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Hail to the tribunes of the people!

This is a transcript of the speech delivered by The Hon. Michael Kirby AM CMG at a reunion of the 1960s SRC on 16 July 2019

Photo of 1960s SRC

This is a transcript of the speech delivered by The Hon. Michael Kirby AM CMG at a reunion of the 1960s SRC on 16 July 2019. Kirby served as president of the SRC in 1962, president of the University of Sydney Union in 1964 and as a fellow of the University Senate between 1965 and 1969. He is an Honorary Life Member of the National Union of Students’ predecessor, the National Union of Australian University Students, first established in the 1930s.

A LITTLE DETECTIVE WORK

It is very good of you young people to invite me to your reunion. At university, I was so much older and more mature than you. However, I used to attend faithfully the SRC meetings over which Jim Spigelman and Alan Cameron presided in order to deliver my reports on the activities of the SU Senate.

When I was President of the SRC in 1962, and again in 1963 after Bob McDonald went off to be the first full-time president of NUAUS, I struggled valiantly to secure a report from the then Student Senator, Roddy Meagher. He treated me and the SRC with disdain and declined to give a report. He was not a delegate of the SRC, he said. So we could go jump. I promised the students that, if they elected me to the casual vacancy caused by the departure of the great Peter Wilenski to Oxford, I would be different. I would give regular reports to their representatives. What I promised, I delivered. You should have been ever grateful for that.

However, gratitude is a very temporary emotion. Though you have had earlier reunions, you failed to invite me to them. What could I have possibly have done to deserve such ingratitude, I asked myself? So to provide the answer, I did a little detective work. It is possible now that past volumes of Honi Soit are available online. Accordingly, I asked myself what we were doing exactly 50 years ago that could explain such disrespect to a venerable and faithful servant of years gone by.

My search took me to an editorial in Honi Soit in July 1969. It was titled “Tribunes of the People”. Lo and behold, all was revealed. A deep animosity was disclosed. It is as well that I remind you of it. Here is what the editorialist wrote:

“In the current election season, the most important election has been overlooked. It is the election for student senatorship (sic). Most students have no doubt been a little bored with the current ballyhoo over the SRC elections… Elections for a student government without power are bound to be farcical.

The Senate is where the power within the University is. The retiring student senator, Michael Kirby was almost as oblivious of student feeling as the Senate itself. A gradualist regarding Senate reform, Kirby was an active representative for students in matters like examination appeals. However, Kirby’s reports to SRC meetings were usually flippant and superficial. Besides, SRC representatives held Kirby in too much awe and tended to regard him as their master rather than their servant. Besides, there was always friction when the aloof Kirby was confronted with a down to earth student radical demanding to know why little was being done, apparently, to reform the Senate. The next student senator will have to be a diplomat not only among the Senators but also among his fellow students.

Of the candidates standing, Alan Cameron and Jim Spigelman appear to be the favourites. If only because they have had direct dealings with the Senate during their terms as President of the SRC. The question of the common electoral role (sic) and greater student representation on the Senate are the two issues that should concern whoever is elected. A close scrutiny should be kept [on him] to ensure that he does not use his position for personal aggrandisement. It is important that students VOTE in the election of Student Senator, and that when elected [he] keeps a close watch on student demands.”

I wondered who this true tribune of the people who, with was stirring phrases wrote this editorial. I discovered his name appended to the article. Let him hold his head in eternal shame at this reunion. It was Bob Nield. But apparently his poison pen had its effect. I was banished from your memory. I became the Lavrentiy Beria of the SRC politburo. I disappeared without trace.

DIGGING FURTHER

However, it was not enough for me to discover the sources of the words that had deprived me of your company in recent reunions. I also researched the candidates who were standing in the pointless ambition to fill the very large shoes that I was leaving by departing from the office of Student Senator. They were Terry Metherell BA, Murray Sime BA LLB, Alan Cameron BA and Jim Spigelman BA. So I looked to see what each of these candidates had promised to the students that I had not delivered. You alone will know whether they were delivered.

Terry Metherell declared:

“Everyone knows Spigs. But how can dear Spigs top Law III, fulfil his duties at the local state executive [of the ALP]… and do the job of undergraduate representative on the Senate for 2 years? Ask yourself what Spigelman has achieved as SRC President… Vote 1 Metherell; 2 Sime.”

