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4th graduation dinner of the Australian Rural Leadership Program, Canberra, Saturday, 19 September 1998: address.

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It is a great pleasure to be with you this evening to present the Certificates of Achievement to each of the 30 outstanding men and women who graduate tonight from the Fourth Course of the Australian Rural Leadership Program.

To each of you I offer my warmest good wishes. I am confident that the qualities which led you to be selected for the course in the first place have been greatly enhanced by the shared experience of the Australian Rural Leadership Program over the past 18 months.

I have read a summary of the Course Four activities, and I must say I am greatly impressed by the overall scope of the subjects you have studied. Trade, globalisation and export marketing; the macro as well as the micro economic outlooks; the impact of the Asian financial crisis, and the first-hand knowledge gained during your visit to Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore; the meat, vehicle, tourism, cotton, sugar and forestry industries; the perspectives of management, of trade unions, of industry associations, of government; media relations; the political and legislative context of decision-making, and so on.

It is also good to see that attention has been given to other subjects that are not only of importance in our national discourse but are central to the view we take of ourselves as a mature democratic society. Indigenous issues; multiculturalism; sustainable environmental practice; our response to a community in crisis as exemplified by the Port Arthur tragedy; youth suicide, homelessness, unemployment and the raft of social problems that come in their wake.

An understanding of such matters is crucial for those who hold positions of leadership in our community and who must develop the strategies by which we can successfully respond to the forces of change. The fact that you have had to consider them, speaks volumes for the comprehensive and intelligent approach taken by the Australian Rural Leadership Program. For in developing your individual visions for rural Australia — and necessarily for our country as a whole - it is inescapable that you must take into account the social consequences as well as the opportunities of change. It is enlightening to read, in a recent review of the Program, that, since 1992, not only have the participants developed the “skills, knowledge and contacts necessary to make them effective in higher



level leadership roles”, but that in fact the participants are taking on such roles much earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Obviously, you have all been engaged on a steep but very rewarding learning curve. In saying that, I am conscious that so have I.

Last July I passed the mid-way point of my designated term of 5 years as Governor-General. It has been a very hectic time: travelling to almost all parts of our country and responding to a great diversity of experience. Helen and I have learnt much that has helped shape my own vision of Australia. Although you are graduating tonight, and I am still only halfway through my term, I would like to share some of our experience with you.

Clearly, much of it has been cumulative. Meetings, visits and events, numbered in the hundreds each week, have combined to create an overall impression and fund of knowledge. Yet some things stand out in the mind. The first, obviously, was my swearing in as Governor-General, which marked the transition from a somewhat secluded life as a High Court judge, where I made no speeches and met few new people, to a public life which involves making many speeches and meeting very large numbers of people. The two jobs are also quite different in their nature, for the decisions of the Court are binding law whereas, subject to some important qualifications, the main power of the Governor-General is the power of persuasion.

Within a few months of taking up office, two tragic events occurred which were defining moments for us. The first was the senseless killing of 35 people at Port Arthur. The second was the collision of two Black Hawk helicopters near Townsville, in which 18 members of the Australian Defence Force died. To which I would add a third, the deaths of 18 people in the landslide at Thredbo in July, last year. All three were truly terrible events; yet from the tragedies emerged some remarkable demonstrations of the Australian spirit. In all cases I was greatly impressed by the strength and courage of the relatives, and in the case of the Black Hawk tragedy, the comrades in arms, of the victims. We met and spoke with many of them. I was also immensely proud of the endurance and willingness of those who assisted in the aftermath: the professional rescue teams and the many volunteer men and women. This communal selflessness and fortitude at times of disaster - of flood or fire - is, of course, well known to those of you who live in rural Australia.

After each of the three tragedies I’ve mentioned, Helen and I attended ecumenical Church services for those who suffered; and, as committed Christians ourselves, we were heartened by what we saw as demonstrations of the continuing relevance of religion in the lives of most ordinary Australians. Finally, of course, the public response to all three tragedies underlined the essential unity of our nation.

For me, that unity inevitably raises the theme of our multiculturalism. Apart from the Aborigines we Australians are all immigrants or descended from immigrants. And as Helen and I have seen time and again over the past 2Vi years, the true strength of our national unity lies in mutual respect for and genuine tolerance of, the different national, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and cultures from which we come. Within the limits that are consistent with the overriding loyalties and obligations of Australian citizenship and with all the duties imposed by valid Australian laws, our citizens are entitled to expect and demand that that mutual respect and tolerance be encouraged and honoured. To do otherwise is to defy or deny the unifying basis of our nation. For our


multiculturalism, understood as denoting that mutual respect and tolerance, is not only decent, just and right. It is not only our Australian way. It defines what we are.

