Andreas Heger

Portrait of Andreas Heger

Ingmar Taylor (IT): Where did you grow up and what were your family circumstances?

Andreas Heger (AH): I grew up in rural / regional Queensland on a farm near Toowoomba. My Dad was a farmer and my Mum a teacher. I have two sisters, one older, one younger. I went to school in Toowoomba. I was a very good student in primary school. I was not such a very good student in high school.

We could get into some deep self-analysis about why. The most obvious answer is, although it’s a bit of a cop-out, that I started losing my sight when I was 13.

IT: What led you to study law?

AH: Partly my sight. I knew that I would lose my sight to the point where I would be legally blind. I won’t ever totally lose it, but I knew I would lose the vast majority of it. I did some career planning around it. That was in the 90s. The iPhone was a decade away. The law was something that other people who were blind had done so it was not on the list of things that I just couldn’t do. When I was little I had wanted to be a fighter pilot and I thought about being a sports agent, because I love sports and who wouldn’t want to be Jerry Maguire! (laughter) But ultimately I decided to do law and I was lucky enough to get into Sydney. I came to Sydney to do law because Ron McCallum was the Dean at the time. I did a combined degree with Arts and did Italian.

IT: Why Italian?

AH: I was still 16 when I finished high school, so I went and did a year of school in Italy. I then studied Italian at Uni and read a lot of Italian literature. I’ve been back there a few times since then.

IT: What was your experience of being an undergraduate?

AH: My first year at Law School was the year that changed me. That’s the year that I really lost my sight. A large part of that year and my time at Sydney Uni was coming to terms with that and learning how to live with a very significant disability. Until that point I’d lost some sight but I was still reading – I just had slightly bigger text.

I lost my sight very quickly. In about three months I was legally blind: about 10% vision. I had to learn how to read again. I had to learn how to make a cup of tea again. So the five years of my undergrad degrees were a process of understanding how to do this.

IT: You chose Sydney Uni in large part because of Professor Ron McCallum, who was then the Dean of Law and someone who was blind from birth. What did you learn from Ron?

AH: Ron was both extremely inspirational, and practically helpful in two ways. He showed me the software he used, which is what I use now. He said that if I was going to do law I needed to move to screen readers because I was just not going to be able to manually read the volumes that I needed to read, even if I had a bit of sight. That was really helpful because it meant I started in that first year to completely transition how I learnt and absorbed information.

Secondly, Ron gave me an extremely helpful piece of advice. On starting Uni I had approached disability services to find out what assistance they could provide, which at the time was not great. I went to see Ron and I was expecting a sympathetic ear. I thought, the Dean of Law, he’s blind, he’s going to say ‘that’s outrageous’. Instead he just said to me ‘You need to take responsibility for your own education. You need to find a way, because if you rely on other people and they let you down then where are you?, I really took that on board and that’s the way that I approach everything to do with my disability. I just find a way to get done what needs to be done and if there’s a service that isn’t what I need then I’ll go and build one that does.

IT: You must have worked hard at Sydney University because you obtained a

Rhodes Scholarship.

AH: I did work hard, but a lot of that work was aimed at building the ability to read, synthesise and understand materials in a different way, as opposed to actually pushing my brain.

One of the great things about going to Sydney was some great teachers. Mark Leeming taught me Equity. That’s like Einstein teaching you physics. (laughter). After every lecture my brain hurt. Just keeping up with him was a challenge.

IT: At Oxford you did a BCL. Tell me about that.

AH: It was a great experience. It was a lot of work. I remember when I got there, someone said ‘oh if you see someone crying at the back of the library, they’re doing the BCL'.

It was about 4,000 pages of reading a week, and you’re doing tute papers every couple of weeks. I had to get all of the material, scan it all and then run OCR on it so I could listen to it using a screen reader.

When I was there the disability services were insufficient to do a degree of that nature. They said ‘we can get you one book in 6 to 8 weeks’. I had 30 to 40 readings per subject a week and there are four subjects. I said I can’t wait three months to get the reading, because I have to do it now and write a tute paper on it. Applying Ron McCallum’s advice I got some undergrad law students to help me do all the finding and scanning so I got the materials when I needed them.

