The Hon Michael Kirby AC

Honorary Doctor of Laws

Citation delivered by Professor Terry Buddin SC Judge in Residence, School of Law at the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Michael Donald Kirby as a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) on 2 November 2016.

Chancellor, I present Michael Kirby.

Michael Kirby has distinguished the courts and the national discourse of Australia with rare grace and a sense of what is both right and fair. His achievement is uncommon in its scope. He has risen to the highest levels of the law and public life and, at the same time, he is well-known and liked by the general community. He has earned the accolade of being Australia’s most well-known judge.

Michael Kirby graduated from the University of Sydney with Bachelor degrees in Arts, Law and Economics and a Master of Laws with First-Class Honours. That 1960s’ campus was an extraordinary hothouse for thinkers and artists who later became international names. Never a mere spectator, Michael was actively involved in student life as President of the both the Students' Representative Council and the University of Sydney Union. University sharpened a fine legal mind and also a conscience for human rights.

Admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1967, Michael became the youngest person appointed to federal judicial office when he became Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission at the age of 35. He was subsequently appointed to the Federal Court of Australia and as President of the NSW Court of Appeal. In 1996, he ascended to the highest judicial office in the land, the High Court of Australia. He served as one of its most celebrated and provocative members and twice acted as Chief Justice before he retired in 2009. He is one of Australia’s longest serving judges.

Michael also has an outstanding reputation beyond these shores. A long-time member of the International Commission of Jurists, he became President of its Executive Committee in 1995. He served on the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO and chaired the group that prepared the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. His redoubtable list of appointments by the United Nations and other international bodies includes the World Health Organisation’s Inaugural Global Commission on AIDS and the UNAIDS Global Reference Panel on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights. Michael Kirby has tirelessly sought to combat AIDS/HIV in a global context where legal processes are slow and change is shackled by cultural and political forces.

In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Michael to lead a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. The report is far-reaching and scarifying in its findings.

In the face of such iniquity, Michael Kirby has championed enlightenment as a force for good in this world. He has actively supported education and its institutions. He held the position of Chancellor at Macquarie University for nearly a decade and has honoured deep-rooted ties to this University and its Law School.

Michael was a friend and colleague of Professor Jack Goldring, the founding Dean of Law at the University of Wollongong. He knew and admired our first Chancellor, the Honourable Robert Hope, and Council member, Sir Richard Kirby. He has been a loyal patron of the Law School which he helped to establish over 25 years ago and continues to raise its image and inspire its students. His generous contributions range from numerous public lectures and master classes to addressing first year students on topics such as: “What is it like being a Justice of the High Court of Australia?”. He has counselled students on careers in the legal profession and employed two UOW law graduates as Associates when he was a Justice of the High Court. Both are now senior law academics, one at Sydney University and the other at Oxford.

Michael Kirby is a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George and, in 1991, he was awarded Australia's highest civil honour when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for ‘service to the law, to law reform, to learning and to the community’. In 1997, he was recognised as an ‘Australian living treasure’ by the National Trust.

The honourable Michael Kirby is a pre-eminent citizen of Australia and, indeed, the world. For this University, he is a loyal friend who continues to publicly support our approach to legal education and its commitment to diversity in student intake. His enduring attachment gives the University a sense of continuity, a link to the founding figures in our own story.

Our first Vice-Chancellor had a favourite quotation from John Henry Newman: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man”. Michael Kirby has taken up the challenge; he confronts those giants, not only with the “delicate” tools of the law and education but with the strength of compassion and tolerance.

Chancellor, for his outstanding contribution and commitment to justice and equality in contemporary Australia, as well as his significant contributions to this University, it is my great pleasure and privilege to present Michael Donald Kirby for the award of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.