Graduation address given by Frederick Rawdon Dalrymple AO

Frederick Rawdon Dalrymple AO gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Economics and Business graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 18 May 2007 in the Great Hall. Mr Dalrymple is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel, Indonesia, the USA and Japan, an Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Economics and Business, and recipient of an recipient of the degree of Doctor of Science in Economics (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney.

Graduation address

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Dean Wolnizer, Colleagues, Graduates and Visitors:

My first duty is to congratulate all of you new graduates. I do so very warmly.

Secondly, and also very warmly, I thank the University for honouring me today with this high degree.

Last year Mr Joe Skrzynski gave a fascinating address on the corresponding occasion. In it he said his generation – about half way between yours and mine - owed yours an apology because he and his contemporaries had not had to pay fees and had left the university unencumbered by HECS and into a society where houses were relatively far cheaper. That’s true. But now the numbers are much bigger which I suppose has to be set on the other side of the ledger. Anyway it’s not an issue which I need to buy into. In 1948 when I came here it was on a public exhibition and a bursary and I was poor! But it was a good time for those of us who could come to this university. In those days we were a very small proportion of our contemporaries, and this was the only university in the State.

That’s all the reminiscing I’m going to do today.

Reading the obituaries of Milton Friedman last November I noticed an attribution to him of the slogan “The business of business is business”. Well that might fit with some of Friedman’s economics, and no doubt he did say it or it wouldn’t have been in the obituary. But the originator of the saying was Alfred T Sloan, President of General Motors, in 1923 when Friedman was eleven years old.

What strikes me about that slogan today is that I don’t think you’d hear either the President of a huge corporation or an enormously influential Nobel Prize winning economist, which Friedman was, saying it in 2007. Why not?

Well, firstly, business is now very concerned not to appear indifferent to issues of wider public concern. Read any company report and you will see plenty of evidence of that.

I don’t think this has happened because of some great moral illumination. It has happened because of shifts of knowledge and influence and an appreciation of business’s interests in today’s social and economic climate. In that climate they see advantage in making the business of business rather more than just their own knitting.

There is now a much more widespread concern about global problems and about issues and suffering beyond our shores. Here in Australia it was recently reported that several leading businesses had formed an association called “Business for Poverty Relief Alliance” in association with World Vision Australia. They call for more Australian business involvement with our near and developing neighbours on the grounds that “Not only will such a move pay dividends in the longer term, it will lead to a more rapid alleviation of poverty in the region”. The same business group just mentioned believes, according to the press report, “that global poverty represents a significant blind spot for corporations in the rush to embrace corporate social responsibility”.

So it looks as though we are seeing the replacement of the idea that the business of business is business by that other old saw about doing well by doing good.

I wouldn’t criticize that sort of thing but I am by nature skeptical. As a student I was never into demonstrations and I have never stridently espoused causes. I have always thought there was much more to be said for dialogue and compromise, for looking for common ground. I remember once seeking to blunt one of Gareth Evans’s more enthusiastic proposals, counseling caution and saying that there was a place for Fabianism in these matters, to which he rather crossly replied “yes, six feet under ground”. Fabianism was the name given to a form of gradual socialism and it was named after a Roman general called Fabius Cunctator, Fabius the delayor, who had great successes with delaying tactics. Gareth by contrast sometimes rather exemplified the character in one of the great Ring Lardner’s stories: “shut up, he explained”.

But my counsel to you in life and affairs is not just delay. It is also to try to see both sides of an issue. The second Duke of Mantua had inscribed on his escutcheon the words “Maybe yes, Maybe no” and that motto served his Gonzaga family very well for generations to follow. But there is a cautionary reminder not to take that too far in the comment British Prime Minister Lloyd George made about one of his political contemporaries that “he has sat on the fence so long that the iron has entered his soul”.

Do be skeptical, that is after all a good part of what a university education, at least one in the Enlightenment tradition, should have taught you. And do try to see both sides of issues, don’t rush to moral judgments and seek compromises of interests.

But don’t be afraid to have a go. I always remember the example of the President of the small college at Fulton Missouri which is where President Truman came from. He was planning the biggest event in the College year and as a wild shot he wrote off to President Truman inviting him to come to the College’s Commencement Day and, drawing an even longer bow, suggested that it would be especially wonderful if Truman could bring Winston Churchill with him. Some weeks went by and he heard nothing from the White House and then one morning the phone on his desk rang and a voice at the other end asked for him and said this is Harry Truman speaking. The College head did not for a moment think the President would ever just come on the line direct like that and he assumed someone was having a joke so he said “yes and this is George Washington”. Truman said “no it really is the President here and I’m calling about the letter you wrote inviting me to your Commencement Day. I want to come and I’ve been in touch with Winston Churchill and he is coming and he will make a speech”. Clark Clifford, who was Truman’s principal assistant and who was there told me that there was a short silence and then the College President said “Jesus Christ”. And that is how Winston Churchill came to make his historic Fulton speech in which he spoke of an Iron Curtain descending across the continent of Europe.

I wish I could end these few remarks on a note of optimism. There were clouds hanging over the world when I finished my student days – the Cold War and the nuclear superpower confrontation. But the longer term outlook seems to me more threatening now.

Of course it is encouraging that there is express economic growth in the world’s biggest countries, China and India, as well as in other large countries like Viet Nam. And in much of the world there have been great advances in life expectancy and welfare. But over all hangs the concern about the effects of that huge economic expansion on the environment and the climate change consequences. One of the things that is seldom discussed in this country is the effect of climate change and environmental degradation on those parts of the world which are now the poorest and most vulnerable. Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, especially Bangla Desh, have population growth rates of nearly three and a half per cent per annum and that means a doubling in about twenty years. Yet these are the places where climate change and environmental degradation are likely to make large areas uninhabitable. There could be forced emigrations on a scale not before seen or even contemplated. Australia is relatively isolated but it seems unlikely that it will be possible indefinitely to keep this continent for 20 or 25 million people. Voices like those of Tim Flannery who say we should reduce the Australian population to half its present size seem to me quite unrealistic.
Another grave concern is how the world is going to manage what now threatens to be a more or less unlimited expansion in the number of states with nuclear weapons. It is clear now that the NPT was just a stop-gap which inevitably would be breached. Instead of five we now have nine and Iran looks set to make it ten. Others will follow.

Well I don’t want those cheerful words to be my last to you on your graduation day. My last word is this: I fervently hope that every one of you will have as much advantage and satisfaction from your education as I had from this university where many years ago I was a student, and then a lecturer and where today I have been honoured at the hands of our distinguished Chancellor.