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Some thoughts on Rotary, Rotarians and reconciliation, Rotary International District 9680 Conference, Canberra, Thursday, 26 February 1998: address on the occasion of the opening.

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Let me say at the outset what a delight it is for Helen and me to be with you at this opening o f the 1998 Conference o f Rotary International District 9680. My own association with Rotary, as a former Rotary Foundation Fellow and a past member and present honorary member o f the Sydney Club, stretches back over some 45 years I must say that I feel very much among friends this evening

The sub-title o f this Conference “ A Capital Corroboree” - evokes the theme and cause o f Aboriginal reconciliation l am fully aware o f the commitment o f the Rotarians o f District 9680 to reconciliation between the Aboriginal peoples and our nation o f which they form such an important part In particular, I am conscious o f the worth o f the Eulowirree project with its recognition o f the importance o f things o f the spirit as well as things o f the body

It is particularly appropriate that the Conference is being held here in Canberra, our National Capital Canberra is a traditional meeting place The name “ Canberra” is an anglicised version of an Aboriginal word metaphorically referring to the plain between the hills When I was a boy growing up in this city, the Molonglo River flowed across the Canberra Plain - past Pialligo which, in the language o f the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people, means “ meeting place” In pre-European times, many o f the regional tribes would gather for their annual Bogong moth-hunting expeditions. Now, o f course, Canberra has assumed a different importance to modern Australia as the “ meeting place” o f the elected representatives o f the whole nation

As some o f you know, when my appointment as Governor-General was announced some 2 years ago, I indicated that Helen and I hoped during my period in office to focus our efforts upon the disadvantaged in our country I also indicated that we hoped to do what we could to advance the cause o f reconciliation between the Aboriginal peoples and the Australian nation o f which they form such an important part This evening, I wish to speak to you briefly not so much about those objectives which we have sought to pursue but about Rotary and Rotarians in the context o f those objectives.




In seeking to focus attention upon the needs o f the disadvantaged in our country, Helen and I have visited and become associated with a very large number o f organisations helping the sick, the needy and other disadvantaged throughout all the States and Territories o f the Commonwealth. Those visits and association have brought home to us many things One o f them is a plain fact o f which Rotarians are particularly aware, namely, that the collective plight o f the disadvantaged in our country is an immense problem Indeed, Helen and I often feel that the gap between the haves and the have nots, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, is widening rather than narrowing Another thing those visits and association have brought home to us is that, either in the forefront or somewhere in the background of much that is being done by associations and individuals working for the disadvantaged, there is a Rotary Club or a Rotarian providing financial or practical support or guidance.

The Rotarians o f today in this country face increasing difficulties and discouragements in discharging Rotary’s mission o f service to the community Working hours are often longer Television is an encouragement to stay at home The pressures o f family life are often greater Sponsorship and access to the corporate dollar are often more difficult to obtain Those whom it is sought to assist are often more unresponsive In the case o f the entrenched disadvantaged, particularly the young unemployed who have reached the stage where self-respect and self-esteem are lost or all but lost, they may be defensive, abrasive and sometimes even resentful o f those who seek to help I sincerely hope that those increasing difficulties and discouragements w ill not be allowed to discourage or diminish the work of

Rotary and Rotarians in this country or in District 9680 at this time when that work is so greatly needed

The extent o f the work o f Rotary and Rotarians for the disadvantaged in our communities is not surprising to anyone who is familiar with the history, the nature and the objectives o f Rotary International and the character o f those who have led it over the 93 years since the first Rotary Club, the Rotary Club o f Chicago, was formed by Paul Harris and 3 companions on 23 February 1905

