Michael Kirby

Carol Duncan - Australian broadcaster and journalist with the Hon Michael Kirby
The Hon Michael Kirby visits my studio

Why do I like the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG so much?  I’ve thought hard about this, and there are a whole host of reasons … his outspoken nature, his dissent, his passion for human rights, gay rights, support of arts, his warmth and humour … the funny thing is that perhaps so much of what I like about Michael Kirby is intangible.  I suspect he’s naughty, I always think that when I see him smile.

I was surprised in 2009 when he announced his retirement.  Judges have to retire at 70 and I don’t know what surprised me most – that Michael Kirby was nearing 70, or that he was actually leaving the court.  How could he?  In my mind, we needed him in our high court more than ever – a voice of reason accused of dissent and judicial activism.

It makes me sad that this amazing man didn’t feel that he could openly acknowledge his sexuality, and therefore his partner, for some 30 years.  But then again, why should he have to?  I look forward to the day when our sexuality, our gender, our skin or hair colour, are truly insignificant to the people we are and the deeds we commit.  It has been suggested that women have always liked Michael Kirby because they, too, have experienced discrimination.  Maybe.  I like him because I always felt that he was on my side.  That he would stand up for me, for my kids, for all of us and defend our human rights.  We take so much for granted.  I suspect we’re mostly unaware of the freedoms and liberties we have and how easily they could be taken away from us.  I think of Sarajevo, one of the world’s great old cities, in 1984 celebrated as the home of the Winter Olympics but just a few years later the centre of a war and the longest siege in military history.  Tens of thousands of people were killed.  Civilisation torn apart.  Not that Sarajevo was new to conflict … sadly just about everybody has had a crack at it at some point in history.  My point remains.

Michael Kirby

Anyway.  I was thrilled to bits to have the chance to speak with Michael Kirby.  Just a few weeks shy of 20 years on air I think perhaps this will be one of my personal highlights.  I wish I’d had a few hours to interrogate him, rather than just 20 or so minutes.   So what did we talk about?  Lots of stuff.

Like leadership.  What makes a good leader?  “I’m a little bit suspicious of the leader principle, after all Hitler built his whole future on the fact that he was the fuhrer.  We’ve got to be a bit sceptical of our leaders and in Australia we tend to be, but some people do stand out because of their intellect, their hard work, their energy, their imagination, their sense of empathy with other human beings, their concern for the disadvantaged, the underprivileged.”  How do we find the best leaders?  “I think we discover people on our journey, but fortunately some people will put themselves forward for public life.  I never discourage that, I think it’s important we get people who’ll take the burdens of public life … and there are burdens, all those boring BBQs you have to go to, and tedious committee meetings … but let’s be frank, some of their treatment from the media, some of the difficult intrusions into their privacy … all of that makes it quite a hard thing to be in public life in Australia but fortunately there’s never a problem getting people to come forward and most of them make their contribution then move on and do other things.”

Like secularism.  Michael Kirby spoke at TEDx in Sydney a few weeks ago and included many issues, including secularism, “The god-botherers are at the door again and we must stand up for the secular state, the separation of church and state.  My proposition is that this is a dangerous time.”  Why is this a dangerous time?  “We have to be careful that we don’t introduce too much religion, it’s a private matter, a personal matter.  One of the best things we inherited from the British institutions was to keep religion out of politics.  In a sense they came to that in England after Cromwell because they’d had the Protestants fighting the Catholics and in the end they came to the conclusion that the state should be secular, it should be there for everyone, that religion was personal and it didn’t intrude into politics.  When I was young it was very rare for politicians to talk about their religion, it was personal business.  Nowadays they’re all being interviewed outside churches and proclaiming their religion and I have to say I’m very cautious about this.  It’s an un-Australian activity and whilst I wouldn’t have set up the Un-Australian Activity Committee to investigate it, I think they should just mind their own business and keep it out of their public discourse.  I myself have a faith but I don’t go parading it.”

