The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG addressed the Secularism Australia Conference 2 December 2023

11 Dec 2023
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The Conference was co-hosted by the NSW Teachers’ Federation and Michael began by reminiscing about his own education.

I’m just back from Seoul, where I attended a human rights conference in Korea, and the next day attended a reunion of the alumni of Fort Street State School, where I was a student 1951−4. It’s a great school, and a fine product of the “free, secular and compulsory” provision of the Public Education Act of the 1870s, which set up a major experiment, to see if governments could succeed at creating a strong education system on that basis. It now has a long and honourable tradition.

The school went co-ed in the 1960s. I interviewed several eminent Fort Street alumni some years ago – the NSW Minister of Education is one of them − and I get invited back to address the students some years.

The student body is enormously different from my time there in the early 1950s – over 50% are non-Caucasians.

I give talks at religious schools sometimes, where the students are mostly Caucasians. These schools are not multi-cultural.

Fort Street was founded in 1849. When I was at primary school, we assembled out by the road one day, to see Eleanor Roosevelt passing by on her way to opening a hospital. It was very soon after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved by the new UN. It has its 75th anniversary this year. Now that I’ve spoken about Fort Street’s strengths, I want to say some things about how Fort Street let us down.

There was no mention of indigenous people nor of their dispossession, not until the High Court voted for land rights in the Mabo case in 1992. There was nothing about White Australia – there was no challenge to that as the status quo.

We used to have scripture classes weekly. I attended the Anglican version of those, and was brought up in the Anglican tradition. In those days people of English descent were split between Catholics and Protestants, which was a cause of the rise of secularism.

Our religious instruction teacher later became Dean of Melbourne. He used to invite me and my partner Jan, to dinner with a group of churchmen. He was not exclusive at all.

My partner Jan grew up in Germany, during the period of the Allied occupation post-war. He insisted that I put “no religion” on my census form. That category has an interesting history: it was 0.48% of the population in 1911 and was 39% in 2021.

This sort of data is the bedrock for evidence-based policies. It is a counter to bigots, who are intolerant of diversity. It should influence government policies on religious instruction in schools.

Meredith asked me to be a patron of her Rationalist Society. I told her I’m still a sort of an Anglican, but she wanted me to be a patron anyway.

The census result of 39% is misleadingly understated: many religious people support secularism. There is a much stronger acceptance of it among younger adults.

During the marriage equality period, I found every church I passed had signs up urging a NO vote. It was very hurtful to me. The Sydney Anglicans, who as you know are the most conservative in Australia, urged schools to exclude homosexual students and teachers. This led to a big outcry, so they backed off.

It is important to get political leaders to accept Australia as it is now, not as it was in 1951−4.

Report by Robert Bender