Fight brewing at the Victorian Bar over support for Indigenous Voice to parliament

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A fight is emerging in the peak body for Victorian barristers over a push to endorse the Indigenous Voice to parliament, with one barrister asking colleagues to remain neutral and avoid engaging in politics.

In an email sent to some members of the Victorian Bar, barrister James Catlin urges recipients to sign a notice calling for an urgent general meeting and for members to reject any moves to endorse the Voice, saying such a move would undermine the Bar’s reputation for independence.

“The woke left won last year’s Bar Council elections,” says barrister James Catlin in an email to colleagues.Credit: Peter Rae

Catlin claims that following last year’s Bar Council elections, the “woke Left” now has a controlling vote on the Bar’s elected governing body, which represents 2200 practicing Victorian barristers.

He said those members intended to push for an endorsement of the Voice, following the example set by the NSW Bar Council last month.

“There is a significant unhappiness at the Victoria Bar regarding the Bar Council possibly endorsing the Voice,” he said in the May 3 email, seen by this masthead.

“There is a strong undercurrent of anger amongst the membership that this Bar Council may endorse the Voice without consulting the members unless something is done to upset these plans. [Bar President Sam] Hay pretty much confirmed that the Bar Council makes the decision.”

Differences of opinion about a public endorsement by the Victorian Bar have been broached in the media in recent weeks.

Last week, conservative Melbourne silk Stuart Wood told The Australian that lawyers supporting the Voice were doing so for financial gain and that “NSW is just a joke”.

Hay, who was elected president of the Victorian Bar last November, publicly rebuked Wood this week, telling the Bar’s members via its In Brief newsletter that the comments were out of line.

When contacted by this masthead, Catlin, a former press secretary and advisor to Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, said: “Public faith in an unpoliticised legal system is paramount. Lose that and you won’t easily get it back.”

In his email, Catlin claimed there had been a series of public communications, including an article featuring quotes from Hay as well as high-profile endorsements from other barristers, designed to compel the Bar Council to endorse the Voice.

“There has been a carefully choreographed campaign to get the Bar Council to endorse the Voice,” he said.

“It started with the letter petitioning support for the Voice signed by the barristers in support. Then there was a story by [Michael] Pelly in the AFR [Australian Financial Review] a few days later where the president Sam Hay is heavily quoted.

“A lot of barristers, including those supporting the Voice, think that is high-handed and threatens the Victoria Bar’s hard-won reputation for independence.

“There may have been 300 or so petitioners in support, but there are 2200 members, many of whom are journeymen barristers who are traditionalists and don’t see the Bar’s role is to engage in politics.”

In a comment piece published by this masthead, the NSW Bar Council unanimously supported a Yes vote at the referendum later this year, describing the proposed wording of the amendment to the Constitution to create the Voice “as sound and appropriate”.

Hay and the Victorian Bar declined to comment.

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