Like human rights.  More from TEDx on gay marriage, “Last week in this state (NSW) legislation was introduced for the registration of civil relationships and I looked through the reports of the politicians of this state who solemnly said ‘this must not be allowed, this endangers and damages the institution of marriage’ and people who might, with a change of government, be in office and with responsibility for law came forward and said ‘this is something we just cannot have’.  A relationships register! We’re not talking about marriage with confetti, we’re talking about a register – like registering your DOG!  That’s what it is.  It’s a second-class status of citizenship!  Not marriage. Not even civil partnership and civil union, that’s been banned by the federal government.”   Whether it’s gay rights, asylum seekers, refugees … are Australians more fearful than we used to be?  And if so, what are we afraid of?  “I think it’s a question of the polls in key marginals (seats), I think that’s how we’re run now, I think that’s the sad reality.  I mean if Dr Evatt had taken the view in the Communist party dissolution legislation in the 1950s that he was going to watch every opinion poll he would never have fought that legislation in the referendum and won it, and we’d have probably banned the communist party and what else might we have banned.  In those days the political leaders took courageous steps of principle on both sides of politics, but these days it’s all a matter of looking at the ‘marginals’ and how in the ‘marginals’ they’re anxious about asylum seekers or boat people or so on.  It is true that in Australia we have a trickle compared to Europe where they just come in their cars in huge numbers, but we have just this trickle but people seem to get very anxious about even though in all truth Australia has been populated by people who came in boats.  Most of them seeking if not asylum, then at least to improve their lives and the lives of their children.  Maybe we need to get back to finding out what the people of Australia really think about these things and I would be surprised if they weren’t more generous and more understanding and more kind than some of our political leaders on both sides.”

Freedom and common sense.  Australians see ourselves as a people of common sense and pragmatism.  Do we take it for granted?  How easy is it for us to forget the lessons of history, could conflict happen here, could we become an unlucky country?  “Of course it could happen here, it happened in Germany, one of the most civilised countries in the world and yet in the space of a decade or so they were turned round to a really nasty type of society that hated all types of minorities and that was whipped up into a fury about the Jewish minority, only 2 or 3%, so if it could happen in Germany it could certainly happen here.  I don’t think it’s likely, I think what is more likely to happen is the marginal seats will be polled, national newspapers will scream that we’ve got to be very careful about the asylum seekers and that will push the politicians, who are always nervous, into very unkind policies which I think are not truly a reflection of the overall opinion of the Australian people.”

Support of mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges.  “The judiciary is a branch of government and you’ve got to move people on, they can’t be there for too long.  They have to play their part, have their moment in the sun, do their job and then get on and do other things, there are plenty of other things to do!  Whilst no doubt I could have gone until I was 90 or 95 – my father is still driving at 94 – I could well have gone on for a long while but you’ve got to have a principle and the principle is that people in public office should not be there for too long because you need generational change, you’ve got to get people who have new ideas, that’s how government develops and approach problems in new ways otherwise you get the old fogeys who are likely to do the same old thing.  Most people get more conservative as they get older, I’m getting more radical!”

Monarchy.  “It’s not something I lie there at night tossing and turning and worrying too much about because to be completely candid I don’t think anything is going to happen during the reign of the Queen. After that, things may be a bit different.  I was a boy of 12 when the Queen came to the throne, she’s always done her duty, she’s been a symbol of duty, and I believe in doing your duty, trying to serve, trying to do the right thing and she’s a long way away, she comes when she’s invited, she doesn’t come too often, we don’t have the ‘first lady and the first gentleman’ and the stretch limo, we just have this unusual system we inherited and it seems to work pretty well.”

What does he worry about.  “I worry about unkindness.  About unkindness to minorities and the lack of legal armoury, legal equipment that can help the parliament and the courts come to to the right decision in issues of minority rights.  We’re pretty good with our democracy and looking after the majority, but sometimes we tend to be less kind to aboriginals, to refugees, to people of colour, to minority religions, to sexual minorities, to women, and getting the machinery to ensure the courts and parliament can protect the minorities is something I don’t think we’ve got quite right yet.”

People naming their kids ‘Kirby’.  You need to listen to my interview to get that bit.

