Geoffrey Robertson's graduation address April 2006

31 May 2006


Mr Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Senators and honoured guests, graduates and graduettes, ladies and gentlemen.
I am humbled by this honour you have seen fit to bestow on me - indeed I wish the citation were still spoken in Latin, to spare my blushes. Perhaps it would have been spoken in Scottish - in Glasgow recently, the chairman of a meeting who spoke in a broad Scots accent introduced me as what sounded like "a distinguished liar". The last such honour I have received was for my work in Africa. It was an offer by the government of Sierra Leone to make me a citizen of that country: in exchange, I suppose, for Sierra Leone's Commonwealth Games' team. But in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations I remain Australian because any purpose my life has served was shaped and guided at this campus of Sydney University. It was an oasis of inspiration and disputation when I dived into it, from the springboard of Epping Boys School, in 1964 and for 6 years afterwards.

It is said that if you can remember the sixties, you can't have lived through them. In Australia the sixties didn't begin until the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 and my time here I remember all too vividly. I pay tribute to my teachers, especially to philosophers Alan Stout and Julius Stone and Tony Blackshield, and criminologists and constitutionalists like Gordon Hawkins, Duncan Chappell and Garth Nethheim. I learnt even more from three older students who had already commenced provocative public careers - Michael Kirby, Richard Walsh and the late Charlie Perkins. And of course from my own contemporaries on the SRC, friends then and friends now, like Jim Spigelman and Joe Skrysinski, Nick Greiner and Alan Cameron, Clare Petrie and Meredith Bergman and Robin Fitzsimmons. We amalgamated the men's and women's union, we actually sued the university to establish the rights of students not to be expelled without due process; we insisted the SRC should participate in all decision-making processes that affected students. And looking out from this intellectual shelter, financially secure in our Commonwealth scholarships and funded by mandatory student union fees, we tried to challenge with law suits and protests and freedom rides some of the dead verities of the Menzies' era: the White Australia policy, censorship of literature, contempt for the poor - and indifference towards aborigines, who then were not even counted in the census. In that distant era, learning at this university meant learning how and why to reject ideas that were cruel or obsolete or discriminatory. We left here with the notion that there was no such thing as "pure" scholarship: that scholarship could never be pure unless it pointed a way to benefit society. That is probably why I feel so honoured to have been awarded this degree in the company of future teachers and social workers rather than of lawyers - a class whose benefit to society is more open to question.

This is your day, not mine. You have, after all, had to work for your degree. So let me first congratulate you on your success and congratulate your families for helping you achieve it, especially those parents who have not themselves had a university background. I know from sacrifices made by my own mother and father what you have had to go through and how crucial your support has been to the success of your sons and daughters - as one day they will come fully to understand - probably when they have adolescent students of their own. So don't stint on family pride: the degree your children holds in their hands is proof positive of their capacity to do good in the world.

That is the second reason for congratulations: the choice you have made at this stage to commit your talents to education or social work. You live in a country of considerable, if not yet common, wealth. Once we rode to prosperity on the sheep's back and for the future we shall apparently prosper by selling uranium to everyone, except of course to Iran. Our land abounds in nature's gifts, many still safe from developers, and the physicality of our culture is represented by our Midas touch for gold medals at games. But these are fairly easy virtues: the true test of a nation is how it treats its most vulnerable, its unformed or uninformed, even its most unprepossessing. On that score we don't rate so highly, certainly when it comes to allotting resources to public schooling and to health and social services. So you will need your own resourcefulness to make a difference: but what a difference you can make. There can be nothing more important, especially in the underrated sector of primary education, than teaching a child to think, unless it is identifying and rectifying the reason why the child is not thinking. There are few more valuable tasks than those which social work requires, whether in helping refugees adjust or saving children from abuse or assisting disadvantaged clients to cut through the red tape of welfare entitlements.

