12 FEBRUARY   2009 





On 13 November 1996 Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court wrote a letter to a supporter of public education as follows:

I am a strong supporter of public schools being the beneficiary of their wonderful work and marvellous teachers.

I have never hesitated to speak out for public education: free, secular, and available to all.

He speaks true. Like Justice Lionel Murphy before him, ( See Press Release 35 at www.adogs.info/pr35.htm ) Justice Michael Kirby has been prepared to stand up and be counted on the issue of public education which is free, secular and available to all. In this Press Release DOGS wish to quote from his statements over the past twenty six years and encourage him to keep up the battle during his retirement from the High Court. As members of the DOGS have discovered, there is no discharge from this service.

The following speeches form the basis of these quotes from Justice Michael Kirby:

  1. Recession, Law Reform and Hard Times; Sixth Alex McGregor Memorial Oration'  30 July 1982.

  2. In Praise of Public Education: University of South Australia, 27 April 2001.

  3. The Australian Educational Dream: Ceremony to Honour William Wilkins, 30 August 2001.

The Purpose and Value of Public Education

On this subject, Michael Kirby has the following to say:

'The rich, everywhere, can ensure the best available education for their children. That is natural. It is how it has always been. But what was different about Australia, the United States, and a few other settler societies, was the widespread public determination, virtually from the start, to make education of high quality available to every child. Available to children irrespective of parental wealth, class or religion. Out of this resolve grew the movement to replace the early church control of education in the Australian colonies with public schools.' ( See above, C p.1)

'From 1849 a trinity of principles became accepted public policy in New South Wales. Thenceforth, the goal of education was to provide schools that were free, secular and compulsory....In fact, our entire society owes a debt to the founders of public education in Australia. Such education became the chief medium for spreading the ideas of egalitarianism and independence and promoting the means by which children, whose parents were not wealthy, could rise to the highest offices in the land. ' ( See above C p. 2)

'By insisting on the notion that education is the right of every Australian child, Wilkins planted a concept that has brought fort and great harvest of talent that continues to this day.

Were Wilkins alive today, I do not doubt that he would stand in this place and say: "The education of every Australian child, without exception, is too important a matter to depend on parental means. Not every child has the gifts or interests or means to go beyond basic education. But in a world of complex science and rapid change, what is basic education is, sometimes that need constant re-appraisal. The public schools of Australia have in the past been the place where most Australians have acquired their knowledge, values and beliefs. They are not an option to society, as banks and airlines and businesses may be. They are, as William Wilkins saw so clearly in 1850, part of the fundamental responsibilities of the community: like the courts, the defence services and the other institutions that make Australia what it is.

 This is, or should be, a message from the life of Wilkins about which all modern Australian leaders should take their cue from Henry Parkes, the father of our federation. Our federation is of a nation of a special kind. Secular, participatory, democratic, egalitarian. These were the values that William Wilkins pursued in building public education in early Australia. They are the legacy of today's citizen.'(See above Cpp7-8)

 ' In my public school classrooms I certainly learned the values of Australian democracy and equality. I learned to share and share alike. I mixed with children of many religions, and of no religion at all. Just by observing, I came to understand the value of diversity.'(See above B p. 3) 

Debt Owed to Public Schools: Who should Speak Out !

On this matter, Michael Kirby has the following observations to make:

'I was educated entirely in the government school system of New South Wales. From a local primary school, I was sent to what is called in New South Wales an  opportunity school'( for children who did well in I.Q. tests). Thence I went on to Fort Street High School and matriculated to Sydney University. I received a fine education. I had wonderful teachers. My debt to them encourages me to speak up in this educational institution and at this time for the cause of public education in our country. ( See above, A p. 11.)

'Those who have benefited from education in government schools, as I have, owe a duty of support to the children of most ordinary Australians - some of them poor, unemployed, disadvantaged migrants, Aboriginals and so on who do not choose a church school - and who cannot afford private education. If those who have taken advantage of the general system of government education in the local school and local high school do not speak out, who will? If it is left to teachers, they may be seen as self interested or industrially motivated. I have neither of these motivations. I speak up for government schools because, like many others in public life today, I owe much to them.'(See above A p. 12)

'Those citizens who, like me, as children, received their education in public schools then have a duty to speak up. That duty is derived from the honour they owe to the fine teachers in the public school system that got them where they are. It is also a duty owed to the boys and girls who shared their lives with them in the classrooms open to every child of this nation. I hope that the response to the public perception of any defects in public education will include proper funding to remedy those defects... If people like me, the beneficiaries of the public school system of Australia, do not express their concern, who will ? '( See above B p. 5).

'Those who are educated in public schools owe a debt to public schools which they should never forget. ( See above C p. 2).

'The beneficiaries of that legacy should remember, and express, their debt. '(See above, C p. 8).