Last year marked the 50lh Anniversary o f the death o f Paul Harris It is still important to an understanding o f Rotary International to recall the character o f its founder. Over the past 45 years, I have been privileged to have had close association with a large number o f the leaders o f Rotary in Australia: the great Angus Mitchell, the first Australian President of Rotary International, Douglas Stewart and Ollie Oberg, who were both first Vice Presidents o f Rotary International, Sir George Proud, Sir Frank McDowell and Professor Alex Mitchell, who died only last year, are but some who come immediately to my mind A ll o f those leaders o f Australian Rotary mirrored the qualities o f Paul Harris Let me take a moment to identify what I see as the most important o f those qualities for they provide a most instaictive identification o f the nature o f Rotary as I know and have known it

From the accounts o f those who knew Paul Harris and from what he wrote and did, a number o f nouns or phrases are clearly appropriate to be linked with his name. The first 4 are obvious to even the most casual observer They are vision, companionship, selfless service and plain goodness To them I would immediately add 2 others: commonsense and humour

In so far as commonsense is concerned, it is unnecessary to do more than refer to the first major project o f the Chicago Rotary Club It was the establishment o f public toilets throughout the City It is difficult to envisage any convincing basis for opposing public toilets but it is a fact o f life that those who seek to establish them seem invariably to arouse strident opposition The Chicago Club was no exception Its project was opposed by two



formidable organisations One was the Association o f Brewers which contended that every one o f Chicago’ s 6,000 saloon bars provided toilets for men The other was the Association o f Department Stores which contended that free facilities in their stores were available for women The Chicago Club, under Paul Harris, staunchly maintained that men ought not have to buy a glass o f beer nor women merchandise to be able to go to the toilet. The Club’ s

project was carried to a successful completion

In so far as humour is concerned, examples abound Let me, safely in Canberra, quote from Paul Harris’ own account o f his visit to Brisbane in 1935 to address an inter-club luncheon He wrote that the weather was hot and humid and he was feeling very poorly He was sure that the Brisbane Rotarians had noted his sickly appearance and were concerned least he might prove unequal to speaking at the meeting They decided to do something to revive his drooping spirits and drove him to visit a landmark o f their city Verbatim, as the poet said, I quote Paul Harris’ words

“ The automobile drew up in front o f a new building on a hilltop and, as we entered, the Chairman o f the committee announced that we were entering Brisbane’ s new crematorium It was indeed a lovely crematorium and where could the resourceful members o f the reception committee have found any place in this mundane sphere to revive one’s drooping spirits preparatory to making a speech than a crematorium It amounted to absolute genius They did not miss a detail, they introduced me to the chief cook and he took us through the culinary department manifesting justifiable pride in his vocation” 1

No description o f Paul Harris would be complete without a seventh noun In the context o f Rotary, I suggest that it is the most important o f all Paul Harris, himself certainly thought so for he used it to identify the essence o f the movement which he founded. Writing in the first number o f the National Rotarian published in January 191 1, he said that if he were able to speak to every Rotarian in some enormous colosseum and allowed only one word to say to them, that word would be “ toleration” 2 or, as we would be more likely to say, “ tolerance”

In one sense, the story o f Rotary International corresponds with the modern history o f tolerance - and freedom - throughout the world Thus, Rotary, like tolerance and freedom, were suppressed and lost under fascism and restored in the enemy countries only after the Second World War had been fought and won In another sense. Rotary International has represented almost a counter-point to the history o f outside events and attitudes. It has stood steadfast and true to principles and virtues that the world has seemed to be questioning and discarding Where mere pragmatism and selfish materialism have seemed the norm, it has proclaimed its unqualified message o f honesty, selfless service and tolerance

What is the relevance o f those qualities in the movement towards reconciliation in our country today? The answer is, I suggest, obvious Those qualities must lie at the very heart o f that movement if it is ultimately to succeed Put differently, it seems to me that the qualities that characterise and inspire Rotary demand and all but make it inevitable that Rotary and Rotarians be in the vanguard o f the movement towards genuine and lasting reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Some time ago, in the Inaugural Lingiari Lecture in Darwin, I sought to identify what 1 saw as the critical steps along the road to true reconciliation The starting point, I

