MK Michael Kirby
AL Andrew Leigh
MK So I don’t go along with the view that everybody on one side is good and everybody on the other is bad and that you should hate people of a different political or religious or sexual persuasion. I suppose this has come from my own experience learning about myself and learning how people really seriously hated gay people. And there are still people who hate them.
AL My name is Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by good life was the life that one would like to live. A life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit, the life that most of us were trying to live until everything else got in the way.
In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests not because they’re smart but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky and those who’ve experienced hard times. I found their stories fascinating and I hope you do too.
One of my favourite songs from the musical Hamilton is Non-Stop. It’s about the incredible written output of Alexander Hamilton. Economic ideas, constitutional thoughts and letters. But the song could just readily have been written for Michael Kirby. His voluminous output spans books, speeches, United Nations reports and, of course, legal judgments.
During his time in the New South Wales Court of Appeal and the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby shaped a distinct jurisprudence, heavily influenced by international law and human rights. He did not always bring his fellow judges on board, however, and his dissent rate is the highest in the history of the High Court.
In 1997, 1998, a year out from law school, I had the privilege of working. I was one of Michael Kirby’s two judge’s associates. I answered the telephone, put thousands of letters in envelopes, made hundreds of cups of Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea and occasionally even had the chance to do some legal research.
Over the 12 months I was in the role, I learned more from Michael Kirby than from anyone except my parents. He taught me not just about the law but also about how to disagree without being disagreeable. He is without doubt a national living treasure. And it’s a pleasure to have the chance to speak with him today on The Good Life. Michael, thank you for joining me.
MK Thank you very much. I’m so moved by that introduction. I’m searching for a hanky to wipe away the tears that have accumulated over the years. But it’s nice to see you again. And I congratulate you on your public career. It’s wonderful. I’m very proud if I had any influence on your career.
AL You absolutely did. So, I wonder if we can start talking about your childhood and your schooling, and how that shaped your view as to what mattered in the world and what you most cared about.
MK Well, both my parents were young, and I was the oldest child, and I grew up in a family of four children. We had had five, but one died in infancy. And we were very close. And we still are, though, sadly, of the six of us, my parents and four children, we are now three. But my two brothers and I meet generally once a week or once a fortnight.
My father was a great reader, he would read to us, the Grimms’ fairy stories and other terrifying stories of morality gone wrong and how we must learn the basic lessons of life. My mother was very loving and very perceptive. So, the combination of them was just fantastic and we were very greatly blessed. I went to the local Anglican church. I sang in the choir until I kept fainting too often and they told me, you have a beautiful voice, Michael, but we can’t afford the interruptions to the Book of Common Prayer.
And then I went to school, public schools. My entire education was in public schools, then to the University of Sydney where I got involved in student politics, then to the bar or to the solicitor and a barrister and then to an early appointment. So there it all is, all wrapped up. But wonderful parents, wonderful teachers, public education. I’m a strong supporter of public schools.
AL So, love and Grimms’ fairy tales and parents who encouraged you towards the law, or where did the law come from? Neither of them were lawyers, were they?
MK No, there were no lawyers in our family, although my mother’s family were very well educated in Northern Ireland. And my great grandfather was a fellow of the Royal Society of Ireland. He was an antiquarian and very interested in the history of Ireland. And there were botanists and portraitists in her side of the family. My father’s family came to Australia a little earlier. And they were very affected by the divisions, the religious divisions. They were mainly Roman Catholics, though my father was a Protestant and an Anglican. So, this was the background.
Religion was somewhat more important in Australia in those days than it is today. And certainly, I was affected by my religious upbringing, and I would still count myself as a Christian. I was invited recently become a patron of the Rationalist Society. And I said I’d be proud to join but I revealed my lingering contact with the Anglican Church. And they said, well, it’s most unusual, it’s most unusual. But we’ll make an exception in your case. So, they were the big influences, my parents, my grandmother, my siblings and my schooling. And I was really very, very fortunate.
My life has actually been a very fortunate life, I think. And there have been some hard times but on the whole, leading up to when I met my partner, Johan, I’ve really had a very, very easy path. And then when Johan came along, that was another great blessing in my life. So, there you are, some strike it rich. I think I certainly did that.
AL Let’s just stay on religion. I’m curious as to what you feel your Anglicanism gave you? Was it through prayer or were there lessons that you learned from attending services, from reading the Bible? In what way did you draw ethical sustenance from your religiosity?