Oxford was amazing intellectually. I worked my butt off 16 hours a day for nine months. I chose to do that because I really wanted to test my mind. I thought this is an opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity to push my brain as hard as I can, and I didn’t feel I’d had the chance to do that in my undergrad years.

I didn’t get a lot of what people get when they go to Oxford. They experience all the quaint lovely things about it. I just worked the whole time and rowed. But I really pushed my brain and I’m really glad I did.

IT: Tell me about the systems that you learnt in your undergraduate years. What is the method by which you read the material that people send you?

AH: It’s quite simple. It’s called 'Jaws'. I believe the icon is actually a shark, so someone had a sense of humour. I can show you, it’s a screen reader – like this (example of 'jaws' played: an email is ‘read out’ by the computer at a super high speed). So you can see, essentially it just reads any text input. It is fast, although I think Ron’s reads even faster than mine.

IT: I remember Ron playing his reader to me in the 1990s. It was too fast for me to distinguish separate words. He said he could read faster than people with sight. Is that true for you too?

AH: I believe so, I’ve never sat down and done a test and got someone to manually read it. I think people read at different speeds, but certainly it’s quick.

I’ve done a lot of jobs where you’re asked for urgent turnarounds on things and I’ve been able to deliver it. The speed of the reading helps overcome some of the other slowness of navigating on a computer, but essentially, it makes everything auditory in the same way when you read you’re not looking at the letters, you just read. I don’t have to concentrate on the words, the information is just going into my brain. It took a while to learn that.

IT: So it allows you to read – there’s still a big step between simply reading and doing so in a way that you can pull out the key points, and be able to go back and find them so that you can summarise them for something you’re writing.

AH: I have always had a very good memory. Unfortunately since I’ve had kids and I’m under severe sleep deprivation I’ve lost a bit of cognitive capacity – you know you probably drop 10 – 20 IQ points when you don’t sleep enough over five years. This has affected me as much as losing more sight.

IT: Some years ago I ran a case about the effects of lack of sleep. One of the things that has stuck in my brain was expert evidence that if you haven’t slept for 24 hours it’s the equivalent to having drunk two schooners of beer on your capacity to react and think.

AH: For me that effect is amplified. I don’t use a cane. My brain maps everywhere I go and I just have a sense of where I am and where things are, even though I can’t see them, once I know the environment. Going somewhere I don’t know is significantly harder than somewhere I do. I just instinctively remember ‘there’s a gutter there’, ‘there’s a funny bit of road there’ – and while I don’t think about it, nothing conscious happens, my feet seem to know that something’s going to happen and are ready for it. That’s the best I can explain it.

IT: Now, we’ve spoken about your loss of sight, but I haven’t asked you to describe the nature of your condition and how it developed.

AH: I have Stargardt's Disease. It’s the most common form of juvenile macular degeneration. It’s a genetic condition, although nobody in my current family has it. I don’t have a protein that cleans away the detritus that is caused when light hits the cells in the retina. Everybody else’s gets cleaned away, mine doesn’t. There’s a gunk that kind of builds up on the retina, which over time means you lose your central vision. It’s similar to macular degeneration that older people get, which is very common, but more pronounced and it happens for different reasons. I have a big hole in the middle where there’s nothing, and I’ve got peripheral vision around the outside. I have a little bit of colour vision, but what I can see outside of the hole are shapes with different colours, but no detail.

IT: And are there circumstances where you try and use your peripheral vision?

AH: Oh all the time. I rely very heavily on the 4%, you know, walking around for me is like driving a car at 300 kph all the time. Hence the sleep deprivation being a problem because of how late I see things. – a person will just pop out of the hole.

IT: What was your first job?

AH: My first paying job was in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I had done volunteer work at the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Disability Discrimination Legal Centre and the Public Defenders, but the first time anybody gave me any money was Prime Minister and Cabinet which I did after I left law school. I joined under Howard, and then was there for Rudd and Gillard, and then I went over to Oxford.

