Case closed for the people's lawyer

Michael Sergent with Greens MP John Kaye and Dianna Covell protesting TAFE cuts in Wollongong.

Michael Sergent with Greens MP John Kaye and Dianna Covell protesting TAFE cuts in Wollongong.

Michael Sergent has seen enough to allow himself a wry grin every now and then.

It came out on Thursday, the day before he retired, when he said the Port Kembla copper smelter could still be operating today if the court case challenging its approval was not stopped prematurely.

Mr Sergent, who retired on Friday after 28 years as a lawyer with Legal Aid, represented Port Kembla resident Helen Hamilton as she challenged the smelter's development consent in the Land and Environment Court in 1997.

He still smarts when remembering how the case was smothered the night before it started, when the Carr government passed special legislation validating the consent, regardless of any court outcomes.

But where some turn to anger, Mr Sergent keeps his calm. Speaking to the Mercury this week, Mr Sergent said he found an "irony" in the fact Ms Hamilton's case would not have stopped the smelter altogether, but required the operator, and the government, to revisit the development application and do it properly, with better environmental controls.

At Gallipoli Park before the smelter stack demolition last week. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

At Gallipoli Park before the smelter stack demolition last week. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

"We're very confident we would have won the legal challenge and the judge, we think, would have told the owners, the EPA and the state government, [to] go back and install more modern technology; your air emissions controls won't work," Mr Sergent said.

Instead of the smelter reopening with spluttering explosions and finally being forced to close again, modern pollution control technology could have made the smelter a success.

"Helen wasn't out to close it," he said. "She was out to make sure when it reopened it would operate [safely].

"The smelter probably could have operated a lot longer if the hearing had have gone ahead."

Heading up the civil law division of Legal Aid in Wollongong, Mr Sergent's job was to be a lawyer. But many of his successes came with victories outside the courts - what he called "legal campaigns" that involved legal action but were won on public pressure.

Addressing flood victims in 1998.

Addressing flood victims in 1998.

He is perhaps best known in Wollongong for leading the fight to get insurance companies to pay out policies after the 1998 floods.

Insurers refused to pay, saying homes were covered for storms but not floods.

While the fine print might have supported this claim, the residents had paid the premiums for years in good faith. After public meetings, lawyer Mark McDonald getting involved, the Mercury supporting the campaign, and marches, the insurers paid up - all except QBE.

Mr Sergent was also prominent in the Lakeline Estate saga from 2000, when retirees at Kanahooka found the owner of their land had mortgaged their portable homes right from under them. Mr Sergent classifies getting these mortgages voided as one of his most pleasing results.

At a public rally in 2005 over development at Sandon Point.

At a public rally in 2005 over development at Sandon Point.

He believes these campaigns gave people more confidence lawyers could be on their side - and he counts the copper smelter case, while lost, as a success.

"The Port Kembla community, the Wollongong community, saw that there were lawyers prepared to take on very large multinational companies, and also willing to work with the community.

"Sometimes the legal profession doesn't have a positive profile within the community, but I think the Port Kembla copper smelter case, and especially the Wollongong floods case, shows that lawyers can engage with the community and get some positive results."

And getting help from the media has often been part of it.

"The Mercury has been just wonderful during all of these campaigns," he said.

"You have to be very strategic. It's not just a matter of marching through the streets. You have to know who the major players are."

Mr Sergent tried politics in 2003, running for the Greens in the state seat of Keira. He did not win but describes the experience as "enjoyable". However, it is not something he is considering doing again - not surprising, given his discomfort at self-promotion.

A look at his history shows his upbringing, and his education, helped develop a dedication to helping others.

Mr Sergent was born in Brittany, the north-western tip of France, and his parents were in the Free France resistance movement during the war.

They moved to Australia in 1950 when Michael was six months old and settled in Maldon, where his father worked at the cement factory. Several years later, they moved down the coast.

"They drove an old bus down Bulli Pass, which was probably a bush track," Mr Sergent said.

"My dad told me about how the brakes failed as they went down the pass, so he had to hold the handbrake on, in this old bus. He never told my mother."

With money scarce, they stayed at the Corrimal camp ground for several years. Michael was brought up Catholic and schooled at Corrimal and Bellambi - "I majored in football and snooker". His parents volunteered for St Vincent de Paul while his father worked at the steelworks. While the church schooling helped teach him to help one's neighbour, he has since shunned the institution over its response to years of child abuse by clergy.

He finished school just as Australia got involved in the war in Vietnam and, as was the case with many young Aussie men, got conscripted into the army.

With a French passport, he won permission to do his national service in France. He could visit relatives and avoid the Vietnam War - or become a conscientious objector. It almost ended in tears as soon as he arrived - Mr Sergent reckons he almost ended up in jail after using the too-familiar greeting comment vas-tu, rather than the formal version, comment allez-vous, when introduced to the generals at camp at Versailles. Monocles popped, moustaches curled - "I almost ended up in the French Foreign Legion".

After a year Mr Sergent returned and presented for duty in Sydney, but was told the war was ending. Unable to win a place at a law school, he did a social welfare diploma and worked at St Vincent's Hospital as a welfare officer, helping the most needy.

It was there a nurse named Sue caught his eye. Now, 26 years of marriage later, their children - Louise, Kate and Peter - are adults.

Mr Sergent describes his wife as "the great influence on my life".

"She's been the leading light in my life since I met her," he said.

"I don't think I would have survived in the law without her advice and guidance."

Former Wollongong public defender, now district court judge, Andrew Haesler this week paid tribute to his former colleague's skill and selflessness.

Judge Haesler was Wollongong's public defender when Mr Sergent was at Legal Aid dealing with serious crime, before establishing the office's civil law division.

"Michael, in both criminal and his civil practice, had two primary focuses," Judge Haesler said.

"One was to do the best job possible for the ordinary people who were in trouble, and second, to [help] the area, the region.

"He didn't move to the big city ... he didn't do it as a stepping stone to become a judge, or become a senior Legal Aid lawyer, or make a fortune in private practice.

"Michael's sole commitment was to do a good job for the people of the town. And he's done it without ego.

"He just has a genuine feel for people in trouble. Every time someone bags a public servant, for working to rule, or not being polite ... you think of all the public servants like Michael who just dedicate their lives to public service."

As for retiring, Mr Sergent hopes to have more time for his family, welding, playing touch football and, hopefully, not feeling the pull of finding more work.

We'll see how that goes.

Related reading

How two women cleaned up Port Kembla

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