MK I went to St Andrew’s Church on the corner of Concord Road and Parramatta Road and the minister there had been a padre in the Second World War because we’re talking about the 1940s, just after the Second World War concluded. And he was a very broad-minded Anglican.
It must be said that the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church, as the global Anglican church goes, is a fairly narrow and very Protestant version of the Anglican Church. But I soon discovered that Anglicanism, unlike some branches of Christianity and other religions, is truly a broad church.
If you like bells and smells, you can go to Christ Church St Laurence. If you like a watered-down version of that you can go to St James’ Church in King Street, Sydney. And if you are for the stern, Protestant ethic, then you go to the Cathedral. And they all know the other exists and they all understand that it’s all part of the one communion. And I rather that fact, that there was a space within the one church for different points of view.
If I were to ask myself, I would certainly say I am a Protestant. I was brought up in that tradition that it was a very simple religion and essentially a religion of a revolutionary Jesus who came to give a new covenant and to introduce a more loving religion, as I see it. So, I, having love at home with my parents, love from my grandmother, qualified love from my siblings and also loving teachers. Wonderful, devoted teachers.
Then my religious element also had a great deal of love because I look on the religion of Jesus as a religion of reconciliation, of kindness and love for one another and of reaching out. And there’s no point saying, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us or our trespasses, if you don’t do it. And therefore, you’ve got to learn from what you’re saying and mouthing in your prayers and that’s what I get out of it.
I get out of it a simple religion, not over-grand. Jesus in the manger, Jesus on the donkey, Jesus on the cross. A very simple religion and not too much hatred in there. And that’s a good thing, I think, for a global religion. And Anglicanism, after all, you’ve got to say, is the only big global branch of Christianity that is admitting women to the priesthood, has admitted women bishops. And so, from its very origins, it had to reconcile itself to this Protestant-Catholic divide within it. And therefore, it had to find a space for people with different perspectives. And I think that’s not only good in religion, it’s good in life.
AL As you say that the church is evolving in its views now but there was no shades of grey in how it approached homosexuality through the 40s, 50s and 60s.
MK First of all, I was not conscious of that point in my own life, that could mark me out. But in those days, it really wasn’t spoken about. I can’t remember ever, the Reverend Cecil Dillon, who was our priest at the local Anglican church, ever, ever mentioning gay or homosexuals or anything of that kind.
Niemöller was the Lutheran pastor in Germany, one of those who stood with Bonhoeffer and risked his life. He ultimately stood up and that was a very important principle for me to learn. And I learned it because my local minister brought him along to speak at St Andrew’s church at Strathfield. And I thought that was a very good thing.
AL Yes, those World War II padres, I think, brought back an awful lot of nuance and texture to the way in which they practiced. From an early age, when I look back through your CV, I’m always struck with the sense of, how do you fit in all these things? There seems to be a span of years in which you do about twice as much stuff as ought to have been possible. Were you living life like you were running out of time?
MK Chief Justice Spigelman says that the best biography of me hasn’t yet been written, it’ll be the psychological biography of what motivated me into becoming such a workaholic. And it’s probably true, homosexuality was looming more importantly in my own mind. And when, at a time when it was criminal, it was really bad news. And you therefore had to be very, very quiet about it to those you love most and to everyone else, to the whole world.
As I look back, that’s something I really rather resent. And I think that was a cruel thing to have been done to me, but you just obeyed the rules and got on. And so, I sank myself in student politics.
Chief Justice Gleeson, on my departure from the Court of Appeal of New South Wales for the High Court, said that I entered a juggernaut. I became a juggernaut of student politics, and I was the chair of endless committee meetings. I became a very good chairman. I’m still a very good chairman. I was a very good presiding judge. And had I been the chief justice, which could have happened in the way things fell out, the whole story would have been a very different story because law is ever so hierarchical. However, it was a good thing to learn to be a really good chairperson.
People say Bob Hawke was a wonderful chairman of the Cabinet and he could get the essence of it. And I think I have that skill. However, it all came good in the end, the story had a happy ending. I ultimately met Johan and I was with him just one day ago, when we were having a very rare holiday. I can’t be too angry about it. But I don’t want that to happen to other young people. And I have got a sense of obligation to do what I can to make sure that other people have a smoother and easier ride.
