University anniversaries

Sesquicentenary 1999-2002

Vice-Chancellor's Sesquicentenary Distinguished Lecture by Frederick Hilmer AO

The University of Sydney Sesquicentenary celebrations commenced in 1999 and commemorated various important phases in the foundation of the University.

As part of the University's 150th anniversary celebrations, the Vice-Chancellor hosted speeches by guests of international stature in his Sesquicentenary Distinguished Lecture Series.

Fred Hilmer AO gave a lecture on "Re-energising Australia: The Need to Move Forward in a Revitalised Society" on 27 February 2002.

View a photo gallery of the lecture.

Frederick G Hilmer AO

Fred Hilmer is Chief Executive Officer, John Fairfax Holdings Limited, and an Alumnus of the University of Sydney. He previously served as Dean and Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), as a Director of a number of leading companies, and as a managing partner of McKinsey & Company's Australian practice.

Fred Hilmer chaired the National Competition Policy Inquiry in 1992/93 and has written extensively on micro economic reform and management.

He holds a degree in law from the University of Sydney, a Masters degree in law from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton School of Finance where he was appointed a Joseph Wharton Fellow. In 1991, the Australian Institute of Management awarded him a special John Storey medal for his distinguished contribution to the advancement of management thinking in Australia.


Vice Chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown, distinguished guests:

Thank you for the opportunity to give this lecture. It is good to be back at University on familiar ground, though if I were to compare my current role at Fairfax to my former role at University, the similarities are striking. In both places, the key currency is intellectual property. In both places, egos and intellects are large, politics can be intense and technology and funding pressures challenge the old rules of how work is done. So, thanks for having me back on familiar ground, even though it doesn't seem as if I have been in a very different place.

When I originally planned this talk, I chose the topic, "Re-energising Australia" to outline some broad themes about our society and where we are headed at this particular time. I thought it important to address the acute need to revitalise our economy and our society, particularly after September 11 and the Federal election campaign, and in the context of an economy that is technically growing but without the heady zing we enjoyed in the 1990s. For we are doing it tough right now both economically and socially, and to get out of this trough will need all the energy that can be brought to bear, individually and collectively.

The golden decade
Let me start with some reflections on the last decade.

If we think about it, the 1990s really were the golden years in Australia - historians will look back on the 90s and say, "This is when Australia came of age, and came into its own in a globalised world." We had a strong economy after 1991, with only a mild down turn in the mid-1990s. On the whole, we enjoyed high levels of employment, and rising real wages. New areas of the economy emerged, or were created, with much fanfare, excitement and investment: mobile telephones, pay TV, the internet, international tourism on a large scale, our wine industry. Australia became better integrated into the global economy and became an international showcase - as we could see with the success of the Olympics. In the run up to the Games, Sydney itself was transformed with infrastructure investment and urban renewal, so that its status as a great city of the world was evident both to our visitors and residents. We made impressive progress culturally: films, music and dance, and new and rebuilt galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. Our stars win Oscars, our cultural acts and even restaurants from Circular Quay to Margaret River get rave reviews in The New York Times. In sport, we are champions in rugby, cricket, tennis, and we had the strongest Olympic performance ever. (And we have just won our first two gold medals in the Winter Olympics, with a Cinderella moment for one of our ski aerialists, and a uniquely Australian laconic understated and unbelievable performance by one of our skaters.) In education, there are increasing numbers staying in school and gammg tertiary qualifications. This University attracts a significant number of students from abroad, particularly from Asia. Hopefully, many will become leaders in their nations in years to come, and they will share, not unlike the Ivy League experience in the United States, a common point of reference from being educated in Australia, at what are the best universities in Asia/Pacific.

The current malaise
While all these ingredients are still in place, today the cylinders are neither synchronised nor firing cleanly. For a complex set of reasons, starting over a year ago, we began to turn inwards, with key trends starting to flatten out, or, at worse, turn down.
The economy slowed- the media industry, and Fairfax of course along with it, hit an advertising recession, the worst in 10 years. The US entered recession. We had at least one quarter of negative growth. A number of new industries that had been all the rage hit brick walls: the internet, from dot boom to dot bust; the telephone industry, with a worldwide glut of transmission capacity; travel and tourism; and the services economy generally. (Fortunately, Australia's good economic management, and slow but steady currency devaluation, propped up the rural economy and manufacturing, with exports booming. The lower interest rates have helped real estate and construction but things are neither as they were nor as they could be.) Confidence in key institutions started to crack. There are real concerns about our police and our courts. There are real questions about our education system, and how good a job it is doing, from our public schools to our universities. And there has been an erosion of confidence in our markets and market-oriented policies. There is a clear political sentiment: don't privatise further. The collapse of Hili, One Tel, Harris-Scarfe, Ansett, Enron, and Global Crossing all raise issues about how our markets are functioning, the oversight that is provided and the faith people have going forward. The debate shifted from what we could create to whom we should blame. There was a demonisation of competition policy (not that I took it personally!). Everything that could be labelled economically rational became too hard; the malaise was known as "reform fatigue." And most politicians seem to have caught the bug. The GST was of course blamed for everything that went wrong last year. Government was blamed for not doing enough about crime, jobs and education. Migrants and refugees became large targets of blame and, as we could see, even hysteria in the midst of an election campaign. And then came September 11. The shock of the catastrophe was palpable; and because of our global media networks, it was a universally shared experience of horror. September 11 will join other days of infamy, and we will long recall where we were, and how we watched, what happened on that Tuesday and Wednesday. It delivered, of course, a further blow to confidence. The ensuing war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and the prospects for further military action in Iraq, and perhaps against other elements of the "axis of evil", also reinforce this inward-orientation. "Stop the world," we think some days, "I want to get off." Spending slows. We travel less. We take fewer risks in business, we freeze new employment. And we have stronger feelings about keeping out migrants and boat people. This inward looking and quite negative view of the world permeated our recent election. And just when we thought the election was over, guess what: we're replaying it. Today, we are in the midst of another crisis of confidence in two critical institutions: the Government, and the Governor-General. It's not 1975, but there probably has not been, since that time, such developments that go to the heart of the authority and processes of our democracy's institutions. So, you might ask: how do we break out of this down cycle? How do we infuse our society with the energy to capitalise on the superb assets, human and physical, and the democratic and prosperous environment that is Australia?

Re-energising Australia
In my view, there are two ingredients that would help re-energise Australia. The first is a free and vibrant flow of ideas and information. Ideas and information challenge our views of what's possible, what might be achieved. They enliven, stimulate and entertain. They stop us slipping into the stupour of being relaxed and comfortable. I have never believed that to be relaxed and comfortable was an appropriate aspiration for our society. People are relaxed and comfortable before they die a peaceful death, but not before they perform to their limit, or achieve great things. The second is an environment that encourages risk. For unless we take risks, try new approaches, make new investments, challenge the status quo, we atrophy. I will discuss each in turn.

Free and Vibrant Flow of Information and Ideas
In my view a free and vibrant flow of ideas and information is an extremely powerful energising force. Ideas change the world, whether they are about political systems, religious beliefs, technology, economic reforms or ways to spend time. We see this every day in very personal ways. Can you recall the experience of visiting an elderly relative, seeing them listless and subdued when you entered the room, and then coming to life with conversation about what's happening, who's doing what to whom, what's new? The interaction, ideas and information stimulate like no drug can. I also want to dwell on this subject because it is central to my current role at Fairfax. A principal element of re-energising our society is to ensure we have a free and energetic media. Indeed, a free media is essential to the proper functioning of a free society. Without an informed public, democracy is compromised. These are lessons we learn in every political crisis, and we are learning them again with respect to the refugee issue and the controversy ssurrounding the Governor-General. We are the medium through which we understand ourselves as a society; in which we come to understand the issues of the day; and the medium through which we test various alternatives, and roads forward, for ourselves and our society. A free and open media also adds colour, texture and vibrancy to our society. Are we an interesting place? Do we have lots of ideas flying around? Do we have communities that are able to define themselves and make contact with each other? So a good media industry helps energise, define and make interesting and more livable the communities in which we work. The media is also indispensable to the operation of our economy. Accurate, complete and timely information is at the heart of a market economy. Without full and open access by the markets to business news, abuses, such as insider trading, or Hili, or Enron, can occur. Markets work because of the free flow of information. From where I sit, as CEO of Fairfax, I have seen over the past several months the intersection of several of the trends I outlined earlier-the pessimism, the falloff in confidence, the negativity, and the turning inwards - being turned on the media itself. And not by the Australian people, but by the Government. In ways large and small, there is a growing threat to the freedom of the press in Australia. And that threat, in turn, threatens to undermine the pivotal and indispensable role we play in our society.

