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Bruce Hall 50th Anniversary Commencement Dinner

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor, Australian National University, Canberra, 10 March 2011

The last time I gave a commencement speech at the beginning of a university academic year I got into serious trouble. I was an undergraduate myself, President of the Students Representative Council at Melbourne University, and speaking to new students in Orientation Week. The year was 1964, just three years after the founding of Bruce Hall, and two and a half lifetimes ago, I know, for most of you – but think of it as the year the Beatles released I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, Love Me Do and Please, Please Me and you’ll get a little of the flavour. The theme of my talk was that everything students did in their undergraduate years they should do to excess. And I summed it all up with the exhortation “Work hard, play hard, drink hard and think hard!.”

Well, the students were thrilled with all of this, but when it got into the papers the next day – and those were the days when pronouncements by student leaders did get into the papers – their parents were less thrilled, and the city’s clerics less so still: although I thought I had nicely balanced ‘playing’ with ‘working’, and ‘drinking’ with ‘thinking’, I was roundly denounced in pulpits all around Melbourne the following Sunday for encouraging licentious abandon. Though I suppose it could have been worse. If I’d made the speech just two or three years later, when the ‘60s sexual and psychedelic revolutions were a little further advanced, I might have found myself adding to my list of exhortations ‘smoke hard and poke hard’…

You’ll be disappointed to hear that I have matured a little in the subsequent forty-seven years, and that I wouldn’t think of being so irresponsible, or vulgar, in my exhortations to you or your contemporaries today, certainly not on so grand an occasion as this – not just any old commencement dinner, but one celebrating the 50th Anniversary of this wonderful institution, Bruce Hall.

And this is a great institution, with a life and vitality of its own, and absolutely central to the communal life and vitality, and sense of identity, of this great university. Great universities around the world – and I can say this having spent some time, from days to years, at many of them, from Oxford and Cambridge to Barcelona, and Yale and Stanford and Harvard and others as well, that the Australian National University absolutely ranks among them – 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. But more than that, it was ahead of its time, by comparison with what was happening at every other Australian university around that period, in terms of the quality of the facilities it offered; and it was the first mixed hall of residence on this campus (although that seems to have had more to do with the lack of funds to build separate men’s and women’s halls than an early burst of social enlightenment).

And in all the years since its foundation it has maintained a great reputation both for academic seriousness and real commitment to engagement at every level with the wider university, and the wider Canberra community – not least during that intense period of radical political activism in the late 1960s, which makes me intensely nostalgic to think about, when, according to the ANU’s official history, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam and pro-Aboriginal rights protests were all largely plotted in Bruce Hall bedrooms.

That tradition of community, internally and externally, was superbly encouraged by Bruce’s founding head, Bill Packard, who served for the extraordinary period of 26 years, from 1960 to 1986, and led the Hall through a succession of evolutionary – and sometimes what must have seemed to many revolutionary – changes (including integrating on a mixed-gender basis the originally separate men’s and women’s wings in 1971). He more than anyone else made this the wonderfully vibrant place to live – to both work and play – that it remains today, and it is wonderful to have with us tonight a number of members of his family, including his daughter Felicity (who as the screen-writer for, among many other productions, Underbelly must be swooning with a little nostalgia herself with this morning’s headlines about the murder conviction yesterday of that Melbourne gangland mama-of-them-all, Judy Moran).

Bill Packard has been an extraordinarily hard act to follow for his successors, but you are very privileged indeed to have as your current Head of Hall, Marion Stanton, who is I know totally committed to maintaining and advancing the finest traditions of this place, and doing so with great capacity and effectiveness.

I guess that my only personal connection with Bruce Hall that justifies my standing here this evening is that it is named after the man whose chief-bumblebee costume I am now wearing – ANU’s very first Chancellor, the Right Honourable Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, or Stanley Melbourne Bruce as he was known when he was Australian Prime Minister for most of the 1920s. I have to confess that, like most Australians I suspect, I had tended to think of Bruce – to the extent that I had ever focused on him at all – as an Anglophile reactionary, more British than Australian, who wore spats over his shoes, had been (until John Howard repeated the feat in 2007) the only federal leader to have suffered the indignity of losing his seat in parliament at a general election, and who in his later role as Australian High Commissioner in London during the 1930s, was a key figure supporting the appeasement of Hitler. Which may be enough to make some of you want to take your knives and forks and run out and scrape his name off this building…

But before you do, let me tell you that in truth there was a lot more to Bruce than that, as I discovered reading David Lee’s excellent recent biography of him. In particular, he was not only a strong Australian nationalist, but clearly a genuine internationalist, well ahead of his contemporaries in his intense commitment to the League of Nations, to which he was a delegate through the 30s. This manifested itself especially in his commitment (which proved quite influential in the later founding of the United Nations and its agencies) to the role that could be played by it in generating cooperative social and economic programs, not least feeding the world’s hungry through international nutrition programs, a cause to which he was particularly passionately, and effectively, devoted.

