No stranger to controversy

A varied career was motivated by immigration policy and the plight of refugees

Marianne Van Galen-Dickie is no stranger to controversy. She has been championing the cause of refugees for more than a decade amid policy turmoil and heated public debate.

She entered the field in the 1990s when she worked as an adviser to the Australian Democrats on immigration policy. Now the Sub-Dean of the migration law program at the Australian National University College of Law, she runs the Graduate Certificate in Australian Migration Law and Practice – the qualification needed to practise as a migration agent – along with several short courses on migration law.

Marianne is a leading commentator on immigration policy. She has a special interest in the plight of migrant women, and in 2011 won an ANU International Women’s Day certificate of recognition. She is also interested in the intersection of migration law and human rights.

Her involvement in the field dates back to 1995 when she joined the management committee of the Rehabilitation Unit for Survivors of Torture and Trauma at the Mater Hospital in Queensland. The unit was working with refugees from Bosnia.

In 1996 she left off undergraduate studies majoring in sociology to join the staff of Cheryl Kernot, then leader of the Australian Democrats. She was an adviser to the Democrats between 1996 and 2005, and was the party’s national campaign director in 2004.

She says working for the Democrats was the first major turning point in her career. Her stint with the party spanned some of the biggest debates in immigration policy, including the Tampa controversy of 2001 and the Howard government’s “Pacific solution” – the holding of asylum seekers arriving by boat in detention centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island while their applications for refugee status were processed.

“This was a peak time in immigration law,” she says. Apart from her advisory role, she co-authored submissions to Senate inquiries into immigration, personally sponsored refugees to Australia, and qualified and registered as a migration agent.

Despite having children, Marianne could handle the long hours and high workload at the time because her husband chose to work part-time or lessen his working hours in order to be the primary carer. “That’s the only way I managed to work in politics,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

She says joining the ANU in 2007 was the second big turning point. She was appointed assistant convenor of the migration law program in 2007 and took up the post as sub-dean of the program in 2009.

“Working for the Democrats gave me an insight into legislation and policy and the way to advocate for policy,” she says. “Working at the ANU has given me more ability to comment on policy, to work on academic research and then to actually extend to teaching other people. This job gives me an opportunity to have a voice and play a role in the public debate.”

Marianne is responsible for curriculum development and management of the migration law program, which employs about 30 staff both on campus and off-site. In 2012 the program won the Vice-Chancellor’s special commendation for programs that enhance learning.

The ANU Graduate Certificate in Australian Migration Law and Practice is the university’s largest graduate certificate program and one of its largest completely-online programs. Marianne has mobilised top Australian migration law specialists and migration agents to teach in this innovative program. Under federal legislation, only four universities are permitted to offer this qualification and of these, she says, ANU has the most students.

“The role of migration agents can be critical in assisting some of the most vulnerable people,” she says. “Migration law is highly complex and small mistakes can have dire consequences. We include in our program a commitment to human rights and ethics. Students who qualify may end up working for government, in policy or as private agents. The way they view their role is crucial to ensuring correct and just outcomes for clients.”

Some of her most satisfying work on campus is a migration law clinic – a pro bono service provided by ANU alumni and migration program staff to refugees and other immigrants in Canberra who cannot afford to pay for advice and support.

Many of the clients are domestic violence victims who were brought to Australia as wives, she says. “They find themselves in a situation where the partner is violent and threatening he will send them back to where they come from,” she says.

Among other clients are refugees, many from African countries, desperate to get family members out of refugee camps and into Australia under the family reunion scheme.

“They have a dreadfully long wait,” she says. “Lots of people are caught up in the need to bring relatives out – often children, spouses or parents – who are languishing in a camp and waiting in a very long queue. Some of those are hopeless cases. We know that the application will be rejected without a review right. The numbers are so huge.”

Others need carer visas. “They need a relative to come and care for them because they’re suffering from mental health issues, predominantly,” she says.

The clinic takes on strong cases only. Even then, the commitment to any one case can run to several years. “Others, we help as much as we can,” she says.

Her teaching experience and management of the migration program has fostered a passion for higher education. She has a graduate certificate in higher education from the ANU and is undertaking a master’s degree in higher education.

“You can't be complacent, even in the delivery of education programs,” she says. “We looked closely at our student cohort in 2010 and found we had a dramatic difference in the gender divide. This would flow on to the demographic of migration agents, leading to a disproportionate number of male agents. In order to address this we advertised in ways that would attract women. The result was, and continues to be, a student cohort that reflects the gender balance of the Australian population.”

In her view, her education in a Catholic girls’ school equipped her for overcoming obstacles. “If you went to a Catholic girls’ school, it didn’t occur to you that there’s anything you can’t do,” she says. “When you come across any obstacles that are gender-based, they’re frustrating but you go around or through them. It’s your upbringing.

“There are still perceptions of women that impact on work and in particular the ability to advocate both publicly and in the workplace. Assertiveness and having a strong direction are constantly construed as being aggressive.”

Marianne says that while “acknowledging the irony”, the main mentors in her career have been men. They include former Australian Democrats leader and senator Andrew Bartlett and Associate Professor Gary Tamsitt, director of the Legal Workshop at the ANU College of Law.

Marianne weighed into the refugee debate again in 2011 over the Federal Government’s asylum seeker agreement with Malaysia, which was later rejected by the High Court. She is critical of the Gillard government’s resurrection of the Pacific solution, a move announced in August 2012.

She argues instead for a shift in emphasis towards the processing of refugees from camps in Indonesia while reducing the intake from Africa after family reunion applications from refugees already settled in Australia are processed.

“I’m dismayed at the process used,” she says, referring to the government’s establishment of a panel led by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston to make policy recommendations. “I’m dismayed at the outcome and the direction Australia is going in again. It isn’t the answer. It isn’t a useful way to treat the problem. What really upsets me about the process is that there have been over ten Senate inquiries directed at refugee humanitarian issues. The Senate has examined the evidence from experts since 1997.”

But the government had “ignored all that evidence”, she says. “It’s turning its back on the facts that they’ve gathered over more than ten years. It’s a policy outcome that suits what they wanted to do, not an outcome that suits the needs of refugees or the region.”

She has written several articles and continues to make submissions to parliamentary inquiries into issues across migration law and policy.

Marianne serves on several ANU committees. She was a finalist in the 2012 ACT Australian of the Year awards and in 2011 won an ANU media award.

A speed reader, she is an avid reader of novels. “I would read a novel a night,” she says. “We have tea chests full of books in the garage.” Among her other passions are ones she considers most people care about – her family, children and, of course, her dogs.

And the future? “I want to continue working on the areas that drive me – migration law, human rights and online education. There are key areas within the Migration Act and policies that impact on women and families. These need to be exposed and I look forward to working with my academic staff on a series of papers addressing these.”



Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute