Part 2 transcript

Professor Paul Johnson:

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Paul Johnson. I’m the Vice Chancellor here. I just want to say a couple of things about what’s going to happen next. We could not let slip the opportunity of having one of the most distinguished of international jurists and one of Australia’s great public intellectuals coming to the university and then slipping away before we’d heard a little bit more from him. And it seemed to me to be appropriate to the history of La Trobe University that was of course established back in 1964 to be a radical and progressive university, that we should set up a conversation, a conversation of Michael Kirby, student activist and radical from some time ago, with Dennis Altman, Professor Dennis Altman, another student activist and radical from some time ago. And this is part of a program, the Ideas and Society Program here at La Trobe University, convened by Professor Robert Manne, where we try to bring in people to the university to discuss some of the issues of the day. The reason that the cameras are here is that we have found that the audience for these discussions and conversations is enormously expanded by recording these conversations, putting them on the web, on iTunes U, and we then give the opportunity to many thousands of people, students and others around the world, to enjoy and reflect on these conversations. So we will now turn to two troublemakers from the past to see if they can make some more trouble.

Professor Dennis Altman:

Thank you Vice Chancellor. When I was asked to have a conversation in public with Michael, I thought we would generally range over topics of law, politics and sex. But I should begin by saying that my initial memories of you Michael would not have seen you as in any way a radical. And my initial memories of you go back to when I was a very young and innocent student politician from the University of Tasmania and Australian national student politics were dominated by two very major figures – yourself and Peter Wilenski. And I can remember the awe and trembling with which I went to my first national student meeting and encountered essentially two legends of the time. And I guess I’m curious because at that stage I think we would have seen you as clearly a future leader. I’m curious why you chose the path you did, why law rather than politics?

The Honourable Michael Kirby:

Well, first of all, I agree with what you say about Peter Wilenski. He was a very forward looking thinker. Much more forward looking than I was. He saw the issues of White Australia before I did, he saw the issues of women’s rights and equality before I did, he was very strongly concerned about aboriginal rights and was engaged with them. He was just one of those people who peered into the future and saw things which others didn’t see. We had to have the scales lifted from our eyes. Now myself, I was a long way behind Peter. There were other people at the time, or soon afterwards, Gareth Evans was the President of the Melbourne SRC a couple of years later, Daryl Williams, who became Federal Attorney General, was from the Guild. We of the West, he kept talking about. John Bannon who became Premier of South Australia was there. And virtually all of them, and I continue to see them in Honours Lists and in other worthy connections, they were really amazing people. And some of them were even women. There were some women student politicians battering against the prejudice and inequalities of that time. But if I appeared conservative, it was because I had reached a view early in those years that the way for a person for a liberal disposition, I hesitate to say "radical" now, a liberal disposition, was to look very safe. In short, to look as close as you possibly could to Mr Menzies. To have a double breasted suit, to wear very dark and respectable ties, and that way, people would trust you completely and you could get away with all sorts of things you couldn’t get away with if you were dressed as you mostly were, in duffle coats and other scruffy gear. But as to why I chose legal life. Well, in part it was because I once went to a Labor Party branch meeting and that was enough for me. Honestly, I went to it, I was there. It was actually a most respectable branch because it was in Darling Point and it was what is now called a chardonnay set Labor branch meeting. But I found it so ineffably boring. I could not imagine … Student politics was much more interesting. So I didn’t think I could really whip up a storm of interest about real politics. And secondly I was at that time exploring my personal life in a way I’d postponed and therefore I came to the view – are you willing to be like Edward Heath was reputed to be? A gay man who was keeping it all bottled up. And the bottom line was, I wasn’t. I realised that love and life and friendship and companionship were very important to every human being. So at that stage, and I think probably still now, I didn’t think that there would be a future for me, so I got on with my work as a lawyer and ended up polishing up the handle of the big front door and here I am today.

