Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Tessa Sullivan

Tessa Sullivan is the Public Sector/Government category winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

As a lawyer and officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Tessa Sullivan has worked in the fields of immigration, human rights, family and criminal law, and is the first Thai-Chinese National to be elected into the Australian government. Her advocacy in the #MeToo era and campaigns against sexual misconduct and assault towards women have made her the ‘face’ of the movement in Australia (she single-handedly changed the legislation in local government to acknowledge and prevent such offences and establish a professional code of conduct).

In late October 2020, Tessa was the recipient of the Public Sector/Government category honour at the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards, which addresses the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (40 years or younger) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. Johnson Partners (JP) interviewed her to discover what drives her career path which is leveraged by her ongoing pursuit of postgraduate studies.

What have been your most rewarding accomplishments in your role as a lawyer and officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria in the areas of immigration, human rights, family and criminal law?

I think one of the most rewarding parts of working as an officer of the Supreme Court is being able to help people have access to justice, and to hopefully provide a mechanism for them to come out with fair and judicial outcomes. I wonder sometimes if we’re really doing that, obviously now during COVID-19 times that the courts have been totally overloaded and significant changes have been made socially, politically and also through the legislation.

Can you also share your greatest struggles in regard to supporting and engaging with ethnic minority communities in Australia in this role?

There are a multitude of issues and barriers that I see for minority groups, particularly in how they access the law. Statistically, we know that women, for example, are more disenfranchised than men when it comes to pay packets or equal positions at work, and this is compounded amongst ethnic minority groups.

I use this as an example: if you look at the commercial television networks beyond the ABC and SBS there’s not a lot of diversity on Channel 7, 9 or 10, and that really needs to be altered. The world is huge and dynamic. I feel that there needs to be a big push for change because we do live in these largely Caucasian, white constructs. There’s never been a greater time to talk about diversity because it has been at the forefront of so many global conversations.

As a law lecturer at the University of New England you’ve been proactive in teaching our next generation of legal professionals about the ethics of law plus the importance of gender and racial equity and international human rights law. What significant curriculum changes do you consider essential in the coming years to best prepare them for a post-pandemic world?

Teaching at the University of New England has been one of the highlights of my life as I’m able to engage with our next generation. I teach law and ethics plus gender. I’ve just recently become a casual lecturer on top of being a casual academic marker. I’m showing my age here, but their approach to study is so different than in my day, where you’d have to enter the library for all aspects of research. They have access to the whole world at their fingertips so they’re citing global legislation and it’s very impressive.

During this pandemic, I try to teach my students about compassion especially as we try to understand the nature and virulence of this virus, and about making sure that the accuracy of their work really correlates with the times. For example, we address issues like border closures and discuss whether they’re constitutional or unconstitutional because we’re preventing people from having freedom of access to move inter-state when there haven’t really been any closures in the free world since the Spanish Flu and that was in the 1900s! It’s really important for us to think about the construct of how the law relates to the pandemic.

You are also a board member of the Thai-Australia Network assisting the Ambassador of Thailand and the Honorary-Consul General of Thailand in supporting immigration communities, plus a board member of Blind Sports and Recreation at Vision Victoria aiming to empower the vision impaired community. Justly, you were a recipient of the Marjorie Glasson Award for Community Service having completed over 350 hours for the charitable sector. Can you outline your key reasons for getting involved with these organisations and foundations and what drives your continued support for them?

Being a member of the Thai-Australia network has been invaluable to me as someone who was born and raised in Thailand and came to Australia when I was 18. To be frank, there aren’t a lot of Thai people in Australia compared to the Chinese or Vietnamese population. We’ve got some outstanding members and we’re always looking for more events and more community messaging and how we can really elaborate on that. Diversity is key. The Thai Food and Culture Festival for example brings over 50,000 people to Federation Square in one day, and it demonstrates a hunger and interest in the Thai culture and community.

I think that it’s really important particularly living in a country such as Australia that Thailand is seen as a friendly next door neighbour. I’d imagine that coming out of the pandemic, or perhaps even during the pandemic, that there’ll be a travel bubble with Thailand. It’s such a gracious and wonderful country. You know, they call it the ‘land of smiles,’ and that’s 100% true. I’m really proud of the work that the Thai-Australia network does and the community service that they provide.

