The Inaugural Ron Castan Humanitarian Award, Keynote address – Mark Leibler AC

mark leiblerMr Mark Leibler AC is one of Australia’s leading tax lawyers and corporate strategists.  As the Senior Partner of Arnold Bloch Leibler and head of its taxation practice, Mark has, for over 35 years, acted in the tax affairs of Australia’s largest businesses and many of Australia’s corporate leaders.  Mark is active in the area of social justice and public affairs.  He is a tireless supporter of Indigenous rights.  Mark was appointed to the board of Reconciliation Australia, when it was established in 2000 and served as Co-Chair from February 2005 to February 2011.  In December 2010, Mark was appointed by the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, as Co-Chair of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. Mark is also deeply involved in Jewish affairs, occupying senior leadership roles in several Australian and international Jewish bodies. In 2005, Mark was appointed a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to business, to the law, particularly in the areas of taxation and commercial law, to the Jewish community internationally and in Australia, and to reconciliation and the promotion of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The Inaugural Ron Castan Humanitarian Award event – Key note address

On behalf of my partners and all the staff of Arnold Bloch Leibler, let me begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri peoples, particularly the Wurundjeri elders past and present. In doing so I also acknowledge their wisdom, tenacity and remarkable resilience.

For all of us at Arnold Bloch Leibler there is a wonderful sense of balance, symmetry and even destiny about our gathering here tonight.

By hosting this event, we are able to support a very important and longstanding public interest law client of the firm – Jewish Aid Australia.

And, by naming tonight’s Awards after one of the true giants of civil society – the late, great Ron Castan AM QC – Jewish Aid Australia is continuing to perpetuate the remarkable legacy of a man with whom the partners of Arnold Bloch Leibler had the privilege of working over much of the course of his professional life.

A man in respect of whom we have named one of our recently renovated meeting rooms, such was his extraordinary influence on who we are; what we do; and why we do it.

Jewish Aid Australia is a similarly remarkable organisation. As its honorary lawyers, the partners and staff of Arnold Bloch Leibler have the privilege of observing at close range its dedicated and passionate pursuit of social justice for disadvantaged communities in Australia and overseas.

To our friends Gary Samowitz, Jewish Aid’s passionate CEO, and to Danny Almagor, its inspirational and indefatigable Chair, and to all your board, staff and volunteers, we congratulate you on your leadership and efforts.

Yours is an organisation that is truly realising the Jewish values of chessed (Kindness), tzedek (Justice) and tikkun olam (Repairing the World). Jewish Aid Australia is a leading light; a beacon that guides and mobilises the Jewish community’s resources and networks towards empowering vulnerable communities, to fulfill these values in their everyday lives.

The Jewish community brought a specific philanthropic tradition to this great city. Melbourne’s Jewish community has drawn from its long, rich tradition of giving, and has put it into practice in the modern Australian context.

Because Jews are acutely aware of the horrors that have befallen our forebears, which horrors continue to leave their legacy, and because of our appreciation of our common humanity, the deep philanthropic streak in us demands that we act wherever and whenever we can to help to overcome injustice.

This is why a significant part of Arnold Bloch Leibler’s pro-bono, public interest law practice is directed towards assisting the causes of the vilified; the oppressed; the disempowered; the ignored.

This is also why our long, strong and proud association with Indigenous causes is no co-incidence.

The credit for introducing Arnold Bloch Leibler to Indigenous affairs goes to Ron Castan. In 1993, fresh from his historic win in the High Court in Mabo, Ron presented my partners and me with the opportunity to act as lawyers for the Yorta Yorta peoples. Shortly thereafter, Ron brought us into contact with the then emerging leader, my good friend, Noel Pearson.

Also, towards the end of his life, Ron worked with some of Arnold Bloch Leibler’s partners on the legal structures required to assist him, and his friends from across the political divide, to fulfil his vision for a truly reconciled Australia, well prior to the reconciliation movement taking hold in the public consciousness.

Ron acted as lead counsel in the Yorta Yorta Full Court of the Federal Court Appeal in late August 1999. As fate would have it, the Yorta Yorta Federal Court appeal hearing became the stage for one of Ron’s final acts of public advocacy.

On reflection, it seems to me that destiny dealt its hand at that time, in that place. For, in fulfilling his duty to the Court and to his clients, the Yorta Yorta appeal hearing also presented Ron with an opportunity to put on the record his vision for a reconciled Australia; the product of years of thinking about these issues, and acting in accordance with his conscience.

