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Michael Kirby: Don't Forget the Justice Bit (ATOM study guide)

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    This film explores the complex life of The Hon. Michael Kirby, one of Australia's most high-profile campaigners against inequality and discrimination. A former justice of the High Court of Australia, Kirby is sometimes referred to as 'the great dissenter', though he would much prefer the title of 'the great communicator'. Filmed both during and after his time on the High Court, this documentary explores the personal, moral and spiritual convictions of one of our most compassionate and incisive legal minds.

    Synopsis

    In 1997, The Bulletin selected Michael Kirby as one of Australia's top ten creative minds; nine years later, the same magazine listed him as one of the hundred most influential Australians of all time. The high-profile judge was also included in Who magazine's 2002 list of the twenty-five most beautiful people – certainly a unique honour for a member of the High Court. But Michael Kirby is a unique man. During his thirty-six years serving on the judiciary he repeatedly did the one thing that judges are not supposed to do: he spoke publicly on an enormous range of social, political, scientific, economic, religious and humanitarian issues. He has spoken out again and again. To say he is prolific is a gross understatement – his website lists 2338 speeches, most written on top of his judicial responsibilities.

    Critics in both the legal profession and wider community think he spoke too much. Indeed, some believed that he was unable to keep his personal views out of the courtroom, that he dragged his personal agendas onto the bench and that he was an 'activist judge' trying to change the law rather than simply declaring it. But at different times, Kirby's independent position has alienated radicals, progressives and conservatives alike.

    Michael Kirby is a complicated man and difficult to characterise in simple terms. Among other things he has been labelled as a radical/a conservative; a parliamentary supremacist/a populist; a nationalist/an internationalist; religious/secular. And although apparently contradictory, he is, in part, all of these things.

    Throughout the film, Kirby candidly discusses his life and career in a way he has never done before. Although media friendly throughout his professional life, he has also been intensely private and guarded about his personal life. It was only ten years ago that, at the age of sixty-one, he publicly revealed that he had been in a homosexual relationship since 1969. Even Kirby's closest colleagues and friends were shocked. Michael McHugh, who had known Kirby since the early 1970s and who sat with him on the High Court, said 'he had no idea there was a long-term relationship'. Indeed, this film is the first time that Kirby's partner, Johan van Vloten, has spoken publicly about their life together.

    Don't Forget the Justice Bit is about both Kirby the man and Kirby the judge. As well as profiling the public figure of the High Court judge, the film provides an insight into the private man – Kirby at home with his father Donald, his late mother Jean, his partner Johan and his siblings. It also reveals its subject's spiritual side and his lasting connection to Anglicanism.

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