AL So many strands there. Let me just ask, tease out a little bit more about being a good chair because it is one of the qualities that I often notice about you. What makes a good chair? Are there things that you do in the preparation for a meeting or a conversation that others may not do? Or is there something about things you’re conscious of as the conversation is unfolding?
MK All of the above, I was always a hard worker and a very good preparer for everything. I didn’t rely on inspiration, I really always worked hard, especially when I was appointed the president of the Court of Appeal of New South Wales. When I was first there, and I was only 34, I think, at the time. 44 at the time, I’d been chairman of the Law Reform Commission for the first ten years of my judicial life. But I had to really work hard to keep up with these very, very brilliant people. And in the end, I joined them, and I was able to get the best of what they had to say.
It’s really searching for what is common and what is in difference and then trying to confront the things that there are differences and see if there are bridges between the differences or, if there are not, resolving it by democratic means which everybody will understand.
So, I think it is respecting others, respecting others’ points of view, moving things along. And that’s what I learned to do. And when I left the Court of Appeal, there was rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth. Everybody was distressed that I was leaving. But I can’t say they were all equally thrilled that I was joining the High Court of Australia. But that’s another story.
AL You were extraordinarily collegial in that role of president of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. In particular, I was always struck by the way in which you were able to maintain a friendship with the eccentrically conservative Judge Roddy Meagher. How did you go about creating that sense of esprit de corps at the New South Wales Court of Appeal?
MK Well, before I came, the Court of Appeal, which was always a very, very strong court. Intellectually, it was a very strong court. It was run in a militaristic type of way, of top down. And that was really the style which is very common in the law. It’s a very hierarchical arrangement. And that’s partly because, if you’ve got these rules, everybody will understand them and therefore it will all work but that wasn’t very congenial to me. And if I’d learned anything in student politics, it was that you get more out of people by engaging with them and by respecting them.
And so, I introduced the idea of a regular meeting and we had a meeting every Friday a fortnight, and the judges would meet around the table, we would have cups of coffee, raisin toast slathered with butter. Middle aged gents really love their raisin toast with butter. And that was a way you could keep tabs on who owed their reasons and if there were problems and a proper way, sorting them out by consensus, by agreement. And it was a very agreeable place.
I think, looking back, that was probably the most agreeable time in my life because I went in with a great deal of, if not hostility, at least suspicion and anxiety that I would not be up to it. But I soon showed, by doing more than anybody, that I was up to it. I would have some slightly different points of view but that’s judicial independence. And everybody respected that, but we got on well together. And just as Marnie said, it was a big change in the court, in the atmosphere of the court and it was a much more pleasant place to be.
And workplaces don’t need to be unpleasant, you can get more out of people if they’re working with agreement but that has to be agreement based on respect and on observing a proper dimension of each other’s contribution and not trying to side-line another person.
Roddy Meagher was not difficult to get on with it all. He was a very, very funny and witty person. He was hopelessly conservative in some matters, but we agreed on some other matters. And we found you have to concentrate on the things you agree on outside work hours. And that’s basically what we did. He was very interested in history, as was Justice Heydon, very interested in history. Very knowledgeable about history. And therefore, we would not talk about law when we had spare time together, we would talk about history and I would learn things and it was good.
AL I remember, you once sent me down for some errand, down to his chambers, which were a few floors down and you knew you were approaching his office because the art just spilled out onto the walls. And not just the art but I think there were stuffed heads there as well, If I’m not imagining things. It was that larger-than-life personality.
MK Yes, he really did know and love painting. And as well as history, he was very knowledgeable about that. He drove his wife, Penny, mad by spending all his money on it, though, probably ended up to be a good investment. And yes, I don’t think he ever reached the level his brain entitled him to reach as a judge. I think he got bored with it, actually. And that was a shame.
He actually, as a barrister, he was almost unique in this. He would come up and he would cut everything away as a judge will do and cut away arguments and go straight for the jugular. He’d go straight for the winner point. And he’d put all his eggs in that basket. It was brave, courageous, some might say foolhardy, but it was a very powerful form of advocacy. And he won a lot of cases, including my vote in cases because he would think conceptually and that was something I had learned in the Law Reform Commission.
AL In terms of your work ethic, it’s legendary around the Sydney legal community. The story that most comes to mind is of the female lawyer who’d received a range of Christmas cards and was calling around on Christmas morning in order to leave messages in people’s answering machine to say thank you, and called your chambers and your dulcet tones immediately answered, Kirby. What was a typical work week like for you when you were a judge?