Let me give you some recent examples about what we are facing day-to-day:

1. In the aftermath of September 11, the Attorney General introduced legislation - the Criminal Code Amendment (Espionage and Related Offences) Bill. It has the commendable purpose of the strengthening the laws and penalties for espionage, particularly as they related to terrorism. But the legislation also has other, sweeping provisions, that were not remarked on by the Attorney General when the Bill was introduced, and which in fact were not noticed by the media for some time. The Bill would make it an offence to communicate or receive official information, with penalties of up to 2 years' imprisonment. The Bill treats any unauthorised disclosure of information by public servants as if it involved a leak of official secrets. Such legislation can be used to plug leaks - and we believe it could well be so used. Under this Bill, we would be liable for prosecution for publishing the pictures of the refugees in the water that became public recently. The threat posed by such legislation is clear: if it becomes a crime to disclose any unauthorised information, or to receive any such information, this Bill, by limiting the coverage of the workings of government, directly hampers and prevents public discussion of the issues of the day - and therefore goes to the heart of the operation of a free press in a democracy. (We have registered our strong concerns with the Attorney General, and have joined with other media organisations in a campaign to remove these offensive provisions from the Bill. We will fight until they are removed and never become law.)

2. Woomera.
For days in January, the country was transfixed by the spectacle of the violence and disturbances at the Woomera detention centre. In general, we received, and reported, the official version of events, particularly regarding the sewing of lips by some refugees, and charges that the lips of children were also sewn shut. Because we were barred from the facility, there could be no independent verification - of the type we have seen we have needed with the refugees attempting to come here on boats - of what actually transpired. We still do not know. Late in January, the United States Defence Department permitted a pool of journalists, including our own Washington correspondent, Gay Alcorn, to go to Camp X Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to see for themselves how the most dangerous terrorists in captivity where being treated, given the concerns over whether Geneva convention norms were being applied. We wrote to Immigration Minister Ruddock to ask for access by the media to Woomera. How could it be, we asked, that the United States Government permits access by the media to see the condition of dangerous terrorists, but the media in Australia cannot get into Woomera to see the condition of the asylum seekers? We received no answer. We still have not been permitted into Woomera. And as a result, you do not know what is really going on there.

3. Digital television and datacasting.
In 1999 and 2000, the Government attempted to jump start digital television by developing the concept of datacasting - new digital television services. But there was a catch. The new services could not have the look or feel of regular television programming - because of the underlying policy that competition to the television networks had to be limited for the next several years. So imagine the challenge of defining a television service that could not look like television. It's exactly what you think: dozens of pages of legislation that define what a datacaster could show, and what they could not show. Orwell would have had a field day. By law, datacasters are barred from showing drama, sports, music, infotainment (these are terms that actually show up in the statute), lifestyle programmimg, documentaries, reality television, children's entertainment, light entertainment and variety, compilation programs, quiz programs, comedy programs - I hope we haven't run out of categories yet - or "a program that consists of a combination of any or all of the above programs." Fairfax would have been able, under this law, to give you "information-only programming." But there was a catch: such programs are only permissible to the extent where there is "not a significant emphasis on dramatic impact or entertainment." News bulletins cannot last longer than 10 minutes, or be updated - even if covering a September 11 catastrophe - more frequently than every 30 minutes. These restrictions obviously render datacasting unwatchable - and it came therefore as no surprise that the auction of datacasting licences failed in the market last year. The point I want to make, however, is that the Government did not shy away from writing, and enacting into law, page after page of language that restricts the content - censors the content - of what a new digital television licensee would want to provide. That a law would actually define "news" and "information programming" and seek to limit the scope of what can be provided is actually breathtaking in a democratic country.

