NSW Education LIVE – Michael Kirby

This page is a transcript of the video NSW Education LIVE with Michael Kirby.

Duration – 13:44

Former high court justice Michael Kirby reflects on his time as a NSW public school student.


Michael Kirby

In the year, 1949, I was selected to go to the Summer Hill Opportunity Class. The OC class. For so-called gifted students. And we had wonderful teachers. One of them, Mr Gorringe, he'd fought in the war, which was then only two or three years earlier. And he was there to teach us, how we must do everything we could to avoid war. Something which led me to get involved with the United Nations. Mr Gorringe, taught me about the universal declaration of human rights. Something I applied in my work on North Korea. Your teachers leave indelible imprints later on.

But, when I was in six class, my teacher, Mr Tennant, Warren Tennant had a car accident. And therefore, the headmaster, Mr Gibbons, was suddenly required to teach this class of bright little boys because we were boys and girls, separately educated then. And so he was teaching me. And I was a real little swat and very serious about my work. Wanted to get top of the class all the time. And, unfortunately, I spilled the ink in the inkwell, full of deep part menthol ink onto my exercise book, which had a green cover. It was a deep part menthol exercise book. And so naturally, I couldn't have my book. Literally, my copybook stained. I therefore tore the pages out. And Mr Gibbons, who was an expert in weight, walked up and down the class, picked up the exercise books and he picked up mine and shock horror he said, "This book is light. You have been tearing out pages from this book. This book belongs to the department. It belongs to the King. This is the King's property. You have torn out pages from the King's property." He had fought in the First World War and, there was no excuse for, the tearing out the King's property. And so he said, "Come out Kirby, out to the front of the class." And he had the cane, up his sleeve and suddenly the stick appeared. And he said, "Put up your hand, you are going to get two of the best to teach you not to purloin the department's property." And I said, "But, but, but." (mumbles) He said, "No, you've snore buts, up, up, up."

And you know, in my work as a judge, I was always a little bit softer than some other judges. And I think that experience taught me an important lesson – before you impose punishment, you gotta hear the other side. You gotta hear anything that is said. Even though it may not, in the end, change your mind, it's important to hear the other side. And, so Mr Gibbons, although he didn't mean to give me a big lesson in justice. Unconsciously gave me a very important lesson for my life as a judge. Hear the other side.

I loved every day of school days. I was a real nerd, I have to admit. I loved them all but, I loved the singing, with Terence Hunt. He was on the ABC and he would be up in the corner, and he would lead us in singing. And I had a beautiful voice even if I say so, and I loved that. And then HD Black, later Sir Hermann Black, a product of public education in NSW. He taught us the world as it was evolving. And told us about how Mao was leading the Chinese military of the communists against Chiang Kai-shek. So, it was bringing culture and values to my life and bringing history, which I really loved. And, that's why I always, remember my teachers and remember the debt I owe to public schools. The teachers I had, I had a teacher, George Bowman, who taught me history. And, I came top of the state in history. I'm very proud of that fact. Though it pales into insignificance to a student at the school who recently came top of the state in five subjects. That is seriously achieving. But, it was a wonderful school, wonderful teachers. I know all my teachers, I remember them all. And, they had the biggest impact on me other than perhaps my parents and my siblings. I love the law because, at school, I was encouraged to get on my feet and to speak and to become a debater, to become an actor, and generally to, keep my mouth open and talk and express myself. And therefore, law was really something that felt rather naturally, into my perspective.

And, I never regretted that I became a lawyer. Every day you are dealing with puzzles. The puzzles of life. The puzzles of what justice means in the particular case. The puzzle of whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a serious crime. So these are matters that are inherently very interesting. You see, my technology in my day was the, monitor of the radio broadcasts up in the corner. That was the level of the technology. Otherwise, we had to ink in the inkwell and a pen and you would write and learn to write in proper, calligraphy really. But, the biggest difference now is the difference that's happened in our world. The difference, of technology. The role of, computers in the schools. And the role of communicating with digital technology. All of this is so different, from my time. You know when I was about, 12, my father did a wonderful thing. He bought me a desk. And that desk was in the room that, in which I slept and that really, helped me to get into the swing of studying at home and doing my homework and doing extra. Beyond the homework and enjoying education and enjoying the opening of my mind. So, I suspect I would have been able to cope with it, but, we didn't have anything like the coronavirus. Our schools were not closed, and this was a challenge that the public education and private education teachers of today had to cope with. We in Australia generally, take our rights for granted. And that's perhaps because we don't have a bill of rights in our constitution. We don't have a charter of rights in most parts of Australia to remind us of the fact that we share the planet. And we share our nation with people who are not necessarily exactly the same. Australia in my time was a country that really seriously neglected the Aboriginal people, that had prejudice against people who were of a different skin colour or ethnicity with the white Australia. Which had disadvantage for women in our country and disadvantage for gays. Now, because I learned in my schooling that I was myself gay, that was not a good discovery at that time. And, I have to say that in public schools, because there was no religious element, it was really a non-topic.

And I never felt oppressed in my school, but I have seen a change, in our society. And, I believe that change makes it much easier today for LGBT people in schools and, it's imperative that our public schools especially give the lead in equality. Equality for all, for Aboriginals, for people of different ethnicity, for women and for LGBT people. The Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court in 1992. And I was not then a member of the court. I came onto the court in 1996. I believe Mabo has been a very important step in our journey of, reconciliation and equality for our, first peoples. But, a lot remains to be done. The Mabo decision dealt only with the issue of land rights. But that was an important symbol of the importance of economic rights in order, that Aboriginal Australian should have equality for other members of the Australian community.

It is noteworthy, that that issue in Mabo, the entitlement of indigenous Australians to their land rights was not fixed up by our elected parliament. We had elected parliaments for 150 years before 1992. But, it was in fact fixed up by an unelected court of senior judges who said, "This is simply not just that you should deny people access to their land and their land entitlements, because of their race. And that was corrected by the High Court. And I think it's one of the great decisions of the High Court, not the only great decision of the court. I think it's important for us to have a symbolic change in our constitution, which, only had two mentions of the indigenous people and they were not favourable to them.

But, fixing that up with symbols is good, but it's not enough. The fundamental problem, which the indigenous people of Australia suffer is that they have been deprived of the wherewithal by which they would have the economic means to have true economic and social equality with the rest of us. And, therefore I think it would be good to have an acknowledgement of Aboriginal people in our constitution in a positive spirit, but, it's not enough. There have to be other provisions and the indigenous people themselves in their, voice from the heart, have urged that they have a voice into the federal parliament. If you keep living day by day and everything is the same and nothing changes, then you are not confronted with the wrongs that appear in the world. So my hope is that out of the crisis of, COVID and the coronavirus, we as a society have had a moment to pause and think. First of all, I think we've done pretty well in our national response. That seems to be, shown in the very low levels of infection and death. And I think, the fact that that has been done with a high measure of bipartisanship is a very good thing. I also believe that when we get back to so-called 'normal', we will retain some aspects of teaching and schooling and work. Why do we all go to a workplace? It isn't really so necessary nowadays with the new technology of information and of communication. What we should be doing now is thinking, what do we have to do in our politics to make a much more cooperation in things that are truly essential. That will show Australia up as a good country that does some things better than others. And what do we have to do in our work, that will be different? And what do we have to learn from the innovations that our teachers have introduced into education, that had to cope with the virus, but, will still be lessons to be applied when the virus has disappeared, we hope?

End of transcript.

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