My impressions?  Wow.  Smart, funny, warm … wonderful.  I am quite smitten.  I hope my kids grow up to think and to care and to love just a little bit like Michael Kirby does.

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Guerilla learning – or, "Look whose kid just acquired knowledge!"


National Library – Canberra

A wise man I know often reminds me, “Experiences matter, not things.”  This is why we sold our far-too-small former home 50 metres from the edge of the lake to move up the hill onto a bush acreage where we have planted apples, oranges, plums, mandarins, nuts, vegetables, berries … we have dogs and a tree swing and a trampoline and pool.  We could have made the far-too-small home big enough by putting another floor on, but there still would have been hardly any yard for the boys to be boys in, and I wasn’t at all sure that later in life they’d thank us for the lake view more than for the awesome huge bush backyard full of wonderful boyness that is this current home.  My wise friend, though, has never seen the true devastation that is often wrought in our home by The Ninja aged seven, and his brother The Bird, aged 8.  At least it’s easier to blame them than admit my domestic godlessness.  They are very smart and funny little boys who provide me with no end of entertainment, love, cuddles, kisses, fights and farts.  Not necessarily in that order. The house is a mess, constantly, because we believe in Doing Things and Going Places.

My father lived in Canberra for about 25 years and it is a city that I have great affection for.  I love its bright sun, its frosty winters, its dry summers.  I love its lake and bushland and rivers.  I even love its roundabouts!  But after my father retired and migrated north we hadn’t returned to Canberra although The Bird assures me he can remember his visit when he was about six months old.  I have longed to go back to Canberra, but we’d been busy visiting other places.
The Spitter Spout
On a recent long weekend, we took off down the Hume Highway for a frantic visit to everything fabulous in the ACT: Questacon, Tidbinbilla, Mt Stromlo, Black Mountain Tower, the Australian War Memorial.  And I wish we hadn’t put it off so long.  No-one threw up in the car, no-one had a tantrum (in the sense of no-one except their tired and emotional mother after 5 hours of ‘I’m bored’ in the car … we now have a portable DVD player).  The Ninja was thrilled to find a frosty stick and a frosty leaf one morning when we sat outside in the sun for breakfast.  The Bird amazed us all by dropping from the Free Fall thing in Questacon – I was so proud of him, if ever there was a non-risk-taker, it would be my Bird.  It is usually his thrill-seeking brother who is first up for the crazy. We went in the earthquake house and bought ridiculously expensive packets of freeze-dried icecream!
Tidbinbilla tracking station
We talked about things.  A lot of things.  About how Walter Burley Griffin designed the city so that Australia could have a federal capital somewhere other than Sydney or Melbourne – and about what a brilliant architect Walter’s wife Marion was, too.  We talked about the Old Parliament House and how it became to small to hold all our politicians so the new Parliament House was built into a hill.  We talked about the terrible bushfires in 2003 and how 70% of the ACT burned, that over 500 homes were destroyed and four people died.  We drove up to Mt Stromlo where the burnt-out remains of some of the observatory domes still stand like ancient ruins.  We talked about how Pa (their grandfather) spent two nights on his roof with a hose and that after the fires he decided to leave Canberra.  We talked about the Brindabella mountains and how they become the Snowy Mountains.
Burnt out observatory - Mt Stromlo
Ruined observatory – Mt Stromlo
We showed them the National Library, the High Court, the National Gallery and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, we spent hours wandering through the Australian War Memorial, trying to explain to them the terrible facts of war, and death, and fear, and hope.  We looked at the dioramas, unchanged since my first visit as a child, stood in awe in front of the painting of the ghosts at Menin Gate at midnight, walked underneath G for George – the famous Lancaster bomber.  We sat together and watched the amazing audiovisual presentations about the wars. We held hands quietly at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and we walked the two long cloisters of the Roll of Honour and talked about how so many of the names belonged to men who were not much more than boys when they died.  We placed a poppy for two ladies who were there to remember their loved one.  His name was up high on the wall, so The Bird climbed on his father’s shoulders and reached up to place the poppy for them:  Amos, C.  25.4.1915  I looked him up when we got home.  His name was Carl Amos, 1st Battalion, and he was just 23 and he didn’t last a day.  I think The Ninja and The Bird will see Anzac Day a little differently in the future.  They mentioned how sad his mum must have been.
Placing a poppy in the Roll of Honour
Placing a poppy in the Roll of Honour
But, there was still fun to be had.  Later that afternoon we went to sit by the lake and watch the ‘spitter spout’ – my family’s pet name for the Captain Cook Memorial Jet.  And The Bird said to The Ninja, “Let’s play Simpson and his donkey.  I’ll be Simpson, you be the donkey.”
Simpson and his donkey
I haven’t had the heart yet to tell him that only the donkey survived the war.
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Why I Love My Job #2

