Part 1 transcript

Chancellor Sylvia Walton:

I declare this to be a ceremony authorised by the Council of La Trobe University at which I shall, with the authority of Council, confer the degree of Doctor of the University. Please be seated.

It’s certainly a great privilege to be here today and to be conferring the Doctor of the University on the Honourable Michael Kirby, and when you hear the citation you will understand that his background speaks for itself. The thing that has always interested me, if I may say, is the way in which the larger vision, the attention to detail and the laws, the policy areas and yet the individual have come together in a lot of your thinking. I remember reading somewhere, I can’t remember who said it, but it does sound a little Pollyanna-ish, but nonetheless it’s a truism, and when one thinks of some of the situations we’re facing in our present country at the present time, it’s even more so, but if we can, it says, keep one heart from breaking, and you can interpret it in university terms and say, if we can ensure that one individual has an opportunity, then it goes on to say, we will not live in vain and our policies and our actions will marry. And that is what I think I’ve gained by reading something of what you have written, and I confess to not having got to The Age this morning yet, but in other things you’ve written and in an understanding perhaps, just a little bit from the far field of the work that you’ve been doing, in human rights, in a whole range of things that concern many individuals.

I will now call upon the Director for the Centre of Dialogue, Professor Joseph Camilleri, to deliver the citation for the award of the degree, Doctor of the University to the Honourable Michael Kirby.

Professor Joseph Camilleri:

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. The Honourable Michael Kirby is one of the most distinguished jurists in Australia and arguably in the world as well. At the time of his retirement from the High Court of Australia in 2009, he was then the longest serving judicial officer in Australia. He’s also one of the most prolific writers, writing in his ex curia capacity as well as a public intellectual, include five monographs and over three hundred articles and reports. As a jurist, Michael Kirby is perhaps the best-known judge in Australia, recognised by the Life Achievement Award of the Australian Law Awards in 2005. He is one of the most visible advocates for justice and human rights in Australia. Michael Kirby holds the degrees, Bachelor of Arts, Master of Laws, Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University. He started his career by practising as a solicitor and then as a barrister. In December ’74 he was appointed as the Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and in 1983, as a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, making him the youngest person to be appointed to federal judicial office.

In 1984, he was appointed President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. He held that position until ’96 when he was appointed a Justice of the High Court of Australia. Previously he had served as the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission from 1975 to 1983. Since 1978, Michael Kirby has been extensively involved in a number of international organisations and their activities, including serving as Chairperson in expert groups as advisory member and in other capacities with the OECD, UNESCO, the Ethics Committee of the Human Genome Organisation in London, the inaugural Global Commission on AIDS of the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, UNAID Global Panel on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists, the International Labor Organisation and Special Representative of the Secretary-General with the United Nations for Human Rights in Cambodia.

Michael Kirby has received many awards and has been honoured with many distinctions including the Australian Human Rights Medal in ’91, Ten Most Creative Minds in ’97, named by The Bulletin magazine, Laureate of the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education in ’98, Top Ten Public Intellectuals in 2005, named by The Sydney Morning Herald, one of the Hundred Most Influential Australians Ever in 2006, named by The Bulletin. The Prix Yves Pélicier of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in 2003 and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Australian Law Awards in 2005. In June of last year, he won, as a co-winner, the Gruber Justice Prize for 2010, New York.

Michael Kirby has also received many honours, including appointment as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George and as a Companion of the Order of Australia in ’91, honorary degrees of Doctor of Letters, honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws, and honorary degree of the University from the University of Newcastle, the University of Ulster, James Cook University, Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, the National Law School University of India, Buckingham University, the Australian National University and the University of South Australia.

At La Trobe University, Michael Kirby has a long association with the School of Law, especially the School’s Journal, Law in Context, the inaugural issue of which he launched some twenty-five years ago. His most recent involvement with the Law School was the launch of a new book and the celebration of twenty-five years of the Journal’s publication in 2008.

Michael Kirby is the Patron of the University’s Centre for Dialogue. In 2008 he was the keynote speaker for a major international conference, co-sponsored by the Centre for Dialogue, and in July 2010, he launched Professor Camilleri’s new book, Worlds in Transition.

Chancellor, in recognition for his outstanding contribution to law and to La Trobe University, I present to you for the award of the degree Doctor of the University, the Honourable Michael Kirby.

