Tenth Academy Hancock Lecture

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The Tenth Hancock Lecture of the Australian Academy of the Humanities – Horizons of national responsibility: law and the protection of life on a fossil-rich continent – will take place in a face-to-face format on Tuesday 31st May 2022. The lecture will be delivered by Dr Frances Flanagan, at the State Library of New South Wales.


Horizons of national responsibility: law and the protection of life on a fossil-rich continent
Bold and compelling visions now abound for Australia to become a renewable energy superpower. However, prospects of a timely, principled and definitive cessation of fossil fuel extraction seem bleak. Our environmental laws and institutions carry the heavy imprint of the age of fossil-based development in their orientation to managing the spatially and temporally- proximate impacts of extraction, rather than supporting the rapid and comprehensive winding down of industries that are incompatible with a safe climate. For some, Australia appears a polity fatally compromised by its fossil-fuelled and prosperous past, unable to craft an economic and social order around the imperative to protect life from climate chaos.

In the face of the lack of effective legislative change, some have turned to the courts for relief. This lecture will consider and recast these recent efforts to use law to limit the expansion of fossil extraction in Australia within a longer history of 20th century cases that successfully interrupted resource extraction in the name of protecting life and its reproduction over time. Three particular judicial interventions, Ex parte McKay (‘the Harvester decision’) (1907); Mabo v Qld (No. 2) (1992) and Minister for the Environment v Sharma (2022), despite their apparently divergent bases in labour law, property law and environmental law, reveal similar themes when read together. Each reworked the horizons of national responsibility; each accorded recognition to different categories of life as worthy of protection based on changing narratives of the Australian nation.  By locating present struggles to limit fossil extraction within this wider history, the lecture makes a case for what is new and old about contemporary legal opposition to resource extraction in the name of future generations, and draws into sharp relief the kinds of protective legal foundations that will be required for addressing the distinctive spatial and temporal dimensions of the climate crisis. 

Event Details

Speaker: Dr Frances Flanagan
Date: Tuesday 31st May 2022, 5:30pm – 6:45pm (AEST)
Location: State Library of New South Wales


Dr Frances Flanagan

Frances is a Sydney Fellow and Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney. With an interdisciplinary background in history and law, she is the author of Remembering the Revolution: Dissent, Culture and Nationalism in the Irish Free State (OUP, 2015).  Her research considers the intersection of concepts of labour, climate change, technology and the nation.  Prior to her appointment at the University of Sydney, she was a lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, a Marshall Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, and a Senior Scholar at Hertford College Oxford.  She has also worked in two roles outside academia: as National Director of Research at United Voice, one of Australia’s largest unions, between 2015 and 2018, and as an Indigenous rights lawyer at the Yamatji Marlpa Land Council, a native title representative body for the Pilbara and Murchison Gascoyne regions of Western Australia between 2000 and 2005.

Twitter: @FNFlanagan
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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.