Dennis Altman:

I’m going to come back to your career. First of all I should explain for people who will not remember that Peter Wilenski became an Australian diplomat with I think the Chief Advisor to Gough Whitlam during his Prime Ministership and died of cancer, I think, well over a decade ago. Just to place him, for those of you who don’t know him. And also Michael, just to remind people that someone, one of the women you talked about from that period is someone who has had a long connection with this university and I hope will be resuming that connection, namely Professor Jenny Graves, who was at that stage one of the Richards sisters from South Australia. Also, if I might just say, I shared with you that enormous dilemma of those of us who were gay in Australia in the latter part of last century that one had to make choices. It was very clear that certain avenues of public life would not be open if one’s sexuality was known. Of course we now live in a period where that has changed. We have Bob Brown and Penny Wong able to hold very high political office.

Michael Kirby:

The list isn’t long.

Dennis Altman:

The list is not long and I can remember … Actually, I had the same experience you did of going … I went to several ALP branch meetings actually, in a number of inner city suburbs …

Michael Kirby:

You always were more persistent.

Dennis Altman:

Yes, or some would say irritating. But to revert to your legal career, which is of course, as Joe pointed out, extremely long and distinguished, and I don’t know if this is a reasonable question to ask of a former judge. Looking back, what do you see as your greatest achievement in your role as a judge?

Michael Kirby:

Well, it’s really for others to judge that. And in fact there is a biography coming out in a couple of weeks written by Professor A. J. Brown of Griffith University, snippets of which I’ve seen. He sees law and judges as political actors, not party political actors, but he sees the courts and the law as part of the governments of the country. So he has a particular angle on me and on the judiciary. As to my contributions, I think first of all I was very engaged with international perspectives of law. That hasn’t been a tradition, especially in Australia and the United States of America. Both of those countries tend to be rather isolationist, but I had a sort of epiphany about how law could not remain outside the enormous expansion of our minds with the connection through the internet, through jumbo jets through the world, and that therefore jurisdictionalism, which is the limiting factor of law, had to give way to the global forces. So I think that was a contribution. And of course it was still quite controversial and some people don’t agree with it at all. But there was that. I was also greatly influenced by a wonderful teacher of law at the University of Sydney, Julius Stone, who was a teacher in jurisprudence, who taught that law was not mechanical, law was not simply an application of clear rules to a case that only knew one answer, but law was a matter of judges giving effect to values and that it was better that judges be open and discuss these values and be more transparent about them. So in a sense I was a child of my teachers and especially of Julius Stone and this is the great gift that university teachers have. They don’t get their dividend immediately. It doesn’t come next decade, it comes a couple of decades down the track, when they get into positions of responsibility and so Julius Stone helped me, and I believe I tried to be open and to discuss the values that led me to particular conclusions and thirdly, because my life was different from that of most judges. First of all, being gay, but more important, maybe, going to public schools. I was the only Justice of the High Court of Australia for most of my service, whose entire education was at the public school system in New South Wales. It’s an amazing thing. Two thirds of the people of Australia go to the public schools, but only one was and is on the High Court at the moment – Justice Kiefel had that, but all the others went to private schools. Now, that I think affects your values. If you grow up with school children who have come to school with bare feet as they did in the North Strathfield Public School in Sydney just after the Second World War, then you do tend to have a slightly different view. If you grow up in secular schools you have a slightly different view. In a way it’s a very Australian and democratic environment and I’m very proud of my public school education and so these are factors that affected the way in which I approached problems and they were slightly different – not very different – in the big picture they were not very different. They were slightly different and I think that was a value added.

Dennis Altman:

And I want to pick you up on three of the themes that come through that comment Michael, but firstly, I think it’s true that in the United States, there’s much more of a tradition of judges of the Supreme Court being seen as public figures and being expected to speak as public figures. You stand out I think in Australia, for many of us who are lay people, and not lawyers, as being a judge who was willing to speak on a range of issues. I’m curious how that caused friction with more conservative members of the profession, whether you felt pressure not to speak at times, because in some ways I think your most important career, publicly, has been to use the position of a judge to help guide debate.