Pasha Bulker – Nobby’s Beach 2007

Here’s another reason I love my job.  It is the third anniversary of the June 2007 long weekend storm, a tempest that left us with an 80,000 tonne coal carrier on one of Newcastle’s main beaches.  The coast around the city beaches is littered with shipwrecks, the Sygna – half of which remains on Stockton beach after a similar storm in 1974.  The Adolphe, wrecked on the Oyster Bank in 1904.  The Cawarra in 1866, also wrecked on the Oyster Bank.  62 people died, only one survived.  The Susan Gilmour in 1884 – the beach is now named after the ship.  There’s a great list online here.

At the ABC we went into three days on continuous emergency broadcasting, providing updates on road closures, accidents, emergency information from the SES and utilities … it was quite an amazing time and I’m glad I was a part of it.  The sense of community, the participation of our community, was incredible.  From distressed people calling us for help or advice, to others calling in to offer help or information.

On the Friday afternoon, I received this call from Jim in Maryland – and it chilled my heart.  A child on his way home from school, had been washed away:

Storm – Jim @ Maryland re swept away

I’d already received a call from the NSW Department of Education to tell us that ALL schools in ALL local government areas in our region were being closed and evacuated.  ALL children were being sent home, or were to be collected.  I will be forever grateful to the anonymous person who rang the radio station with a message telling me that my own children were safe.  I don’t know who you are, but thank you.

That young boy was Alex, and in a weekend in which there were nine tragic deaths, Alex was lucky.  His story had a happy ending and I got to speak with both Alex’s mother, Kirra, and one of his rescuers, Mark:

kirra bishop & mark tucker

Funnily enough, it was a privilege to be able to do my job over those three days.  Like many others, we had no electricity at our home for a few days, but our gas supply wasn’t cut so we were warm, we could cook and heat water.  My sons still get a little antsy whenever we have storms – not surprising given they listened to their mother talk about doom and gloom and pretty scary stuff on the radio for three days straight – but they’re resilient little beings and I think are proud of their mum – particularly when she was thanked at school assembly for the work she did in helping keep people safe!

There is also a Walkley Award that goes with this story – but it seems to me that there are plenty of other journalists who deserve a Walkley ahead of me.  I think I have a photo of it somewhere …

The media posse at Nobby's Beach 2007
The media posse at Nobby’s Beach 2007
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Authenticity – Fighter Pilot & International Air Race Competitor – Matt Hall

Matt Hall – Fighter Pilot

Following your passions.  I suspect we spend a lot of time paying lip-service to that adage.  When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?  Most of us probably changed our minds at least a dozen times … a vet, a nurse, a singer, a painter, a writer.  As we get older, the reality of life tends to dawn hard – there are bills to be paid, a car to be bought, maybe some travel, aspirations and dreams to be funded.  Somehow.  And then there are the expectations of others.  Parents.  Teachers.  Society.  All of them wanting the ‘best’ for us, but often seeing the ‘best’ as meaning financial gain and financial security above all.  So what happens to the things in your life that you simply love – to paint, to draw, to write or compose, to create, to dream, to run as fast as you can.  Maybe faster than anyone else!  One of the most common questions I ask my radio guests is, “How did you find the courage, the stamina, to follow your dreams?  To chase your passion and to aspire to not live a beige life?”  Mind you, if painting is your thing, you might be quite fond of beige.

