If George Clooney decides to run for President of the United States, Geoffrey Robertson promises to help him with his campaign. The world's second most famous lawyer (Amal would be first, surely?) is adamant Clooney would be an excellent leader. "He is incredibly intelligent and human and a very nice man."
We're dining at Melbourne's Taxi restaurant, atop Federation Square, overlooking Flinders Street station; Robertson has heard that Oprah and Nigella Lawson have dined here. He famously dated Lawson for a few years, before she was known for her cooking, when she was a restaurant critic. "My job was to steal the menu," he says.
Thankfully the only critiquing required today is between us. I order the salt and pepper quail and crispy skin salmon, a glass of local Marsanne, and we share a coleslaw. Traditionally a fan of French white wines, today Robertson opts for a Yarra Valley rose. "I have to say, as I get older, I become less interested in wine and usually find an ice cold beer down the back of my throat is as good as anything." He decides on seared kangaroo to start ("I thought it was patriotic to order it but I'm not sure whether kangaroo is kosher with the animal rights people"), with roasted rabbit loin as a main.
"Rabbit was the salvation of my family in the 1930s when my grandfather was put out of work. He was a piano polisher and there wasn't any call for them in the Depression," he says. "And the Sydney poor were saved by the rabbito, this guy who went through the working-class areas singing, 'One and sixpence'."
Robertson rarely goes out for lunch ("I might smash an avocado occasionally"). The one exception is when he works in Strasbourg, "which has some of the best restaurants in the world". Cases are heard early under the continental justice system, which means they finish by 2pm, at which point he heads straight for dining heaven.
He has come straight here from the Port Fairy Folk Festival, where he spoke about "when folk music changed the world". In addition to more obvious candidates such as We Shall Overcome and Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, he ended his talk by wondering if there could be a folk revival and promptly played Tim Minchin's Come Home Cardinal Pell.
Belief in the power of those songs is not the result of poetic nostalgia. He last encountered We Shall Overcome as a protest song in Czechoslovakia, when he defended the Czech Jazz Society against the Stalinists in the 1980s. The case was won, he and then-dissident (later president) Vaclav Havel ventured out onto the balcony where thousands of Czechs were waiting. They were met by a ragged chorus of We Shall Overcome.
Despite his Catholic musical tastes, Robertson can't stand jazz. "[I'm] always waiting for a tune and it never comes." That said, he has often defended people for "playing, singing, speaking in ways that a regime has disliked and it's important to continue that".
He's lived in London for several decades, but has dual citizenship and considers himself an Aussie. A self-confessed workaholic, Robertson comes back at least once a year and is about to tour the country to promote his latest book, Rather His Own Man: Reliable Memoir.
Politically active since his student days, he and his cohort protested against the Vietnam war and the White Australia Policy. "I grew up at a time when you would never see a black face … Aboriginals were kept in reserves, out of sight and out of mind. [Australia] was an extraordinarily racist country and to hear the songs of Pete Seeger and then Bob Dylan, the folk singers of the 1960s in the civil rights movement were really important. I've always retained a fond memory of them, which revives occasionally, to remind me to keep the faith."
For his 21st birthday, his mother took him to see Dame Joan Sutherland, who was touring with a slim, unknown Italian by the name of Luciano Pavarotti. To this day he is a mad opera fan and a patron of Australian Opera. "I got an AO recently, everyone thinks the AO stands for Australian Opera."
While pleased to be recognised with an Order of Australia in January, he felt sad his parents were not able to see it. They died last year within a few weeks of each other. In the book, he credits his mother with providing his moral compass; to his mind, it's the natural course of things. "The ethics of our parents are transmitted to our children and grandchildren."
He and Kathy Lette separated last year after 27 years of marriage; they have two children, a son, Jule, 27, and a daughter, Georgie, 25. Following in her father's footsteps, Georgie was president of the student union at university and continues to be politically active (she worked on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's election campaign) but her passions are different to Robertson's.
"She was always fighting for justice for the cleaning staff – we would never have thought back then about the cleaners, we were out fighting Vietnam and apartheid. I'm very impressed with the younger generation, who seem to be more active than any other generation since the '60s."
The revolution then, he says, was achieved by using a Pied Piper strategy. "Get the kids to follow you – and they did. Today I think the kids are back revolting, perhaps more positively. They don't have Vietnam, but, in America, they have guns …"
I wonder he might do any work against the gun lobby and the NRA? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Though many Americans cite the second amendment of the Constitution to support the argument they have the right to bear arms, their argument is not historically correct, says Robertson. He has been asked to provide some expert evidence on 17th-century history for a Supreme Court challenge and hopes to demolish the idea.
He admits his assertion in his early 20s that he wanted be a barrister at the Old Bailey was rather precocious. "But we all need something to aspire to," he says with a laugh.
"I wasn't much good at maths, I wasn't going to make it as an actuary, which was the highest paid position in Sydney at the time. I think I didn't have anyone from university in the family. I did read Great Expectations and Mr Jaggers was the character I thought one day I might like to be like."
When the Menzies government banned the book Lady Chatterley's Lover, and then The Trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Robertson had a lightbulb moment. He decided to become a barrister in London. "And I did, via various comical procedures, including winning a Rhodes Scholarship, ending up at Oxford – where I met John Mortimer, who became my forensic father, of Rumpole of the Bailey."
He has represented Salmon Rushdie, Mike Tyson and Julian Assange, as well as key media organisations including Dow Jones, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Along the way he also had a very successful stint in television, hosting the Hypothetical series, which featured high-profile individuals from all disciplines – politics, law, the arts and public life – giving them assumed identities and posing them curly, controversial ethical questions.
He hasn't conducted a murder trial in a decade, having turned his hand to human rights abuses. Name a case relating to international justice in recent years and, odds are, Robertson was involved: Pinochet, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, to name just a few. He was the first, in 2011, to call for the arrest of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, when he had only killed 800 of his own people.
Recently, he has become an advocate of the Magnitsky Law, adopted by Obama in America in 2012, and in place in many western democracies. It sets up a tribunal to name and blame and shame human rights abusers – their bank accounts are frozen, they are not allowed visas.
It extends beyond the individual to adversely affect their families. Robertson says these corrupt individuals invariably want to spend their money outside their own countries. Equally, they want their children to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge and their parents to be tended by the best specialists in the world in Harley Street.
"Usually we try to avoid visiting the sins of the fathers on the children but I will never forget perhaps the most wicked person I have ever met – an Israeli general who was selling arms to the Magellan drugs cartel – who begged me not to name him, who said 'I did it for my children'."
Closer to home, he'd change any number of things given the chance. "Australia, unlike almost every other country, doesn't have an Independence Day because we never became independent."
Does he think we should have a Bill of Rights? Absolutely. "Because Australia is behind the rest of the free world. We used to have some of the best judges in the world – they were recognised; I used to be quoting them all the time … Australia's jurisprudence has really fallen behind the eight ball."
It affects journalism too, he argues, because we don't have a free speech.
Despite having seen the worst of the worst of humanity, Robertson remains hopeful for the future. At least on a micro level, he says human rights standards can fulfil the traditional role of religion. "What gives me hope is not our capacity to love or think or whatever but our counterfactual capacity for kindness to ourselves and others, and future others."
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Kerrie is senior writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
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