Retired Australian high court judge Michael Kirby is a committed Christian. His partner of 41 years Johan van Vloten is a non-believer. Both men talk about their relationship and faith, or lack thereof, in an television documentary airing next week in Australia.
Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan made false allegations about the couple in 2002. Their individual reaction now to Heffernan is … different.
Eight years on, Kirby betrays no sign of anger, but insists it is a subject he hates having to discuss. ”I’d rather not talk about it really because every time I do so it becomes part of my life,” he says ”Do you know, if you Google Johan’s name, what comes up is not this prudent, loving, faithful companion. What comes up is Senator Heffernan’s attack. I regard that as sad and offensive. I hope that one day if his name is Googled what will come up is his example of human kindness, support, intelligence and goodness to everyone.”
Van Vloten himself is less forgiving: he believes Kirby was targeted because he was gay, and for political reasons, as a result of court decisions that went against the Howard government.
”The Heffernan affair would have been the result of his coming out, plus one or two decisions which were very, very unpopular with the government of the day, particularly the Wik decision … there must have been a sore spot there.” He adds: ”I always knew that in the long run these documents would prove to be false because if there was any relevance or truth in that issue you’d be hanged for stupidity.”
While Kirby won’t attack Heffernan directly, his partner makes clear his contempt: ”This man didn’t regret it at all, what he did, only regretted that it went that way.”
It’s an issue Kirby says brings to the fore a key difference between them: he is a lifelong Christian of Anglican faith, while van Vloten is a non-believer. ”He’s opposed to and has always been opposed to it. He’s always been puzzled, as he puts it, that one of the most intelligent people he’s met could still take seriously all that stuff of the old men in turbans. And they were all old men, as he keeps pointing out to me. Not enough women in religion.”
And when it comes to forgiving Heffernan, Kirby says of his partner: ”He comes from an agnostic position whereas I come from a Christian position.”
I heard Kirby interviewed on radio a few weeks ago and in a wide-ranging talk his homosexuality was not raised – it was not relevant to a discussion about other issues. I am far more interested in how he as a Christian maintains a long-term loving relationship with an agnostic – it intrigues me.