It’s June 2010.  I guess I’d now consider myself a proud Novocastrian, although ‘officially’ I have another three years of residency to qualify.  Matt Hall is a real Hunter Valley-born Novocastrian who most Australians perhaps came to know through the 2007 television series “Real Top Guns” – a documentary about Australia’s fighter pilots.  I’ve interviewed Matt a number of times over the last couple of years as he has begun chasing a different dream.  Matt Hall is a third generation pilot.  His grandfather was a pilot who flew during WWII.  Matt himself took his first flight at the tender age of two with his father.  It was obvious to Matt that flying was his passion, his dream, his muse.  A career with the RAAF beckoned, during which time Matt became a Fighter Pilot and Elite Fighter Pilot (Top Gun) Instructor, he served with both the RAAF and with the USAF on exchange and was decorated for service in combat by both Australia and the USA.

But for many years, Matt also enjoyed flying as a sport pursuing both competition and display aerobatics, ultimately leading him to being offered to take part in a workshop for Red Bull International Air Race pilots.  In 2008, Matt Hall became the first Australian to be awarded the Red Bull Air Race Super Licence, and finally to be selected to compete.

Flying.  Racing.  Aerobatics.  All sounds rather expensive, doesn’t it.  So here’s the question, just how did he turn his RAAF Fighter Pilot career into that of a professional athlete?  How do you make the decision to throw in an obviously very successful and secure  job with the defence force, and start fending for yourself while pursuing a new dream?   “That is actually quite a challenge believe it or not, there’s a lot to be said about doing what you love and chasing your passion, making a career of your passion, but that also has the ability to sap the enjoyment out of your passion because your livelihood relies upon it.  It is quite a delicate balance because you have to make sure that something that was a hobby and that you wanted to spend all of your time doing, all of a sudden when  it really does take all your time to do it – that it doesn’t lose all of the value of where it started in your life.  The only way to do that is slap yourself in the face, take a step back, and take the wholistic view that ‘you know what?  I’m one of the most privileged people in the world in that I can take my hobby and profession and travel the world combining both of those things’.  Otherwise I can find myself looking through a microscope at all the little individual bits and pieces and that can seem overwhelming and make you feel like throwing your arms in the air and saying ‘it’s not worth it’ because of all the stress and effort you go through.

Matt Hall – Windsor, Ontario, 2010

How hard is it to keep the love of what he does and not throw it in?  “It does take effort.  My wife and I talk about it quite a bit, I also have a sports psychologist and that’s one of the aspects we always work with.  I’m effectively a professional athlete now, and I think nearly every professional athlete in the world goes through this cycle where if you’re not enjoying it, you’re not loving it, your performance drops off.  The best athletes in the world love their sport and have a great time when they’re competing.   When you get in a rut in any sport, you aren’t actually enjoying your sport anymore.   They’re trying too hard, worrying about the dollars, where their future is going rather than instead of, ‘You know what? This is fantastic!’  We’re earning enough money to live and having a great life so let’s just enjoy it as it happens.”

Is that the key?  Enough to live?  “That is the key.  If you treated it like a get-rich-quick retire-in-two-years scheme, you wouldn’t enjoy it because there’s so much turnover of money in this sport, any money that comes in via sponsorship or race fees goes straight back out and if one of your goals was about becoming rich quick, you’d become depressed pretty quickly and wouldn’t do it.  So it really has to be about life, how you’re experiencing life and the moment, enjoy the journey and not the destination.  I think that’s the key to most of life – it’s great to set goals, it’s a necessary thing, but you don’t want to spend your life wishing you were already AT the goal – you want to actually enjoy the journey.”