Michael Kirby:

Well, I was very lucky in my life and I had a number of posts and I got to meet very, very interesting people. I couldn’t understand being in Canberra as a Justice of the High Court, with the marvellous flow of intellects. I mean, people coming to Canberra, not political, but academic. I’m a university type person, from the very beginning. And therefore I would take advantage, and get them to come to the court and get my colleagues to come to lunch with them and they all enjoyed it. You’ve got ideas. I was interested in the ideas and Julius Stone had taught me that those ideas were inevitably going to affect my thinking and therefore I thought it was appropriate to engage. Now, once or twice, I made a mistake, because if you’re in the public discourse, occasionally you will make an error and you will tread on somebody’s toes or get into an area where you shouldn’t. But I didn’t do so very often. I thought it was a useful task to explain that judges are not on automatic pilot, that they’re not in charge of this jumbo jet and just press a lever and it all goes automatically. That they have choices, explain the choices, explain to law students. A lot of people would rather be on automatic pilot. They don’t like to think that the law is so problematic that it depends on the outcome by reference to the values and attitudes and experience of the judges. But Julius had taught me that that was as it was and I thought it was a useful role to try to explain that to citizens and frankly, I still think that’s a useful thing and getting involved was interesting, and meeting people. Meeting intellectual people was interesting and helpful to me in my work.

Dennis Altman:

I think I certainly would agree with you and I would say that for many of us the role that you have played, both in internationalising discussion in Australia, but also in making people think more seriously and reflectively about the importance of human rights has been absolutely crucial. And certainly I know from my international context, my international experience, that this is the reputation you have globally. And that in some areas, and Joe referred to some of them in the citation, you have led not just national but international debate. And it might be worth taking up a couple of those areas. You did play a particular role I know in relation to Cambodia. And it would be interesting for you to say a little bit about that and what your role in Cambodia has been.

Michael Kirby:

I was appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Butros Ghali, to be the Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia. And like so many things in life, it came about by chance. The chance was curious. Originally Cambodia had been within the French sphere of influence. And the French are very good players in the United Nations game. They have a permanent seat on the Security Council and they are very defensive of Franchophonie and they are very defensive of their influence, their culture and very proud of it, and rightly so. So they wanted a French person when the Paris Peace Agreements were reached twenty years ago, they wanted to have a francophone to be the Special Representative established by the Paris Peace Accords. And so they nominated a distinguished judge of the International Court of Justice, but he came from Senegal, and he said he would only accept the appointment if he could travel with first class air fares. And he was told, sorry, but only the Secretary-General in the United Nations travels first class – you will go business class. And he said, I don’t go. And therefore, they had to look around for someone else. And so Secondhand Rose came in. And I then got the call. And I was asked to accept the appointment and it was a very interesting time. At the beginning everything went swimmingly. They signed up to international treaties. They cooperated with me, they were very engaged with the human rights process, but one thing led to another, they started to be autocratic and I had to be critical. I mean, I was a monitor. So I reported critically of Mr Hun Sen, the Prime Minister then and still the Prime Minister now and he then began not to speak to me. And that was the fate that befell the four, or three of my successors. They all got the no speak treatment when they disagreed with him. But still, I was able to do some useful things in Cambodia. And the most useful thing I did there, possibly the most useful thing I’ve ever one in my life, was because of my background and experience, chance, fate played a part – I insisted that HIV was a human rights issue. Well, they were not very happy about that. They didn’t want to be talking about sex. Nobody wants to talk about sex. Most people want to do sex but they don’t want to talk about sex, and therefore they said "What are you going on about HIV? It’s a medical question. Don’t talk about this. It’s got nothing to do with human rights" but I said it’s to do with the right to health and the right to life and the right to access to drugs and health care and so on. Anyway, I persisted and ultimately they agreed. It went on the agenda, it became important and the graph of HIV infections, which was rising quite rapidly after the end of the UNTAC period, when Cambodia was opened up the world, began to fall. And that has undoubtedly saved thousands and thousands of lives in Cambodia. Now I’m not saying that was me. It was mainly done by foreign aid, by AusAID by the way, which under successive governments, Labor and coalition, has been insistent that HIV is a major issue of our region of the world and of human rights. It’s not changed under different governments. And so they’re the people who did it, but I made a pathway and I insisted that it should be on the agenda and I think that was a very good thing. So that’s how I got into it.

