Please clean the filters
Sunday, April 21, 2019
Justinian in Deja Vu

There’s no end to the Michael Kirby story … Legal justice chases social justice … Love at first sight, despite the odd clothing ... From Justinian's archive ... May 4, 2010 

Last Thursday (April 29) saw some of the finest ornaments of the law and civilisation crush into the theatrette at the NSW State Parliament for the premier screening of a documentary about the life and loves of Michael Kirby. 

Just when you mistakenly think you know all there is to know about the Kirbster the curtain is pulled aside one more notch and there is a glimpse of something new. 

The documentary is Michael Kirby – Don’t Forget the Justice Bit and it will be screened on the ABC’s Compassprogram on June 27. 

There’s to be another pre-TV run at Customs House on May 20 during law week. 

The show is produced by Film Art Media, which has turned out docos on Jorn Utzon, Sir William Deane, Lionel Murphy and the High Court. 

With that lineage it was only a matter of time before the producers would give digital birth to Michael Kirby

The title of the doco bears on the judicial oath of office, where fledgling judges swear that they will “bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law, [and that they] will well and truly serve her and … do right to all manner of people, according to law without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. So help me God”.

What Kirby is on about is that other element – “the justice bit”. 

But that’s not all. The doco also traverses the Michael Kirby-Johan van Vloten love affair – an affair where for over 30 years Johan was hidden from view as Kirby make his way up the greasy pole to the highest reaches of judicial office. 

Johan is a patient and quietly humorous man. Forty-one years ago he met Michael Kirby in a Kings Cross gay bar. The meeting was inauspicious. 

It was a hot February and Kirby was wearing an orange woollen poloneck sweater and yellow corduroy trousers. 

He thought van Vloten was German and commenced the conversation by asking: 

“What do you think of Von Ribbentrop?” 

What with the clothes and the strange opening line Johan thought he’d made a mistake. He’d just turned down a proposition from a Qantas pilot and with it the opportunity for quite a few frequent flier points. 

That night they went back to Kirby’s flat at Kirribilli and have been together ever since. 

Johan thinks that the key to their success is that they’re both a little hard of hearing. 

Fort Street High boyIt was not the only naff fashion disaster to be featured in the doco. 

When Michael first went to the University of Sydney he thought it would be incredibly fetching to wear his Fort Street High prefect’s blazer with all the little badges on it. 

Little did it occur to other freshers that this vision of dorkiness was to be the future Atticus Finch of Australia. 

Justice David Kirby said that for many years he had no idea his brother was gay. However, “we soon realised we were put on earth to be Michael’s audience”. 

He added: 

“We’re still getting over the disappointment that he wasn’t ever Prime Minister.” 

David Kirby also revealed that Michael, far for being a relentless swat, did experiment with leisure by going on holiday – for a year

Johan drove him in a Kombi van through central Asia to Europe. 

There was a quarrel in Afghanistan and they didn’t speak for some days. Nonetheless, they discovered that if you can live together in a Kombi for weeks on end, you can live together forever. 

It’s apparent that van Vloten is a more steely creature than his partner. 

Whereas Kirby is prepared to turn the other cheek and forgive Bill Heffernan for the Comcar rent boy attack, Johan thinks that the senator’s apology was not genuine. 

In fact, Kirby discovered the senator’s mischief when he arrived at the High Court one morning at 6am. He couldn’t get hold of Johan on the phone to warn him of the torrid crisis engulfing them and in a state of distracted panic he had to sit through a case about the effects of effluent on oysters. 

Kirby is so full of understanding that he even understands the Anglican Church. He doesn’t blame the church for its hostility to homosexuality, rather he sees it coming to terms with the issue. 

He added somewhat enigmatically: 

“I love the smell of the Anglican Church.” 

Love is everywhere. So much so that in Kirby’s view, the very basis of human rights is love and the Christian teaching, do unto others as you would have them do to you. 

This puts into context the loveless preachings of Bob Carr and the Murdoch press on the Bill of Rights. 

Kirby and van Vloten: on the voyage of their life

In launching the premier screening former NSW Chief Justice Sir Laurence Street said the doco is “deeply moving and a valuable social document”. 

“It shows the interplay of legal justice and social justice. 

Social justice is the sprite. Legal justice dances but can never quite catch up.” 

Kirby marvelled at the old footage. 

“Weren’t we gorgeous?” 

But as Johan said: 

“Yes, but when did the bus hit you?” 

The former High Court judge sighed: 

“I’m always reminded by Johan of the ordinary and important things in life.” 

The 55 minutes went quickly. A lot of territory is covered, a lot of veins are opened. Kirby wrapped-up the evening, saying:

“The man on the Emu Plains omnibus seeing this documentary would have thought Johan was the judge and I was just some sort of entertainer. 

The documentary is an appropriate opportunity for me to pay tribute to Johan.” 

There was a worrying production note etched onto the opening frames of the footage. It instructed: “Please clean the filters.” 

Maybe this should have been the title of a doco that so comprehensively strips away the fluff and gauze.

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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