A month ago in Eureka Street, Frank Brennan published his critique of the ongoing Northern Territory Emergency Response in Aboriginal communities, better known as the Intervention. These stringent measures designed to address a crisis in remote communities were begun by the Howard government in 2007, and have continued under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments.
Last week Eureka Street carried an elaborate and detailed rebuttal of his critique from none other than federal Indigenous Affairs minister, Jenny Macklin. This response from such a senior politician is a mark of the respect in which Brennan is held, and a symbol of the influence he wields.
Brennan has been one of the longterm contributors to Eureka Street, and his pieces carry the epithet ‘The Meddling Priest’. This title was first given to him by former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, and of course it’s a reference to the famous words attributed to King Henry II condemning medieval Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket: ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’
Since his student days Brennan has been ‘meddling’ in human rights, bringing his clear thinking and plain speaking as advocate on behalf the poor and voiceless, forensically assessing government policy, and needling the consciences of politicians, the rich and powerful, and even fellow churchmen.
Brennan spoke about this with Eureka Street TV in his office at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra where he is professor of law at the university’s Public Policy Institute. The interview is part of a special series marking the twentieth anniversary of Eureka Street. It’s accompanied by scenes from a special Mass held at St Canice’s Church, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, in January this year to celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of his ordination.
Frank Brennan was born in 1954, and is the son of Sir Gerard Brennan, a retired Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. After studying law in Queensland, he joined the Jesuit order and studied theology in Melbourne.
Since ordination he’s had a succession of high profile positions, all in the area of human rights, mainly working on behalf of Aboriginal people and refugees. These include founding Director of the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney, and a stint as Director of the Jesuit Refugee Services in East Timor.
In 1995 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Aboriginal Australians, and he’s been recognised with many other government and community awards. In 2008 he was appointed Chair of the federal government’s National Human Rights Consultation Committee which handed its report to the Attorney General in September 2009. Its key recommendation was that the government should legislate for a Bill of Rights.
He is much in demand as a speaker around the country, and is a prolific writer. His books include, on Aboriginal issues: The Wik Debate; One Land One Nation; Sharing the Country; Land Rights Queensland Style; Finding Common Ground; and Reconciling Our Differences. And on civil liberties: Too Much Order With Too Little Law; Legislating Liberty; Tampering With Asylum; The Timor Sea’s Oil; and Gas: What’s Fair?
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Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.