4. Here I have some good news to report.
By order of the Speaker of the House last year, photographers in the press gallery were barred from publishing pictures that showed anything other than the person who had the "call" - who was speaking on the floor at the time. No candid shots of members who were not speaking. Effectively, we were told: only the official depiction. No reaction shots. A picture does tell a thousand words. A shot of a glaring Prime Minister, or an ashen-faced MP, tells all. This was an issue that provoked bitter feelings among our staff and editors. But we did work with the Speaker, in the interests of getting the new Parliament off on the right foot. I am pleased to report that the new rules were revoked, and we'll see how we go. My point, however, is that our political leaders had no qualms about putting blinders on the media and what they could show from what was actually occurring on the floor of Parliament - which meant that you would know less about what was occurring on the floor of Parliament. We do not have a First Amendment in Australia. If we did, there is no doubt in my own mind that the Attorney Generals' Bill and the datacasting Bill would be struck down well before reaching the Supreme Court. Indeed, if you have a First Amendment, it is inconceivable, in drafting laws, to even go into the dark places where these lawmakers have tried to go. Even so, I am not yet convinced we need a First Amendment, and I am not advocating one since we are seeing off each of these threats. What I am advocating is continuing vigilance on any proposed restrictions on the freedom of the press in Australia. When there is pessimism, doubt, trauma and a turning inwards, that is the time when our liberties are likely to be in greater danger, and when we need to be more vigilant. Indeed, it is at these low points in the cycle that we most need the ideas, interaction and communication that re-energise us. An energised country, in turn, has more ideas about its future and its direction. I think these issues of press freedom are part of coping with the real leadership challenge facing Australia today: how to rebuild confidence and re-energise the nation.

Risk Taking
Having information, ideas and aspirations is a good start. But we also need an environment where people are encouraged not just to debate and dream but also to act, to take risks, to tackle changes, create jobs and try new approaches to solving problems. What do we know about sensible risk taking? That it requires self-confidence and security. Relaxed and comfortable people don't take risks - they can't be bothered. Insecure people don't take risks - they are too afraid of the possibility of failure. What makes us - or would make us - more confident?

First, some reassurance and reaffirmation of our values and worth. We need to lift the tenor of debate, and remind ourselves of the touchstones of Australian life about which we can and should be proud:
- A capable, confident people prepared to have a go.
- A vibrant democracy and robust democratic process with a free press
- Appreciation that we are endowed with great resources that we want to preserve and Improve
- Understanding that we are in fact rich in opportunities, and that we should help people seize them
- An economic system that rewards initiative, effort and achievement
- An ethos that helps ensure that people aren't left behind.

This is not simply a rhetorical or political exercise. It involves leadership, but has to be communicated in unconventional ways. This requires great story telling - we need to know, and come to believe in the positive myths about Australia, Australians, what we are doing and what we can do. A risk-taking environment is also enhanced when security is not an issue. This includes safety from crime and good infrastructure, in our roads, hospitals, and communications. Safe streets and good streets are important to our sense of well-being on a day-to-day basis. We also become more confident in our risk taking when our environment has the "look of success." Sydney looked magnificent during the Olympic Games. The city still does, by and large. We have to keep it that way. It is a key element to the resurrection of New York City under Rudy Giuliani, and it will allow New York to rise again from September 11. Bob Carr recently commented on the need for public schools to look like successful institutions of learning. This University benefits from the Great Hall and Quadrangle, and suffers when the campus looks run down.

In summary, there are three main messages:
1. We have an acute need to re-energise our society and economy: we are turning inward. Too much emphasis is being placed on whom to blame, and not enough on doing new things, and doing things better.
2. Re-energising requires a free and vibrant flow of ideas and information. Continuing vigilance on press freedom is essential in this regard, and recent threats to press freedom should be strongly resisted.
3. Re-energising also requires risk taking, which in turn depends on our self-confidence and security. Reaffirming our worth and values is an important starting point. There is no more important or urgent task than for all of us to contribute to re-energising Australian society. While we can call on our political leaders to lead, that is not enough. We, the citizens have to push this agenda, and there is no better place from which to push than a great University celebrating its first one hundred and fifty years.

Thank you again Vice Chancellor for the opportunity.