In Conversation With Michael Kirby

"People just have to expect that students will sometimes have ‘way out’ views, but those views may ultimately become tomorrow’s orthodoxy, and students have to speak up and have to be involved.”

Michael Kirby was a judge in Australian courts for over thirty years, most notably serving as President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal from 1984 to 1996, and as Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009. He has significant experience in the field of human rights — he has worked extensively with the United Nations, and chaired their inquiry into Human Rights in North Korea in 2013-14. He was the first openly gay member of the High Court and continues to advocate for the LGBT+ community. He is also a University of Sydney alumnus, who was President of both the SRC (in 1962) and USU (in 1964), and later a fellow of the University Senate.  

Kirby is appearing in a discussion at the Sydney Writers Festival with author Bo Seo to discuss Seo’s book Good Arguments. Here,  they will discuss “how we might better listen to and disagree with each other in an era of increasingly harsh and divisive discourse.”

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Kirby prior to this event. 

Emily Scarlis: How did you become professionally involved with Bo Seo? Why are you speaking with him at the Sydney Writers Festival? 

Michael Kirby: I became involved when I learned of his research, and of his background in Korea. He came to Australia with his parents from the Republic of Korea, which is South Korea, and he brought with him a very inquisitive mind and capacity which he demonstrated at school for taking part in debates and trying to convince people to think freshly. This is often a difficulty in countries like Australia. 

ES: Did you have any experience doing formal debating before you went to University? 

MK: Not only did I have experience, I was named one of a team that were the state champions in debating in 1954, and I was then attending Fort St Boys High School in Sydney and I ascribe my selection as a prefect to that success.

ES: I know you grew up with two brothers, one who later joined the bench and one who became a lawyer. I’m wondering if you applied those formal [debating] techniques when you had arguments at home with your brothers? 

Kirby: Well, my brothers didn’t take part, nor did my sister, in school debating, but our family was a very argumentative one. That was despite the fact that it was also a very loving family, and this mixture of argument and formal rules to confine the argument taught me a lesson that I carried through life. You can have good relationships, but you can also have differences, and in fact, stronger relationships can arise out of the open discussion of any differences that emerge. 

ES: That’s certainly something that doesn’t go said often enough today. 

MK: Yes, well today many things have changed, including a certain formality in interpersonal relationships that existed when I was at school and university. Social media was nonexistent… and this has advantages in spreading knowledge and opinions, but it also has disadvantages in sometimes leading to misuse of information and misuse of relationships, unkindness to one another, and that was not a feature of Australian life [at that time]. 

ES: How can people remain “good debaters” when they are worn down by the difficulties of life… and it seems pointless to engage? 

MK: I think we rely on community leaders. Those leaders will often be in universities where research and deep thinking take place. That at least was my experience… we have to monitor the impact of scientific change and changes in human attitude, and we’ve got to make sure that our community from school on is respectful of truth, and not afraid to discuss matters that are thought by some to be objectionable or unacceptable. 

ES: What was debate like between candidates [in student politics] when you were studying and you eventually became President of the [USU] Board?  Was student politics very factionalised, as it is today, or was it more individual candidates running on policy?  

MK: Looking back, it was not politics in the grown up sense, it was not factionalised by reference to party allegiance. It was largely a matter of the individual candidate and their points of view. I’m ashamed to say that it was also influenced, in my day, by faculty loyalties. For example, every lawyer who went into student politics knew that if they could get the support of engineering students, they would have a readymade swag of votes that could, in combination with law students, outweigh the claims of [other faculties’ students].

It was mainly focused on the problems of the University, passing through a new phase that was presented by concern about the rights of Indigenous people and the rights of people of different skin colour. Back in the 1960s, we still had the White Australia policy in our country, and we denied many rights to the First Nations people. Few people questioned these things, but University students were amongst the first who raised the questions and put in train the steps that ultimately effected the adult party political differences. 

ES:  [Student activism]… is facing more difficulties now in light of new legislation, and the criminalisation of more militant protest. What is your opinion on NSW legislation and prosecution of student activists in the last year or so?

MK: I’m not really aware of the overall trend of this – I don’t think the law should impose penalties on the expression of viewpoints, especially by university students. When university students cease to be critical and to criticise the older generation, it’s a very bad scene.

The traditional independence of universities [and their students] subject to responding to individual violence and physical disrespect to other citizens, is a feature that we should inculcate in universities.[There should be] No violence, strong disagreement, and very few legal intrusions into free expression and free assembly. 

When I was at university, the majority point of view was not in favour of Indigenous rights, it was not in favour of advancement of women, it was not in favour of LGBT rights. That didn’t stop university students, and others in society, from speaking up. The fact that they did so was quite often very upsetting to decent members of society who thought that the students were unrealistic, and were putting forward views that the majority of the people disagreed with, and were therefore undemocratic. 

People just have to expect that students will sometimes have “way out” views, but those views may ultimately become tomorrow’s orthodoxy, and students have to speak up and have to be involved. I always tell students, especially law students, be a joiner. Get involved. Join university societies, and later, join civil society organisations such as the Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, and other bodies that seek to focus attention on the changes we have to have. 

Michael will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. He will be in conversation at Michael Kirby & Bo Seo, at 2pm on Friday May 26.