Michelle Gardner is the first Aboriginal woman to become a member of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, a role she has been working towards throughout her 30-year career.

A proud Gunditjmara woman, Gardner wants to see more Aboriginal people appointed to senior positions in courts and tribunals.

“It is important for young people to see Aboriginals in senior roles making decisions and implementing the laws,” Gardner said.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Gardner was one of only two Aboriginal children at her school. At 16-years-old she attended a school camp that encouraged Aboriginal students to pursue higher education.

“It was the first time outside of my family I had seen that many Aboriginal kids in one place … It was mind blowing,” she said.

“I remember going back to school after camp and thinking why am I here … my head was full of possibilities.”

Gardner left high school in Year 11 and completed a Diploma in Community Studies at Macarthur Institute of Higher Education in Sydney, which inspired her to start a law degree at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 1987.

“I was involved in marches and demonstrations for recognition of Aboriginal people and their rights,” Gardner said.

“At the time there was little acknowledgement or recognition of Aboriginal people in the law—it was before the historic Mabo decision and bicentennial protests.”

“I wanted to be part of changing things.”

After studying for two years, Gardner dropped out of UNSW.

“My mum passed away … and being in my young 20s it threw me off the rails a bit,” she said.

Gardner eventually completed her law degree at the University of Wollongong and has since held a range of roles in Aboriginal policy and legal organisations.

For seven years, Gardner worked on the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, where she investigated and conciliated discrimination complaints.

In 1989, an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) made NSW the first state in the country to introduce racial vilification legislation.

The legislation states it is unlawful for a person to humiliate, harass or vilify a person on the grounds of race.

“There is still a lot of controversy about whether this law should be amended,” Gardner said.

“I don’t think it is too controversial … It’s not like we have unfettered power to say and do anything.”

Legislation like the racial vilification law are complaint driven. Gardner said it’s important for people to try and confront discrimination as soon as it occurs

“It’s one thing to have the laws there, but people have to exercise their rights under them,” Gardner said.

“It can be tricky and a lot of pressure for an individual.”

In her new role, Gardner will be presiding over guardianship and discrimination matters heard in the human rights division of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

“As an Aboriginal person I can help other tribunal members and staff who don’t necessarily have that experience or knowledge in terms of Aboriginal competence,” Gardner said.

“When you get older your world views change, and you think about wanting to make a difference and having authenticity in yourself.”

By Taylor Padfield