18 September 2023

New ACT human rights commissioner outlines key priorities ahead of stepping into role

| Claire Fenwicke
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Prof Penelope Mathew

Professor Penelope Mathew will be the ACT’s second human rights commissioner. Photo: NZLS.

An international refugee law expert is returning to her roots in Canberra to take up the post as ACT human rights commissioner.

Professor Penelope Mathew will succeed Dr Helen Watchirs OAM from 23 October. She will become the second ever commissioner and be the commission’s president.

She said she was “deeply honoured” to have received the appointment.

“My priorities include preparation for proposed additions to the Human Rights Act [such as] the right to a healthy environment, and a quick and accessible way for community members to complain about human rights abuses to the ACT Human Rights Commission,” she said.

Prof. Mathew is currently Dean of the University of Auckland Law School, and has a distinguished career in the Territory and overseas.

She received her education at the University of Melbourne and then Columbia Law School in New York, and has held positions at the Australian National University (ANU), University of Melbourne, Michigan Law School and Griffith University.

She previously worked in Canberra at the Human Rights Commission as a legal and policy adviser from 2006 and 2008, where she conducted an audit of the Territory’s remand centres, designed and delivered human rights education for public servants and the community, and advised on human rights issues arising from legislative proposals.

Prof. Mathew is also an expert international refugee law adviser who has been a consultant with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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She now felt it was time to return home.

“My time in Aotearoa New Zealand has given me new insights on the rights of First Nations people (as well as some basic Māori language skills),” Prof. Mathew said.

“It has been rewarding as well as challenging, given the pandemic. It is now time to come home to the ACT, a place where I have spent a significant period of my working life and raised my son.”

Prof. Mathew has previously been recognised for her contributions to human rights and social justice in the ACT, receiving an International Women’s Day Award from the ACT Government in 2008.

Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne said the Territory’s reputation as a “progressive community” would be strengthened by Prof. Mathew’s appointment.

“As our city grows, it’s vital we continue to ensure appropriate human rights protections are in place for all Canberrans,” she said.

“I know that Professor Mathew will bring passion, intellect and vision to the task of building on Dr Watchirs’ legacy so we continue to lead the way nationally and internationally on human rights.”

Dr Watchirs was the first ACT human rights commissioner, appointed to the role in 2005.

She has also been president of the commission since 2016.

She will finish up in the role this month.

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Prof. Mathew’s appointment has also been welcomed by the ACT Bar Association and ACT Law Society.

Law Society president Farzana Choudhury offered her congratulations.

“The ACT has a long history of championing local human rights, including as the first Australian jurisdiction to enshrine a Human Rights Act,” she said.

“We look forward to seeing the further advancement of human rights issues under Professor Mathew’s leadership.”

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