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From a life in law

By David Flint - posted Thursday, 13 October 2011

Born in 1938, Michael Kirby soon concluded that his place of birth, Concord, was particularly blessed. In the Anglican church he was taken to by his father, the priest would pray 'Oh God, who art the author of peace and lover of Concord…'

Griffith University law professor A.J. Brown's book is rich in anecdotes and photographs. These and Kirby's letters and speeches are a treasure trove, indicative of an unusually meticulous man well aware of his destiny. Known never to be without a camera, Geoffrey Robertson once reprimanded him for behaving like a tourist.

One delightful - and revealing - photograph shows Kirby at 13 wearing a cope and blessing his dog Moppy. Two years earlier - at 11, mind you - this very serious boy declared he would be either a bishop or a judge. He later considered a political career, but realising he had left his run too late, conceded that he looked on politics 'as a monk looks on sex - with nostalgia'.


A man of principle, Tony Abbott said Kirby might have been the 'only really straight politician.'

I was once asked to introduce Kirby to an audience of eminences at Sydney University's women's college. I began with the old adage that a man who is not a socialist before he is 30 has no heart; and a man who is still a socialist after that age has no brain. (I was sure Kirby would enjoy that knowing the original version by François Guizot was about republicans, not socialists).

The point I made was that Michael Kirby cannot be categorised – he is unique, or as lawyers say, sui generis.

High Court judges are sometimes hard to categorise, none more so than Kirby. A stylish man with a strong respect for tradition, he must have loathed the ugly robes adopted in the Eighties by the activist Mason court. Adrian Deamer said they make the judges look like American funeral directors.

Kirby's often dissenting opinions, thorough, well-documented and never obtuse, demonstrate independence, not radicalism.

Take WorkChoices. A centralist would have delighted in giving the widest interpretation to the corporations power, of which Kirby had long been a notable proponent. But, alone save for Ian Callinan, he declared WorkChoices invalid. With elegance and, some would protest, Jesuitical ingenuity, he did so without abandoning his long-declared love for the corporations power.


Probably the best example of the futility of trying to categorise Kirby is his strong attachment to the constitutional monarchy. He would rightly say that there is nothing inconsistent with being a progressive and a monarchist - after all, so were the greatest leaders of the Australian Labor Party.

His loyalty to the throne is unusual in the elite circles in which he moves. Kinder souls treat this as an eccentricity. Tony Fitzgerald declared Kirby's appointment to the Federal Court long overdue, explaining that all minority groups should be represented there, 'even monarchists'.

While progressive, Kirby is a great respecter of tradition. He was one of the founders of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, which grew out of a Liberal party group convened by Peter King and was broadened by the inclusion of men like Kirby and Doug Sutherland.

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This review of Michael Kirby: Paradoxes and Principles was first published in The Spectator on October 1, 2011.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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