You’ve lived an incredibly nomadic life. Your father is Thai-Chinese and your mother is Australian and you were born and raised in Bangkok. Schooling involved boarding in Singapore prior to finishing your tertiary education in Australia. Scholarships have led you to Italy to study Criminal Law and to France and America too. What does being an Asian-Australian mean to you and how has your perception of your cultural identity changed since childhood?

Yes, life’s been extremely dramatic: attending one of the leading boarding schools in Singapore plus living and studying in a multitude of different jurisdictions from Italy and France to Australia and America… I’m just so fortunate. I think what’s really important is that I’ve learned how big and beautiful the world is. But more than that, it’s so important to learn about other cultures and live amongst them. One highlight during my legal career was engaging in a world-wide mediation competition in Paris.

These experiences have not only enriched my life, but educated me. When you travel you learn so much about other cultures. You lose your ignorance and your perspective widens. Because of COVID-19 I think travel will be one of the greatest gifts we can access when the pandemic eases up. I’m hoping to head to Boston where I’ll continue my studies at Harvard, and being able to experience that type of lifestyle as well in such a beautiful and historic town.

You once stated “I don’t want this dark chapter to be my legacy,” regarding the repeated sexual assault and harassment imposed upon you by your colleague, the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle. Lodging a formal complaint in 2018 after the distress of his actions resulted in your resignation as a Melbourne city councillor, your ‘whistle’ became a Twitter account to speak out against Doyle and the subsequent egregious articles written about you. Despite Doyle never being formerly charged for his misconduct, your actions have led to laws being passed in Victorian parliament under which the local government minister has the power to suspend councillors for up to a year if they pose a ‘significant threat’ to the governance of council or impose a health and safety risk to colleagues (including sexual harassment). Victoria is the first Australian state to include sexual harassment as a local government act. What about other Australian states? How far off do you think the rest of the country is in ratifying a similar act?

I would hope that there are stringent legislative changes, particularly regarding sexual harassment, across all states and territories because it’s not just a Victorian issue, it’s a human rights issue. As we know, statistical data states that one in two women are sexually harassed in the workplace compared to one in four men are and it’s just not acceptable. Sexual harassment needs to be treated as an occupational health and safety issue and I feel that the law is only just starting to change to reflect that.

There needs to be proper policies and systems in place as we’ve seen from my circumstances and also people like Brittany Higgins that even the highest echelons of power – from town hall to Parliament – don’t have proper policies and procedures in place and that’s just not good enough. So I’m really hoping that this conversation continues and that there is a really strong legislative change because until the law catches up with what is actually happening. We are not doing enough.

Lastly, you possess a number of academic accomplishments: a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, a Master of Laws (Juris Doctorate) from Monash University and a Diploma of Legal Practice from the Australian National University. And currently, you are undertaking a Masters of Journalism at Harvard University remotely with plans to travel to campus to complete them having won a scholarship with the Australian American Alliance. As you are dedicating your capstone project to the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 on developing countries and disenfranchised ethnic and racial minority groups, post completion of your thesis, how do you plan to leverage your research in the professional sector? Essentially, what’s in store for Tessa Sullivan over the next five to ten years?

I think what’s really important and what the pandemic has really taught me is the value of family and friends. I really, really want to raise my little humans, and make sure that they’re good people, and spend a lot of time with them. I have sacrificed so much for my career in so many different ways throughout many years. I remember breastfeeding my newborn baby while pregnant with the next and reading law books at two in the morning whilst doing my Masters of Laws. And I also remember working 12-hour days in town hall or at  Network 10 during an internship. It’s not really something that I’d want to continue in that regard.

I’d still like to continue to work at the University of New England and hopefully grow my position at that organisation, and pursue a PhD at some point too. My Harvard capstone project will reflect on the socio economic impacts of COVID-19. As we know, there has been an increase in domestic violence against women during the pandemic and an increase of racial vilification against the Chinese community. These are all things that I think would be really interesting to look at.

“As we know, statistical data states that one in two women are sexually harassed in the workplace… and it's just not acceptable. So I'm really hoping that this conversation continues and that there is a really strong legislative change because until the law catches up with what is actually happening. We are not doing enough.”

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