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  • Nicole Richards

How philanthropy can help drive complacent governments to think differently: Peter McMullin

The twin themes of community and collective effort have underpinned Peter McMullin’s philanthropic journey for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve always been involved in community life,” Peter says, “so the transition from community engagement to philanthropy felt like a fairly seamless one over time.”

The convergence of Peter’s personal and professional roles is still evident today. A lawyer by trade, he currently chairs the McMullin Group, is Honorary Consul of Timor-Leste and a board member at WorkSafe Victoria.

Previously, Peter was Mayor of Geelong in 2006 and Deputy Lord Mayor of Melbourne between 1996-99. He was President of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce for three years and chaired the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for eight.

A long-standing friend of Australian Communities Foundation, Peter’s philanthropy has focused on helping refugees, Indigenous Australians, education, international cooperation, the arts and creative industries.

But in 2018, Peter raised the stakes, giving one of his most significant philanthropic gifts to the University of Melbourne Law School to establish the world’s first Centre on Statelessness. The Centre examines the causes and extent of statelessness around the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

NR: What was the catalyst for your philanthropic journey? When and how did you get started?

PMc: In hindsight it’s a bit hard to identify the point where my community involvement and philanthropy merged.

Perhaps it was when I became one of the founding directors of the Small Change Foundation set up by Ellen Koshland [in 1989] which paved the way for the idea that small amounts of money can make big change. Specifically, in this case that small amounts of money could go to public schools and teachers could run a program that was transformative like encouraging girls to do engineering, science and maths.

To be honest, that’s been a continuing theme in my philanthropy. Australia has a shocking record when it comes to women and girls in science – it’s something that needs to be structurally altered. Philanthropy has a role to play because it can help drive complacent or unimaginative governments to think differently about issues.

I became involved with Australian Communities Foundation back when it was still Melbourne Communities Foundation; I knew Hayden [Raysmith] and a lot of the other members at that time. The community foundation model is a good one and we were all about the same sort of thing: How do you collectivise this activity of giving? How do you get people to see philanthropy as not just the realm of the rich, but the realm of everybody?

We’ve got a way to go in that space in Australia. Traditional philanthropy has been a bit siloed and remote and inaccessible to a lot of people.

There has been some amazing work done by families in Australia and particularly in Victoria, but I think it’s important that we publicise the benefits of philanthropy and popularise it in a more extensive way than we’ve done so far. That’s not to criticise anyone – it’s an evolving process.

You’ve long been an advocate for philanthropy’s role in fostering positive change while also recognising the interplay of business and government. How do you think philanthropy can be most effective in this equation?

From my perspective, philanthropy is the driver. And the leader.

Working up proposals which government or business can embrace is the job of philanthropy.

I think the ‘how’ is what governments and business want to hear.

Often, you’ll speak to people in business who may be interested but don’t know how to do it. A big part of what I’m going to do with my philanthropy is around collaboration and providing opportunities for people to join in and support things.

Governments aren’t imaginative; they’re really struggling to do what they used to do and people need to think about the society they want to live in.

I think the private world has to step up now.

Why is statelessness an issue close to your heart? What outcomes do you hope the Centre on Statelessness, which you’ve funded for the next 10 years, ultimately contributes to?  

In my early career as a lawyer I did a lot of immigration law; it was pretty uncommon and esoteric at the time – a lot of people didn’t know what it meant.

I became a member of the Commonwealth Refugee Tribunal in and back in those days [McMullin served on the Tribunal between 1993-96] Australia was the leading country in the world for processing refugees. People used to come to Australia to see how it was done; we were the envy of the world.

We had a complex High Court decision about what it meant to be a refugee and there was a system in place and people were either determined to be a refugee or not. They got residence or not.

It was a tough thing to do; I didn’t enjoy it one bit. You met people who’d been through the most amazing struggles to get here and then if you must tell them they can’t stay it’s not at all pleasant. But there was a rule around it, and now that’s all been whittled away and very few rights remain.

I became frustrated by the position Australia was adopting and thought, what can I do?

Statelessness as an issue has been on the back-burner for about 50 years. There have been various attempts to establish a statelessness convention, but it hasn’t had a lot of institutional support.  That’s changing.

The Centre on Statelessness has become a fulcrum for people around the world who’ve had statelessness on the edge of their desk.

António Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN beamed into the opening of the Centre a year ago and said statelessness is the number one human rights issue of his tenure.

I think we’re going to hear more about statelessness more than we ever have in past.

You’ve had a sub-fund in the past and you’re exploring different vehicles like PAFs and PBIs for your next philanthropic venture but you’re not a big fan of the label ‘philanthropy’. Why is that?

I feel sometimes with philanthropy the dollar amount becomes the story and people forget what the thing’s all about.

Even with the Centre on Statelessness, I wasn’t interested in the headline: ‘McMullin gives X’, I was more interested in a headline that said statelessness was being addressed.

Philanthropy needs to think about engagement and how we do these things differently. I think we need to change the approach to excite the community’s interest. That’s why I don’t like the world ‘philanthropy’. It puts people off, I think.

People don’t quite know what it means other than being associated with elites and that’s never been popular.

At its most fundamental level, why is giving important?

There are so many benefits to giving. I derive an emotional benefit, no question.

I enjoy the fact that I’m in the fortunate position where I can actually help achieve good outcomes.

For me to be able to engage directly with some like [journalist, human rights defender, award-winning writer and Manus Island detainee] Behrouz Boochani is just…Well, I’ll give you an example. I called him the other day and his face was on my screen but he couldn’t see me or hear me and I have to say, his face was the saddest face I’ve ever seen.

It’s that sad face I want to help. It’s very moving. Very moving to think that this person is languishing there on a remote island in Papua New Guinea with no prospects. If that doesn’t move you, I’m not sure what would.

All the areas I support there’s an emotional connection somewhere. That’s valuable self-knowledge about who you are. For me to be able to contribute is an emotional response to the world that I live in.

What advice would you give someone who’s just starting out on their philanthropic journey?

Join the Australian Communities Foundation, set up a sub fund and contribute to it every month. See how it grows. As Paul Keating used to say, it’s the magic of compound interest. You don’t have to do anything other than think about what you’re going to do with it when it grows.

Also, participate. Learn about what other members of the foundation do and why they do it. Meet people. It’s all about relationships – just like business is all about relationships, so too is philanthropy.

When all’s said and done, what kind of impact do you hope your philanthropy makes?

Not to resort to clichés, but it’s about making a difference. I’m not into legacy creation per se but I am keen to see change happen. I’m keen to be actively involved in the philanthropy I do.

Engagement is really my mantra. To do what we can, while we can.


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