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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.