Dennis Altman:

And of course you and I have now intersected probably every year in different ways over the past quarter century, around issues to do with HIV/AIDS. I think your comment that people are very unwilling to talk about sex is enormously important. And it’s particularly important in the international arena because as we both know, one of the great problems is to get governments to be honest about the sexual behaviour that their citizens take part in. And certainly you have played a crucial role in that. It would be interesting I think for you to reflect a bit. Some of us have heard a little bit of this at lunch but most people have not heard, to reflect a little on your work within the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and your attempts to get some of the most, to quote a former Prime Minister, recalcitrant governments in the Commonwealth to accept a more realistic view.

Michael Kirby:

Well, the Eminent Persons Group was established at the last CHOGM, Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and its purpose is to review the future of the Commonwealth of Nations, the outgrowth from the old British Empire. One of the issues on the agenda is definitely HIV/AIDS, because the Commonwealth of Nations comprises about a third of humanity. It’s about a third of the population of the world, but it’s two thirds of the HIV cases. And therefore it is a specific Commonwealth question and why should that be so? Well, it’s so because the Commonwealth, amongst the many wonderful things the British gave, I’m an Anglophile, I acknowledge the wonderful things that the British gave their colonies. By and large they were pretty enlightened as colonists go, especially they gave the English language and English sports, a great unifying phenomena, but they … I don’t know too much about the sports bit but I know quite a bit about the language. But they also gave the rule of law, the aspiration of democratic legislatures, the independence of the judiciary, the common law system, and so on. So all of these were good gifts but the bad gifts were the gifts of the sodomy laws and the laws against sex workers, the laws on the use of drugs, and all of those are very relevant to the spread of the infection of HIV. And the only countries that have succeeded in bringing the spread of infection down, given that we have no vaccine and no cure, twenty-five, thirty years into the epidemic, we do not have a cure and we don’t have a vaccine. Given that situation, the only countries that have really succeeded in bringing the graphs down are countries that will talk about and deal with these issues and that includes Australia. Weren’t we lucky when HIV came along that we happened to have as Minister for Health, Neal Blewett, and as Shadow Minister, Peter Baume. You know, they are two princes of politicians. We don’t always get princes or princesses but those two were really wonderful and Neal Blewett walked across old Kings Hall, did a very unusual thing, walked into the Senate area and into Peter Baume’s chambers and sat there and said "Peter, we’ve got a big problem. We’ve got to find a solution". And fortunately, Peter Baume was a Professor of Public Health and that was just another … chance is so important in life, and they took these steps, talked about it, engaged with the gay community which was in the front line, took steps to decriminalise prostitution, sex work, had the injecting drug use, the fact that you can go to pharmacies all across our continental country, we have two per cent of the injecting drug users are HIV positive. In New Zealand it’s one per cent, because it’s a smaller country and they have the same system – needle exchange. In America, it’s up in the thirty per cent. In Canada, enlightened Canada, in Quebec it’s eighteen per cent. In places in South East Asia, it’s up in the fifty per cent. And that’s a big way of getting the virus into the heterosexual community. So these were wonderful things that were done and they were done because we happened to have a Minister and a Shadow Minister who took brave and strong action. That’s what we need in politics. Taking brave and strong actions, not just living by the twenty-four hour news cycle and responding to opinion polls that tumble out every two or three weeks.

Dennis Altman:

Can we just … going back to the Anglophone tradition, and the reality that most countries now that retain criminal laws around sexual behaviour, are in fact countries in the Commonwealth that still have the old British laws. How do you explain the oddity of the fact that governments who claim anti-colonial rhetoric are the most ardent defenders of colonial laws which actually the old empire has long abandoned. And there is something very ironic about hearing President Musevani get up and talk about these laws are part of Ugandan tradition when they are in fact imported by British imperialism in the nineteenth century.

