Australia’s longest serving judge Michael Kirby shared the stage with authorised biographer Daryl Dellora and chair Mick O’Reagan, ABC Radio National’s homepage editor. Kirby’s thoughtful and compassionate comments and humorous anecdotes of his personal life, and his experiences as a High Court judge were entertaining and thought provoking.
Kirby set the tone early by taking the mickey out of himself when plugging his own book A Private Life: Fragments, Memories and Friends and Dellora’s Michael Kirby: Law, Love and Life, holding the books up and saying “I would hate to be so vulgar as to advertise my books”.
O’Regan described Kirby as a man with a great passion for family, his long-term partner Johan van Vloten and an unrelenting courage to stand up for what he believes to be right and just. Kirby was quick to point out that he has his faults, joking that one day he sat down with van Vloten to list them and van Vloten looked across at Kirby’s notepad and said, “that pad’s not big enough”.
While the conversation moved effortlessly between his early years when he met van Vloten, to his rise in the High Court, it soon became apparent that Kirby’s message today is about love. Referring to Law, Love and Life Kirby said that the title should be reversed as life precedes all, it is the genesis of our being, then comes love, it gives our lives meaning while developing and enriching us and lastly is the law, “down there”.
Kirby spoke warmly of his family admitting that he has been surrounded by love all his life and, “anyone who denies another love is not a nice person”. This was in spite of the difficulties he encountered when coming out as a homosexual both publicly and personally. Dellora’s book contains extracts from letters between Kirby and his father written in the ’60s that encouraged him to go to the top doctors on Harley Street to get himself fixed, making his plea, “as a loving father”. When his mother read the letters she wrote back, “I love you, I love you, I love you”.
Kirby encouraged the audience to be grateful for the love in their lives, that if we find someone who is kind, supportive and honest we are a lucky human, whether we are straight or gay. He said it doesn’t matter if we have a mother who loves us and another mother, or a dad and another dad, the important ingredient is love and any child that is loved is a lucky child.
He talked about the fear campaign in the media’s coverage of refugees pointing out that Australians shouldn’t be swayed by fear. He drew attention to the fact that Australia has a very small number of refugees, currently around five thousand, which is substantially less than other countries. What he would like to see is a process where their applications can be processed more quickly so people know where they stand asserting, “we shouldn’t be so unkind to these people”.
Kirby’s respect for life is not limited to human beings but extends to animals. He is encouraged to see how many young people attending university are campaigning for Animal Law, that they are saying our society is cruel to animals and, “we have corporatised the killing”. Kirby’s own view is we should be treating animals as sentient beings and extending to them love and care.
When writing a biography, Dellora said he looks for something others have overlooked and saw that Kirby is one of the only people willing to speak out about love.
Kirby, a man who has devoted his life to human rights and the law and continues to serve on international bodies remains genuinely conscious of his shortcomings. He spoke highly of his partner van Vloten and his capacity, “to give and give at all times”, against which he could only describe himself as a selfish man.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said, “I should be down mowing the lawns.”
Humble words from Australia’s champion of love.
Margo Laidley-Scott is a media student at Southern Cross University.