A prolific writer, public intellectual and author of five books, Mr Kirby retired from the High Court of Australia in 2009. At the time he was the longest serving judicial officer in Australia.
The award recognises his many achievements and long association with La Trobe.
Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson said throughout his career, Mr Kirby has demonstrated ‘unwavering commitment to human rights, the rule of law and social justice’.
‘While he is well-known for the profound impact he has had on generations of Australian law students, La Trobe University knows first-hand of his commitment to a multi-disciplinary approach to solving contemporary challenges.’
Professor Johnson welcomed Mr Kirby’s 25-year association with the University through both its School of Law and Centre for Dialogue. ‘We look forward to his ongoing association as we tackle the puzzling issues and engage in transparent debate,’ he said.
Mr Kirby said he had always valued his engagement with the University. ‘It looks at the world as I tend to do, from a standpoint of social justice, insistence on equality and non-discrimination, adopting a perspective that views Australia in an international context.
‘We are no longer an insular, mono-cultural society of White Australians. We are an exciting English-speaking, democratic country in the most dynamic region of the world for the 21st century: Asia and the Pacific. Our multi-cultural character makes us a microcosm for the whole planet,’ he said.
‘Other countries are watching us because if we can build a creative, peaceful and tolerant society with strong institutions, we can be a model and example to our neighbours.
‘Universities – particularly La Trobe University with its Centre for Dialogue – have a special responsibility to question and to challenge received wisdom in Australia. And to lift the public discourse beyond the banal dialogue that commonly passes for much of politics today.’
Twenty-five years ago Mr Kirby began his links with La Trobe Law School, launching its journal ‘Law in Context’. He has continued those links and with the wider University, and now acts a patron of La Trobe’s Centre for Dialogue.
‘I’m proud of my associations with the La Trobe Law School and I know of the wonderful school of politics and philosophy at La Trobe.
‘I’m grateful to Professors Robert Manne and Dennis Altman – my old friend from years ago when we were both student politicians at our respective universities in Sydney and Tasmania – and to Professor Marilyn Lake, as my real interest in life was as a historian.’
On a personal note, he said the Kirby links with La Trobe were expanding further. His niece, Elizabeth, had enrolled in postgraduate studies on the Melbourne Campus just as he became its latest alumnus.
The award was conferred on Mr Kirby by the outgoing Chancellor, Sylvia Walton, as one of her last official duties before her retirement in February.
After the ceremony Mr Kirby took part in a special session of the University’s ‘Ideas and Society Program’ – a wide-ranging discussion with Professor Altman about life, people, politics and human rights reform.
The full conversation can bee seen on You Tube
The need for dialogue
Writing for The Age in Melbourne before the ceremony, Mr Kirby highlighted the importance of bridging the divides of religion and culture to help stop the worldwide spread of HIV.
Twenty-five years into the epidemic, he said, there was no still cure or vaccine, and 2.6 million people became infected every year
The article, ‘Speaking in tongues on AIDS’ said: ‘Getting dialogue between people who have completely different starting points is a major challenge. We are thrown together by jumbo jets, the internet, iPads, Twitter and Facebook. But we still have difficulty in talking the same language, especially to our leaders. On the issues of AIDS, those leaders all too often listen to religious prelates in gorgeous attire, who are long on condemnation and short on practical, workable solutions.’
Mr Kirby said in 2005, La Trobe University established its Centre for Dialogue.