MK Well, I would start early on Monday morning and finish late on Sunday night. I was a hard worker. And I had a lot to do. And I had a lot to get through. I had, as president of the Law Reform Commission or of the Court of Appeal, I had to do the administrative work as well as the substantive work and so that all kept me pretty busy.
It was really a question of how engaged you were with issues. Some might say, well, the problem with you is, this is the psychobiography coming out now, you were warped, poor thing. You were growing up, you didn’t fully form as a human being with human relationships and so you found work as the alternative.
There may be a little bit of truth in that, though, I always had the good practical, common sense of the Netherlands at home. Whenever I would get home, I would get a very strong dose of practicality and feet on the ground. So, it wasn’t entirely that. But maybe I would have, even if I’d been a straight person, I would have just been one of those obsessive overachievers, striving to win that star, or the crown, in our days.
I’m sorry, Andrew, I have to tell you this. When we did a very good essay, we got a crown, a red crown of St Edward stamped on our book. Or if we had been particularly spectacular, on our hand, which we could go home and show our parents. I suppose in a way, I’ve always been striving to get those crowns and stars and to do as well as I can. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s how progress is made, how societies are improved.
It’s a semi-Methodist way of looking at the world. And for a little while, I went to the local Methodist Church. And the Sydney Anglicans were very like the Methodists. And so, it’s a sort of, roll up your sleeves, do your best and try to make the world a slightly better place for the fact that you’ve wandered here. And so that’s what I have done. And that’s what I continue to do.
AL I think you’re selling yourself a little short and in talking about striving for the crown because it gives an image of somebody who is only after formal accolades that can go on one’s CV. But I remember at the High Court, walking back from lunch one day to discover you in the middle of the library area entertaining a group of visiting legal librarians and telling them stories about being on the court. And it was an activity which was never going to go on anyone’s CV, was never going to be noticed in any formal context but was enormously valuable.
And I’ve seen you with legal students as well, just taking the time to talk to them one on one. So, there is that sense of greater purpose beyond just getting the stars in you, I think.
MK Well, my father was a very gregarious person. He was a salesman for most of his life. And he was really very engaged with other people. And in our family, there was always a joke. If people came to the front door, my mother would stand them at the front door, and they’d have to be terribly important or very old friends to get over the threshold. That was Northern Ireland.
My father was more Southern Ireland and so he would take any excuse to invite people in. Neither of my parents really drank alcohol. My mother never, my father, a shandy at Christmas. And neither was into gambling. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was interested in gambling and a little speculation here and there with the local SP, I suspect.
Johan has also been interested in occasional bets and when I would remonstrate this monstrous and un-Calvinistic behaviour, he would say, but your life is full of excitement. You’ve got all those wonderful colleagues at work to deal with and you have excitement day in, day out. This is how I get a little bit of excitement. And I think that’s how my grandmother must have looked at it. But this was a really Protestant environment of no grog and no gambling and hard work. This is the archetypal Protestant work ethic.
AL And what did you do to sustain yourself through, well, such a prodigious output? I know you enjoy traveling, music, certainly not sport. What were your sources of sustenance through maintaining [overtalking]?
MK I’ll not allow that comment on sports to go unremarked. At Fort Street High School, in my single-minded determination to become a prefect and get the supreme crown on my forehead, I did train to be a rugby union football referee. And I never ever played the knock-on rule. I always was a very strict law and order person.
AL A black letter referee.
MK Exactly, and that really upset the poor old players enormously but it’s true, I was more interested in music and in literature and so on. So, my spare time, such as it was, was spent in that particular area and still is. If I’ve got some spare time, I go through these periods. I’ve been through a Schubert period and then I went through a Mahler period, which Johan said was definitely a wrist-slashing time in his life because of the very mournful and ever so long symphonies that I was going through at that time.
But I always go back to J.S. Bach and that’s where I am. My iPod is full of J.S. Bach. There’s always something new to learn from J.S. Bach and from his cantatas. And for somebody brought up in a Protestant Christian tradition, it’s very comfortable to your spiritual tradition as well as your musical tastes because it’s so mathematical and it’s so simple and pure.
