Address by Magistrate Michael Barko at Presentation Night


Principal Jaggar, distinguished guests, and the whole Sydney Boys High School community.

Thank you for inviting me here tonight to address the 133rd Annual Presentation Night. I am truly honoured and humbled to have been invited given the remarkable speakers in years gone by – in particular my hero the Honourable Michael Kirby.

Magistrate Michael Barko at the SHS Presentation Night
Magistrate Michael Barko at the SHS Presentation Night

The last time I stood on this stage and addressed the School was in 1980 as the School’s Vice-captain. I’m having a deja vu right now as a young and enthusiastic teacher by the name of Mr Mark Gainford was sitting behind me at the time. They tell me he is still enthusiastic – one out of two ain’t bad!

I know that as Sydney High students you calculated in a split second that I am 53 years old. It would have taken the Grammar boys about 5 seconds and the Joeys boys would still be working it out!

In 1980 Sydney had a population of about 3.2 million and Australia about 14.7 million. This year Sydney’s population will hit 5 million and just today Australia’s hit 24 million. Universities and work places have not grown in the same proportion to cater for those that excel in their Higher School Certificate. When I was accepted into the University of Sydney’s Law School I only needed an average mark of about 75% in my 10 units. – there was no A.T.A.R. system. Medicine was about an average of 85%. Today to do a combined degree in Law you need an ATAR of 99.5 and for Medicine 99.95.

What does this all mean – competition!

The hard work that you do in your studies must continue and the teaching and guidance given to you by the School will no doubt prepare you for those extraordinary results – but will it prepare you for the real world?

One day you will leave the discipline of school, the comforts of home, and the open door policy of university. How will you compete?

The good news is that one day you boys will rule the world . The bad news is that today a lot of the real world you live in is ruled by old fashioned, boring, mainly conservative people like me who weren’t raised with computers in their pockets.

You are going to come across a lot of employers, leaders, and influential people like the Honourable Alex Greenwich who will not just be interested in whether you got 99.8 or 98.9% for the HSC. They know that as a student of Sydney High you had the privilege of one of the best academic programs available in the World. More relevantly, they will want to know what life experience you have and what your ability is to deal with people of all walks of life.

Those that rule the World you live in today will not be interested as to whether you reached master prestige on Call of Duty or unlocked all of the trophies on Assassins’ Creed. They will not want to know that you spent 8 hours studying each day and then you shot hoops for half an hour in the local park by yourself.

They will want to know what extra-curriculum activities you did at school, what you have done in and for your family, in and for the community, and in and for the World that you have lived in. They will want to know about the real you. It is all about experience. Experience can only occur if you participate – participation is the key!

For example, when many of you graduate as doctors, just like lawyers or teachers, and go for that job interview at the hospital, the 50 year old Professors who interview you will already know that you’re intelligent and bright – they will want to know whether you rowed in the first 8, did cadets, received a Sir Duke of Edinburgh or debated like they did at school. They will want to know what exciting and challenging lives you live away from your studies, what you have done, where you have been, who you have dealt with, and what you do in your spare time.

They will want to gauge all of this as they will want to satisfy themselves that you can work well with a team of people – not books and computers – and that you can communicate with patients and their families from all walks of life and deal with them on a human level and not just as some case study.

I’ve had the opportunity of reviewing last year’s Year 12 HSC results. I note that the great majority of you will be studying for careers that will have you dealing with people from every level of society.

Get out and mow the lawn so that when the patient says he pulled a back muscle mowing the lawn with his “Victa” you don’t think that that was his gardener’s name and you know exactly how tough it can be.

Go skiing so that you can communicate with the patient who said she was injured went she went “off piste” and you don’t think she just got drunk and lost control.

Go to Paris and climb the Eiffel Tower and see how magnificent the City is rather than looking at it from a satellite on Google earth and getting confused with the replica in Las Vegas.

Get a part-time job – especially if it provides you with a lot of contact with people such as in the retail or hospitality industries. Go and help feed the homeless or transport the disabled. Go and play bingo with your grandparents and their friends. Go and be a cook on the local junior football BBQ. Get out there. Participate. Experience.

By the time I had finished school I had worked part-time in a veterinary clinic, a chemist, and a newsagency. By the time I had finished university I had worked part-time in a fruit shop, a book wholesaler, a petrol station, and an RSL. I always spent time with my extended family, my friends, my future wife, and my work colleagues.

I started a baseball club and I joined many clubs and organisations and mixed with as many people as I could. I visited churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. I did everything I possibly could around the house and the garden. I travelled to the country, interstate, and overseas. I embraced every new experience with open arms. I watched, listened, and asked questions. Everything for me was ABC 123 so that I could learn the basics in as many subjects of life as possible.

As a Barrister for 23 years I was briefed to represent individuals, corporations and government departments.

I practised mainly in the criminal and civil jurisdictions. I was fortunate not to be branded as a heartless, pompous, and greedy advocate like some of my then colleagues. I did not judge my clients – I simply tried to understand the lives they were living. The reason that I became reasonably successful dealing with so many different people is because I felt I had more connection with them by virtue of my worldly experiences.

As a Magistrate I deal with children as young as 10, adults in their 90s, and every age in between. I deal with students, professionals, tradesmen, bikies, politicians, the unemployed, the homeless, celebrities, the sporting, the disabled, the dead, every sexual orientation, every culture, race and religion, the indigenous, the local residents, foreign tourists, – the list goes on and on – every walk of life.

I sit as the Tribunal of law and the Tribunal of fact – Judge and Jury. It would not be possible for me to feel comfortable about the judgments I deliver and the way I deal and communicate with people in court unless I had some concept of the way that they live their lives and the everyday issues they experience.

Of course that doesn’t mean you have to break the law to understand that but rather it means that if you broaden your experiences you may begin to appreciate why it is that they don’t have an excuse to break the law or not pay their debts but an explanation as to why it happened.

I am always filled with such pride when I read a newspaper or watch the news and learn that once again students from Sydney High have excelled and led the way. Whenever I tell someone much younger than me that Sydney High was my old school they always express how impressed they are and believe I must be extremely intelligent and that I must have studied day and night. I’m happy to let them live with that illusion!

Make your school proud of you, make your family proud of you, but most importantly be true to yourself and do yourself proud.

Get out there and live life. Experience as much as you can. Be the next Walter Mitty. Obey the law and don’t appear before me in court unless you are a lawyer. Try and keep in mind the two rules of life I stick to – what goes around comes around and only do to others what you would have them to do to you.

Be a decent human being and a good bloke and you’ll be surprised how successful you are in life.

My time at Sydney Boys High School helped to shape me into the person I am today. If you make the most of your time and opportunities at this great school you will undoubtedly excel in life and most importantly you’ll like the person you are.

Thank you for this opportunity to address you. I wish you all well for your time at school and for your lives in the real world. A special congratulations to the prize winners and those who just missed out.

I’ll forever sing the song of Sydney High in measures loud and long.

Thank you.