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Installation as Chancellor of Australian National University

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, John Curtin School of Medical Research Auditorium, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, 18 February 2010

Your Excellency the Governor-General, Vice-Chancellor, Excellencies, Colleagues, Family and Friends

I really do appreciate so many of you being here to share this occasion with me. The last time so many nice things were said about me, and in such exalted company, was over a decade ago, in this city, on the occasion of my departure from Australian politics -- and I’m sure with the intent of speeding me on my way.

So I’m gratified, touched and more than a little amazed to hear such nice things being said to welcome me back in this new role, both so graciously by the Governor-General, and - in the case of Vice-Chancellor Chubb, by a man who I, and I know all of us here, deeply admire, for his spectacular contributions not only to the stature of this university, but to the quality of higher education generally in Australia. And said by him, moreover, with every appearance of honesty - although as Groucho Marx famously observed, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made! But I’ll try not to let it all go to my head. As my Oxford Chancellorial friend Chris Patten keeps reminding me (quoting Adlai Stevenson), flattery is all right so long as you don’t inhale.

Without inhaling anything more dangerous than the wonderfully fresh air of this city, I can say with absolute honesty than I am really delighted, and excited, to be installed as Chancellor of this great university. I am deeply conscious of the size of the shoes - not to mention the robe - I have to fill with my immediate predecessor, and long-time colleague and friend, Kim Beazley, and of the extraordinary distinction of so many of those who came before him, not least Howard Florey, Nugget Coombs and John Crawford, who will be remembered for their contributions both to nation building and humanity as long as the pages of this country’s history are turned.

I am deeply proud of and loyal to my own university, Melbourne, which was fantastically good to me in my early life, and continues to be so now, keeping me off the streets as an honorary professorial fellow. But there’s something about the story of ANU which I’ve always found genuinely inspiring, founded as it was in the immediate post-war years in a huge spirit of optimism about what this reborn country was capable of becoming. It took real vision -- the vision of people like Coombs, and Florey and Keith Hancock and Mark Oliphant, embraced wholeheartedly by Prime Minister John Curtin (whose name this venue rightly commemorates) and, in a genuinely bipartisan spirit by the Menzies Government which followed, to see this country not as an intellectual backwater from which anyone of any intellectual ambition had to escape as soon as possible, but a world class powerhouse of analysis and ideas, of discovery and delivery.

There are many things to admire about not only the inspiration behind ANU, but the delivery.

It’s a university which has maintained from the outset an uncompromising passion for excellence, reflected in its standing as the highest-rated Australian university in the accepted Times Higher and Shanghai Jiaotong international rankings.

This is an institution which has remained, as it began, a truly and uniquely national university: a much higher proportion of its students come from interstate than any other Australian counterpart.

It’s an institution which has retained, more than any other Australian university, a communal character, with a very high proportion of its students, both graduate and undergraduate, living on campus or close by in university accommodation.

It’s a university which has retained, to an extraordinary extent a culture of research, with some 80 per cent of its budget -- a level quite unmatched elsewhere in the country -- supporting that function: this reflects not only the ANU’s unusual origins as a purely research institution, but its determination, in an age where research and teaching are being ever more closely integrated, to never lose its cutting edge in breaking new intellectual ground.

It’s a university, moreover, which has managed to achieve this without along the way sacrificing or diminishing teaching standards. Even back in the 1960s when the teaching faculties were unquestionably poor cousins to the mighty research schools of the Institute of Advanced Studies, what teachers there were! Paul Lyneham, the ABC journalist who many of us here will remember fondly, is quoted in the wonderful history of the ANU’s first fifty years by Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese (which I hope, incidentally, we can find a way during my tenure bring up to date to give appropriate recognition to the achievements of Ian Chubb’s reign) as describing himself as an Arts student being taught Economics by Heinz Arndt, Australian History by Manning Clark, Political Science by Fin Crisp and Australian Literature by A.D.Hope: “you tell me in what period of Australian academic life you’ve had more talented first-class people in one campus than that”. And that tradition continues.

This is a university, again, which has understood from the outset that the formulation of public policy is not a squalid, low-order enterprise properly left to the technocrats and political megalomaniacs who occupy most of the rest of the nation’s capital, but a high calling demanding the best available intellectual resources, and justifying a substantial commitment from this university’s best brains. It’s not easy to maintain that commitment when policy debate is being deliberately dumbed down, as a path back to office by those now out of it, to the extent we are now seeing in public life in the US, here and a number of other countries. But maintain and strengthen that commitment, in the future interests of this country, we must.

Of all the ANU’s unique characteristics the one that appeals to me above all, as you might expect, is its internationalism. The overall number of international students may not be much higher than the average for Australian campuses, but a very high proportion of academic staff were born overseas, the number of overseas academic exchanges in which both undergraduate and graduate students engage is way higher than the national average, there is more teaching and research commitment here to international relations disciplines in all their variations than anywhere else, and the university receives a huge number of international visitors and engages in an immense range of international outreach and linkup activities.

This international sensitivity is a dimension to this institution that I particularly want to cherish and nurture during my tenure -- to the extent that Chancellors are allowed to cherish or nurture anything (and Professor Chubb has, quite properly made very sure that I understand my place in this respect…)

Back in prehistoric times when I was Foreign Minister, one of the many visions that I tried to communicate -- some would say I had so many visions that I must have been inhaling something, but we’ll let that pass -- was of Australia as a ‘good international citizen’. I was making the point not only in Hedley Bull’s famous terms, that nations did have ‘purposes beyond themselve’, but also arguing that being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen -- acting relatively selflessly, consistently with our stated values, and having a reputation for so acting -- should be understood as a vital category of national interest, right up there alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. The argument was, and is, that in an age of transboundary issues, ‘problems without passports’ like climate change, terrorism, health pandemics and uncontrolled population flows, cooperative buy-in from many other international players is required to resolve them, and the best way of achieving that is to be seen as genuinely sensitive to others’ interests and not single-mindedly preoccupied with advancing or protecting our own.

One of the many thoughtful contributions to Australian foreign policy made by the government which succeeded mine was to expressly delete reference to good international citizenship from any White Paper or other description of Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. I don’t know whether there is any mood to reinstate that concept in any formal way, and I don’t much mind either way. But what I do care about, and care deeply, is that this be a frame of mind which influences the way in which we position ourselves in the world, and go about our governance business, our commercial business, our educational business and our ever-growing personal contacts with our neighbours and the rest of the world. And in developing and sustaining that good international citizenship frame of mind in the next generation of influential Australians, there is no more capable and committed institution than this Australian National University.

The former Prime Minister of Britain and Chancellor of Oxford University, Harold McMillan, made many memorable observations, not least the one that Ian Chubb has already quoted -- that the only reason British universities had Chancellors was so that there could be Vice-Chancellors! But I also took to heart, in an earlier incarnation, his description of the role of a foreign minister as being forever poised between cliché and indiscretion, between being dull and being dangerous.

I sense I am drifting into these dangerous waters so, with the wisdom of maturity, will now stop, proud of and grateful for the honour that the Council has done me by electing me to this position and looking forward - while not, of course, getting in the Vice Chancellor’s way- to doing something to deserve it.