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First can I echo Lynne’s acknowledgement of the Kaurna people and pay my respects to both elders past and present, to your Principal Kevin Tutt who has welcomed me but has to leave and to all of your teachers and to all of you. Thank you for the opportunity to be here to speak with you.
I wanted to start by saying to you in the life of a politician, actually one of the best things you can do is to come and speak to young people, in schools, universities or community groups. That’s because you are generally more honest and you often ask difficult questions. But perhaps most particularly, younger Australians ask questions about purpose – why do we do things?
Now when I received the email inviting me to speak, Lynne referenced Seymour’s vision for you as “women of strength, optimism and justice”. They are qualities worth aspiring to. But I particularly liked the next part “contributing to an equitable world for all”.
Because of course as important as self-development is, as important as developing your personal qualities is, life is always more than an exercise in self-development. It is more than doing what always I tell my daughters to do – “to be the best of who you can be”.
A rewarding life is one where you have a sense of purpose, a sense of the why. And working for an equitable world for all is a pretty good sentiment.
There are different words, but probably the same sentiment as the values I have tried to live by and the values I hold. It has always seemed to me that what happens to others actually matters. The shape and nature of the community in which you live matters to you, it matters to all of us. Because we are not isolated from nor are we immune to the experience of others. We are not isolated from nor are we immune to others’ marginalisation. If others are diminished then so are we.
So why did I develop these views? I suppose it starts with being born in Malaysia and born into a family where privilege was not something that people had experienced.
So on my father’s side, he was the first person to finish school in his family, and my grandmother who looked after me – my paternal grandmother – did not finish primary school.
We had a good life, we lived in a town called Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia. We did not want for food or opportunity and over time certainly Dad and Mum built a very good life for us.
But I grew up in my early years with the understanding that this was not the opportunity that everybody got. It was not the opportunity my grandmother got, or my grandparents on my mother’s side.
You see also, if you grow up in a developing country, you see disadvantage and poverty first hand.
Then I came to Australia, at what seems like a long time ago, 1976/77. I had just turned eight and I experienced what it was like to be marginalised because of your race. That was a new experience for me. I had gone to an international school in Kota Kinabalu and it was only afterwards when I looked at my school photos that I realised what a diverse school population it was, not unlike what your school is like, but probably more so.
When I came to Australia, the primary school to which I went, I was the first Asian most of them had ever seen. So things were a little rough.
I have always thought about the inherent haphazardness of fortune, because you are who you are not because there is some order to this; you have the opportunities you have not because you were born inherently better, it is luck. It is luck that we are not in parts of Africa or Syria or one of the many other places in the world where girls do not have the opportunities that you have and that I have.
It seems to me that if you have the view that ultimately the advantages that you have and the privilege that you have is really haphazard and a matter of chance, then you should remember that in the decisions you make about the world and the community that you wish for.
So I was always attracted to John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, which if you have done any politics or philosophy you might have come across. It is a thought experiment or a method of trying to determine what is just. He was a political philosopher and he said what you need to do is to make political decisions about the nature of our society as if you knew nothing about the qualities you would have in that society. So the “veil of ignorance” means you don’t know whether you will be an Aboriginal woman, a Thai girl, a white girl, whether you have a disability or not. You seek to make decisions about the nature of the community you want without regard to those qualities because you do not know which of them you may have.
In addition to the philosophical or ethical imperative of working for an equitable society, there is a practical imperative. I just think we are better off in a world which is more equal, where there is less marginalisation because inequality fosters the fracturing of community. And we can talk about the traditional markers by which that is demonstrated, what is called antisocial behaviour, crime and other concerning ways of behaving which in part are fostered by a sense that you have no stake in the world in which you live.
I would also say to you that excessive inequality undermines stability and democracy. In recent times we have seen that in western democracies; the more inequality there is, the less stake people feel they have and the less cohesion in the community which manifests often as political instability.
So if we proceed from this notion that we should be working for a world that is more just and more equal, we have got a bit to do.
Do you know how many girls worldwide do not go to school? 130 million girls do not go to school. And apart from the tragedy that is for each of those girls, it is actually a tragedy in terms of development. Because one of the things you can do to try and enhance the development of a nation and the opportunities that a young woman has is to give her a single year of primary education.
A single year of primary education is likely to increase a girl’s wages over her life by about 20 per cent. Just one year of primary education. And if we could increase by 10 per cent the number of girls in developing nations who attended school, it would increase their national GDP – which is a measure of economic development and wealth – by about three per cent. So what that tells us is: educate one girl, she does better; educate more girls, the country does better.