IT: And how did the transition from volunteer work to Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet come about?

AH: I had always thought I would go into practice. I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with a client – you have a client with a problem and you help them with that problem, that’s very satisfying. But I found it very frustrating that I would look at somebody’s problem and I would always see the ‘system’ issues with it. There was always something about the system which I couldn’t help them with because of its structure and it frustrated me. I was also watching a lot of The West Wing at the time (laughter).

I decided I wouldn’t practise, and rather than implementing the law, think about reforming the law. I went into the Grad program at PM&C.

It was at the end of 2007 and I was there until the middle of 2010 when I went to Oxford. I came back a year later and joined the NSW Department of Communities and Justice in 2011.

IT: You are married to Zelie Heger of Eleven Wentworth. When did you meet?

AH: Zelie and I met in administrative law in 2006 at Sydney Uni.

IT: Sounds romantic.

AH: Is there a more romantic subject than administrative law? – you can quote me on that. (laughter)

It will be 15 years since we got together on Saturday. She is the love of my life.

IT: You and Zelie have three boys?

AH: Yes. They’re five, three and one. We try as much as we can to share the load and really accommodate each other’s work. I took almost three years of parental leave: a year with each of the boys. Frankie only got nine months because of COVID. We’re organised and we support each other as much as we can. We see it as an equal partnership in all things including family responsibilities. The most joy in my life is being with her and the boys.

book cover of Cooktown by author Andreas Heger

IT: In 2018 your first novel was published, Cooktown . I read it when it came out and have listened to it again over the last weekend and loved it. What is it about?

AH: Thank you! It’s about a veteran who’s returned to Australia following service in Afghanistan in Special Forces and his struggle with PTSD. It follows his relationship with an autistic girl in Cooktown where he flees to try and piece his life back together. More broadly it’s a reflection on masculinity in modern Australia and some of the societal institutions and pressures that are on young men and what that produces. Although I wrote it before the #MeToo movement it deals with a lot of the attitudes around sex and how that relates to masculinity.

IT: You wrote it in the first person. What did that allow you to do?

AH: Writing in the first person enables you to humanise the character and makes the reader empathise with their life experience, hopefully while also being able to critique it.

IT: So this book comes out in May 2018 and you’ve got a five year old. I’m trying to work out the timing here. Is it finished before your first child is born?

AH: No, I wrote it in nine months while I was on parental leave looking after my first child. (laughter) I’m not entirely sure how I did that, if I’m honest.

Miles wasn’t a great sleeper. He slept in 40 minute cycles and I wrote it in 30 minute bursts. I’d either research something or I’d just write for 30 minutes and he’d wake up and I’d stop. Of course most of the other windows in the day were cleaning and cooking and washing and doing all the things you have to do, but 30 minutes a day for nine months, and it was done.

Having my first child was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, particularly when I was the primary carer. Up until then, the consequences of something going wrong with one of my systems just fell on me: I have broken my leg and done other things. I take calculated risks all the time and the consequences for those risks were personal. Looking after Miles I was really quite worried about the consequences of me not getting it right. As it turned out I built systems that meant I was able to do it all – do the bottles, change nappies, identify the rash, all that. I found a way to do it. I think every parent will know that regardless of what you’ve achieved to that point, nobody finds the transition to being completely responsible for someone else’s life easy.

'Waiting', by Andreas Heger
Mediterranean meal

IT: Now in preparing for this interview I came across two amazing oil paintings online painted by you. It is remarkable that anyone could paint such beautiful paintings, never mind someone who doesn’t have sight.

AH: Thanks! Ernest Hemingway once said that he was jealous of painters because the act of painting was enjoyable and the act of writing is not, and that’s so true. I love the expression of writing but doing it and doing it well is hard work. But painting is something which is just enjoyable to do.

I decided that I would paint a portrait of Zelie while I was on parental leave with Henry, our second. I think I’m attracted to building systems, particularly systems that enable me to do things that I shouldn’t be able to do. I did some quick courses on the internet about how to oil paint. And then I built a system and painted a portrait of Zelie for her Christmas present, and I enjoyed it. It’s something I can do to switch off.