Politicians think your virtue should be its own reward. You will be badly paid, probably, and receive inadequate practical training. You will be traduced by ignorant newspaper columnists and radio shock jocks, who will never themselves have done a real day's work in their lives but who will stigmatise you as "do gooders". As distinct, I suppose, from the "do badders" they prefer to celebrate. Let me offer just one word of advice: don't give them a free kick. Temper your idealism with street wisdom, never let your capacity for kindness override your judgement. It is true that poverty, social exclusion, discrimination and sheer back luck causally contribute to human hardships you will encounter - but some unfortunates are the authors of their own misfortune. I have no doubt that there is the same percentage of bad people in refugee camps and ethnic communities and welfare centres as there is in Vaucluse and Mosman and the Prime Minister's electorate of Bennelong. Don't think that society is always responsible for crime, or that underprivilege can excuse a callous lack of consideration for fellow human beings. There are bludgers and dole cheats, greedy shonks on welfare as well as on high salaries in AWB; there are tribal customs that deserve to be called torture and there is misogyny in most religions, not just in Islam. Doing good is always the best thing to do but it does no good to permit people to avoid the consequences of reckless or selfish actions. I hope you will retain your idealism but at the same time I hope it will be tempered by a preparedness to judge, and if necessary, to condemn.

I am talking of morality, not law. It was my generation which explained that moral rules were relative, if they follow from tradition or religion or political affiliation. But it has been an achievement of civil society in recent years to agree on a set of universal values, which brook no exception based on custom or geography. These universal values are based not on human dogma but on human dignity: they are universal because their denial in one country, one town, affects and shames us all. They were first listed in the Universal Declaration of human rights, that great Charter by which the world said "Never again" after the holocaust. It was prepared by Eleanor Roosevelt, who on December 10, 1948 handed it to the Chairman of the General Assembly of the United Nations - as it happened, a famous graduate of Sydney University, Dr H V Evatt. The next day came the genocide convention and a few months later the Geneva Conventions for protecting prisoners of war: that great human rights triptych, setting out the principles by which human action should be judged. We have been slow to enforce them on an international level: only since the Pinochet case a few years ago did we work out ways to put tyrants on trial for mass murdering their own people. Those of us who work in Africa know the truth that eludes Irish pop-singers: unless we first eradicate civil war and corruption, we will not make poverty history, we will make poverty inevitable. But we are making a start, as last week's surrender of Charles Taylor to my court in Sierra Leone shows.

But back in Australia we are often to forget the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, as she handed the Universal Declaration to Dr Evatt:

"Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Unfortunately, in Australia, there has been unthinking resistance to adopting the device that in other countries now serves to make human rights a reality, that enables them to be taught proudly to children in schools and used by social workers to ensure their clients have access to health, education and housing. It is called a Bill of Rights and it provides a way of taking court action to force governments to deliver on them. Its first five years in the UK: disadvantaged groups have benefited - mental patients, the disabled, school children, prisoners and so on, but the greatest beneficiaries have simply been citizens tangled up in red tape unable to obtain their entitlements because of bureaucratic incompetence or bloody mindedness. Since the Bill of Rights has proved so important as a measure of law reform and for educators and social services in the UK and Canada, in New Zealand and throughout Europe why is it resisted here?

Politicians fear it would restrict their power to govern as they like, while senior public servants fear it will put pressure on them to treat members of the public fairly. These are bad arguments, although they tend to prevail among a people who have been made scared of constitutional change. They are told to be happy with things the way they are: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," that Panglossian notion that in Australia we live in the best of all possible worlds, and those who want to improve it are "do gooders" - or worse, "intellectuals". We pay lip-service to the notions of liberty and fair play, but refuse to entrench them in our constitution. So first, perhaps, we should entrench them in our culture, in the way we teach our own history.