Michael Kirby:

Well, in a way the British were successful because they sort of set an aspiration and people wanted to be like them to a large extent. They hated them but they loved them. You only have to go to countries … when I was in Kenya once Daniel arap Moi was the President and I was there for a meeting of the International Commission of Jurors, and I was waiting for the President to arrive. Well, along came a big Rolls Royce. There was a motor cycle escort, a roaring as they came up. The President got out, they struck up the national anthem of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi walked up and down the lined guard of honour and he came in to make his speech. The equerry was behind him, saluted him, gave a true British salute, I mean, it’s all a very big inheritance and it’s what gives them a sense of stability and it was what really worked in their lifetime and therefore they don’t really sometimes want to change it. And as well as that, in comes religion. Now religion, unfortunately, is a problem in a number of the Commonwealth countries. The Islamic religion in countries like Brunei and Malaysia and Pakistan and the Christian religion in most of Africa and as Dame Carol Kidu was saying in Bangkok, in Papua New Guinea. I mean, the missions were very successful and unfortunately they are often very patriarchal, they’re very male dominated, if there were more women involved there would be less trouble, I’m afraid to say, but they are very patriarchal and very resistant to new thinking and that’s what needed, sadly, they’ve got to think freshly, and they don’t like it. And that’s why in 41 of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth, they still have these laws. Even in Singapore, where Lee Kuan Yew urged that they get rid of them, they had a report from the Law Society of Singapore, saying "we recommend that we get rid of it" but it went into the parliament of Singapore and then a born-again Christian member of the parliament who happens to be a Professor of Law and of Constitutional Law in the state of Singapore, got up and said "this is Sodom and Gomorrah and we’ve got to resist this" and so nothing got done. This is the problem.

Dennis Altman:

We do have this very strange growth now of religious fundamentalism, often fuelled by people from Western countries and we know in Uganda, at the recent slaying of Daniel Kato …

Michael Kirby:

David Kato …

Dennis Altman:

David Kato, sorry, that there was considerable interest from fundamentalist American churches influencing opinion in Uganda. Can I move on to something else Michael. You’ve said several times – you’ve clearly identified very strongly with universities. And of course you yourself played a role as Chancellor of Macquarie University for a period. I’m curious where you see universities in Australia as going at the moment? Are you bothered by what I think bothers many of us here – the growing instrumentalism, the growing demands from Canberra for increasing measurement, for increasing adherence for what is in effect a business operations model.

Michael Kirby:

Well, I’m not really completely up to speed in what these … I mean, I watch it in the general media but I’m not on a university council now and therefore I don’t really know all the detail, but this instrumentalism is true of schooling as well as universities and I myself believe that universities are so important, but only insofar as they’re not just technical colleges. I mean, it is amazing to me that you can have a law course, for example, without jurisprudence and legal history. They were both compulsory in my day but nowadays I think only about three law schools in Australia teach those as compulsory core subjects, to teach people to think, how to think. And you can’t really measure that, just in terms of how many publications somebody has got in a particular graded publication, which is itself graded according to somewhat arbitrary standards. It’s all the passion of administrators to get their hands on what is essentially and necessarily a highly creative environment, or what should be a creative environment. So it’s very well for one to stand against the tide and I saw in the Journal of La Trobe University, properly the pride that is felt for the big votes of funding for research projects of the university and in a world where everybody boasts of this, you’ve got to live by that game. But I really think the people who most influenced me in my life of university and of school, were highly creative teachers who encouraged me to think freshly and to think conceptually, to think in bigger terms, to see the big picture, to ask the big questions and that’s what universities, as I see them, are there for. And whenever I go to meetings and people in law schools are constantly putting pressure to deliver what the profession wants, well I say, "Well, that’s an important factor but it’s not the only factor" because sometimes the profession just wants a slave who’ll go in the back room and slave their lives away and then get terribly disillusioned by the age of 36, and then go out and want to be a law reformer, or something.

Dennis Altman:

Well, Michael, I think we’re very grateful that some of us do want to become law reformers. Can we go back to one of the comments you made much earlier and that is the inter-connection between your personal and your public life, because I think this is something that everybody is interested in. And you’ve obviously reflected on it quite a lot. How far do you see your career as having been shaped by the particularities of your own life?