Those two paintings – I really like their texture. The basic concept of impressionism is that when you look at something in real life you don’t see everything in the picture. Your brain just takes in particular things, something about the sunset, the angle of the shoulder. You don’t take in the whole scene like a photograph. I think that’s what the impressionists try to capture – that feeling when you look at something and see particular things, while other things are not quite clear or not quite remembered. I really like that idea because it’s how I experience the world in a much more intense way. Everything is an impression. It’s a glimpse of something, it’s a bit of movement, it’s a bit of colour. I try to capture that and I use all that texture to break up the visual. You get the essence of the emotion in the subject but there’s a lot of interference.

IT: The painting ‘Waiting’: is that one of your sons?

AH: That’s Miles, my eldest, and he is in ‘Cow and Moon’ in Enmore. He is waiting for an ice-cream. (laughter)

IT: Tell me about the sports you’ve played.

AH: I have always loved sports. The sport I feel I was naturally the best at was cricket. I played cricket when I was a kid and in my first year of high school and that’s how I worked out I was losing my sight. I was playing cricket and I couldn’t see the ball.

I then played a whole bunch of other stuff: American football, soccer, a lot of athletics, track and field. I’m not big enough to be good at it, but I love the discus.

I was aiming to compete in the Beijing Paralympics in September 2008 in the pentathlon: discus, javelin, long jump, 1500 mtrs and 100 mtrs. But in 2007 they took that event out of the games for my classification.

The Paralympic Committee suggested rowing. So in lateish 2007 I started to learn how to row. Leading into the national selection trial for the coxed four I was highly ranked but just before the trial I fell down some stairs and I sprained my wrist. I became a reserve for the Australian side. Ultimately the four selected failed to qualify after racing at a World Cup event by one second. Sometimes things don’t go your way.

But in life, you have to be lucky. I was lucky to have won the Rhodes, given all the other people who go into that process and how amazing they are – it’s a very humbling experience. I got some questions in my hitting zone in the final interview, which I’m very grateful for.

So sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. You have to do the work and then see what happens.

IT: Immediately prior to taking on the role of Executive Director of the NSW Bar Association you were a director at the NSW Department of Justice.

AH: I had two director roles in the Department of Justice. The first was Crime Policy which looks at the criminal law in New South Wales, and all law reform relating to it, including police powers, organised crime and terrorism. Essentially it provides advice to the Government, to the attorney and to the Senior Executive of the Department on law reform affecting criminal law and police powers.

The second role I had was the Director of the Criminal Justice System which is more of a strategy role. It is law reform based, but it’s also operational strategy to a degree. It involved looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, all of its component parts, and examining reform to the big policy levers, things that affect demand on the system – bail sentencing, parole, diversion and the like, whether someone goes to court, whether they go to NCAT, whether they go to some kind of diversionary program. Then what’s happening in the court process, whether they’re getting community-based sentences or custodial sentences and what’s happening when they get either a community sentence or a custodial sentence, what the justice service is and what the outcomes they get, and what all that costs. Basically, putting it all together to try and get a system that gets better outcomes for less money. That’s been my last two years.

IT: What do you see to be the key areas of criminal law reform that need to be addressed in New South Wales?

AH: I’ll just give you one, which is one of the hardest, and that is Aboriginal overrepresentation in the justice system. The New South Wales Government is signed up to the closing the gap target, so it’s committed to really having a go at it. It is an extremely complicated problem but one that we have to address and we really need to make every effort to address. A lot of people say that justice is just the end of a whole bunch of other problems in other parts of society and government service delivery, and that is true to an extent, but nevertheless there is an awful lot of work that could be done in the way that Justice services are delivered that would have a very positive impact on the way in which Frst Nations people engage with the Justice system and the outcomes that they get when they interact with it, both as victims and offenders.

IT: Why the New South Wales Bar Association? Why leave where you were to come to New South Wales Bar Association?