The Honourable Michael Kirby:

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Professors of the University, distinguished guests and friends. Thank you very much Chancellor for conferring this degree upon me. It’s a special pleasure for me to receive it from you, knowing as we both do, that this will be the last ceremony in which you preside as Chancellor of La Trobe University, after your most distinguished service as Chancellor, as a member of the Council for so many years, and I want to acknowledge the presence here today of Professor Nancy Millis, Companion of the Order of Australia, former Chancellor of the University. It’s a special pleasure to be helped to this occasion by two such distinguished Australian women and Chancellors and I am very grateful, Chancellor, for your public service, your service to our community, your ongoing service to education and on behalf of all the alumni of La Trobe University who have passed through your hands, a safe pair of hands I might say, I want to express as an alumnist, my thanks, my appreciation, my best wishes and my expectation that you will continue to be strongly associated with this wonderful institution.

I want to thank also the Vice Chancellor for his warm welcome to me to the campus. We had a most interesting discussion about economic history, about the role of the corporation in the success of the economic system, and about the gift of lawyers to original idea. We don’t often have them, but in the case of the corporation, lawyers actually were most inventive and created a way of getting people to give their money without the risk that if things went bad, they could be pursued forever and that differentiation between the corporation and the shareholders was a brilliant invention of the law, which all goes to show that sometimes when we strain very hard, we can come up with new and original thoughts.

I’m very proud of this new link with La Trobe University. I was thinking as I came in here this morning and saw this beautiful campus, save perhaps for the campus of the University of Western Australia, I think and have always thought, this campus is the most beautiful in the nation. So many of the campuses of the universities in Australia have been destroyed by horrible buildings which have been erected no doubt because Vice Chancellors of the day recommending to Buildings and Grounds Committees of the day, that they were absolutely essential. But at La Trobe, the succession of Vice Chancellors have been defensive of the campus and I hope it will always be so. To come in here this morning, to see the beautiful Leonard French glassworks with the beauty of the campus beyond, was a really wonderful experience once again. It always is. And I urge the Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Johnson, to continue to defend the beauty of this place. Having been Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, which sadly was created ten years after La Trobe University and which inherited a series of modern brutalist buildings of concrete, you come here and you see how lovely a university campus can be.

I am very proud of my associations with the Law School and I am grateful that Professor Baron, the new Dean of Laws here today to bid me welcome, as she did in a former life at Griffith University. I know of the wonderful School of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe and I am grateful to Professor Manne and Professor Dennis Altman, my old friend from years and years ago when we were both student politicians and trouble-makers for Vice Chancellors in our respective universities at Sydney and Tasmania. I am very proud of my association with both of them. And with Professor Marilyn Lake. My real interest in life was as a historian and I have threatened Professor Lake that whenever she lays down her robes as the Professor of History here, then they had better watch out because there may be an application from a very distinguished ancient and new graduate for that post.

Life is a series of circles and if you hang around long enough, you tend to come back to the place where you began. I can remember today ever so clearly the day I began at the University of Sydney. It was this time in the year 1956, which is of course a very long time ago. The day was memorable for me because I attended the university wearing my Prefect’s blazer from Fort Street Boys’ High School. Looking back, I cannot imagine how gauche I was, how immature, but I rather liked that blazer and I didn’t really want to release myself from the status and happiness of my time at school. I pay a tribute to my teachers at my schools. They are very much in my mind on a day like this. Robert Hughes, the noted art historian and commentator, was there that day and so were other notable people, some of whom have actually written about the day. Robert Hughes was rushing about the university in a long Oxford scarf, which had no doubt been purchased for him, which looked the more remarkable because it was a heat wave. But it was an amazing time. And today is also a wonderful day for me, because I come before you as the latest graduate of La Trobe University, but sitting in the back row today is my niece, Elizabeth Kirby, the daughter of my brother, Justice David Kirby of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Elizabeth graduated in the University of Melbourne and she then went around the world and came back with a new boyfriend and she is here today, because today is her first day at La Trobe University. She is taking a post-graduate course in teaching – she has decided that that is the vocation that she wishes to pursue, and where else to go except La Trobe University? So isn’t that a curious coincidence? And doesn’t it show how strange life is that I should come here today on an occasion important for me at a time of shall we say my maturity in life, and Elizabeth is coming here today, her very first day in post graduate studies at La Trobe University when she will have the great benefit of education at this university. We in the Kirby family are very proud of her and her association with La Trobe and we are warning everybody that once the Kirbys get involved in a university, you will find it very difficult to get rid of us.

So, Chancellor, thank you for your service and thank you for the honour you’ve done me. Vice Chancellor, please convey to the Council of the University my appreciation of this high honour. It is very special to me. And thank you to the professors and the staff of the university. I promise that I will do whatever I can to make this a real engagement with La Trobe University and be a true alumnist of the university and a true participant in the life of the university in its School of Law, in its School of Politics and Philosophy and in its School of History and every other school that I can possibly do. So thank you all very much for being with me on this special day. I am very grateful and very honoured.