Champion of equal rights honoured at Spring graduation celebrations
Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG inspires law students with powerful message
Tim Minchin, eat your heart out. That’s Justice Michael Kirby’s message for the comedian and performer, who delivered an Occasional Address at the University of Western Australia’s graduation ceremony in 2013, which has since gone viral.
His speech contained nine life lessons, the most prominent of which – ‘You don’t need to have a dream’ – struck a chord with the Honourable Justice Kirby AC CMG for all the wrong reasons.
Today (2 November) the former Justice of the High Court of Australia used his own Occasional Address, at the University of Wollongong (UOW), to offer a rebuttal.
“I saw Tim Minchin’s speech on YouTube. He’s a celebrity, he’s a good speaker, and he dropped out of university, but I just didn’t agree with half of what he said. I thought I would have my say,” Justice Kirby said.
“I wanted to acknowledge what is going on in the minds of young lawyers, and reassure them that things always turn up. But my message is that you have to have a dream. Mr Minchin said if you have a dream when you’re young, you just end up having a mid-life crisis. Well, I had a dream and I’m well past the age of a mid-life crisis.”
Justice Kirby was recognised with an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy at this's morning graduation celebration. He has a long association with UOW that spans more than 30 years, during which time he has made strong connections with past and present members of the University’s law faculty.
During his Occasional Address, Justice Kirby, who has had a long, distinguished career as a jurist, judge, educator, and human rights advocate, said his dream as a young lawyer was to achieve equality for all.
“When I started out in the law, I certainly had a dream. It was a recurring dream. I called it the equality dream. I dreamed of equality for Aboriginal Australians. I dreamed of greater equality for women. I dreamed of equality for people of different skin colour. I dreamed of an end to ‘White Australia’. I dreamed of equality for people with disabilities. And I dreamed for equality for myself and all gay people,” he told the crowd at today’s graduation ceremony.
It is a dream Justice Kirby has been working towards his whole career.
One of his proudest moments as a young lawyer, in 1965, was working as the honorary solicitor for a group of law students from the University of Sydney who filed a case against a cinema in the rural town of Walgett.
The cinema was refusing to allow Indigenous audience members to be seated upstairs, in the velvet seats, rather forcing them to stay downstairs, in the vinyl seats.
The case was successful, and is an example of Justice Kirby’s passion for equality, which continues now in his work for the United Nations, where he has contributed to reports on universal access to health care as well as human rights in North Korea.
“I think my dreams have become more defined and more determined as I’ve gotten older. Many people as they grow older have only nightmares, but I’ve kept my optimism and idealism. That’s why I continue to have my dream of equality,” Justice Kirby said.
“I hope to wake up one day and all my dreams of equality have come true, but that hasn't happened yet and until then I will continue to fight.”
Although the audience of young lawyers are entering a world remarkably different from that encountered by Justice Kirby in the 1960s, the need for hard work and perseverance remains the same.
“It’s not enough to have a dream though. Lawyers have a special opportunity that if things are not good enough, they can change them. But they have to roll up their sleeves and get on with the job.”
However, he does agree with Mr Minchin on one point of his graduation address: the importance of moving your body.
“I need to do more exercise,” he said. “And eat less fruit cake."
Photo: The Honorable Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG. Credit: Paul Jones