home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

The Rich List That Really Matters

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to the Melbourne High School Speech Night, Melbourne, 30 November 2012

This is the night we all look both backwards and forwards. We think back, as we collect our prizes or watch others receiving them, at what we have achieved during the year, or might have achieved if we’d worked just a little bit harder, or been just a little bit luckier (and, maybe, how much luckier we would have been if we’d worked harder!). And – particularly for those now leaving school – we think hard, and maybe with just a little bit of anxiety, about what might happen next.

I must confess that right through my own four years at Melbourne High, I didn't really have a clue about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I suspect that’s true for most of the students here tonight, whether it’s your first or last year at the school.

But it’s not something you or your parents should sweat about. It’s a matter of exploring, year by year, through your teenage and young adult years, both what you do best, and what you really like doing. Not all of us are going to win prizes, at school or in life. And none of us are ever going to be good at everything. But every single one of us is good at something. 

It might be something very academic – writing history, doing maths, biology, learning languages. It might be music, or painting, or acting.  It might be playing cricket, or football, or tennis or hockey.  It might be having an instinct for the stock-market or building a business. It might be having a real instinct for caring and nurturing for others. Maybe it’s just a wonderful talent for friendship, making those around you feel better about themselves.

There are a lot of stars up there in the heavens, and one of them, somewhere, has your name on it.  It’s just a matter of finding yours, and I’m sure that every one of you will.  It might take quite a bit of time. There may be a lot of trial and error, and quite a few bumps along the way, but sooner or later you will find your star –  and you will have the satisfying personal and professional life each one of you wants,  and deserves.

It certainly took some time for me to find my star. My parents gave me a terrific sense of personal values, but both of them were forced to leave school very young, in the depression years of the 1930s. My dad was a tram-driver, and neither had any experience of higher education or could give me any kind of sense of what a professional career, in law or medicine or accountancy – or in politics or in non-government organisations or the UN or other international agencies – could possibly be like.  

My teachers here at Melbourne were fantastic, and filled a lot of that gap – awakening a real sense of excitement about some of the worlds out there to be conquered that I had never really thought about: maybe a few of the Old Boys here will remember some of the names that meant so much to me, and no doubt to you too – Norton Hobson, Graham Worrall, Ben Munday and David Niven in particular.

But at the end of the day all the advice and support in the world can only take any of us so far. Each of us has to find that star for himself.  In my case I had by the time I left school a kind of very tentative wish list – maybe something to do with human rights, something to do with politics and government, something to do with international organizations – but I had absolutely no idea how to go about getting into any of these areas.

So I simply decided early on to get as wide a range of formal credentials as I possibly could; 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, and it wasn’t, 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.

The experiences that probably meant most of all to me, which most profoundly influenced the things on which I have focused both as foreign minister and in my after-politics life, came during my first overseas travels, when I was a young university student, to North and South East Asia.

To the students here I simply can’t urge you strongly enough to, as soon as you possibly can, save or beg or borrow enough to get out there and look around that wider world. Even if you pile up some pretty mean debt in the process, 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 to stay with you the rest of your life, and profoundly influence the way you approach life.

Let me mention just two of my own first travel experiences, which made a searing impression on me.

One was on a student visit to Japan in the mid-1960s, my first ever outside Australia. Though it’s now nearly 50 years ago, I remember to this day going to Hiroshima, where the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of men women and children by blasting, by burning or by slow and horrible radiation poisoning. Of all the indescribably horrifying pictures and exhibits collected in the museum at the epicentre of the blast, one image is stuck permanently in my head: a slab of stone on which is indelibly etched the shadow of a sitting man, the ‘shadow’ forming as the granite around him in effect melted as he was being incinerated.

I pledged to myself then that I would do whatever I could in the rest of my life to eliminate from the face of the earth these most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. We are still long way away from that objective – it’s depressing to think that there are still 22,000 weapons still out there, with a combined destructive capacity of 150,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and we can have absolutely no confidence that they won’t one day be used, by mistake or accident if not design – but I continue to spend a lot of time trying.

The other experience I want to mention relates to my second overseas trip, the months I spent travelling across Asia in the late 1960s, on my way to take up a scholarship at Oxford.

On that trip I spent many days and weeks on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of that generation, and forging in the process some friendships that have lasted for decades --  doing exactly the kind of thing in fact recommended by the recent White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis and others 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 is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them. Not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor in share-taxis, scattering chickens and pigs and little children in villages all along the way.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under the murderous genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge – 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 young men and women -- has haunted me throughout my adult life, and haunts me to this day.

It was what drove me through much of my work as foreign minister in the 1980s and 90s, working on the Cambodian peace process in particular; and it has driven everything I have been trying to do since I left Australian politics, in my work with the International Crisis Group and elsewhere, to find global consensus on how to ensure that we never again fail in our responsibility to protect those at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.

Devoting your life to this kind of public policy effort has 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 medical 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. You’ll maybe find yourself at peace with yourself to a greater extent than you could otherwise possibly be.

You’ll see a lot of lists around, in glossy business magazines. of Australia’s and the world’s wealthiest people. And don’t lets pretend that it wouldn’t be fun to be a squillionaire, with all those diamonds and watches and yachts to play around with.

But don’t make that the only star you chase. With the kind of education you’ve been getting at Melbourne High, with the quality of teachers and leadership you have at this school, and with the kind of values for which this great school has been standing since its foundation, I think you know deep down inside that of all the rich lists it's possible to be on, the one that counts for most is the personal satisfaction rich list.

May you all chase and catch the star of your dreams. And may the lives ahead of you all be – in all the ways that really matter – as richly rewarded as they could possibly be.