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Oration driven by pride and grief

Justice Louise Taylor and Phillipa McDermott at the Mullenjaiwakka (Lloyd McDermott) Oration in Brisbane on Tuesday. Photos: Linton Vivian

Justice Louise Taylor channelled the courage of two indigenous fathers – and the grief of losing both of them – when she delivered the Mullenjaiwakka (Lloyd McDermott) Oration in Brisbane on Tuesday.

The ACT Supreme Court judge addressed a packed Banco Court for the annual speech organised by the Indigenous Lawyers Association Queensland, following an acknowledgement of country from Lloyd’s daughter Phillipa McDermott.

Justice Taylor’s father, indigenous advocate Russell Taylor, passed away in April last year, and Mullenjaiwakka, Australia’s first indigenous barrister, in April 2019.

“It is indeed a thrill to give this oration in the name of a truly remarkable Aboriginal man,” Justice Taylor said.

“It is a rare opportunity that we are able to publicly acknowledge and celebrate black excellence of the kind that Mullenjaiwakka represents.

“That Phillipa would entrust me with honouring her father means a great deal to me and I can only hope to do the man justice.”

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Justice Taylor said she felt both excitement and trepidation in delivering the oration, which seeks to raise awareness of legal issues affecting First Nations peoples.

“First, because like Phillipa, I am a daughter grieving the loss of her dad,” she said.

“I fear my grief in honouring a man who was, above all, like mine, an adored father, will reveal itself.

“And I hope you will forgive me if the grief that I feel I wear like a heavy cloak since my father’s death last year, comes through in some of my remarks this evening.”


Justice Taylor received a warm welcome.

Tuesday’s speech followed Justice Taylor’s delivery of the annual Russell Taylor Oration for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services in October last year.

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“I gave it some months after his death. It was an occasion that brought heartache as well as pride, feelings I imagine Phillipa might be experiencing tonight,”  she

“Our fathers were around the same vintage, very much Aboriginal men of their time. Men with a penchant for a moustache, and fiercely committed to the struggle of our people.

“Anything I have said about my father is reflected in the things I have read and the testimonials I have listened to, demonstrating your dad, Phillipa, to be very much like mine: gentlemanly and principled, hardworking and humble.

“These men, while men properly owned by our communities, were, at the end of each day, just our fathers.

“I have discovered that nothing can prepare us for the loss of the people who anchor us emotionally, culturally and spiritually in this world, and I want to acknowledge the enormity of that loss for you and your family.”

Justice Taylor said she felt she was ”fighting without my trainer in my corner”.

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“Mullenjaiwakka was a giant among our people and his loss is keenly felt, never more so, I imagine, than around your dinner table,” she told Philippa.

“I’m so sorry for the loss of your dad, Phillipa, and our heartache is matched only by our love for them, my sister, and I am honoured this evening to speak in your dad’s memory.”

The Kamilaroi woman, who made history in 2018 when she was appointed the ACT’s first indigenous magistrate, said the other reason for her trepidation related to the constraints of judicial office.

“As part of a First nations community, I feel a responsibility for the effect of the law,”  she said.

“As lawyers we feel comfortable when there is a precedent…but with so few of us appointed as judicial officers, it’s hard to know exactly what the tolerance is or what the limits might be for a sitting Aboriginal judge to speak their mind.”

Justice Taylor spoke on several topics, including indigenous children in state care.

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“I don’t purport to know all the solutions to what I know are complex questions, nor do I pretend that the management of risk when it relates to the lives of little people is not incredibly challenging, but I do know this: unless we confront the abject failure of the approach taken to child protection for our people, we will continue to see those children march, with certainty, from the doors of the child protection office to the in-custody doors in courtrooms across the country,” she said.

She acknowledged her personal dilemma in being critical of the institutions and systems in which she worked, and their direct involvement in the subjugation of indigenous people.

“My involvement, I know, is difficult for some of our mob to reconcile, and I understand that difficulty, and indeed, if I am honest, I wrestle with it regularly,” she said.

However, it was important to be inside the tent, she said.

“It is critical that the lived experience of Aboriginal people is represented in the legal system so that it authentically reflects the society it serves.

“The devastating, unique impact of the law on our people must be truly understood by decision-makers in positions of influence within the system so that it can be properly addressed.

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“It makes sense to me that our people must participate as more than just subjects in the legal system foisted upon us

“Our participation as lawyers  and as decision makers, enriches the understanding of our people in the eyes of the law and enhances the capacity for the delivery of individualised justice.

“Our presence at the bar table and at the bench is critical to ensuring that we have influence, as we must, over the effects of the law on our families and our communities.”

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