This is a theory expanded upon in Arun Abey’s book, “How Much Is Enough: Money, Time, Happiness: A Practical Guide to Making the Right Choices”.  How much is enough is perhaps the question we never really ask ourselves as we’re rushing from one pay packet to the other, trying to juggle and make ends meet.  What truly IS enough?  Perhaps, again, this stems back to our childhood dreams and aspirations, the things we REALLY wanted to be or do when we grew up.  Arun Abey was the co-founder of ipac securities, a very successful financial planning business.  I suspect the success of ipac stems from the founder’s personal principles around happiness and wellbeing – that a new car might make you happy for a week, but wonderful experiences shared with loved ones will last a lifetime.  A quote of Abey’s that I’m very fond of is about his own parents, “My parents gave me unconditional love and never expressed any ambition for me in terms of profession, as long as I didn’t do anything bad.  That allowed me to explore because I knew I would have the support of the significant people in my life.  Parents are the biggest obstacles to people living authentic lives, especially in Asia, where children are expected to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, or, at the very least, accountants.  So people are living their parents’ dream, but so many parents aren’t aware of it.”  ipac was ultimately sold to AXA Asia Pacific, but Abey remains as ipac’s Executive Chairman – because he loves it.  Passion.  Dream.  Authenticity.  Success.

Matt Hall – Red Bull Air Race – Abu Dhabi

So if we start with our children, how do we combat this current ‘cult of celebrity’?  Matt Hall is living his personal dream of flying, but how does he share that amazing journey of his,the pursuit of passion, with children and young people?  Does he see himself as a role model?  “Yes, I do, I often speak to kids at school and at the races.  One of my personal goals was to find a valid reason to do it (race) because when I was in Defence I had a very clear direction and reason for what I was doing, to then become an athlete I had to look at myself and ask, ‘How am I improving the world?’, because that’s important to me, and I realised that I can now do that by motivating people to chase their dreams.  So I do a lot of speaking in my spare time, especially to young people, about the fact that I’m no-one special, I didn’t come from a wealthy background nor have I been chasing wealth, I’ve just been having a go at chasing my own dreams and not being scared of failure.  As long as I had some sort of backup plan in place that didn’t leave me in the lurch, but set a reasonable structure of a plan in front of me – have a goal – aim for the stars and you might make the moon!  That’s what I’ve done most of my life.  You make your own luck.  That’s what I try to get through to the kids, do it for life, not for material gain.”

What about taking risks?  I’m a pussy.  I’m a lily-livered, card-carrying coward.  Well, at least when it comes to physical safety.  What is Matt Hall’s limit, where does he draw the line in pursuit of his own passion and the possible impact of injury to himself, or of tragedy for those who love him?  As a parent, do you have the right to take big risks?  And how do you actually determine how big the risk is?  “When I first started racing, I said to my wife that I never wanted to scare her.  That’s the baseline.  The good thing about racing is that I’m in control of most of the risk I’m exposed to.  Every aspect of life has risk that you can’t control, you could get hit by a runaway bus, but with the aircraft – it is under my control, I control 99% of that.  I will never push hard enough to scare my wife.  She’s my test.  Every time I go flying, I ask her how she was with it.  People think I’m an adrenaline junkie, but I’m actually quite a thoughtful and calculated person, I like being in control and I do feel in control in the race.  Base-jumping is not for me!”

But what about the ‘warrior psychology’ – how do you make the move from defence and aggression in the air – and Matt has seen active combat in his time as an RAAF and USAF Fighter Pilot – to the ‘achievement’ psychology required for success as a professional athlete?  “There IS a warrior mindset, and I think I do possess that, but you need to be aware of what drives that warrior mindset.  When I was in the defence force, I felt that I was a protector – that’s quite a powerful motivator for that job.  So, yes, I had to figure out how my brain was structured so I could use that passion and aggression for success, and rather than taking a hostile or defensive or offensive posture to feed that mentality, it became more about internal satisfaction and seeing the enjoyment of others.”

And what I personally learned from Matt Hall?  I would fly with him.  It is a great pleasure to know you, Matt!  So – are YOU living authentically?  Living your dream?  Pursuing your passion?

Matt Hall – Red Bull Air Race – Budapest, Hungary, 2009

You can listen to my ABC Local Radio interview with Matt Hall here:

Carol Duncan & Matt Hall June 2010 ABC Radio Newcastle

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