So we are pretty lucky to be here in Australia and we are pretty lucky to be here in this generation, or your generation and mine. I said to you that my grandmother did not finish primary school in Malaysia. She was barely literate. Even for my Mum’s generation, she and her sisters were the first that got the chance to go to university. So we are doing pretty well but we have still got a way to go.
You probably know that our State is the first place in the world where women could both have the right to vote and stand for Parliament; the second place in the world where we could vote. We have been home to many strong women of justice, women like Roma Mitchell who was someone I have always looked up to. She was a great South Australian jurist – she was the first Australian woman to be a QC, first woman to be a Supreme Court judge, the first female Governor and first Chancellor of an Australian university.
In one of her lectures in 1989 she said “for those who espouse the cause of human rights and equal opportunity the path is rough and stony”. It was true then and it is still true. We still do not have actual equality. Now that might be a surprise to you, maybe not. We have what we would call formal equality, so we have equality before the law. But most of the measurements for you at this point, you would not have experienced, perhaps you have, but you have not experienced inequality in the way that you are likely to later in your life.
Statistically over the course of your life, you are more likely to earn less for the same amount of work. So the average full-time gender pay gap stands at about 15 per cent. It means you are more likely to retire with less money and you are more likely to be harassed, abused or sexually assaulted. So we have still got more to do.
The second area I wanted to speak briefly of was Indigenous disadvantage. I noticed you had an Aboriginal flag out the front. It is one of the areas of public policy about which I feel most frustrated. Add to that climate change. Because we can do so much as a country, we are so able to deal with many of our social problems, we are so able to develop, yet we still have such entrenched disadvantage amongst our First Peoples.
We had the Closing the Gap report recently in Parliament. You may know about the history of this initiative. In 2008 Prime Minister Rudd and Jenny Macklin, then Minister for Indigenous Affairs, said in addition to the Apology to the Stolen Generations we also have to have targets that we work to. So get all Australian Governments sign up to these various targets about how we reduce disadvantage and it is called Closing the Gap. And each year the Parliament receives the report.
We have seven targets, and we are on track for three. We are on track to halve the gap in child mortality, we are on track to halve the gap in year 12 attainment and we are on track to getting 95 per cent of four-year-old Aboriginal Australians into early childhood education. We are not on track to halve the gap in reading and numeracy, we are not on track to halve the gap in employment and we are not on track to close the gap in life expectancy. So whilst we have made progress, remember that this is only in terms of lessening the gap, so it is actually not equality.
So if you are born into this country as a First Nations woman, you are less likely to attend school, you are less likely to have the opportunity to get to a national standard of reading and writing and you are more likely to die young. We still have a way to go.
So what do we do to give effect to purpose? Well, your school motto is Crescam Ministrando, “By Serving, I Will Grow”. This is a very worthy way of describing what we do in the world and I hope also, given the extraordinary opportunities you have at this school, that I had at Scotch College, recognise what you are able to do in the world.
It is true that service enables you to grow. You have a great tradition of ministry and service in this school and in the church. But with service also comes leadership, and I just wanted to make a brief point about the relationship between serving and leading. Perhaps the words from the Gospel of Mark might come to mind.
But whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be the servant of all. (Mark 10:44)
So that is a notion that those who lead also serve and those who serve also need to lead. It is an idea that informs many cultures. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tze, for example, writing in the sixth century BCE, was making a very similar point when he said:
Leaders are best when people barely know they exist.
When their work is done, their aim fulfilled, the people will
say, “We did it ourselves”. (Tao Te Ching, 17)
I have to say I have read that Lao Tze quote a number of times, but I reckon I have never quite got that down in terms of the work that I do. But I think it is worth aspiring to because the best leadership is one where you inspire others or you enable others to find the outcomes themselves.
So what would I say to you about both the school motto and the vision that we talked about. There are many ways in which you can serve, many ways in which you will live your life, there are many ways in which you can choose to make a contribution.
I originally enrolled in medicine and then I went away to Brazil for a year and I decided that I did not like blood so it was not a good idea. But I’d had this idea that I would work for Doctors Without Borders because I wanted to do something worthwhile.
I wasn’t sure politics was actually something that would ultimately result in anything. There are many ways in which you make a contribution to the community and the world in which you live. Sometimes it is in politics, sometimes it is medicine or one of the other professions, but we do it in ways large and small.
I hope that you, in the lives you choose to lead, think about how it is you make a contribution. Because life is a journey and it is about being the best of who you are, but it is also about helping to shape the community in which you live. And I hope and believe that this school, which will instil in you strength, optimism and justice, will enable you to do that to the best of your ability.
Thank you very much.