And, really, I’m not very imaginative in that Johan knows much more about painting and art. And when we go to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or to the other art museums there, you go through and you see all these little Dutch girls and boys sitting there with their blue eyes, and looking up and being told about the theory of the two sides of the face that they had in medieval portraiture. That one side was the good qualities of the person, and the other was the bad qualities of the person.
And this is something I never learned at school, and I really don’t know much about paintings and other forms of art, but I do love music. And it’s interesting that, and I do love literature and plays, and Shakespeare and I can spout reams of Shakespeare off by heart because my father, very interested in these things, gave us, as children, recordings. Microgroove recordings of Shakespeare plays. And so I have Marlon Brando in my brain as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar and John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier in Richard the Third.
And Shakespeare is very oral and a bit like Rumpole of the Bailey, I’ll go wandering around spouting, in the middle of Afghanistan, these plays of Shakespeare and they get into your brain, and they become part of your own dialectic.
AL Shakespeare’s influence on the language is just extraordinary. How do you find time for big picture thinking amidst all of the busyness of things to do, particularly in the time in the Court of Appeal, where you had the administrative work, the judgments and, of course, the speeches as well?
MK Well, the Court of Appeal was a very, very busy time because of the large number of cases you had to get through. And in a sense, I’ve always thought that the fact that the judges are always so busy put a check on the ego because you just had to get through your work. And you therefore had to cooperate much more with each other because you generally sat as a bench of three. And that puts pressure on you to find common ground. But in terms of the getting through it all, well, I just worked harder.
I would get in, in the Court of Appeal days, at about 5 AM. And I’m still getting into work most days at 5 AM. Now, most people think that’s crazy. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful time of the day. And I’ve always had an office that looks out to the east. And so, to see the sun rising in Sydney and see the beauties of the sky and have no phone calls and not even emails at that hour of the morning, most mornings, certainly not in Australia. You have a clear brain and that’s a habit of life I got into at the bar and it’s one that sticks with me. Early starts and not so early departures.
I would work from 5 AM generally to about 7:30 PM. And that’s just the discipline of life, there’s a lot to do. And I’ve always been involved in lots of things, lots of civil society organisations and that’s kept me interested and kept me young.
I don’t think a person could do that nowadays because I was on a plane coming back to Australia this morning. And the young Chinese Australian people sitting next to me, they couldn’t wait to dive into their iPhone and their whole brain, their whole existence is now an extension of constant stimulation on the iPhone. And I just think that’s very distracting of big picture thinking. I think you’re under the influence of instantaneous pressures and attractions and therefore you’re not thinking big-picture. People have got to preserve a space for that thinking.
I get into the train at night, alas, no more coal cars. And when I sit there, everyone is looking at their iPhone. There’s no human contact, people don’t even look at each other. They’re not interested in anyone else. They’re just looking at their iPhone and I think that’s going to be very damaging to human relationships and also to thinking. And just thinking, which is not so easy if you’re constantly being stimulated by or looking for stimulation from and creating stimulation from a little machine.
I’m not going to win on this, I’m going to lose on this. But I’m not sure that it’s good for human relationships or for big thinking. And the recent American election shows how powerful are the forces of social media and of animosities, anger.
AL Yes, and people say of Twitter that it’s a great way of finding out what are the interesting long form pieces which have been written. But I find in practice, if I’m skimming through my Twitter feed reading a whole lot of short, sharp comments, then I notice a link to an interesting article, I click on it and I begin reading a 5,000-word essay about the Middle East. My brain doesn’t stick to it.
I’m after that instantaneous sugar hit of the new bit of information. And it’s hard to move away from the quick and quirky into the substantive, long form journalism, which I know is going to be more important.
MK Yes, but perhaps in your profession as a member of parliament, you have to take account of what is being said in these short, sharp interventions because that’s the populace to which you are accountable. But I, fortunately, was never in that position. And I could indulge my thoughts in the areas that I was interested in. And that was not only human rights, it was also civil society and the way it organises itself.
That’s the way in which we exercise our freedoms and it’s very close to the profession of law because of the fact that law is there to defend the civil society and to defend diversity in civil society. And my life as a gay man had taught me how dangerous it was to have narrow-minded views that disrespect a particular group just because they’re, in some minor respect, different from oneself. I learned a lot from that experience, and it wasn’t a nice experience to go through.
AL What’s your attitude towards hate?
