Graduation address given by Antony Green

Antony Green, Election Analyst, ABC, gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 5 June 2009.

The photo of Mr Green giving the occasional address is copyright, Memento Photography.

Antony Green

Graduation address

May I first say what an enormous honour it is for me to be here on this occasion.

To you who are here receiving your degrees, this is a day to mark your achievements. For many of you, this is the point that marks the end of your formal education. But it should not be the end of your education in life.

To parents and friends gathered, it is also your achievement. Your sons and daughters cannot yet understand the feelings and emotions you feel as you watch your children grow and become young adults. Today marks another milestone on that road to independence that all parents know is the path of their offspring. It is a path of growing apart that can bring both sorrows as well as great joys.

It is a day for all of you to cherish and remember.

As the Deputy Chancellor noted, I myself have been through graduation ceremonies in this great hall. My education at Sydney University provided me with the grounding for and tools with which I have built my own career. But for me, life has been a process of education that has extended beyond my time at this University.

My parents migrated to Australia when I was four. They came from a small industrial town in the north of England where like all my family, my parents left school at 15 and started work. In coming to Australia, my parents hoped for a better life for themselves and for their children.

Because of their migration, I received a better education than I would have ever received had they stayed in England. I was fortunate enough to attend James Ruse Agricultural High School, a school then with a growing reputation but certainly not as well known as it is today. I then came to this University, completing a Science degree in pure mathematics and computing.

I remember that first graduation as a 20 year-old with pride. I well remember the pride of my parents. I was the first in the family to finish high school, let alone go on and graduate from University. We still have the pictures of me in my first suit underneath my academic gown, all of us getting our pictures taken in front of this great gothic edifice.

Yet for all my skills in maths and science, one of my passions was reading history, a subject I had been forced to drop for my HSC year. A chance reading of Russell Ward’s history “A Continent for a Nation”, inspired a new interest in Australian politics a exposed me to a century of Australian history of which I was relatively ignorant. Already weary of a career in computing, I made the momentous decision to change career, returning to Sydney University and study for a Bachelor of Economics, completing my honours in Australian Politics within the Department of Government.

After my second graduation in this Great Hall in February 1989, little did I know that within a year I would have won a competitive position for a six month contract at the ABC working as a researcher on the 1990 Federal election. The ABC received 150 applications for the job, interviewed eight including three with PhDs, and then selected me. Enthusiasm, academic background and the odd pairing with computing was irresistible.

On the day the ABC called and offered me the job, I was also called by the NSW Treasury about a trainee economist position. I still remember thinking on that day as I decided to go to the ABC that I could always go back to economics.

Two decades ago, as I walked from this hall with my Economics degree, I could not have imagined that today I would be here addressing a gathering such as this with the experience of covering nearly 50 federal, state and territory elections under my belt, or that I would have travelled to other countries to watch momentous elections.

I could not have imagined that I could have spent some much time working with journalists who have covered the momentous events of the last two decades. When I graduated, Nelson Mandela was still in gaol, the Berlin Wall still divided Europe, and the idea of an African American being President of the United States was beyond belief. Much has changed.

When I agreed to give this address, it made me think back to my own graduation. I remember my pride at the occasion. I particularly remember my parents’ pride. But in a warning to myself, I have virtually no memory of who gave the occasional address or the topic on which they spoke.

Today I thought I would talk about a small piece of history that took place in this very hall 133 years ago. It was not a particularly important event. It is not important for who the participants were. But it is important for who the participants became.

For the last five years I have been working on a project that documents the history of elections in New South Wales. In particular, I have been applying my skills in computers and databases to documenting 19th century elections, a task that the scattered nature of the sources had made virtually impossible to complete for researches armed only with pen, paper and card index.

And in that process, I came to a greater understanding of this University and its much greater role in the Sydney of earlier days.

When it was set up the 1850s, Sydney University loomed large over Sydney, both physically and intellectually. When this grand hall was built in the middle of the 19th century, Sydney was a mere hamlet that petered out in the cow paddocks along Cleveland Street. In a low rise city this building could be seen from far and wide.

The University’s intellectual presence can be illustrated by a clause in the 1858 Electoral Act. The same Act that introduced the democratic right for all adult males to vote also included a provision that allowed this University to have representation in the New South Wales Parliament once there were 100 graduates resident in the colony.

In 1876, the University petitioned the Governor for its seat to be created. The petition listed the names of 10 Doctors of Law, 9 Doctors of Medicine, and 92 Masters of Arts resident in the Colony. The University’s wish was granted and an election for the University of Sydney’s first Member of Parliament was held in this hall in September 1876.

On Wednesday 6 September, a public notice was published in the Sydney Morning Herald notifying of the meeting for nominations and the place and date of polling if required. Underneath the notice, the Registrar, Mr Hugh Kennedy noted:

“Persons entitled to vote for a Member to represent the University are required to appear in academic costume on the occasion of the election.”

Directly underneath, on a more mercenary note, a further notice appeared:

“University Election - The authorised Academic Costumes may be obtained at E. Millett’s, Robemakers by special appointment to the Sydney University.”