Failure of Famous and Powerful Graduates of Public Education to Repay their Debt

Justice Michael Kirby holds successful public school graduates to account:

' What was most noticeable ( at Fort Street) was the fall in morale: the feeling that the famous and powerful who had taken advantage of the government school system - the Evatts, the Barwicks, the Kerrs, the Spenders, the Ellicotts, the Wrans, the Dowds and so on, were content to stand quietly by as observers to the steady comparative decline of funding of government schools.

I am no expert in education, let alone educational funding. I do not pretend to know the basis upon which the Schools Commission decides its classification of need and its funding program. But I do detect a growing sensitivity in the general community to what has been happening. Without divisiveness but in payment of an educational debt, those in public life today who enjoyed education in government schools must consider the figures I have quoted and they must reflect upon their significance for the education of the mass of Australian boys and girls.'

Concern at Public School Conditions Compared with those in Private Schools:

Justice Michael Kirby is concerned at discrepancies in the facilities in public as opposed to private schools:

' In July 1982 I revisited my old school in Sydney - a sort of Brideshead Revisited 1982 style. Although there were a few new facilities, and in particular new library and language laboratory, the position in this government school - the oldest in the country - an ornament of the New South Wales public education system - was depressing when compared to the bright prospectuses issued by the private schools, now heavily and increasingly funded from the public purse. There was no heated swimming pool here. There was no indoor gymnasium. The playing fields are still the same rough mixture of asphalt and grass upon which I stumbled so often in the 50s. There are no tennis courts or basketball courts, no boat shed. The music room and facilities for physical education was still as depressing as there were in my day.' ( See above A p. 13 -14).

The Public Should not be Content with the Erosion of  a Priceless Asset:

 Justice Michael Kirby offers the following opinion:

' In primary and secondary schools we must not be content to see the relative erosion of that priceless national asset: our government school systems. Through that system has come many of the leaders of the Australian community. At the top level of government, the judiciary, the military and administration, as well as in all walks of life, those who were educated in the local government school have mixed equally and with ease with those educated in private schools. We do not have sufficient talent in this country to permit the decline of the government school system. It educates three-quarters of our people. It deserves the support of all citizens. Those who reaped its advantages should speak up for it. We must modernise our education system to make it more attractive and relevant to all of our people so that more of them feel that it is relevant to persist with education. But we must also ensure that gifted students are encouraged to excel. And not only if their parents are wealthy enough to see to it.' ( See above A p. 15)

Concern at the Drift of Funding and Pupils to Private Schools:

In relation to this development Justice Michael Kirby has the following to say:

In recent years, ( to 2001) there has been a significant drift away from public education in Australia. The figure of 67% of school students in public schools that survived most of the twentieth century has begun to fall as parents seek out private schools for their children. To some extent this trend has been encouraged by substantially increased government funding for private education. (See above B pp3-4).

Discrimination against Public School Graduates:

In relation to discrimination against public school graduates, Justice Michael Kirby notes:

' My entire education was in the public school system. I am the only one of seven justices of the High Court of Australia who received education, from first to last, in public schools. They are the schools open to every member of the public. Schools that make up the core of the Australian system. Schools that are open to young people throughout our country irrespective of religion, ability or parental means. The fact that I am the only one of the High Court judges educated throughout in the school system that caters for the great majority of Australian children is worthy of note. Over the century of its existence most of its members and most other federal judges were educated in private or church schools. '( See above B p. 2)

Not Afraid to Upset the Prime Minister:

The following statement by Justice Michael Kirby gravely disturbed the then Prime Minister John Howard when on 27 July 2001 he said: 

'It is in the interests of all of us to enhance public education and not to knock it. To make sure public schools and their pupils get a more generous share of the education budget.'( See above  B p. 5).

Howard's response was recorded in The World Today Tuesday 1 May 2001, with the heading 'Justice Kirby Angers the Howard Government'. He accused the High Court judge of interfering in political matters. He was angry that Justice Kirby had the hide to enter what he regarded as a party political matter. He was reported as saying:

The comments that Mr Justice Kirby made at the weekend regarding school funding were a direct intervention into a partisan, political debate. It's not appropriate for a High Court Judge to involve himself in something that is so blatantly and obviously a matter of debate between the two political parties.


DOGS will refrain from reminding readers of the details of the Howard-Heffernan attack on Justice Michael Kirby. They will merely note that both Howard and Kirby are now looking forward to retirement.

We wish Justice Kirby a robust retirement in which he continues to fight for public education. We note his concern at being labelled 'divisive' and remind him that in his public school playground there was a familiar ditty:

"Sticks and stones will break my bones

But words will never hurt me''

 DOGS suggest that Justice Kirby follows their example and tell the sectarian church school faction  to call us whatever they wish, but not late for dinner. Or perhaps we should quote himself to himself:

'Sometimes facts are divisive, but they must not for that reason be ignored' (See above A p. 11)






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Last modified:Monday, 16 February 2009