MK Well, I don’t think I’m really into the hate business. I think it can be very disturbing to your health and your own psyche that you go around hating people. I can’t really think of anybody that I hate. I was attacked in the Senate by a senator, and I think I would have had just cause to have hated him. But I didn’t and I don’t, and I really felt more puzzled and hurt that this would be done to me, a citizen, in the national Parliament. But hatred is such a destructive…
Unfortunately, in your vocation, there’s a lot of it and towards your vocation, there’s a lot of it. And I don’t ever feel that way to members of different political parties because I know, I’ve known many of them over the years. And there are good people in both major political groupings. And individuals have good and less good aspects of themselves.
So, I don’t go along with the view that everybody on one side is good and everybody on the other is bad and that you should hate people of a different political or religious or sexual persuasion. I suppose this has come from my own experience learning about myself and learning how people really, seriously, hated gay people. And there are still people who hate them.
I saw a report, which is the most homophobic electorate in Australia? And a gay man went up there to the electorate and spoke to people there. And they accepted him in a polite way but there was such ignorance and hatred. And it really is distressing that that’s so today and it’s really got to change. And I think it is changing but it’s still changing slowly.
And the fact that the plebiscite was put forward as a means of defeating, if possible, and certainly delaying a vote in the Federal Parliament, which has been held to have the full constitutional power to deal with the issue of same sex marriage, is an indication of how people with power can sometimes be full of hate.
And that is, this day and age, with the knowledge we have from science, is ridiculous. And it’s got to be called out. And I think it will increasingly be called out but there are, unfortunately, some signals that are happening around the world that are not always terribly encouraging. And so, it’s a constant struggle but the struggle goes on.
AL You’ve spoken a lot about politics, do you think if attitudes towards homosexuality had been different, more progressive, that you might have embarked on a political career?
MK Oh, certainly. I would have been a juggernaut in big politics as well as in student politics. I was rather good at it. But certainly, at the time I would have contemplated it, I would have had to pretend. I would have had to disguise. I would have had to deceive.
And I’ve just finished a book on the life and trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal leader of the British Liberal Party and how he got involved trying to suppress the knowledge of his sexuality. And that that led to a charge of conspiracy to murder somebody who was putting the story around. And when you read about it and what he had to go through, and this was the age I was growing up in, in Australia.
And if anything, the Brits were a bit more advanced than we were. They had actually changed the law by the time Thorpe was leader of the Liberal Party in Britain. But he still was under the pressure of society. And so, he still felt he had to do various things. And it’s a gripping book. And it shows the extremes that people were driven to. Well, I just would never. And anyway, I had already met Johan and there’s no way he would have allowed me to go along with that.
In fact, when I took him along to Sydney University very soon after we met, we were both 29. And I was very proud of my report to the SRC, and I gave my report to the SRC and they looked on me with adulation and respect and gratitude. And then I went out and I said to him, what did you think of that? What did you think of that? He said, a bit childish, isn’t it? At 29 with all those schoolboys, talking about trivial matters. Don’t you think it’s a bit childish? I think you’ve got to grow up, Michael Kirby. And I had a long look at myself, and I thought, pretty good advice.
And he’s been giving me that advice ever since. Really feet on the ground. And I’ve been very fortunate. So, it really wasn’t an option. And it’s not much point talking counterfactually because, although Australian public life is suffering a deficit of people of my talent nowadays, I’m afraid even I have to face the fact that I’m now far too ancient. And so, I’ve just got to get on with the activities which I’m doing, which are interesting enough and mainly, now, in the international sphere.
AL So, let me wrap up with a couple of general questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
MK I would tell my teenage self to have more fun. And I think that advice is more likely to have been respected nowadays than it was back in those days. Wise guy, I would have said back in my youth, teen age, have fun? That’s against the law, and it’s just not possible, I’ll end up on the front page of the afternoon newspaper. So, it’s a matter of looking at today and saying, realise that personal relationships and a sexual life and sexual fulfilment are very important aspects of being a full human being. And people who don’t realise this or try to stop it have really got to get real.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
MK Well, I certainly don’t believe that the Bible is literally true, as I suppose I unthinkingly did as I was growing up, as a young person. But gradually you come to realise that inerrancy is just not possible given the multitude of things that exist there.
And therefore, that that then presents the challenge. Well, if some is in error, then how do you tell the erroneous from the true and what do you make of the whole concoction? And that is the challenge of being a mildly, slightly religious person and patron of the Rationalist Society. It’s a problem for them and a partial problem for me.
