Michael Kingston has been the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) since 2016. Previously he has worked as Chief Legal Officer of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and as a partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques. Kingston talks about his career, the public sector and responding to COVID-19.
What made you want to pursue a career in law?
To be honest, when I was thinking about going to university my focus was on an arts degree, principally history and political science. I decided to combine arts with law as I was not sure what type of employment would come from a BA. Fortunately, I quite enjoyed studying law.
What challenges have you faced due to COVID-19?
AGS has had to do a range of urgent work connected to the public health, biosecurity, and economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, by and large, we have done all of this while not being in the office. We have lawyers and support staff in every capital city in the country and I’ve been very impressed with the good will, tolerance, and application with which they’ve adapted to working from home.
The pandemic has seen the federal government work alongside its state counterparts in an unprecedented way, with some successes as well as challenges. How have you seen this work at a national level?
The Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has said the National Cabinet has proven to be an effective intergovernmental body for coordinated national decision-making in response to COVID-19.
He pointed to a number of factors that underpin the success of the National Cabinet, including a single focus on the health response to the pandemic, a commitment to taking decisions in the national interest, a shared sense of purpose, flexibility to implement decisions, confidentiality of discussions, direct tasking, and receipt of expert advice.
What has been your biggest career highlight to date?
What comes to mind is not so much a particular matter, or piece of advice, or day in court, but my years as a relatively junior solicitor at Mallesons in Melbourne and Slaughter and May in London. The opportunity to work with outstanding senior lawyers on projects that really stretched my capacity meant I was able to learn a huge amount, not just about substantive law, but about the practice of law and how to behave in demanding, competitive environments.
What advice would you give to government solicitors?
I am drawn back to comments of Finn J in Hughes Aircraft Systems International v Air Services Australia (1997) to the effect that an agency of government generally has no private or self-interest of its own separate from the public interest it is constitutionally bound to serve. A government lawyer needs to be cognisant of the interest of their client. That is not an invitation to pursue one’s own personal beliefs or idiosyncratic view of the public interest. It does emphasise the need to be aware of the constitutional, statutory, and other legal frameworks within which your client is required to operate.
Outside of work, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I normally divide my working week between Canberra and Melbourne, but at the moment I am in Melbourne full time observing Stage 4 restrictions. So, what I like to try to do in my spare time is get my allotted hour of outdoor exercise each day. Reading Tiberius with a Telephone and Night Boat to Tangier is also providing welcome diversion.