annabelle bennett what ive learned

When I stepped down as a judge of the Federal Court in 2016 after 13 years, some people asked if I was retiring. The truth is, I’ve broadened the range of people with whom I come into contact and the range of subjects I have to understand since leaving the bench. I loved working as a judge, but never intended to stay until mandatory retirement [70 years].

I’m very active overseas in a few roles, including chair of the advisory group of judges to the World Intellectual Property Organization, and teaching and engaging with judges and lawyers about IP law. One thing I find quite sad is that I’m one of the only Australian judges who works overseas. Travelling and working overseas gives me an international perspective and a better understanding in so many areas.

When you hear people talk of the major jurisdictions in IP, they talk about the US, China, Japan and Europe — Australia rarely gets mentioned. People forget we’re alive and we aren’t seen as a major jurisdiction. Considering we are the 14th biggest economy in the world, we aren’t getting the recognition internationally for our very good IP system.

Digital assets inquiry

I’ve heard a lot of intellectual property (IP) cases. Australia does intellectual property incredibly well and we have very experienced practitioners and a very good litigation system with very good judges.

I’ve been working as a part-time commissioner for the NSW Law Reform Commission, looking into what happens to digital assets on death or incapacity. Everyone talks about digital assets, but I’ve had to develop a better understanding of what constitutes an “asset”. Is all your digital space an asset you would leave in a will, or can leave in a will?

This issue has implications for companies and boards because as everyone is increasingly online, you have to think about what you do with your passwords. For example, who has control of the passwords? Who controls a company’s social media presence?

I asked a class of 60 young university students, both final-year and postgraduate, how many of them had thought about what they would do with their digital assets if anything happened to them. Not one had thought about it. If you prove you are an executor, you’ll usually be able to access a person’s bank account even if you don’t have the passwords, but with digital assets, if you haven’t passed the passwords on, there can be a significant issue. For example, you may have all the contracts that affect your life only in your computer and you haven’t provided the passwords. Not to mention your social media presence. This could well become a bigger issue in the future for individuals and companies.

Travelling and working overseas gives me an international perspective and a better understanding in so many areas.

Down by law

My father was a lawyer and when I wanted to study law after school, he discouraged me. His argument was that women had to be the very best just to break even with men in the practice of law back then. I was always interested in science and did a PhD in cell biology at the University of Sydney. My first daughter was still a baby when I enrolled to study law part-time. I have to credit my husband (former Commonwealth Solicitor-General David Bennett AC QC), for giving me the confidence to keep studying. He is always talking me up — the concept of whether, as a woman, I should or shouldn’t do anything has never come into it. By the time I was 30, I had two daughters under five and was admitted as NSW’s 33rd barrister. I had my son a couple of years later.

I have been involved with more than 30 organisations, including as pro chancellor at ANU from 1998 for 13 years, and as chancellor of Bond University since 2016 on a six-year term. I go to the Gold Coast campus for board meetings, graduations and other key events. The success of Bond University is based largely on its unrelenting focus on the students. It wins The Good Universities Guide for student experience each year. Bond is Australia’s first private not-for-profit university. One of my daughters went to Bond well before I was involved.

Governance at Bond

Bond’s approach to governance is very interesting. The university has a small council with 10 members, including the chancellor and vice-chancellor roles, and is empowered under the Bond University Act 1987 (Qld) to oversee operational performance and set the strategic direction for the university.

As it happens, three of our council members are alumni — a factor we take into account when looking to see who should be on council, but it’s not the major qualification. However, we know those people, by being prepared to come onto council, not only have a passion for the university, but are also highly successful and bring very different perspectives. We have a strong skills matrix, so when we look to appoint a new council member, we look to the skills matrix to see what’s missing.

There are no entitled people and no staff or student representatives.

The university is run, more or less, like a corporation, taking into account the special aspects of university culture.

Science boards

I recently stepped down from the Advisory Council of Questacon after three years. Being involved there was inspirational. I’m also proud to be a member of the pro bono board of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. People are very committed and it has been selfishly interesting to work with them as it allows me to keep on top of some of the research that is happening, which is very exciting. It’s rewarding to see Australian innovation doing so incredibly well.

The key issue facing the Garvan board is research funding. From my experience, every medical research institute has funding issues because most rely on government grants. Of course, they’re competitive grants and some of them are not long-lasting. However, you want to keep your scientists confident they have a position, and to ensure continuing research, which is seldom completed in a short time.

Bennett says it is too early to comment on her new role at ANSTO, however ANSTO CEO Adi Paterson said Bennett’s expertise and strong partnerships would be “invaluable as ANSTO continues to expand the Innovation Precinct and pursues international collaborations”.

So, you’ve been invited to join a board?

Everyone looks at it differently and brings their own experiences. One of the key things I’ve considered in boards I’ve joined is: who invited me? Maybe I’ve been incredibly naïve, but if I have great faith in the experience and integrity of the person who suggested I join a board, and that person is or has been involved, it gives me great comfort to put myself in that role. Of course, you also need to read the papers and be prepared.

I do observe that the role of the board is not the same as the role of management. When people talk about diversity on boards, it’s not just gender, it’s also diversity of relevant experience and expertise. I’ve seen that in particular at Bond, where we bring in different areas of expertise, each of relevance to the functions and direction of the university.

Not everyone on a board has skills across every area. My advice is to be aware of the skills of the other directors. You have to know enough to ask the questions and to have an overarching view. But it’s important to know there are other directors who have deeper skills, in different areas that the board will face. It’s about trust, but it’s also about respect.