30 January 2017, Government House, Melbourne, Australia
When I am asked to speak to an audience, I always ask the question – who is the audience? To whom am I speaking?
Today’s gathering was described to me as “The Multi Faith Opening of the Legal Year”. That brings together two concepts – faith and law – that great minds have been pondering for thousands of years. I have been told to take no more than 12 minutes.
I am a man of no faith. Or I am a man of all faiths.
My principal spiritual guide has been my father. He died at the age of 98 having survived a war crime, the construction of the so-called Death or Burma Railway by the Imperial Japanese Army using slave labor.
100 to 200,000 men of various nationalities died.
He returned from that experience with no formal religious beliefs but a belief in compassion that transcended all else.
I call my father a bush Buddhist.
One of my brothers calls him a bush Catholic.
Does it matter?
Only if we believe the ultimate truth of thesematters lies in words.
I am adamantly of the view that it does not.
I was brought up in the Catholic church. There was a lot about the Catholic church at that time that I didn’t get, but there were a couple of things I did.
I got the story about the mob wanting to stone a woman to death for adultery and Jesus stopping them by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
And it was his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, that suggested to me that this may indeed be a truly human story.
And there was one other line that has always stayed with me: By the fruit of their actions ye shall know them.
At university, I did a law degree. I learned to respect “the law”, as it was then called, as a system of disciplined thought. In my very first moot court I also learned something that has stood me in good stead ever since, that you can’t get away with pretending to know about something if you’re being scrutinised by good minds schooled in the subject.
I also sensed a certain wisdom in the law, in sayings such as, “Justice must not only be done; It must be seen to be done”.
One of the things I continue to marvel at in our system of law is the presumption of innocence. Imagine if the presumption of innocence were not a character of our legal system at this time and we sought to introduce it by political means. What would shock jocks say? What would the tabloid headline writers scream? It would be something about going soft on crims, about it being another betrayal of ordinary people by a privileged elite.
I believe that if we had not have inherited the presumption of innocence, we would not be capable of getting it ”up” in the present political climate, nor in the foreseeable future.
That’s where we are politically in some ways right now - about 200 years ago,
I take a particular interest in that period of history, the Georgian period, not least because the modern state of Australia was born from it.
My life has been a search for meaning.
When I was 20, I read the Chinese Book of Tao. I have never forgotten the line: “He who knows does not say; he who says do not know”,
As someone who was born into the culture of sport, I also found this line from the Hindu text, the Upanishads, compelling: “Action pursued for its own sake leads to darkness; Intellect pursued for its own sake leads to greater darkness”.
I grew up in Tasmania and could never escape the feeling that something was missing without knowing what. At 24, I went to Ireland, thinking perhaps the answer lay in my Irish Catholic roots.
I hitch-hiked into Northern Ireland then in a state of civil war between the Catholic and Protestant communities. I nearly landed myself in serious trouble, but a Protestant truck driver saved me. A succession of Protestants took me in.
I wandered the world for two years. In Africa, I got sick. On a railway station in the Nubian desert, I was one of many massed around a single water pump. A young man, seeing how sick I was, took the soap from my hand and washed my hair. It was the most Christian experience of my life, but the young man was a Muslim.
I was learning that whatever it was that I was seeking didn’t come with a name or a neat label.
I went to places that don’t exist any more like the old Soviet Union. I worked on a building site in Glasgow where I learned as much as I did in four years at university. I met lots of people and returned home believing what the Victorian poet Tennyson wrote in his poem Ulysses:
I am part of all that I have met.
But I was still lonely in this land, my land, Australia. There was some part of it I needed to know and didn’t. Until I met Aboriginal people.
I expected them to see me as the enemy, but I found if I approached them with humility and respect I was taken in.
And through this process I met elders, Older Aboriginal people who’d seen a lot of suffering, Who were compassionate and, although they had reason to be, weren’t racist.
I’d say to the Aboriginal elders, “This spirit you’ve got - where does it come from?” And they would point downwards and say, “The land”.
I am part of all that I have met in this land as well as outside it.
In 2015, I spoke at an Australian-Japanese reconciliation event in Sydney. Before that, I was involved in the AFL Peace Team, which sought to create a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking to the Japanese audience in Sydney, And an Israeli and Palestinian audience in Jerusalem, I said that so much of what I know about reconciliation I learned from Aboriginal people; from the oldest living culture in the world.
Some people say the 20th century started in 1914. It may be the 21st century started on 9/11, and since then various dark forces have flowed into one another and are now starting to run like a wild river.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that, “Positions that were once the cornerstones of American diplomacy — such as support for human rights and the rule of law — could become mere bargaining chips to be traded away in some future bilateral deal”.
The battle for those of us who believe in the Rule of Law and wish to defend it will be that we will have to frame our arguments in 140 characters or less on a twitter feed.
At such times, I take comfort from history, particularly the Georgian period in Britain and its colonies of which Tasmania, then called, Van Diemen’s Land, was one.
It was a period of gross inequity, of tyrannical tendencies, but there were still brave lawyers; brave journalists, too. If I have a hero as a journalist it is Henry Melville, author of“The History of Van Diemen’s Land 1816-36”. He chronicled the cronyism, the corruption, the brutality of the island penal colony. He reported on court cases where traditional Aboriginal people were tried for their lives and understood not a single word of the court proceedings.
Melville wrote “The History of Van Diemen’s Land” from the condemned cell at Hobart prison. Not that he was condemned but he was being given a taste of what it means to displease the authorities.
We could be on the brink of an era when history starts hurtling backwards. Two hundred years ago, European wars were fought by two armies lining up opposite one another in neat rows on the outskirts of cities. Now war is Aleppo. At the end of the 19th century, torture was widely thought to be an abomination safely buried in the past. Now it’s being endorsed by the so-called leader of the free world, Donald Trump.
But to quote the Nobel Laureate for literature, Bob Dylan, “They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn”. What if we are also on the brink of an era where a lot of people around the globe all of a sudden go, “No, we can do better than this!”.
In the context of world affairs, I am currently writing a critically important book on the Western Bulldogs 2016 grand final win. When coach Luke Beveridge arrived at the Dogs in 2015 he inherited a team which had become too entrenched in its defensive ways and thereby too passive about its fate. He persuaded his players to take the game on. What if we decided to take the game on? What if we agreed that our so-called differences aren’t as big as they might once have seemed, particularly when measured against the tsunami of social and political change that is sweeping our way? When our beliefs meet and merge, we are both stronger. How do we know who is speaking the truth in the post-truth era? By the fruits of their actions we shall know them.