Geelong students, staff and community members were left a little more enlightened on Friday, following a delightful duology of lecture and luncheon featuring The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG.
The events – presented by the Deakin Law Students’ Society Geelong and held at the university’s Waterfront Campus – saw the former Justice of the High Court and champion of human rights deliver a powerful address to more than 70 intent young listeners, before joining a panel of law experts and advocates for a more conversational approach to social issues in Australia.
From the lowest level of the Deakin atrium, Justice Kirby – one of the most recognisable figures in the Australian legal community – chose to first speak with the day’s larger audience about his experiences outside the judiciary, specifically as chair for the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of North Korea.
Mr Kirby described the practical difficulties of approaching the investigation:
“We were faced with the challenge; how would we get the evidence relating to human rights abuses – allegations of which were seeping out of North Korea – when we weren’t allowed into the country? I thought that the best way to deal with a country so completely secretive was to be completely transparent,” he said.
“We had public hearings in Seoul, in Tokyo, in London — where there is a large number of refugees from North Korea – and in Washington and in Bangkok. We had no difficulty getting witnesses.”
However the underlying theme that coursed through the judge’s lecture was a pronounced decrial against nuclear weapons, and nuclear proliferation.
“I believe there are three great existential challenges that our world faces … But of the three, nuclear weapons is by far the greatest, he told D*scribe after the lecture.
“If we do nothing about them, the dangers for our species are enlarged and our chances of survival are critically diminished.”
Following the initial presentation came the Social Justice Luncheon sponsored by Geelong-based law firm Coulter Roache, where Mr Kirby was joined in discussion by Professor Dan Meagher, who specialises in constitutional law and human rights at Deakin University, and Lauren Hutson from Barwon Community Legal Services.
Together, the panel of three spent more than an hour addressing questions posed by the law society and the present audience, opining on contemporary topics that centred on the Australian legal system’s approach to human rights – ranging from queries about LGBTI in the community, to immigration issues, to the heated division over free speech and an implied right to political communication.
It was to Justice Kirby, though, who those in the room (and indeed those also on the panel) generally deferred.
“I don’t think that the answer to our problems with horrible views is to ban their expression in parliament. I know this because it was such a powerful moment when both sides stood up in the wholesale rejection of the awful things said by Senator Anning,” the judge said.
“As a whole, it is better to err on the side of free speech. Generally, people will condemn themselves from their own mouths.”
Purple cauliflower stood out from the selection of sweet and savoury snacks in support of ‘Wear it Purple Day’, as Deakin and other Universities across the country highlighted their commitment to fostering a safe and accepting environment for those in the LGBTIQ+ community.
While the guest speaker sported a plum tie, he remarked on his disappointment at seeing the coloured cauliflower so solitary in its hue.
“Next year, I want to see everything purple!” he told the room.
While Justice Kirby himself has been open about his homosexuality since the mid-1980s and is frequently listed with the most influential gay persons in Australia, he rallied his listeners to become socially active in areas outside of their own personal lives.
“You shouldn’t only be obsessed with your own issue; disabled persons should be concerned with more than just the rights of the disabled, and it’s the same with Aboriginal people and indigenous affairs, and LGBTI with gay rights – stand up for more than just what you are,” he urged.
As a Justice of the High Court from 1996 to 2009, Mr Kirby earned a reputation for being the voice of difference, often disagreeing with the majority his colleagues in rulings that would both create common law, and clarify matters of constitutionality among lawmakers.
Here, an unrivalled dissent rate of nearly 40% in 2004 won him his nickname as ‘The Great Dissenter’; both fans and detractors of Mr Kirby note a remarkable favour towards human rights in his decisions, with the Justice applying what his critics might harshly term a ‘judicial activism’ in his role adjudicating some of the most high-profile cases to appear before the court system.
“This court doesn’t have enough dissent,” Justice Kirby said at the luncheon, speaking of the current High Court of Australia.
“If there is no room for a dissension in a case, then it shouldn’t be in the High Court. The greatest thing about our system is that it has an in-built mechanism for change, and that is dissension. The British don’t have that.”
Students and staff commented on the significance of the visit from the retired judge, who was selected to be a National Living Treasure in 1997.
“He spoke in a way that made the issue not only accessible to us, but made us believe that we could have an impact as citizens, as well as law students and prospective lawyers,” said Alan Stein, a double-degree law student completing his final year at Deakin Waterfront.
“He had some flair, and he had some humour as well.”
Sam Johnson is a peer support transition officer at Deakin University who also attended the lecture. He talked to D*Scribe about how he received the speech.
“I think it was a really poignant address he gave, considering the audience being up-and-coming lawyers,” Mr Johnson said.
“I’m going to walk away thinking about it more, especially as a new father. I was really impressed about the way he spoke without any notes, yet with such fluency and clarity – that was great.”
Proceeds from ticket sales to the sold-out luncheon event were donated entirely towards the Give Where You Live Foundation, a Geelong-based not-for-profit organisation that funds a range of community programs.
DLSS Geelong President and event organiser Lauren Solomonson said that the luncheon had raised about $500.
Luncheon with a Living Legend: How an Impromptu Email (sent in pyjamas) brought a Rock Star to Deakin
Okay, so The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG may not actually be a world-famous guitar shredder (although in fairness, we hear he does perform a mean recitation of W.B. Yeats).