Who was Murray Sime, already a barrister? The vitriol on his pen was even more stinging than Bob Nield’s:

“Unfortunately, in my view, the retiring Student Senator, Mr Michael Kirby, failed to use his position to obtain any worthwhile reforms. His stated policy was “working behind the scenes”… Although he did this for four years… it was fruitless. He has been swallowed up by the Senate. He is indistinguishable from any members of that cosy club. If you want a student senator in the Kirby style, don’t vote for me… Vote for Spigelman or Cameron who have similar backgrounds to Kirby.”

So what did Alan Cameron BA, the then current President 50 years ago and originator by troubled conscience of the invitation to me to this reunion say? His stirring electoral speech is astonishing for its subtlety:

“Although I may be called the right-wing candidate, such a title would only be relative and is probably inaccurate [sic] that I would vote for Gorton in December is inconceivable.”

Accordingly, let us look at the policy speech of the grossly overworked Jim Spigelman. He said:

“At the moment the Student Senator reports back to the SRC meetings in camera whereas he should make his information on key issues to general meetings of the student body or articles for Honi. The keynote of the SRC activities this year has been innovation. The present Student Senator, Mike Kirby (sic) is a well-known ALP partisan and this did not affect his relations with the Senate.”

I have never in my life been called “Mike”. It shocks me to hear this disrespect. I am mortified to see my fleeting acquaintance with the Double Bay branch of the ALP involving one meeting, which was deemed enough, to amount to a supposed partisanship. To call me a right-wing officeholder would “only be relative and possibly inaccurate”.

Others of you were famous during the year of 1969. Andrew Podger urged tax saving for students and worked tirelessly on bus concession passes for them. Several of you contributed horrifying disclosures about a “sex cell on campus”. Jim Spigelman criticised the police for provoking violence against students on campus. For this he got adulation. The editor was even moved to write a story “Spigelman receives more praise, my God it just keeps coming”. This was in response to a letter of praise from one David Mendelson, probably a relative. In short, it was business as usual at Honi Soit and the SRC 50 years ago.

A BIT CHILDISH, HE SAYS

But at that time, when I was performing so inadequately my task as Student Senator, my life had at its core a deep dark secret. This was my sexuality. Criminal law and social mores forbade me to mention it. Aboriginal, Asian students, Vietnam and many other topics were on the agenda. But sexuality, never.

Just the same, I was rather proud of, and affectionate about, my association with you, although this was obviously not reciprocated if Bob Nield is correct. And so it was, when I met my partner, Johan van Vloten, on 11 February 1969, I brought him along to your SRC meeting. I delivered my Senate report – substantive and flippant at once. I answered your questions. I puffed up my chest and walked out into the cool air of the Quadrangle. I turned to Johan and asked him what he thought of it. His response was typical of his Netherlands origins – direct and honest. “It’s a bit childish, isn’t it? They are like school children. What are you doing, at nearly 30, hanging around with these children?” It was a telling comment. It led to my immediate but long delayed retirement as Student Senator. I had found a new life. I moved on to other things. To my profession at the Bar. And to international work. No more unwelcome reports to the Senate or the SRC.

Perhaps someone caught a glimpse of a handsome young Netherlands man who was with me that night. But if so, we hurried away so that no awkward questions would be asked. Soon after we went to a restaurant in Rose Bay. Jim Spigelman was there with his wife Alice. The blood drained from my face as I saw him. Jim was urbane as always. But I was well trained to be ashamed of myself.

This was my real life when you were enjoying yourself in the SRC. My engagement with you was my excuse to distract my mind from the loneliness. Isolation was partly abated. So long as it was kept secret.

I congratulate all of us for contributing to improvements in Australian society since those far off days. Some slight improvements for Aboriginal Australians. An end to ‘White Australia’, unless you happen to be a refugee applicant bound for detention offshore. More equality for women but still and excess of bullying and harassment. More equality for gays. But still extra hurdles and obstacles before they can be trusted with marriage. I will return tonight, as I did at that last meeting when I reported to you, to my partner, now spouse, Johan. Still together. Now married with golden rings to prove it. And still facing inequalities in our country and our world. We have all done a little to improve Australia. Perhaps we have not done enough. But there are years ahead and many wrongs still to be righted before we turn off the lights.

Thank you for honouring me and Johan on our marriage. Thank you for honouring us on our respective 80th birthdays. Thank you for remembering the days of youth when we realised, at last that with all our privileges, came obligations to make Australia and the world a better place.

I thank Alan Cameron, Meredith Burgmann, Clare Petre, Jim Spigelman, Robin Fitzsimons and even Bob Nield – and all of the surviving SRC members of 1969. Hail to you all: truly tribunes of the people!