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Law Council of Australia

International Law Section

6 February 2018: International Law and Practice Course – Lecture 1

The ILS had the pleasure of listening to The Hon. Michael Kirby CMG on 6 February, when he delivered the inaugural lecture for their new International law and Practice Course. Justice Kirby, provided an entertaining and inspiring presentation on how he came to be involved in international law, and how international law inevitably informs the Australian legal system.

Justice Kirby spoke about his involvement with the United Nations and colourfully portrayed how he managed to climb the ranks in the international legal scene, commencing with his Chairmanship of the OECD Data Privacy Working Group.

Justice Kirby warranted an invitation to this Working Group’s first meeting as Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission “because the Americans couldn’t bear to have a European in charge because they feared it would lead to a heavy-handed data protection approach, and because the Europeans couldn’t bare having an American in their Chair, I was elected to the Chair, and thus began my career in international Law.”

“Instead of spending my teenage and post teenage years going to dance parties and other such things, because of my sexuality, I spent it chairing SRC and other meetings, and I became really accomplished as a Chair, and that gave me a great skill and that led to other opportunities…modesty gets you nowhere in this world everyone … people started asking – Who is that fruity Australian?”

“The moral of the story is that Australians can play an important part in the development of international law, and of course only if you get the chance – you must cease the chance,” the Hon. Kirby said.

Justice Kirby argued that international law inevitably informs the Australian legal system, positing that the Australian Constitution, for example, is permeable to the context in which it operates.

“If you take for instance – the word “jury” in section 80 of the Australian Constitution. You remember that is the section – for an indictable offence you shall be tried by jury. Now what does jury mean?

Back in 1901 – a jury and for very long after, it meant 12 men. M.E.N. Moreover 12 men of property, “rate payers”. And if we were taking a purist, originalist interpretation of the constitution we would simply look up a dictionary from 1901, and say a jury means 12 men. But we don’t do that, we look at our constitution in the context of our society of today and of international law and the international law against all forms of discrimination against women. It influences how we see the word in today’s context.” 



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