Iconic Australian legal advocate awarded Honorary Doctorate

5 JUNE 2024

Iconic Australian legal advocate awarded Honorary Doctorate

During a recent graduation ceremony in Bathurst, Charles Sturt University bestowed its highest honour on a former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

  • Charles Sturt University recently conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of the University upon The Hon. Michael Kirby, AC, CMG
  • Speaking after the conferral, Dr Kirby said those who have enjoyed the blessings of a university education must be questioners and critics of injustices of all kinds
  • Dr Kirby urged graduates to go and make an impact, be restless for progress and impatient for change, to make our world a better and kinder place

During a recent graduation ceremony in Bathurst, Charles Sturt University bestowed its highest honour on a former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

In the presence of graduates and hundreds of their family and supporters at the Charles Sturt Faculty of Business, Justice and Behavioural Sciences graduation ceremony on Thursday 30 May, the University conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of the University upon The Hon. Michael Kirby, AC, CMG.

Dr Kirby then delivered the Occasional Address (titled ‘Restlessness to question, to reform and to give thanks’), saying it was a great honour for him and he was proud to receive the degree.

He offered congratulations and best wishes to all his fellow graduates on this special day and   acknowledged all present and, in particular, Wiradyuri Elders and other dignitaries. This included his partner of 55 years, Johan van Vloten, and special guest, long-time friend and former foundation Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Cliff Blake.

Dr Kirby observed that the University boasts many campuses, in Bathurst, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga, Dubbo, Canberra and, most recently, in Port Macquarie.

“This multi-campus university has escaped capture by the seaside perimeter of our island nation,” he said.

“It reaches inland and extends to many diverse and beautiful locations, but it is united by high educational aspirations, fine teaching and nationwide (indeed worldwide) service.”

Dr Kirby said those who have enjoyed the blessings of a university education must be questioners and critics of injustices of all kinds.

“This is not something confined to Australia,” he said. “It exists everywhere on our planet. But it is particularly important and urgent in Australia. University graduates have many privileges. We must all put these privileges to good use.”

Dr Kirby paid special tribute to the founders and builders of this University who helped bring tertiary education and globally recognised learning to inland Australia.

“This University has so many centres, so many disciplines, such excellence in teaching, and outstanding success in post-graduation employment, including in regional and rural Australia, which is proud of, and loyal to, its graduates,” he said.

“I also want to offer particular congratulations on this occasion to one of the founders of this University, Professor Cliff Blake, AO. Professor Blake (pictured 2nd from right) and I have known each other for more than 30 years.”

Dr Kirby offered heartfelt good wishes to all other participants, fellow citizens and visitors from abroad, noting that this is the day when the graduates become part of the global community of tested and qualified graduates.

“In many cases, this is the first time this has happened in our families, and it is a time to rejoice,” he said.

“Those who leave this University today with degrees should never forget this place. Some may return for higher degrees, some may go elsewhere. For all of us, life is one restless adventure of learning and exploring. None of us should slip into complacency and self-satisfaction.”

Dr Kirby urged the audience to ask more questions than he did in his youth.

“In our work and in our lives, we must challenge our fellow citizens to ensure that our society and our people become more just,” he said.

“This is especially so for any others who may be a little different from ourselves: First Nations’ People, disadvantaged women, people of different skin colour, culture or religion. LGBTQI people, like my partner and me. People from the authentic outback of Australia, far from the beaches and the edge of the great oceans.

“In the inland of this continent, the First Nations’ People cherished this land for millennia. We must strive to restore harmony to our environment.”

While also offering applause and admiration for the other disciplines sharing the day’s limelight, Dr Kirby said this day was a particularly important day for him, as a lawyer and former judge, for the presence of the cohort of graduates from the Charles Sturt Centre for Law and Justice.

“To them, and indeed all, I say: ‘Never, in law, forget the search for justice’. Certainly, for lawyers, the presence of justice and basic rights has a special importance for our society.

Dr Kirby said the greatest gift that any of us can give or receive in life is love – love of family, love of special friends and companions. But also love of one another, of our species and of our environment. Love of peace, of rationality and justice for all.

“This celebration is undoubtedly a reminder of our duty to others, to our society and to the world,” he said. “Not just to ourselves. Not just to our families. Not just to our own cultures and beliefs. But to a nation that is currently undergoing essential renewal.

“And to our world that presently faces existential dangers and unparalleled risks, the like of which we have not known for decades.”

Dr Kirby urged graduates to ‘Become a joiner’.

“Join your community, your civil society and organisations and the world of never-ending learning,” he said. “Contribute to righting wrongs. Make the world a better place for your presence.

“As the great Mahatma Gandhi urged us: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. And never lose the optimism of this day. Never cease to question received wisdom. It may be wrong. It may be unjust. It may be the product of discrimination and outmoded ignorance.

“Go and make an impact. And be restless for progress and impatient for change. Make our world a better and kinder place, inspired by this day – our new beginning.”

Media Note:

To arrange interviews, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or via news@csu.edu.au

Photos: Top, Dr Michael Kirby, AC, CMG, and partner Johan van Vloten.

In-text, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Graham Brown, Dr Michael Kirby AC, CMG, Foundation Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University Professor Cliff Blake, AO, and Director of the Charles Sturt Centre for Law and Justice Professor Mark Nolan.

Citation for the conferral of the honorary award or title of Doctor of the University upon The Honourable Michael Kirby, AC, CMG:

The Honourable Michael Kirby, AC, CMG, continues to make a remarkable contribution to society after a distinguished and ongoing legal career as a lawyer, judicial officer, law reformer, arbitration lawyer, protector of international human rights for the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, prolific author, speechmaker, lecturer nationally and internationally, and, advocate for LGBTIQA+ rights and HIV/AIDS research organisations, and as patron of the QTOPIA Sydney Queer Museum.

Educated with a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Laws, and Bachelor of Economics, and, a Master of Laws (First-Class Honours), he is the worthy recipient of many honorary doctorates recognising his contribution to Australian and international society.

Admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1967, Michael Kirby was the youngest man appointed to federal judicial office at the time of his appointment as Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission from 1975-1983. From 1975-1984, Michael Kirby was also the Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

In 1983, Justice Kirby was appointed to the Federal Court of Australia and then as President of the NSW Court of Appeal in 1984-1996 and the President of the Court of Appeal of the Solomon Island 1995-1996. Appointed to the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009, his judgments and work on that court are well-known and influential for law students, academics and legal practitioners alike. Some of his powerful dissents, in the words of barristers and academics Ian Freckelton and Hugh Selby, should be characterised correctly as ahead of their time and ‘appealing to the future’. Justice Kirby’s work on a number of courts shaped all areas of law and represent among the finest examples of judicial interpretation in Australia and elsewhere.

Beyond judicial work, Michael Kirby continues to use his formidable legal skills to national and international benefit, including being appointed as the Chair of a UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in North Korea, and in maintaining an award-winning international commercial arbitration practice.

Michael has fond memories of travels to Bathurst from Sydney over the years, and has had connections to many Charles Sturt campuses, staff and students for which we thank him. Lectures have included the annual lecture in honour of Professor Bob Meyenn, the former Dean of the Faculty of Education; lecturing in Wagga on theories of judicial reasoning, and visiting Albury and Bathurst to engage with business law students and staff as well as the staff of the Centre for Law and Justice. Michael has worked with Dame Margaret Guilfoyle and others on Charles Sturt advisory committees relating to public ethics. Michael also has fond memories of connecting with former Charles Sturt Vice-Chancellor Cliff Blake and is honoured to be receiving this award in the CD Blake Auditorium on Bathurst Campus.

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