Nowhere has the truth of that been more wonderfully demonstrated for us than at the opening of the “Croc Eisteddfod” at Weipa a little earlier this year. There, hundreds of school children from all over Far North Queensland ... Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, children from British and Irish backgrounds, children whose parents have migrated to Australia from the countries of Europe, Asia and the Americas over more recent decades ... gathered together for a night of music and song and dancing and sheer good fun. It is easy to become depressed at the expressions of intolerance one sometimes hears; but we came away from Weipa greatly encouraged. For here was our multiculturalism alive and well among the children. Here was our nation’s future. Here, too, was reconciliation in action.

I have made no secret of my belief that the achievement of a just and lasting reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and the Australian nation as a whole of which they form such an important part, is one of the most significant issues we face as we move towards a new century and a new millennium. To achieve it, we must address the problems of the spirit and lack of self esteem as well as the appalling problems of material disadvantage in health, housing, education and employment where, on virtually every measure, indigenous people are far worse off than other Australians.

We have visited many Aboriginal communities and attended many exhibitions over these 2Vi years; but our visit to the community at Maningrida in the far north of the Northern Territory stands out in our minds. It is in many respects an outstanding community. The local council works hard. The school is well run. Problems of alcohol and petrol sniffing are under control. Supported by the community’s senior elder I opened a new local museum during a traditional Aboriginal ceremony. It should have been a very happy day. But the visit was in the company of a team of medical experts from the Menzies Research School of which I am Patron and it was marred by the haunting reality of the dreadful health statistics of that community. For there, as elsewhere in Australia, an Aboriginal baby has a life expectancy of some 20 years less than the average life expectancy of the average non-indigenous Australian baby. And the incidence of particular diseases makes the point even more forcefully. For example, the incidence of rheumatic heart disease at Maningrida is said to be the highest ever recorded anywhere in the world. Worse than in Soweto. That visit symbolised two things for us: first, that we have made real progress along the road to reconciliation. Second, how far we have to go.

When I was appointed to this office, I said we hoped to do what we could to draw attention to the problems of the disadvantaged in our country. Since then we have tried to make good that promise. We have visited an extraordinarily large number of organisations in every State and Territory serving the needs of the unemployed, the sick, the lonely, the homeless, those who have suffered some form of physical or mental abuse.

But this is not the occasion to single any one of them out for particular mention.

For my purpose tonight is not to discuss these problems. Those of you living in rural Australia will know only too well the effects of unemployment, of falling commodity prices, of family and communal breakdown in your own neighbourhoods. What I want to do is pay tribute to the extraordinary goodness - and that is the only word for it - of those



men and women who work for those organisations right across Australia serving the needs of the disadvantaged.

They are, in the main, in the not-for-profit welfare sector. Many of them are services of the various Christian Churches discharging their joint mission of outreach to the poor and the disadvantaged. By far, the great majority of the people who serve them are volunteers; and in delivering this half-term assessment tonight, I cannot express too strongly our conviction that voluntary work is one of the most important influences we have in maintaining both our sense of social identity as individuals and the minimum standards of social justice and decency required in any caring society. Whatever form that voluntary work takes, each hour that is freely given to help others is a significant contribution to the community and, through it, to us all.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I read through the biographical notes of those who are graduating tonight I noticed that all, in one way or another, volunteer part of their time and expertise for the various industry and community groups with which they are involved. I am sure you all know what I mean when I speak of the importance of that commitment to the cohesion of our society and those who exercise positions of leadership within it. It is certainly understood by those who frame and contribute to the unqualified success of the Australian Rural Leadership Program.

As I said a little earlier, you have been engaged in much the same sort of learning experience as myself: travelling, listening, learning, attempting to articulate a view of ourselves and our nation that is coherent, reasonable and just. You have graduated tonight; I am still halfway through. But the point I wish to make to you is valid at all stages of our lives. It is that, if you wish to be a worthy leader, you must, wherever your careers may lead you, define your principles and then define your objectives. If your principles are clear and decent, and if your objectives are visionary, then your actions will be consistent - and consistently good and worthwhile. But if your principles are not clear or if they be not decent, or if you lack objectives that are at least in part unselfish, you will achieve little that is truly worthwhile for yourselves, and you will certainly lack the ability

and the qualities to be a worthy leader of others.

Your successful completion of the 4th course of the Australian Rural Leadership program suggests that you will have probably already identified your own guiding principles and objectives. The fact that they will vary from person to person does not for one moment mean that they will be other than completely worthwhile and decent. My

comments this evening have probably already indicated to you my own guiding principle and my main objective in performing the functions of the national office which I hold. The guiding principle is a simple one. It is that the ultimate test of our worth as a truly democratic nation is how we treat the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of our citizens. My guiding objective should be apparent from the emphasis I have placed in these comments on multiculturalism and reconciliation. It is that we Australians, indigenous

and non-indigenous and regardless of our racial or cultural or other backgrounds, will go into the second century of our nation and the third millennium of the Christian era united as a people ... walking together, talking together, working together, and achieving together - and with mutual respect and tolerance.


Let me conclude by congratulating each one of you on your accomplishments, and offer every good wish for your future happiness and continuing success as leaders not only of rural Australia but, by virtue of your qualities, as leaders of our community at large.