And while it remains the case that he was very much in the appeasement camp in the lead up to the Second World War, it was not out of even the remotest sympathy for Hitler’s Nazis, but rather his own experiences as a young man in the First World War trenches, and his horror at the thought that suffering on that scale might ever be repeated, which most of us can, I think, well understand and be totally sympathetic to. As he put it, very movingly, in speaking to the League on one occasion :

If you had seen men mutilated and dying, without possibility of being helped; if you had ever heard the cry of a wounded man out between the lines, with no possibility of assistance being given to him, and with the likelihood that he may be there dying for days; if you had seen hundreds of men gasping their lives out, their faces discoloured because of some hideous and frightful gas – then I venture to say you would look on this question [of war, and the avoidance of war] with a different eye.

The truth is that we are all products in many ways of our early life experiences, and in particular the life experiences that we have in early adulthood as we move out of the very protective circles of home and school into the wider community, and wider world. And no experience tends to be more formative – intellectually, socially, and emotionally – than what happens to us in our university years.

I was thinking about that today at a meeting I attended on this campus at which former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was present. There was a time, long past now thankfully, when Malcolm was the fire-breathing arch-enemy of my own party in government, which be brought down in 1975, and someone who could have given even Stanley Melbourne Bruce a run for his money when it came to fiercely pursuing and defending right-wing positions. But even during those years when he was acquiring and exercising power there was something about him which distinguished him from most of his conservative colleagues: he did not have a racist bone in his body. He hated the apartheid regime in S Africa, hated the White Australia Policy and was genuinely sympathetic to indigenous Australians.

Like everybody else I found this combination of values puzzling, but found what I think was the answer when I spoke to my Oxford college history tutor a few years ago, a man who had actually taught us both, about how racial difference could matter so little to a man to most of whose colleagues of the time it meant so much. He told me that Malcolm Fraser when he had arrived at Magdalen directly from secondary school had been shy, awkward and very lonely – until had befriended a young man on the staircase opposite him, who just happened to be Indian…

I had experiences of my own during my university days which I know, looking back, had to have been equally formative. Some of them simply had to do with being a working class kid with parents who left school very early and had never had the opportunity to study at all: I had no real idea of what any of the professions, let alone the world of books and ideas, was really about, and as a result every new subject and discipline to which I was exposed had a mind-blowing impact.

Some of those experiences had to do with my exposure, working as a law student in the very rudimentary voluntary legal services in their very early days, to the extraordinary unhappiness of young Aboriginal Australians living lives of deprivation and misery in a society then deeply prejudiced about them – which maybe explains why I spent so much of my professional and parliamentary life thereafter wrestling with racial discrimination and land rights legislation.

Another formative experience certainly came with my visit on a student trip to Japan, to Hiroshima, standing at the epicentre of that first nuclear bomb strike, sensing very physically – being in fact totally numbed – by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred. Which clearly helps explain why to this day I am still working around the world trying to find ways of ridding it once and for all of these weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever invented and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it.

Let me mention just one other early experience, which perhaps goes a long way to explaining why, to this day, I also spend a great deal of my time trying to find ways of getting the international community to understand, accept and act upon its responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – of the kind that are being perpetrated, as we speak, by the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

It was back in 1968, when I had just finished at Melbourne University and was making my first trip to Europe, to take up a scholarship in Oxford. Determined to see as much as I could of the world along the way, as so many young Australians have been before and since, I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process – usually fleetingly, but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day – scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of their generation.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese and Afghans who I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there was just one from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them. And that country was Cambodia.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later in Pol Pot’s genocide – either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state, or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease following forced displacement to labour in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those vivacious and engaging young men and women with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in child, chicken and pig-scattering share-taxis, is something that haunts me to this day.

The point that I am making in all of this is simply this. What happens to you here at Bruce Hall, here at ANU, and in the wider experiences you have during your university years here, is bound to influence what you do, and who you are, for the rest of your life. So it is absolutely critical to make the most of your time here as an undergraduate, and in the further study that you may do. Maybe not in all the ways I talked about in 1964 but certainly some of them.

Do reach out with an open mind to subject areas and disciplines other than the ones you are immediately committed to studying, because you may find windows opening into infinitely fascinating landscapes you never really knew existed. Do reach out in this Hall and on this campus to other students, of other cultures and nationalities, who may be just a little beyond your immediate comfort zone, because in doing so you will make some wonderful friendships that will last the rest of your life. And do find ways to travel, even if you pile up some pretty mean debt in the process, because the intensity of the experiences you are bound to have out there on the road, just about anywhere in the world you go, are bound, again, to stay with you the rest of your life, and profoundly influence the way you approach it.

The history of Bruce Hall over the last fifty years, and the quality of the contribution that its students and staff have made to the life of this campus, and through ANU to the wider Australian community, leaves me in absolutely no doubt that your future will be as glittering as the past we celebrate tonight. Congratulations to everyone who have made Bruce what it is today, and good luck for the next fifty years.