But, from the perspective of those within the Australian professional and academic legal communities, and those concerned with the advancement and protection of human rights and civil liberties, the former Justice of the High Court is a bona fide celebrity with a judicial resume and list of achievements longer than any sensible journalist would dare to print.
Just how he arrives to speak in Geelong – first from the floor of the Waterfront Atrium, and later from the sunlit height of the Western Beach Room – is a story of chance.
“We were planning a social justice-themed luncheon to be held in Trimester 2 and had been unable to secure any local speakers who worked in a social justice field,” says Lauren Solomonson, President of the Deakin Law Students’ Society and the woman responsible for booking the Justice.
“You’d be amazing how many Melbourne-based firms think Geelong is too far away to come for an event! I took some initiative on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on my sofa in my pyjamas, and emailed his website directly with the inquiry.”
While it is not at all unusual for Justice Kirby to speak with small groups at schools and universities, what happened next was a noteworthy stroke of luck, seeing as the judge has remained famously busy and has admitted to enjoying little-to-no rest since retiring from the bench in 2009.
“I received a personal reply from His Honour within 10 minutes!” tells Solomonson.
“His Honour was incredibly generous with his time, flying down to Avalon from Sydney just to give his lecture and attend the Social Justice Luncheon.
“He had always appealed to us a guest speaker due to his extensive legal career and dedication to encouraging students to pursue careers in the legal field; we were collectively excited when he confirmed his interest in attending,” says Solomonson.
Hearing it for the first time
To put it poetically, Justice Kirby orates with an almost lyrical quality.
He lectures without a script, expounding his expert opinions with an inherent gravitas that holds the audience in a grip, gluing students to their seats. I can’t imagine how many stifled coughs and sneezes there must be in the room; how many held-in farts.
“These things are not going to affect me; in ten years I won’t be here. In ten months I might not be here – in ten minutes I might not be here. But you in the audience; these things are going to determine your lives.”
If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him talk, seek it out, because it is a real treat. He has the tells of a truly practised public speaker, pacing the space and locking eyes with just about everybody. Kirby communicates with a measured cadence that seizes your breath at stages – and it’s as if he only releases you to punctuate a point. You can almost feel where every word should fall into place, like the notes in a piece of music.
To the uninitiated, it’s curious to suddenly find one’s self so suddenly attentive; to the would-be lawyers gathered here in the atrium, it must be totally electrifying.
“Now—where are my presents?” he asks a suddenly flustered event organiser. This abrupt pivot is a breakaway from his professional dignity, and it snaps the audience out of its spell, producing a good-natured tittering across the room after such heavy discussion. Kirby is always kind to his listeners, like a true raconteur.
Why so significant, son?
For the past two decades, no law student who was conscious could have missed learning about Kirby, who has a remarkable habit for popping up in nearly every law unit at one stage or another. However, His Honour is also an important figure for many Australians outside of the legal community. His work with HIV/AIDS support through the 1980s and public ‘outing’ in the 90s saw Kirby become increasingly vocal in the call for fair treatment, and progressively involved with large events like the Gay Games.
“(He) has been a huge advocate for the LGBTIQ+ community,” says Solomonson.
This doesn’t just apply to only those girt by sea; Kirby was Commissioner of the UNDP Global Commission of HIV and the Law in 2011-2012. He has striven to protect the rights of internationals in other ways, too – and there are many in North Korea who many never know the work he has done for them.
“I would say his most significant recent contribution outside of the law would be the report of the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK,” says Reid Hadaway, Treasurer of DLSS Geelong.
“(It) is still tabled in the UN Security Council, and is the basis for many sanctions designed to bring the regime to account.”
Ultimately, Kirby is a voice of both reason and action; a natural enemy of the narrow argument, and an inspiration to the young people who sit in his audience and dream of making a real difference.
Words from the Wise: collected quotes from the Social Justice Luncheon
The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG is every student journalist’s dream; the great man practically speaks in soundbites. Here are a few gems collected across the afternoon, for your enjoyment and enlightenment.
It’s amazing to me how a person who could be so hard on children – children – could make that decision (on Peter Dutton’s au pair gaffe).
Don’t forget that it’s not as if we have millions of people trying to come in on boat. The number is minuscule compared to boat arrivals in Europe.
Currently, we don’t promise that we will give refugee status; we merely promise that we will process.
Anybody who is willing to brave the seas – with the sharks, the storms, the waves, and the overwhelming uncertainty – is very determined to get to Australia
A lot of gay people think ‘how wonderful the vote (on same-sex marriage) was 60/40; what a victory’, but I don’t think it’s so wonderful. Who are these people – the 40 per cent – who believe that gays aren’t entitled to their basic civil rights?
Discrimination exists over the infinite attitudes of people who don’t like differences.
Trans are the minority of the minority – they do it tough.
The big thing I learned from the AIDS epidemic is how important it is to speak to people on the front line of issues; Deakin would benefit by hearing more from people in those shoes.
I can’t understand why a religion based on revolutionary ideas, like love and tolerance, would ask us to believe that two people who love each other should not be able to express that love under God.
On High Court
When I arrived at the High Court, on my first day, I was told by McHugh that there is one principle above all. My eyes opened in anticipation. McHugh said: ‘you’ve got to have four – only then it becomes the law of the land’. Getting that extra voice – that fourth – has so far eluded us.
…This is an example of a very good decision I made, in which I was – very unusually – the sole dissension.