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Hero for our time

Feature Articles

Cite as: (2007) 81(7) LIJ, p. 70

Robert Kennedy is the “right sort of hero”, County Court Judge Tony Howard told the Monash University’s Faculty of Law graduates at a ceremony on 29 March.

Robert Kennedy is the “Right Sort of hero”, County Court judge Tony Howard told the Monash University’s Faculty of Law graduates at a ceremony on 29 March.
An edited version of his speech appears below.

T his is my own law school. I started in 1968, almost 40 years ago, but the time seems to have gone in a flash.

The five years I spent at Monash, until 1972, were heady times – in every sense of the word. The Vietnam War was raging and student sit-ins in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office were commonplace (and no doubt exceedingly frustrating for academic and administrative staff).

Some of us, including me, were conscripted for army service. We clung to the hope that Gough Whitlam would come to power in 1972 and that Australian troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam. He did, and they were.

These memories flooded back to me last Saturday night when I saw the movie Bobby, an account of events and times surrounding the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in June 1968.

Robert Kennedy was a remarkable man, all the more so for having lived in the considerable shadow cast by his elder brother, President John F Kennedy.

When he was so cruelly struck down, Robert Kennedy had an almost iconic status. He was a social beacon and, by his words and deeds, cast light on an often darkened political and social landscape. When he died he was well on the way to the Presidency.

He stood for many things but particularly for social justice, the eradication of racial and religious discrimination and an end to the violence that came so naturally to mankind, particularly as it was occurring in Vietnam and on the streets of American cities.

In my view Robert Kennedy is the right sort of hero against which to measure and contemplate the true meaning of your graduation in law today.

When I look at the world, as best I can almost 40 years after Kennedy’s death and my arrival at Monash, I see that we confront the same, if not worse, social and human problems to those of the Kennedy era.

Aboriginal people in Australia face appalling deprivation and a significant lack of social justice. We should feel ashamed as a community, but particularly as lawyers, that this could happen in the so called “Lucky Country”.

Racial and religious discrimination bubbles beneath the surface of our supposedly sophisticated moral construct, occasionally exploding with dramatic effect. As a community, we are struggling to understand the notion of difference. We are engaged in an armed conflict far away from our shores and the threat of terrorism has become a part of our daily lives.

You might well ask – what has all this got to do with graduating in law?

The short answer is that you are about to embrace what I might call the real world and that will bring most of you in touch with social, political and legal issues in a new and challenging way. Although those issues may arise in a vastly different setting to that which pertained, say, in 1968, the enduring values of the law do not change, nor should their application.

As the French might say (in English): “The more things change, the more things stay the same”.

When you leave university you will not only exercise your legal skill and experience, whether that be in legal practice or some other worthy calling, but also your integrity, spirit, courage, independence and resistance to injustice in all its forms. These concepts are indivisible.

On 6 May 1961, Robert Kennedy gave the Law Day Address at the University of Georgia Law School, no doubt an occasion similar to the present.

He said: “But all the high rhetoric on Law Day about the noble mansion of the law, all the high-sounding speeches about liberty and justice, are meaningless unless people – you and I – breathe meaning and force into it. For our liberties depend upon our respect for the law”.

You are the beneficiaries of a legal education from one of the nation’s leading law schools.

Monash graduates are keenly sought in the most prestigious law firms, at the Bar, in courts and by big and small business alike.

It is no coincidence that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Chief Judge of the County Court, the Chief Magistrate, the head of VCAT [then Justice Stuart Morris], the president of the Children’s Court and the recently appointed Victorian Law Reform Commissioner Professor Neil Rees are all Monash law graduates.

We speak of elite athletes. Each of you is an elite graduate. The world truly is your oyster, but you know, there can be no pearl created without some irritation of the oyster.

Robert Kennedy understood this well. He told the graduates from the Georgia Law School: “We stand for human liberty. The road ahead is full of difficulties and discomfort. But as for me, I welcome the challenge. I welcome the opportunity, and I pledge my best effort – all I have in material things and physical strength and spirit – to see that freedom shall advance and that our children will grow old under the rule of law”.

Another great lawyer to embody this spirit was the late Ron Castan QC.

I was privileged to know and work with Ron after whom the Faculty’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law is named.

He was a towering and inspiring exam-ple of a barrister who manifested a holistic approach to the practice of the law, particularly in the pro bono work he did for Aboriginal communities and in the field of human rights. Ron gave nobility to his calling.

I ask you – is there another Bobby Kennedy or Ron Castan among your ranks today?

While you are contemplating the answer to that question, I want to identify five principles, possible approaches, by which you might, as Kennedy said, “breathe meaning and force into the noble mansion of the law” and so assist you to lay down a solid foundation for your future, wherever or whatever that may be.

These principles concern ethics, endeavour, fairness, boldness and balance.

The first is be ethical – a person known for your integrity and honesty. In the competitive world of law and business, everyone is looking for an edge. Cutting corners may seem like a simple solution in the short term, but it can lead to long-term personal and professional compromise. Respect for your word and reliability are essential pillars of your good name and standing. You can lose them in an instant. You may not recover them in a lifetime. Most importantly, be yourself and resist a particular culture or work environment if you know that you should.

The second is about endeavour. Be prepared and work hard. There are no free lunches. In my view, God – not the devil – is in the detail. Dig deep and you will find gold. Remember the Italian saying: “Only the spoon knows what’s going on at the bottom of the pot”. Take nothing for granted and question everything. If you want to win, know the opposing side as well as your own.

The third is be fair and open-minded. Listen to the ideas of others. Be judgmental only when you have to be, but heed the words of Guru Bob who says: “If you are going to criticise somebody first walk for a kilometre in their shoes. Then when you criticise them, you’ll be a kilometre away from them, and you will have their shoes!”.

The fourth principle is be bold, be brave and be creative in your thinking. On 11 May 2001 the American attorney Hiram Mendow died, aged 107. Apart from being famous for being very old, he had acted for Al Capone. But his most significant forensic victory was in the defence of an American Indian charged with murder. The first defence witness he called was the alleged deceased, who was alive and well. You can imagine the jury’s surprise and the accused’s delight.

My fifth and final point is be balanced in your life. Know when to make a contribution and when to make a commitment. When you next have bacon and eggs you will appreciate the difference. You will know that the chicken made a contribution to your meal, but the pig made a commitment. Save time for yourself and those you love. Don’t let life pass you by because you didn’t look up from your desk until it was all too late.

John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”. Heed these wise words.

There is much more that I could say about all this but I am under strict instructions to speak for only 10 minutes and, as you know, a lawyer is bound by his or her instructions.

To you all I extend my good wishes for the adventure which lies ahead.

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