Wednesday, January 08, 2003

The Kirby Files (1st of an intermittent series)

Justice Michael Kirby was yesterday once again embroiled in controversy, this time over breaches of air safety regulations, as well as alleged misuse of a Commonwealth government marker pen.

In the first allegation, Sydney lawyer Gordon “Rose” Bay, whom Justice Kirby describes as an “old friend”, told The Australian newspaper that, in mid-2002, he witnessed Justice Kirby undo his seat-belt buckle, and then move to stand up, before the aircraft they were both travelling on had come to a complete stop at the Sydney Airport airbridge, in direct defiance of government regulations on the topic, as well as raising questions of future conflict of interest should the High Court be called upon to adjudicate a civil aviation safety matter. When questioned, Justice Kirby said that, to the best of his recollection, he was the last person to stand up on the plane in question, and that on the conflict of interest issue, he was happy for to declare his seat-belt and disembarkation preferences and habits at the start of any trial during which they may in any way become an issue. Constitutional law experts contacted last night generally concurred with Justice Kirby. One expert went further, doubting that the relevant air safety regulations would even stand up to a High Court test, and saying that they merely codified the common law, which was to the effect that actual time of personal unbuckling (and standing up, should space permit) was irrelevant – the only rule was that one could not, under any circumstance “jump the gun” by disembarking before one or more persons from a more-forward seat row had reached the airbridge.

Justice Kirby’s alleged misuse of a marker pen belonging to the Commonwealth was a focus of proceedings in today’s unusual Federal parliamentary “summer session”. Midway into a speech on Australian family values, NSW senator Bill Heffernan paused and had a tipstaff bring in a graffiti-covered toilet door, said to be from a Darlinghurst hotel. In the middle of this door, Senator Heffernan described for the benefit of the Hansard reporters, was an inscription written by a black marker pen, saying “For a good time, ring Michael on …”. The phone number itself could not be deciphered, Senator Heffernan explained, because it had at some stage been covered by an “I Shoot and I Vote” sticker, which proved impossible to remove without also removing the key layer of paintwork on which “Michael’s” phone number had been written.

Nonetheless, Senator Heffernan stated, there was conclusive, firm evidence to link “Michael’s” toilet door graffito to Justice Kirby. Brandishing a High Court stationery order docket, Senator Heffernan read from it – “Black marker pen, Darlinghurst dunny-trawling strength”.

Following uproar in the House over this allegation, an investigation yesterday afternoon was quickly able to establish that the stationery order docket was a crude forgery. In the face of this evidence, Senator Heffernan apologised unreservedly to Justice Kirby.

Justice Kirby’s problem were still not quite over for the day, however, when he jocularly suggested at a media conference that the newly-infamous toilet door be acquired by the Parliament House art collection, and put on public display. Late yesterday evening, privacy advocates leapt upon Justice Kirby’s suggestion for the toilet door, with one calling it “an outrageous breach of civil liberties”. For his part, Senator Heffernan issued a midnight media release, calling for a independent inquiry into the purposes for which Justice Kirby wanted the toilet door placed on public display, and whether, “in particular, these purposes may have included Justice Kirby’s own need for unnatural personal gratification from fresh sources”.

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