Michael Kirby:

Well, I was talking about this last night at a dinner party at my home in Sydney with my father, who is 95 today. I think that’s pretty good and Elizabeth thinks it’s pretty good too. Because he has all his marbles, and he’s still driving, as well as cooking a dinner for his children and grandchildren on Sunday nights, whereas many will turn up. He’s amazing. And we were talking about our lives and how they’d been affected by different forces and factors. He is very enlightened and has always been. I lived … I’ve always lived in a very loving family. I’ve always had a very loving heterosexual family in which I grew up and I was always encouraged and loved, and then I was very fortunate finding at the age of 29, just as I was on the cusp, I was terribly afraid I was getting a bit over the hill, I found my partner, with whom I’ve been for 42 years, Johan, and there’s no doubt that it’s very important to … if you can, to have a partner who will support you, who will tell you where to get off, who’ll tell you where you’re losing the plot, who will give you a few home truths, all of which … and who will support you. Even when you’re wrong, will support you. And that is what I’ve had for 42 years. That gave me always a feeling of safety and security. And so when the AIDS epidemic came along, I became involved, very closely involved. I went to and spoke at twelve funerals of very close, dear friends, and that was a sort of code language of my sexuality, so it was no big surprise and no big secret from about 1986 on. And then in 1997 I think it was I put my relationship with Johan in the Who’s Who Journal and then it became public. But by that stage I was safely, as Rumpole would say, I had my trotters in the trough of the High Court of Australia, and it’s very, very hard to get somebody out of the High Court of Australia. And people say, some gay people used to say to me, and we’ve talked about this – they’d say "Oh, you were dishonest and dishonourable, you didn’t reveal your sexuality" and so on. But if I’d revealed my sexuality earlier, there’s no way I would have been appointed to various judicial posts, and especially I think, to the High Court of Australia. The country wasn’t ready for it then. So that was just what you were expected to do in those days. Don’t ask, don’t tell. My father last night said to me, and I’ve got to live by this rule, because he’ll give me hell if I don’t. He said, "you don’t want to be Johnny One Note. Stop just talking … when you were in the Law Reform Commission, you talked about everything. Go back to talking about everything. Don’t just talk about sexuality or being gay and so on. People are bored. They don’t want to hear any more about this." I’ve got to answer your questions, but I think your personal life is very closely connected with your public life. It just can’t be otherwise. You’re a whole integrated human being and there’s no doubt that I was sustained and strengthened, and anybody who would try to deprive another human being of that sort of love and companionship and friendship and support, they’re mad. They are really … they’re not only mad but I think basically they’re bad, because to stop people having that sort of support, now that we know the science of human variation in sexuality that it’s just one of those variations … my brother Donald is left handed, and I turned out to be gay. Well, you know, it’s not a big deal. Both of us have just got to get over it. And everyone else has got to get over it. And it’s just not a big thing. But you’ve got to be careful in gay circles. You’d know this too Dennis. You’re not to go on and on about relationships because some people don’t want it particularly – they’d rather be alone. They’ve been bitten. They’ve not had good times, and I’m sure this is so too amongst straight people, you know, you don’t want to go on and on about your relationships because some people haven’t had good luck. They’ve had bad luck. It’s a miracle if you have good luck. But if you have it, then no one should stand between you and equality as a citizen. It’s wrong. We talked about this and I don’t think we would get married, if it was there in the law, because you’d have to be careful about changing the dynamics. You know, we’ve got through 42 years without it and I think we’ll just toddle along as we are. But for those who want it and need an affirmation and need things for parents and families, they should have it and it’s ridiculous and it’s wicked to deprive fellow citizens of equal rights in my humble opinion. I think it’s something … and we’re moving towards that, although our Prime Minister, an atheist and non-believer and living in sin, doesn’t believe that it should be there for two people of the same sex. Well, I think she needs to have a bit of therapy about this.

Dennis Altman:

I think Michael I have to go on record as being somewhat lukewarm about the gay marriage debate. But interestingly … I mean, I agree with you. It will happen and I think it will happen because I think the nature of marriage is changing very quickly anyway, but I am in the interesting position that in a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking in Rockhampton and I think you are also going to be in Rockhampton, although not on the same day.

Michael Kirby:

Yes, yes, the University of …

Dennis Altman:

Yes, the University of Central Queensland. And ironically the Chair of my talk is the Liberal MP Warren Entsch who is a much more enthusiastic supporter of same sex marriage than I am, and I will enjoy enormously the idea of being more conservative than a Liberal member of parliament from Queensland.