In his oral submissions before the Full Court of the Federal Court in the Yorta Yorta appeal, Ron argued powerfully that the task of a court determining a native title application is to dignify the voice and the struggle for justice of a living Indigenous community, and to acknowledge their wisdom, tenacity and remarkable resilience, by submitting that:

“there is no room … in this field of discourse and under the statute and in the common law for some notion of a pre-existing pristine stereotype of what comprises … traditional laws and what comprises traditional customs …”.[1]

Ron continued:

It may be counter-intuitive perhaps to think of Aboriginal people who work the internet and operate satellite television networks and tour the world in rock bands and do all of these things who nevertheless have connection with the land, based on their acknowledgment of their current law and observance of their current custom.….[2]

Ron captured the essence of this challenge in his final submission to the Court:

“There is no image of the Aborigine standing on the hill with a spear against the sunset that conditions the exercise of the native title jurisdiction”.[3]

Through Ron’s brilliant advocacy, the Yorta Yorta community powerfully submitted that at the heart of the trial judge’s approach to Aboriginality lay the fallacy that no changes must be made to an Indigenous community’s way of life to either cope with the impact of white occupation or to incorporate new ways of thinking or new knowledge.  It is as if there is a model “authentic Aborigine” stretching forward from 1788 which the contemporary Yorta Yorta were required to connect with and emulate if they were to succeed in their application.

For Ron the future for a reconciled Australia was crystal clear – he challenged us all to replace stereotypes, prejudices, and misconceptions with a vision in which Australians are inoculated from racism and cultural blindness.

A future in which non-Indigenous Australians are finally liberated to begin to see clearly, as if through Indigenous eyes, the wonderful uniqueness of a just and reconciled Australian society, in all its enriching cultural expressions, from age old to the most recently arrived.

In the years since Ron’s passing it is organisations like Jewish Aid Australia that have risen to his challenge, and by no less than going shoulder to shoulder with the very same peoples to which Ron gave of himself so generously in his final years.

For it is Jewish Aid  that continues to support the Yorta Yorta in practical and meaningful ways, running school holiday programs for Yorta Yorta children at Cummeragunja Aboriginal settlement, on the banks of the Murray River in NSW, in the heart of Yorta Yorta country.

As I did before in my contribution to Jewish Aid’s publication, The Well, I again commend Jewish Aid for this, as I do the organisation Engineers Without Borders, which Danny Almagor created, which is also building a range of productive and practical relationships with the Yorta Yorta peoples, as well as a variety of other Indigenous communities in Australia.

These ‘on the ground’ initiatives are where the real work of reconciliation is always done.

In doing so Jewish Aid is again perpetuating Ron’s legacy – of understanding the importance of righting the wrongs of history and of standing up against injustices, wherever and whenever they occur.

The “great white warrior against racism”, as Mick Dodson so poignantly described Ron, had a strong moral compass, a majestic legal mind and a brilliant intellect.  He was passionate, inspiring, stylish, indefatigable, witty, innovative and elegant.

He was just as humble and modest as he was confident and assured.

And he was just as comfortable and relaxed fielding rapid-fire questions from all seven members of the Full Court of the High Court, as he was empathising with a very large group of disaffected and hurting native title claimants on the banks of the Murray river.

Michael Kirby once noted of Ron that as a Jewish boy at Carey Baptist Grammar School in Kew he certainly “learned what it was to be different” in his early schooling days. In the months before he died, Ron mentioned to my partner Peter Seidel that despite those stern times, he learned something else equally important from the Carey Baptist Ministers.  For it was those men – of a different faith to his – who, quoting from the Book of Micah, preached a command that resonated deeply within the boy then, and which had continued to guide the man throughout his life:

to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.

In all his work, leading by example, Ron confirmed that difficult, challenging and sometimes seemingly lost causes are always truly worth fighting for.

Even though the struggles for justice invariably involve significant personal and professional sacrifices, the rewards in the end for those who do so are always incalculable – to help to dignify, honour and give hope to the disempowered with compassion, is to walk humbly with your God.

The ‘Castan’ name also belongs to a great Australian family – many of whom are here tonight to celebrate this great occasion with us – a name that is rightly revered for its exceptional and broad-reaching contributions to commerce, education, public policy, human rights, the arts, health and general well being.

It is all these Castan qualities I’ve spoken about this evening to which we at Arnold Bloch Leibler aspire in our pursuit of excellence, and which inspires us as professionals, as members of the community and as individuals, particularly as we continue to strive to make meaningful and worthwhile contributions to improving civil society.

May I also say that it is all these Castan qualities that tonight’s extremely worthy award recipients each exemplify, which Gary Samowitz; Ron’s wife, my friend, Nellie Castan; and Danny Almagor will expand upon when the recipients are announced very shortly.

On that note, I now welcome to the podium Gary to formally announce the recipients of the 2013 Ron Castan Young Humanitarian Award and the 2013 Ron Castan Humanitarian Award

Thank you.


[1] Transcript, 19 August 1999, Members of the Yorta Yorta v State of Victoria & Ors, Full Court of the Federal Court, VG34 of 1999

[2] Transcript, 19 August 1999, Members of the Yorta Yorta v State of Victoria & Ors, Full Court of the Federal Court, VG34 of 1999

[3] Ibid.