AL And egalitarian and monarchist. You’re nothing if not a man of interesting aspects.
MK Now, I’m not going to let you get away with that, Andrew. There’s nothing incompatible with an egalitarian and constitutional monarchy, having an absentee, overseas head of state is a very good practical arrangement. And actually, if you look at the world’s constitutional monarchies, they tend to be rather more temperate and egalitarian than the republics that are on offer.
AL But there could not be any more inegalitarian way of choosing your head of state than to say that it will be a child of a particular genetic line.
MK But it’s a historical thing. And it’s really, this is a semi-anarchistic view of head of state-ship. Heads of state can be an awful lot of trouble. And the way we solve that in Australia is having this dutiful Germanic family who go about. I had to present the report of the high-level panel on the future of the coals to the Queen and I went to Buckingham Palace and I was ushered in through the gates and I thought, this is a prison, this poor woman has lived in a prison all her life. She’s got lots of baubles and beautiful jewels but it’s just like visiting a prison.
And all of that, she does for us. And she does it at virtually no cost to us in Australia. And it keeps an awful lot of horrible people out of the position. V-Day, well, I won’t say anything about others because that would be political. But it’s a system that has its merits. And it’s, according to a recent book by David Hill, there is a new burst of enthusiasm since Wills and Kate and especially George and Charlotte came on, so you watch it.
AL When are you most happy?
MK I’d be most happy when I’m in the company of Johan. And it sounds boring and suburban but that’s basically what it is. We gave away watching television about 20 years ago. And so, we sit there and talk about things and having time and making time and keeping space, even in a busy life, to talk together.
Johan’s a great reader. He reads all the books, mainly histories and biographies, that I wish I had the time to read. And so, he tells me about this. He knows much more about Tudor history in Britain than I know. And that’s a wonderful source of commonality. As he once said to me when we talked about a couple, whether they’re going to survive, and most couples we’ve known, straight and gay, haven’t.
He says, after the messy bits are over, can they talk about the early Etruscans? And this is the problem. Many people don’t have much in common. And that’s because originally they would be sitting, watching the telly. Nowadays, they’re just texting each other in their mobile phones. And so, we talk. I think that’s when I’m happiest, that’s when I think he’s happiest. Except when I get onto subjects he doesn’t agree with, like vegetarianism.
AL What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay physically healthy?
MK Well, I’m trying to get more exercise. I don’t put on a lot of weight, and I think that’s because of my frenetic activities. A lot of travel, a lot of rushing around conferences and quite a lot of stress, really, doing all that. I’m now walking part of the way to work. And if I can be very, very good in the new year, I’ll walk part of the way home as well. So, this is how I try to keep fit and diet. And I thought I’d become wonderfully slim when I gave up eating meat. But alas, that hasn’t happened. But I am trying to exercise more discipline because I know it’s good for you.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
AL And finally, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
MK Well, I think, like most people, my parents really had the biggest influence on me. I was very lucky to have such loving parents. They were happy when I did well, they were reasonably happy to see those crowns on my wrist. But they never really badgered me. They never really pestered me to do better. They were glad and encouraging but not obsessive. So, they were really good models.
And learning from my grandmother’s second husband who had been born a Roman Catholic and grew up. He was a Gallipoli veteran and became a communist. And then learning that he was hated and that laws were passed against him, and that he was basically a very decent man who believed at that time, in the communist way, something my parents didn’t and that I didn’t. But learning that people can have different points of view and that the way to counter that is by argument and persuasion, not by oppressive laws.
So, I think there are so many influences affect your life. And my parents, my grandmother, her husband, my siblings and my teachers, I’ve really had a blessed life, a fortunate life. But watch out for the psychological drama that is still to come. And who will play me in the psychodrama of my inner compulsions? It would have to be an extremely handsome person, a very hard-working and no doubt, an Oscar would be their reward.
AL Miniseries or movie, do you think?
MK Oh, don’t let’s get too ambitious. I think half an hour, an hour at the most.
AL Michael Kirby, thank you for taking the opportunity to speak on The Good Life podcast today.
MK Thank you, Andrew.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. If you liked this podcast, can I ask you a favour? Would you mind putting something on Facebook to tell your friends? Next week, we’ll be back again with another extraordinary guest talking about happiness, health and living an ethical life.