As a young man growing up in mid-20th century Adelaide, an era where young men tended to take after their father, Michael Clothier was thrilled when his dad made the transition from teaching to practising law.
He describes his upbringing as “very left of centre”, something he believes has been significant in shaping his own views about the world. As a result, from his teenage years, Michael had a passion to make a difference, and he saw the legal profession as his best opportunity to do this.
After attending Adelaide University in the early 1970s, Michael, now 65, began his career as a defense counsel in South Australia, before making the move to Melbourne to begin working in legal aid.
He describes those 12 years as the most formative years of his life. For the most part, he enjoyed his work and he was good at it; but something just didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t feel as though he was making a positive difference: “I was defending bad people. It became harder and harder to enjoy my work, knowing that I was assisting people who had done horrible things,” he says.
That aside, this was all Michael knew. He had wanted to be a lawyer since he was old enough to tie his own tie, so he stuck with it.
In 1983, Michael’s career reached a turning point. A young Tongan man by the name of Jason Kioa walked in to his office to ask for help. Jason had immigrated to Australia with his wife, Fheodelina, in late 1981, and was arrested as a prohibited immigrant in 1983 when he overstayed his visa. Michael shakes his head as he recalls Jason’s case: “All he wanted to do was earn some more money to send back to his relatives in Tonga who were reeling from a cyclone that had swept the country.” His wife had also recently given birth to their first child, who was born into Australian citizenship.
This case came at a time where refugees were not entitled to natural justice through the courts, and in October that year the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs decided that the Kioas should be deported. He took into account a departmental submission which contended that Jason had been actively involved with people who were seeking to evade Australia’s immigration laws. The appeals against this decision to the Federal Court and the Full Federal Court were both unsuccessful, despite no evidence linking Jason to these allegations.
“I just remember thinking, you may not give this couple natural justice, but you owe the baby natural justice.”
Not one to give up easily, Michael and the Kioas lodged an appeal to the High Court on the grounds that the Minister had failed to afford them procedural fairness by not disclosing the departmental submission, and by not affording a right of reply to the adverse allegations. Michael says he also argued that the Minister had failed to take into account the detrimental effect the decision may have on their child.
In an unprecedented turn of events, the High Court overturned the original decision and ruled in favour of the Kioas, declaring the failure to release the departmental submission was a denial of procedural fairness, and that the rules of natural justice did in fact apply to a decision under the Migration Act to deport a prohibited immigrant. The court also ruled that the original decision did not take into account general humanitarian principles.
This was seen as a landmark case for immigration law in Australia. Michael finally felt that he had made a positive difference to the lives of people who were in need. This led to him becoming Australia’s first specialised immigration lawyer, and he has been practising ever since.
Michael enjoyed practicing immigration law, as “the legislation was so murky; I was constantly finding loopholes to be able to help these refugees.” His wife, Eva, overhears this from the kitchen of his home and comes bounding around the corner. “That’s my Michael” she says with a grin. “He’s a cheeky one.”
Michael met Eva, the person who “has kept [him] sane all these years,” around this time, and attributes much of his success to her. They have two daughters, Jessica, 23 and Vanessa, 21, who not only share Michael’s fair colouring, but his strong sense of social justice. Jessica is taking after her father; she is in the fifth year of a law degree and works for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which endeavours to fight for refugee rights and acts as a support network for refugees who are imprisoned in offshore detention centres such as Nauru and Manus Island.
“I’m inspired by my dad, ” says Jessica. “Nessa and I have been so lucky with our upbringing. He not only taught me everything I know about law, he taught me how to be a good person.”
Vanessa, who is president of Amnesty International’s Monash University division, echoes these sentiments: “He’s helped so many people and has changed so many lives for the better. He tells me stories about these refugees, how even taking an interest in them or donating to their cause can completely transform their lives.”
She smiles glowingly towards her dad, “My main goal is to make people aware of that and follow in his footsteps in any way I can.”
Asked what he would do to change Australia’s policies surrounding asylum seekers and refugees, Michael takes a sip of his freshly brewed green tea and ponders for a moment. “I would issue a press release saying that we’re going back to the [former prime minister Malcolm] Fraser years. We’re going to support the refugee convention and do our bit; if they show up on our doorstep, we’ll take them in. I mean, if you start playing around with international conventions saying ‘we won’t do this, even though we promised we would,’ then the conventions are useless. International law becomes useless.
“History says these people make excellent citizens. Nobody leaves their home unless they really want to. We need to be there for them and let them in.”
After winning Best Lawyer’s Immigration Lawyer of the Year for 2016, Michael has begun to think about retirement. “All of my clients keep telling me how incredible Australia is. It’s probably about time I got out there and experienced it for myself.”