Unfortunately, the Electoral Act didn’t include an academic gown provision, and Registrar Kennedy was forced note the next day that academic attire was not required but voters should comply with customary practice.

In those days the first step of an election was the public call for nominations, conducted on a stage known as a ‘husting’. The Returning Officer would first read the writ for election, then candidate’s nominators and seconders would address the crowd. Then the candidates themselves would give their views on the issues of the day. After the speeches, a show of hands would be called for, the Returning Officer would then announce one of the candidates as the winner. At that point any candidate or six voters present could request that a secret ballot be held.

In those days before radio, televisions and film, such meetings served as public entertainment. At elections for East and West Sydney in the 19th century, as much as a quarter of Sydney’s population would turn up to hear the meetings. And more than hear. Often the public would join in, cheering and booing the public speakers. In the early days, the audience took to nominating candidates for their own amusements, forcing the good and wise of the colony to share the platform with rabble rousers and inebriates.

Needless to say, there was far more decorum in this hall on Thursday the 7th of September 1876.

The first candidate nominated was 41 year-old William Charles Windeyer, a member of the University senate, one of the University’s first graduates, a Barrister, former member of the NSW Legislative Assembly and a former NSW government minister. He was nominated by FitzWilliam Wentworth, son of this University’s founder William Charles Wentworth. Windeyer was the establishment candidate.

Against him that day was a 27 year-old then virtually unknown in public life, though by the cheers he attracted on the hustings that day, he was well known to the younger graduates of the University. He was a young man who a quarter of a century later would go on to be the Prime Minister of a country that on that day did not even exist.

That young man was Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia, a man who through his hard work and endeavour did as much as anyone to make Australia a nation.

It is also interesting to note the name of the man who seconded Windeyer. His name was Richard Edward O’Connor, another young man, but one who was a lifelong friend of Edmund Barton. Twenty-seven years later, they would be appointed together as two of the first Justices of the High Court of Australia.

In the debate that took place, Windeyer’s supporters could not help but refer to his experience against Barton’s youth. As the first member for the University, O’Connor urged those listening that -

“They ought to return a man who would at once take a powerful stand in Parliament. The University, to be a power in the country, should be represented by a man who would be a power in the House and not a nonentity.”

At the end of the meeting, Windeyer was declared the winner on the show of hands, but Barton called for a poll that was held in the ante-room at the back of this hall on Friday 8 September 1876.

At 4:30 that afternoon, the crowd assembled here in this Great Hall to hear the Chancellor Edward Deas-Thomson as Returning Officer announce the final results, Windeyer winning by the narrow margin of 49 votes to 43. Both candidates spoke briefly, thanked the returning officer, and as was normal for public meetings in those days, proceedings were finished with three rousing cheers for Her Majesty the Queen.

Barton was to succeed Windeyer as member for the University of Sydney in 1879, the beginning of his long and important political career. Sadly he was to be a representative for this University for less than a year. The parliament of New South Wales was to introduce a new Electoral Act in 1880, and in a fit of democracy, the oddity of a seat reserved for the University of Sydney disappeared forever.

What we have never known is why Barton ran at that election. Was it some sort of student lark, a tweaking of the establishment’s nose? Was it an attempt to establish his name, a useful career move? This latter motivation seems the most likely, as the election established Barton’s name in the colony’s political circles.

It is a shame we do not know what that day looked like. This hall in those days would have been lit by candles and possibly gas lighting. Photography inside in those days was impossible. Newspapers printing technology still struggled to re-produce even line drawings. This was before radio, before television, before digital cameras and mobile phones. Edmund Barton’s pictures were not all over his Facebook page that evening.

The veiled criticism of Barton that day was that despite his graduation, he had not yet learnt enough. Barton’s friend O’Connor, in seconding Windeyer’s nomination, spoke of the older candidate’s life learning as well as book learning. The point was clear, that despite Barton’s passage through this University, his learning was not yet over.

Who would have known on that day in 1876, in this Great Hall, where Edmund Barton’s career would go? Who knew that the friends and connections he made at that time in this University would be there through the rest of his life.

Here today, we live in a much larger and more complex society. The personal links built at University in Barton’s day are not possible in the larger and more impersonal University of today. But who is to know whether today in this room we have with us future Prime Minister, High Court Judges, senior academics, businessman or bureaucrats. Who knows, there may even be the odd future rogue.

But what has not changed has been the opportunity you have received by your education at this University. As Windeyer said in his speech from the hustings that day:

“It was not the mere fact of holding a University degree that was of any value, but the fact of having gone through a systematic course of training and instruction for a number of years.”

What you get most out of education is the ability to learn and continue to learn. What you also hopefully get out of it is an enjoyment of learning.

It is the skills and the lessons that Barton learnt in this institution that he applied through the rest of his career. It is the same lesson I have learned, the book learning of my University days has been expanded upon by my later learning in life.

It is the opportunity you now have. You have been privileged to receive the education you have in your time in this institution. Many others have not received your opportunity. Fate may yet play a part in where you finish in life, but the education you received has you well placed to achieve. You have learnt much and you have much yet to learn.

One day like me, you may look back on your time here with nostalgia. But where you look back from is now in your hands.

Congratulations and I wish you well for whatever you achieve in life.