Peter Wilson talks to former High Court judge and HRIZON speaker Michael Kirby about decisions that set him on pathways in his life and career.
Peter Wilson: Your early career vision was to be a bishop or a judge. Why did you forsake the church for chambers and the courtroom?
Michael Kirby: I thought I would have more influence in the law in Australia as it was developing at the time. I’m very proud to belong to the Anglican church but it’s disappointing because when I was young 40 per cent of Australians were practising Anglicans and this has dwindled away. The church has lost the leadership it could have given as a largely tolerant religion. Instead, we are seeing the great growth of intolerant churches and political interference by these churches, which is quite antithetical to the secular tradition of democracy.
I don’t like these developments and wouldn’t have been comfortable with them, but I also don’t think the Anglican leaders are sobbing that I didn’t go on to become a bishop. They are probably glad that I wasn’t around because I would have been a troublemaker (which may have done them some good). But I found another area of activity where I could do useful work and I don’t regret my choice at all.
PW: Who have been the principal mentors in your life who have shaped your thinking?
MK: I was blessed with many fine mentors such as:
- My parents. They were young, ambitious without being pushy. They encouraged all of us to flourish.
- My teachers in New South Wales public schools.
- Julius Stone,a university teacher is someone I would single out as important.
- Marvellous barristers Neville Wran, and Lionel Murphy.
- Mary Robinson, a past high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations.
- Louise Arbour, Mary’s successor.
- Navanethem Pillay, the current high commissioner.
- Jonathan Mann who headed the first United Nations global program on HIV.
PW: You have commented that judges are now being clearer about the values behind the pronouncements and decisions they make. It’s no longer about interpreting black letter law. Is this the case?
MK: The role of a judge in the common law system has always been to:
- Solve the problem before the court.
- Reference legal rules and principles.
- Understand legal rules as they are stated in the Constitution or named in Parliament or in a past legal decision.
- Have leeways of choice.
- Are not on automatic pilot.
- Don’t have the opportunity or the time to analyse the underlying currents.
- Need to be as candid as possible about why they choose one solution or another. This allows people to criticise their opinions, and where they think the opinions are wrong, to change the law (except in Constitutional cases) by act of Parliament.
PW: What do you see as the main challenges for fairness within modern workplaces in Australia today?
MK: Obviously fairness and finding a way to allow for the dignity of every employee is a very important aspect of every workplace. We need to ensure fairness to all, including minority groups that are not always loved and understood. All of these impose obligations on people in HR that didn’t exist when I entered the workforce — when everything was very Anglo-Celtic and stereotypical. I believe we’ve made progress in our workplaces and in society as whole.