1 See Professor Alex Mitchell, The Rotary Club of Sydney 1921-1981, pp 95-96. 2 See Professor Alex Mitchell, The Rotary Club of Sydney 1921-1981, p 6.


suggested, must lie in an honest acknowledgment by our nation o f the wrongfulness o f the past dispossession, oppression and degradation o f the Aboriginal peoples. That is not, o f course, to suggest that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel or acknowledge personal guilt It is simply to assert our identity as a nation and to recognise that where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul

Associated with that acknowledgment o f the past is recognition o f the need to reach consensus about what must be done and set in train to overcome or alleviate the terrible problems and disadvantages o f the Aboriginal peoples o f our country. Those problems include the inadequacies o f much Aboriginal education; the vastly higher than average levels o f Aboriginal unemployment, particularly youth unemployment; the deficiencies o f Aboriginal housing; and the problems o f water supply and infrastructure in many Aboriginal communities. And, above all, there are the appalling problems relating to Aboriginal health

It is sometimes said that statistics lie They do not lie when they identify the extent o f those health problems. Nor can those statistics be discounted as bare figures without human content They tell a story o f present human sickness, suffering, dying and death which can be traced to the past dispossession, oppression and injustice It is unnecessary that I do more than quote one o f those statistics It is that an Aboriginal baby born in this country today has, on present figures and on average, a life expectancy o f almost 20 years less than that o f a non­ Aboriginal baby. And the statistics actually indicate that the discrepancy is still widening Clearly enough, we will not achieve true reconciliation unless and until we address those problems and resolve them at least to the extent that it can be seen that we are making real progress towards the position where the future prospects o f an Aboriginal baby, in terms o f health, life expectancy, living conditions and self-esteem, are at least within the same area o f discourse as the future prospects o f an Aboriginal one

Nor w ill we achieve true reconciliation unless we address the problems o f the spirit as well as those o f the body That is o f fundamental importance

The qualities which the movement towards reconciliation requires o f those o f us who are not Aboriginal are the very qualities which have characterised and sustained Rotary International throughout almost the whole o f this century: the honesty to acknowledge and understand the past and what has flowed from it, the vision, the selfless service, the comtnonsense and the plain goodness necessary to address the present problems o f both the body and the spirit The tolerance to understand that problems such as alcoholism, domestic violence and inability to cope or to improve or to communicate effectively do not constitute justification for indifference or refusal to help but are, in truth, themselves part o f an overall

disadvantage which is entrenched in its nature and heart breaking in its extent And even if those problems sometimes strain the understanding and sympathy o f some, they surely should only intensify the sympathy and determination o f all in so far as infant Aboriginal Australians are concerned

Finally, in linking what I see as the essential qualities o f Rotary to the movement for reconciliation, I would again mention companionship and humour Both have their place. And it is an important one. For both are o f critical importance to effective communication and effective communication is essential to the movement for reconciliation. They enable us to sit down and talk together with empathy and mutual understanding. They w ill help us to achieve the ultimate objective o f reconciliation, namely, o f walking forward together as friends and true equals. They w ill help our Aboriginal fellow Australians accept that, notwithstanding there is so much further to go, much has truly been achieved in recent years



They w ill help us all to be conscious o f the fact that vast numbers o f Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, are now, in their different ways, committed to pursue the cause o f true justice and equality for our country’s indigenous people And they w ill enable those o f us who are convinced o f the rightness and justice o f that cause to speak more quietly, more tolerantly, more constructively and more persuasively to our fellow Australians who are yet to be convinced For, if we who are convinced do that, I have no doubt that, however long and difficult the road to true reconciliation may be, we w ill ultimately reach its end

Let me conclude by repeating what I said at the outset, namely, that it is a real delight for Helen and me to be here with you this evening And let me urge you to stay firm to your own commitment to reconciliation and to continue your valuable work in its cause.