Lis Kirkby, our oldest graduate

29 June 2011

Lis Kirkby will be the University of Sydney's oldest graduate.
Lis Kirkby will be the University of Sydney's oldest graduate.

She was the state leader of a major political party, played a lead role in a primetime television drama, fought for social change and ran a radio station in a newly decolonised Malaysia. At 90 years of age, Lis Kirkby is now undertaking a PhD at the University of Sydney on similarities between the Great Depression and the Global Financial Crisis.

Lis decided to pursue her PhD after watching conservative governments determined to reduce spending, and repeat the same mistakes they made in the Great Depression after the GFC took hold.

"The importance of linking the 1930s to the GFC is to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. It is now more important than ever for people to realise that the economy cannot be run to suit the needs of the most privileged at the expense of the least privileged," she says.

"As long as you have a financial system that only looks at how banking interests can make profit without any consideration of how this affects ordinary people, or even other countries, the world is going to get in a worse and worse state."

Unlike many of her fellow students, Lis has the advantage of being able to draw on a lifetime of experiences.

She saw first-hand the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in England, and served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in World War II. She lived in Malaysia during the Malayan Emergency and stayed on in her role as a radio producer following independence. After working for ABC Radio in Sydney, Lis became a television celebrity, starring as Lucy Sutcliffe in the hit series Number 96.

However, it was Lis's work in politics that has really informed her postgraduate studies. As a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales and state leader of the Australian Democrat party from 1981 to 1998, Lis campaigned to decriminalise homosexuality, improve workers' rights, improve conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and establish equal rights and opportunities for women. Prior to entering Parliament, she had opposed the Vietnam War, and was a member of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL). Her research is becoming increasingly linked to these endeavours for social justice.

"I am more and more involved in this thesis as a matter of putting forward what I believe are principles of social justice, and it is not some airy fairy idea of total equality. There's no such thing as total equality, but a progressive society has to be fair, and it is not fair when a financial firm in New York can make a profit that is greater than the gross domestic product of a small country," she says.

Even after all she has faced as a political leader, media personality and social rights campaigner, Lis still found commencing university as daunting as any other new student.

"After leaving school I didn't go on to university, which was what had been expected, and it wasn't until 2002 that I thought okay, I'll go back to it! Why not?

"Of course I had to do public exams at the end of every year and go and sit in a room and write. The first time it was terrifying because I hadn't done it for 70 years!"

While Lis is aware that her age sets her apart from her fellow PhD candidates, she doesn't see it as a disadvantage. In fact, she believes the collective youth and inexperience of major finance corporations was a significant factor in the emergence of the GFC.

"When Goldman Sachs was in trouble in 2007-2008 there was no corporate memory. There was nobody who had any real knowledge of what had happened to Goldman Sachs prior to 1980," she says.

"I believe that people should be judged in old age on their capacity, not on their chronological age. I think it is terribly wrong that as soon as a person reaches a certain age they are automatically written off as too old. It really is infuriating that people assume you can't do something because of your age."

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