This is a subject about which conservatives have become very concerned. They think it is being taught too provocatively in schools, in ways that give the impression we have not yet arrived in the best of all possible worlds. But I want to suggest that you teach Australian history and citizenship more provocatively, and perhaps more truthfully. For example, teach that Ned Kelly was a murderer, covering his crimes with mawkish Irish sentimentality. That Gallipoli was a military and moral disaster, attributable to stupid British generals: the Anzacs were lions, led by donkeys. Teach that John Howard's own heroes - Menzies and Fadden - were Imperialists whose incompetent leadership imperilled Australia in its darkest hour. And don't over-venerate the Whitlam years: remember the economic disasters and how his ministers placed the economy in the hands on a shady black marketeer.

Ask cultural questions - is our fabled "mateship", for example, any more than a protective sexist ritual for emotionally inarticulate males? As for our constitution, explain that it was drafted by men who thought like Pauline Hanson, obsessed with racial purity: they spoke of Aborigines in the Convention debates as if they were native animals and they argued "Australia" into existence for the purpose of stopping Chinese immigration and to prevent Queensland planters from importing "kanakas" from the Pacific Islands.

But remember: there are inspiring and amazing people and achievements in Australian history, but teachers rarely mention them. The true hero of the Kelly gangsters was in fact a school teacher. His name was Curnow, who at Glenrowan, cleverly escaped from their custody, took his lantern and walked up the railway line to warn the police of the death trap into which they were advancing. It is Curnow and his lantern that should be iconic in our history, yet no one today even remembers his name. As well as disasters like Gallipoli, we should remember triumphs like Milne Bay, when Australia's fledgling fighter pilots and outnumbered AIF turned the tide of battle against the hitherto invincible and barbaric Japanese forces. We should celebrate apolitically John Curtain's steadfastness in that "darkest hour"; our children should be taught the vital contribution Doc Evatt and his team made to the post-war world order, and yes, even to applaud John Howard's finest hour, his commitment of troops to East Timor - an exercise so potentially dangerous that the U.S. funked it.

Why do we Australians never teach our children about how we pioneered universal suffrage and votes for women and maternity allowances, or invented the secret ballot and the basic wage, or how miners at Broken Hill achieved the 35 hour week for workers in dangerous jobs fifty years before that idea caught on overseas? Indeed, Australia elected the world's first Labour government (an achievement of some sort, when you remember it was elected in Queensland). Ours was the first Commonwealth parliament to introduce a Freedom of Information Act and comprehensive court oversight of public service decisions. Slowly and painfully, with the help of great Australians like Charlie Perkins and Faith Bandler, we have come to recognise an aboriginal contribution to our character: they have taught us to dream, and to suffer adversity nobly, and to find our way through the bush.

These achievements might proudly reflect a society which determined to give its people an entrenched legal right to a "fair go". We have failed - or shirked - that task, out of under defence to the powers of politicians and public servants. The result is that Australia is now left behind, as the only advanced democracy in the world which offers no constitutional protection for the rights of its citizens. There is nothing about human liberty in our constitution that we can point to with pride, or happily invite our children to recite. We need to relocate, and to celebrate, the aspects of our cultural history that vaunt social and political progress. We will not, I fear, have an interesting future until we tell of a more inspiring past. Tell stories about the valour and resourcefulness of Australians like schoolteacher Curnow.

"Teach your children well" sang Crosby Stills Nash & Young in the sixties. It became one of my generation's anthems, a kind of promise that our children would embrace different values, would be inspired by the real truths of our history to press for legal rights to liberty and fair treatment, so that we could move forward as a society: if we could not do good, we could at least do better. But we have failed to make rights meaningful and enforceable at that domestic level where Eleanor Roosevelt and Doc Evatt know they would be most needed. The challenge to teach our grand children well now falls to you - you are too young to be generation X or Y, perhaps you are Generation Z - alphabetically, our last chance. I wish you every success.

Contact: Andrew Potter

Phone: 02 9351 4514

Email: 29320043325730171b5d3c10180122032a57542c542d60243d