Graduation address given by Bill Ferris AO

Bill Ferris AO gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Economics and Business graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 19 October 2007.

An Economics graduate from the University of Sydney, Mr Ferris is Executive Chairman, CHAMP Private Equity. In 1990, Mr Ferris was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his contribution to industry and the export sector, both manufacturing and services. His has been a long and distinguished career of wealth creation, industry reform and philanthropy. He chairs the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and in 2005, set up the Ferris Family Foundation to assist worthy charitable causes.

This photo of guest speaker Bill Ferris AO is copyright, Memento Photography.

Bill Ferris AO

Graduation address

Your Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Dean Wolnizer, Acting Vice-Chancellor, Fellows of the Senate, graduates, ladies & gentlemen.

It is a privilege to be invited to make this address today - 41 years since I graduated with Economics on a similar occasion in this Great Hall.

Was it any different then from today? Like any economist worth his salt, I would say on the one hand “yes” and on the other “no”. We graduated into an economy that looked strong; so strong in fact that net foreign debt was not an issue and not measured. The Government owed $1.6 billion overseas but had official reserves of $1.3 billion. Today the level of overseas debt held by Federal Government is also in good shape.

41 years ago the Australian Dollar was worth US$1.12; today it’s about 89 cents. GNP was growing at about 6.2% compared with today’s 3%.

Unemployment 41 years ago was a mere 1%; even better than today’s relatively low rate of 4.2%.

We graduated into a lucky country, carried along by a mineral resources boom which, with immaculate timing, took over the job of earning money for Australia from wool and wheat. Of course, what all this masked was that we graduated into a “fools economy”, a protected country whose tariff walls and colonial traditions had produced an island people standing on their shores with arms outstretched to Canberra!

The point is, the cracks were already there; our natural rural and mineral endowments had papered them over and postponed the day of reckoning. That is, the day of reckoning in terms of the international competitiveness of Australia’s manufacturing and services sector where 90% of Australians are employed - or underemployed.

So my graduating class thought we had it pretty good; and yet we landed the country into a nasty recession by 1992. I am sure you will not repeat our mistakes!

So what advice might my graduating class usefully offer this graduating class? What are the 2 or 3 big priorities you will need to focus on? First, you will need to make sure Australia is a huge success in Asia. Make sure you understand and enjoy life in Asia; business, holidays, friends, theatre and politics - life in general. Why? Because Asia represents the economic future for this country.

You will need to resist any call for the “de-Asianising” of our immigration or our overseas students education programs.

Australian education has already made a major contribution to the growth of Australian exports and business opportunities in Asia through the education of Asian students in Australia over the last 40 years.

Many of these students, on returning home, have risen to influential positions in Government, administration, business and the professions. Most have warm feeling towards Australia helping to build up a reserve of goodwill for Australia.

This same goodwill bonus can be expected for those who over the last twenty years have been coming from offshore to our educational institutions as fee-paying students.

We cannot put a monetary figure on the value of the goodwill towards Australia retained by these students when they return home. But we shouldn’t under estimate the potential of this goodwill to assist Australian business and relations generally in Asia.

Being internationally competitive and compatible in our region involves being fluent in the languages, cultures and practices of the region. If you don’t speak Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Hindi or Bahasa, you should start taking lessons.

A second priority issue for this graduating class is to figure out what comes after the minerals boom.

Whichever party wins the upcoming Federal election, Labor or Liberal, you need to be vigilant that their priorities are about creating a vibrant framework for an Australia post the current mineral resources boom. You should push them for a significant increased commitment to education, for hefty increases in research and development for the major industries of the future where Australia can and should compete (e.g.) the life sciences sector (biotechnology, medical devices, and innovative clinical practices), engineering services and renewable energy technologies relevant to deal with the impacts of global warming and climate change.

And while you are about it, push them for creating the Republic of Australia … isn’t it about time?

And every now and again ask yourself what you are going to do for Australia. Whether helping governments to frame better/innovative policies, or maybe helping not-for-profit organisations to more efficiently achieve their objectives, never underestimate just what a difference you can make.

Meantime, congratulations on your graduation today and good luck for a wonderful life ahead.