Michael Kirby:

Well, I mean you are basically quite – I mean, you’re a stamp collector and anybody’s who’s a stamp collector …

Dennis Altman:

He has a good memory, doesn’t he? And of course I think that is the lovely thing about this whole event today and you referred to it when you were responding so nicely to the Chancellor. The reality that as we get older there are circles, and things circle back. And part of, I think, the experience of being involved in certain common goals, certain common movements, is that sense of circularity. I can look around the room – obviously many people in this room are colleagues of mine, but many of them are people you also have intersected with over the years. I want to actually take us to looking ahead a little bit. When you and I spoke in Sydney just before Christmas and I said, "Michael, maybe we should have some structure for this conversation" you looked at me and said "Yes, past, present, future." I don’t know if you remember that but it was a pretty wide brief I thought. Well, we’ve talked about past, we’ve talked about present, I’m curious – are you optimistic about the future, both of Australia and of the world?

Michael Kirby:

Oh, absolutely. Definitely. I have a theory that we are genetically programmed by our intelligence, introspection and consciousness to work towards rational solutions to the problems. We often get diverted, we sometimes make grievous mistakes. But I think the human being, by its curiosity and capacity to look inwardly and think of where we are, to look up at the stars at night and to see the beauties of the world and the awful features of the world – I just think we are … there’s this rational urge in us and I’m not saying we’re always rational but I do think we’ve got this way to think about ourselves, to think about our lives and to think about what are rational solutions to things. Now, not everybody agrees with that. Just as a lot of people don’t agree with my view that the grundnorm, the central element of human rights, is love, love for one another, love for fellow creatures, love for the biosphere. And I feel that that is what is the core of human rights and I think our rationality is a very important element of human beings and both of those features of the world today and of our species make me quite confident about the future. That the race will be between the perils of things such as extremist fundamentalist religion, unquestioning demand of obedience, the suppression of women, who are half the population of the world and their disempowerment, and the groups of the type that are especially vulnerable to HIV and AIDS and other diseases and endemic poverty. So these are the … the urgency to get those things moving and it will be a race between whether our rational side wins over our irrational side, but my money would be on the rational, because I think we have a great survival instinct and I think we realise that this is the future, not the past, the past isn’t looking back on what was said by some prophets two thousand years ago or more recently. It’s a question of keeping up to date and seeing the world and solving its problems.

Dennis Altman:

Michael, I think that to leave us with love and rationality is a wonderful way of ending this conversation, so let me thank you both as a friend and a colleague for the opportunity to talk to you like this. I know the Vice Chancellor is going to close the proceedings more officially. Let me just say this has been a wonderful opportunity – it’s been great to have you here at La Trobe and I think, ironically, this may be the first time that you and I have actually ever spoken together on a platform in this university, although we have spoken on many other platforms elsewhere.

Michael Kirby:

Dennis, it won’t be the last.

Paul Johnson:

Michael, I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of the university, for coming along and talking to us, and to you also, Dennis, for leading this conversation with Michael. And I was delighted Michael, that you did end on that optimistic note. I think it’s very important that in universities, in educational establishments, that we emphasise optimism, and that we do that for our students. After all, they are the people who in fact will make the future. And I think it’s very important that we do our utmost to convey to today’s students some of, I suppose, their moral responsibilities to carry ideas forward into the world in which they’ll live, different ideas, ideas about optimism. Also to try to empower today’s students, so that they have the self-confidence, individually and collectively, to face up to some of the undoubted challenges that there will be, whether they be fundamentalism, whether they be poverty, whether they be disease, and face up to those challenges and then effect change. And if we can empower today’s young people to do that in an optimistic frame of mind, I think as educators in universities and schools and other institutions, we will have at least done our bit and fulfilled our responsibilities. Michael, it’s been a fantastic afternoon. Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, will you please join me in thanking Michael and then following Chancellor Sylvia Walton and former Chancellor Nancy Millis out of the room and join us all for refreshments afterwards. Thank you.

Michael Kirby:

Thanks very much Paul. A great occasion. Thank you.