AH: It’s a unique organisation. It does a lot of things that are different, and I’m at a point in my career where I wanted to do some things that were not just strategy and policy. It has a regulatory function, which is one of the most important things it does, if not the most important. It also has an education function which is part of the professional standards work which underpins the institution which is the Bar. And I think because I’ve come out of Government I particularly value civil society organisations or groups and appreciate their importance to the overall good functioning of the country and our system of government.

Although this is a controversial thing to say in a legal context, laws are just words. The commonly cited example is China which has the best looking Bill of Rights you’ve ever seen. It’s phenomenal. It doesn’t mean anything in practice. There are a whole bunch of structures that exist in our society which make it what it is which are not written down, and one of the really important ones is the civil society organisations – in particular a well-functioning legal profession that is able to both service the community and also advocate for and influence the way government services are delivered to ensure that fundamental rights are protected and the rule of law is upheld. The rule of law underpins everything. It underpins the economy, it underpins all service delivery. If you don’t have that, you have anarchy.

And of course I have a close personal relationship to the Bar: Zelie is a barrister. I almost became a barrister myself when I came back from Oxford. I have a lot of friends who are at the Bar. It’s an institution that’s close to my heart and I’m really excited to be a part of the next chapter.

IT: Looking into the future, what changes do you see for barristers over the next 10 to 20 years?

AH: A couple of things on that kind of timeframe. The first challenge for the Bar is to address diversity and inclusion, an issue which affects its business model and legitimacy as an organisation and a group. A failure to address diversity and inclusion will undermine the Bar as an institution and I can’t put it any more strongly than that. The Association has done a lot of work following the Dyson Heydon incident, and will be doing even more work, but it is really critical for that agenda to be thought of by all barristers as very important and something that we all need to address. You’ll see a lot of work come out of here on that. The Chief Justice and the President have made some very clear statements and there will be more to come soon. Sexual harassment is a big problem, as are all forms of bullying and harassment, but also thinking about it in terms of inclusion: how are we including people. Are women included? Are people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds included? People with disability? LGBTQIA+?

The second thing on that longer term horizon, which poses another existential issue, is the way the Bar adapts to the digitisation of justice services, because it’s going to happen. That will put a range of pressures on the business model as well, bearing on how solicitors and barristers relate to each other. On that longer term timeframe it’s something that everybody will have to adjust to and it will affect every barrister.

IT: What advice would you give to young people with a disability?

AH: First and foremost, dream big. You can build a system to overcome almost anything. Don’t limit your horizons too much when you’re thinking about what you want to do with your life.

Experiencing the world with a disability can be quite overwhelming at times. It was when I lost my sight. But you take the one victory in the sea of defeats and then you build on it, and you take the next one, and the one after that. As they accumulate you can achieve lots of things. I’ve always thought if I write a book about it I’d call it ‘The Accumulation of Small Victories.’

Don’t be too overwhelmed and don’t think that you can’t find a way to learn how to do whatever you want to do.

The second thing I would pass on is what Ron said to me: have a level of independence about and control over the things that affect you, which is really important to achieve what you want to achieve. The more you put your faith in other people when you’re building those systems, the more things can go wrong which can prevent you achieving what you wanted to achieve.

IT: And to what extent is it a good thing, a necessary thing, to work out how other people can help you?

AH: Oh definitely. Understanding your capabilities and how to fill the gaps where there are gaps is the critical part of building any systems. There is an obligation on society to assist people with a disability to do that. In Oxford I didn’t say ‘I’m going to go and figure out a system for me personally to go and get every single book I need’. I thought, ‘I need people to help me’ and since the help that’s there isn’t going to get the job done I need help of a different kind. And so I went and advocated to get some funding to do that, and my college gave me the funding to get the assistance.

IT: This is the Wellbeing edition of Bar News. What do you do to maintain your personal wellbeing?

AH: I switch the brain off with a bit of painting. But mostly I just hang out with my three boys, because although at times they’re challenging, overwhelmingly the most joy that I get in my life comes from being with Zelie and the boys. Daylight comes in second.

My first year at Law School was the year that changed me. That’s the year that I really lost my sight.