustful of blind certainty, accepting of doubt and tolerant of failure. You don’t need safe spaces. Have the intellectual courage to move outside of the circle of people who you feel most comfortable with. They will never teach you as much as those who challenge your values and opinions. In other words, seize every opportunity to learn – not what to think, but how to think.

8. If the Vice Chancellor called you up today and asked you to tell him one thing you think he should do to change/improve the ANU, what would it be?

If he ever asked for my opinion I’d be encouraging him to do everything in his power to preserve ANU as a place of learning – a place where talented, hardworking people can get the very best education in the world. And that means prioritizing students and those who teach them. We pay lip service to the importance of teaching but the reward system – funding, prestige and advancement – doesn’t really reflect that commitment.

9. When you think of amazing lawyers in Australia, who is the one person you most admire and why?

This is such a hard question. Should I choose Michael Kirby, for his magnificent mastery of the law as a tool for social and political change both within and outside Australia? Or ANU’s own Hilary Charlesworth, whose many and varied contributions to international law I couldn’t begin to list? Maybe Elizabeth Evatt, first Chief Judge of the Family Court of Australia and superstar of the UN’s human rights system? Or her dad, Doc Evatt, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?  In the end though, it’s hard to go past two of my favourite ex-lawyers: Craig Reucassel of the Chaser, who can always make me laugh, and the ABC’s Waleed Aly, who always makes me think.

10. The UN is currently in the process of selecting a new Secretary General. Any views on the process? And do you have a preferred candidate?

I wrote a piece in the Spectator about the need for a decent, competent Secretary-General at the helm of the one body that exists to advance our shared interests. The era of great Secretaries-General is probably over: we’re not going to get a hero but I really hope we don’t get a dud. I’m not a fan of Kevin Rudd’s nomination. I don’t think he’s up to the job. Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former PM, might be better. She has a depth and breadth of political expertise experience that will be invaluable in navigating the byzantine, cut-throat world the Secretary-General inhabits. The fact that she is a woman should be completely immaterial. Of course it would be great to see more women working in at the top of international diplomacy. But quotas and so-called positive discrimination belong, if anywhere, at the starting gate, not the finishing line.