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Moving On

Address to Bruce Hall Valete Dinner, ANU, Canberra, 25 October 2019

Thank you for the pleasure and privilege of being asked to talk to you all, and my own warmest personal congratulations to the Valedictorians for whom – leaving Bruce Hall as many of you will be after a number of years here – this is a big and very sentimental occasion.

It’s also rather a sentimental occasion for me, in the sense that this is the last time I will be talking to Brucies or any of our residential communities before I myself turn back into a pumpkin -- hanging up my own boots as Chancellor, as I will after ten years, at the end of this year.

What we all have had in common, and I hope joyously in common, is being members together of this great Australian National University of ours. Great universities around the world – and I can say this having spent some time at many of them, from Oxford and Cambridge to Stanford and Harvard and lots of others as well – are invariably great not just for one or two reasons but because they tick four separate boxes superbly well.

They produce great research; they provide great teaching and learning experiences for their students, both undergraduate and postgraduate; they engage comprehensively with the wider world and make a very significant contribution to policy thinking and development; and they have about them an intense sense of engaged community.

The ANU stands out not just among Australian universities but world universities in every one of those respects, and all of us here can be very proud to be associated with it. We do tick the first three of those boxes brilliantly well, and especially do we tick the fourth, for the reason above all that – more than any of the other major universities in this country, and a great many of the major universities of the world – we have such a very high proportion of students living right on campus, particularly in the halls of residence. The communal life that generates is absolutely central both to our identity and our national and international reputation.

And at the heart of this community has been from the beginning Bruce Hall. As you will all know, Bruce was the first residential hall for undergraduate students at ANU, it was the first mixed hall of residence on this campus, and it’s always been ahead of the pack in terms of the quality of the facilities it offered – a tradition I hope you will agree has been maintained, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Graeme and Louise Tuckwell, with this wonderful new building.

I know some of the Valedictorians will still be feeling a little sentimental about saying goodbye to the old building, but with so many reminders of the old Hall built into the physical fabric of this new one, and so much determination on the part of Katie Boyd and the Hall leadership to maintain all the old Brucie traditions, I hope the transition hasn’t been too traumatic for you.

What I suspect may be starting to be, if not traumatic at least a little bit troubling for quite a few of you, is thinking about what lies beyond Bruce Hall and the ANU. While some of you will have very clear ideas about what you want to ultimately achieve in your personal and professional lives, and have very clear plans about how you want to go about getting there, I suspect that for rather more of you the future is something you are facing with rather less certainty and rather more trepidation, not least with so many uncertainties out there about the future of the Australian and global economy, and about the implications of technological change for the future of work.

I guess I have just two basic messages to give you in this context. One is that it's the norm, not the exception, at this stage to not really have a very clear ideal at what you are going to do with the rest of your life and career. Some of it is going to be determined by what you have - or haven't – so far formally trained for, but a lot more is going to be determined by the twists and turns in your personal experience in the years immediately ahead, and in the sheer luck of the draw: what turns up and when.

In my case, I came from a working class family who were as delighted as I was that I had had the chance simply to go to University, and since we were neither criminal nor rich I had no lawyers to hand as role models, nor for that matter and academics or politicians or NGO heads or people working in international organizations, all of which I subsequently became.

Not knowing very much about anything career-wise, I simply decided early on to prepare myself with the widest range of formal credentials that I possibly could, focusing on breadth rather than depth; to have as many experiences as I could with as many people from different walks of life as I could; to do whatever job I was doing with as much energy and enthusiasm as I could muster – and then wait to see what turned up! It doesn't sound like a very brilliantly planned strategy, but somehow it worked out, since I have ended up working in every one of the areas that were on my tentative early wish-list, and have had a pretty fascinating and stimulating time along the way. So it’s an approach -- get out there and maximise your life experiences, and not worry too much now about what comes next -- that, I hope not too irresponsibly, I would urge upon you.

For me, and I suspect this will be the case for many of you if can find a way of doing it, nearly all the most formative and life changing experiences I had in my early life came through international travel, not at the pointy-end of a plane but backpacking on the super-cheap to Europe through Asia and East Africa and the Middle East -- hanging out in student bars in Cambodia with young men and women who a few years later were slaughtered in the Khmer Rouge genocide, seeing at first hand the misery and brutalisation and squalor of wartime Saigon, spending endless hours squashed into third class trains around India, seeing for myself what it was like to live in Palestinian refugee camps, and so on and on. All the time learning over and over again about the reality, for all our differences, of our common humanity and our common human dignity.

This brings me to the other message I wanted to leave with you. Don’t be too seduced by those annual rich lists that appear in the business papers and the glossy magazines that suggest that the true measure of a successful career is the number of millions that you make and the glossiness of the lifestyle that you can live. There's another rich list out there – not for the squillionaires of this world, but for those rewarded by the sense that what they are doing might actually make a difference for the quality of many more lives than their own.

What I am talking about is the personal satisfaction rich list, on which you'll easily earn yourself a place if you devote your working life, or at least significant chunks of it, to those public policy issues and public service issues about which you care passionately, whether it's the environment, or gender equality or dealing with the misery and waste of poverty or anything else.

In my case the issues about which I have cared most intensely, and to which I have devoted most of my working life, are those to which I first became committed during my university days in Melbourne and Oxford in the 1960s, and in the travelling I did in those years and immediately thereafter -- a hatred of injustice in all its forms, and in particular racial injustice; and a horror of war and deadly conflict, and its unending capacity to generate death, destruction and terrible human misery.

Devoting your life to the kind of public policy engagement that I have had – as a young lawyer working on human rights and Indigenous issues, in politics and government for 21 years, leading the International Crisis Group for a decade after that, and spending another decade since involved in a lot of other international as well as higher education activity – has had innumerable frustrations and disappointments, and reverses and dips and u-turns. You practically never achieve as much as you'd like to. But it's fantastic when something, just occasionally, goes more or less right, and you feel that you really have made a difference.

And believe me, you don't have to be foreign minister or head of a major international NGO to make a difference in a great many of these areas. Passionate and caring individuals in all walks of life, who choose to direct even just part of their energies to working for public goods, can make an impact. I have seen it every day of my working life as young lawyers take a couple of years off to work as investigators or prosecutors or defenders in East Timor; as young arts graduates go off to wrestle with the problems of Aboriginal settlements in the outback; as young historians or social scientists or language graduates go off to help non-government organizations build stronger civil society institutions, in war-wracked or authoritarian or poverty-stricken countries.

To do these things is a wonderful way not only of helping others, but of giving substance and satisfaction to your own professional and personal lives. You're never going to make much money doing this kind of thing, but you'll be immensely well rewarded in all sorts of other ways. When you look back in many years’ time on your brilliant careers – and how could most of you not have brilliant careers after graduating from this great university, and spending so much time in the wonderfully stimulating and nurturing environment of Bruce Hall – I think you'll agree that of all the rich lists it's possible to be on, the one that counts is the personal satisfaction rich list.

I wish not only this year’s Valedictorians, but all of you, every possible success and satisfaction in both your professional and personal lives in the years ahead. You’re off to a brilliant start, and I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly well. Goodbye, and good luck!