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Retired teacher’s passion for human rights leads to PhD in law
78 year old highlights education’s role in driving awareness and change.
After more than three decades educating others, teacher Brian Walker retired and became the student.
Instead of relaxing and enjoying the spoils of retirement, the former Kiama resident and Lake Illawarra High School Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) Head Teacher followed his passion for human rights to complete a Bachelor of Laws, then a Master of Laws (Legal Practice) and now a PhD from the University of Wollongong (UOW).
At 78, Brian is the oldest graduate at today’s graduation celebration (Wednesday 1 November) for students across the Law, Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences and Science, Medicine and Health faculties.
“I had long been interested in the law and wanted to learn more about it. At my age, the idea of directly helping people with the law appeared unlikely, even after being admitted to the NSW Supreme Court as a legal practitioner in 2005. So I turned to research as a way to examine Australia’s human rights system and identify areas for improvement,” Brian said.
After gaining his Master of Laws (Legal Practice) degree with Distinction, Brian was able to commence a PhD. A chance encounter with the then Head of the University of Wollongong’s law faculty, Professor Luke McNamara, uncovered a shared passion for Human Rights and solidified Brian’s decision to choose UOW for his PhD, titled: ‘Explaining and Confronting Australia’s Refusal to Adopt a National Bill of Human Rights’.
Human rights are the rights inherent to all human beings, whatever their nationality, gender, race, religion, language or any other status. Human rights are inalienable, interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.
“My master’s degree gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast the practice of human rights law in Australia and the European Union. Coupled with visits to some of the areas in Europe most affected in World War Two, I was struck by just how terrible the failure of human rights was for millions who died and for the millions who survived,” Brian added.
“I believe passionately that human rights are of vital importance - they are a keystone for humanity to be right and well. Australia is the only country in the advanced Western world that doesn’t have the legal mechanisms to protect our human rights through a national Bill of Rights.”
Brian believes Australians across many cultural groups are not living an adequately empowered life.
“A Bill of Rights would be a major human rights achievement by the National Parliament to ensure that Australia fulfils its obligation to respect the human rights of all our citizens. Until a national Bill of Rights is enacted, the capacity of all Australians to enjoy their human rights will remain diminished, particularly for Australia’s underprivileged and minority groups; those who are voiceless or on the fringes of Australian society.”
“Gaps in our human rights across decades reflect a common lack of action against abuse by governments and their agencies, as well as by private organisations. The Stolen Generations and institutional child sex abuse are two devastating examples.”
“History shows, and my research confirms, that while Australia’s politicians understand the notion of human rights, they don’t want it formalised through a Bill of Rights as this would curb their ability to so easily circumscribe our fundamental rights and freedoms. Without more effective rights protections, it’s possible that we could find ourselves faced with even more extreme oppressive authority by government. Indeed, the Federal Government’s expansion of powers around policing and border protection are recent examples. Without a Bill of Rights, Australia risks falling further down a slippery slope.”
Brian hopes his thesis will renew discussions around developing a Bill of Rights and give further momentum to the community movement to establish a Bill.
Brian’s family are extremely proud of him and his children have inherited his passion for learning and contributing to improving society. He has a son and a daughter currently studying for their PhDs, another son who is a doctor and a third living in the USA, who has come to see his dad graduate.
Brian expressed his thanks to the UOW community and particularly to his supervisor, Professor McNamara, for his support.
“A really nice part of being a student at UOW is the open and friendly support of UOW staff and other students.”
“What matters at UOW is your intellectual growth and personal development. I recommend it to other older people who might like to join the fraternity at whatever level they wish to achieve,” he said.