Benjamin Law

‘Yield!’: Former High Court judge Michael Kirby’s surprising relationship secret

By Benjamin Law (article appearing in Good Weekend )

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given. This week, he talks to Michael Kirby. The international jurist, 83, served as a justice of the High Court of Australia between 1996 and 2009. He has worked extensively with the United Nations and his awards include the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1991.

“One partner has to take the plunge and give in. And that’s always been me.”

BODIES

Do you feel comfortable in your body? I wish I were taller, more handsome and had the body of a Hollywood movie star. My partner Johan [van Vloten] is still a good looker at 83. It’s because I’ve looked after him so well. But the beautiful part of my body is my mind.

What’s your regimen for keeping fit in your 80s? Well, I start work – and always have – very early. From the time I was a young barrister, I’d start work at 5am. That’s the tradition at the Sydney Bar. In the old days, you didn’t get phone calls and other distractions, and you could work quietly in your mind, getting the details of the case into your head. I’ve pushed it back to about 6am now. I catch a bus for part of the journey, then I walk about half, so I get about 5000 steps.

How do you remain mentally sharp? I think it’s genetic. My father, who died at 96, was very sharp right to the end. My parents have both died, but my two surviving brothers and our partners get together every three weeks or so. We’re close. More important than intelligence, or the capacity to come top in exams, is a capacity to come top in the love business. I have been very lucky in that department. I hit the jackpot.

How do you reflect on your body of work? It has been very fulfilling. It hasn’t been the usual life of a judge. My life has been divided into decades: school education; university education; student politics; working as a young lawyer doing pro bono work for disadvantaged groups, including Aboriginal Australians; the Law Reform Commission; life in the appellate courts, including the High Court of Australia; then my life with the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations and international activities. You’ve got to have good luck in your professional and business life. And I had good luck.

SEX

Let’s talk about your partner, Johan. Actually, he’s technically your husband now … Well, we don’t call ourselves husbands. We call ourselves spouses. He’s my spouse or my partner. We got married on the 50th anniversary of the day we met.

The summer of ’69. That’s right! The summer of ’69. I remember it well.

What’s the secret to having been together for so long? Well, it’s not a secret, and it’s not necessarily universal. In the 1980s, I was very much involved in the AIDS pandemic. Johan was at the Ankali Project, a body in Sydney’s Surry Hills that helps people living with HIV. All of that made us both realise the enormity of that pandemic. We’d go to one funeral after another. In the chapel or church, the gay family was on one side of the hall and the straight family was on the other side. It was all very hard because it tended to impact gay men, people who use drugs, sex workers, prisoners and others who were already on the receiving end of society’s miseries. Eventually, Johan – in our kitchen at Rose Bay – said he’d had enough of the impact of the disease. He said, “How long do you think we’re going to be around? We’ve got to stop this [disease]. We should stop it for the young people, even if nothing will change for ourselves.”

So you fought alongside each other. Any other advice for couples? You’ve got to have one partner in a relationship who will always give in if the bottom line has been reached and ordinary processes of negotiation have failed. One partner has to take the plunge and give in. And that’s always been me.

So the secret is to yield? Yield, yes! Or I suppose you can put it positively: keep your eye on the blessing of being in a loving relationship. Whenever we’ve had disagreements, I’ve always kept in mind the great blessings of our relationship.

MONEY

Growing up, what was your completely arbitrary yardstick as to whether someone was rich or not? Well, to be truthful, I never thought much about wealth, and I still don’t. Johan, on the other hand, is very interested in Sydney real estate. It was he who, soon after I’d become a barrister and was making ostensibly good money, insisted that we should purchase a home in the eastern suburbs with very strong harbour views. Not harbour glimpses. Views.

What an investment! Exactly. But I’ve never really been motivated by money.

How much money does a High Court judge get paid? Well, here is a good example: I just don’t know. I think it’s in the order of $450,000 a year.

You retired from that role in 2009. How do you earn money nowadays? I receive the judge’s pension under the Judges Pension Act, which gives a retired judge a proportion of [a working judge’s] salary. This is in order to induce barristers – who make much more money than judges – to give up their barristerial income to become judges.

What do you like spending money on? On my family. On Johan. And on charities. Most of the charities we support have something to do with LGBTIQ+ issues. And I’ve become the patron of the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, which works significantly in gay men’s health.

Say there’s a scholarship or a prize set up in your name. What are the criteria, and who does it go to? Well, there’s a body called the Pinnacle Foundation, which gives a large number of scholarships every year [to young LGBTIQ+ people]. There are scholarships named after me in the Pinnacle Foundation, and I always make it my business to meet those who are declared winners. I never had any doubts that my parents would love me, whatever I turned out to be. But other young people don’t have these blessings. That’s really what motivates me to support them.

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