Good evening and thank you for your very warm welcome. It is indeed an enormous honour and privilege to be invited to deliver this year’s Keith Murdoch Oration.
There are a number of people I’d first like to acknowledge, I’d like to acknowledge Dame Elizabeth Murdoch and members of the Murdoch family. I’d like to acknowledge Rob Hudson, the parliamentary secretary for the Arts; John Cain, president of the Library Board of Victoria; Anne-Marie Schwirtlich who is the CEO and state librarian; Professor Stephanie Fahey who is the deputy vice-chancellor – International for Monash University; Peter Lothian the chair of the State Library of Victorian Foundation and also I’ve had a great connection with Peter, he was the first person to publish my first book, so I’m very grateful for your support; and also members of the Foundation Executive Committee and members of the Library Board of Victoria.
My theme tonight is our future in the world, but that future won’t and can’t be written on a blank sheet. It must be built on layers of history. In the case of this historic site where we are tonight, it is the history of human occupation and culture that can be measured from time immemorial. As Barack Obama said last year quoting the novelist William Faulkner, he said ‘the past isn’t dead and buried, indeed it isn’t even the past’. We’re still living within its consequences, so our future starts within the traditional owners of the land that we are gathered on tonight, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Theirs is the oldest living tradition deserving our deepest respect and our close attention as we confront the challenges of living in a hostile environment in the age of climate change. I pay my respect to their descendents past and present.
It says it all about our city of Melbourne. That the first thing that our city’s founders did when they experienced their first period of economic boom in 1854, was they built this great library. But I might also add it is that same year they started building the other cultural great icon, the MCG. The G might be booked out on ANZAC day and the Grand Final, but anyone who is using the library regularly will tell you that every day of the year this library is actually packed full to the rafters of people wanting to work day after day and we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people who conceived and built this library and those who have rebuilt it over the last decade. It was money definitely very well spent. So I want to acknowledge the Murdoch family for supporting this annual oration. In Dame Elizabeth with have a vital living link with Australia’s federation history and when I think about what Dame Elizabeth and surviving members of her generation have experienced, I’m acutely conscious of how little I know and how much I have to learn. Experience has much to teach us indeed, but I’m also a great believer in the capacity of young people to change the world. We live in an age when someone isn’t truly considered to be mature until they reach their 40s. If this had been our attitude all along, we would be a much different and I would argue a much more diminished society. For when one of Australia’s great nation builders and story tellers, Keith Murdoch, stepped onto the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 he was just 29 years old. He was young and inexperienced and his reports about the Gallipoli campaign were in many respects inaccurate. He was brash and very ambitious, but as Les Carlyon has written, he said so much of what Murdoch wrote was true. Keith Murdoch’s youth enabled him to see what others couldn’t and his lack of deference enabled him to say what others wouldn’t. That the Gallipoli campaign, albeit historic and heroic, was doomed and badly led and needed to be ended. And he said it directly to the people in power. At the age of 30 Keith Murdoch had made a decisive contribution to our nation’s history, our view of ourselves and our place in the world. He had something incredibly important, the audacity of youth, something I believe we need again today because we face big challenges. And while I know that young people don’t have all the answers, neither do more senior generations. But like Keith Murdoch in 1915, sometimes we can provide important insights, insights that elude earlier generations, paths that they can’t or won’t allow themselves to see or to express.
I can’t pretend to speak on behalf of my generation. It has the same tensions and disagreements as every generation. It’s left, it’s right, it’s centrist, it’s radical, it’s conservative, it’s green, brown, active and apathetic, but its members also have a lot in common. It is the first generation that does not regard video-conferencing to someone on the other side of the planet to be truly science fiction. It’s also the first to live with dams that are constantly below the 30 per cent capacity and possibly the last to see arctic ice in the northern summer. It’s the first to see China as a super power and India as an economic powerhouse and the first to have experienced public education as the second rung of a two tier system and the first to live in a world with the means and hopefully the will to end extreme poverty within our lifetime.
With all respect, the generation now under 30 can identify the big problems but at present are only hearing partial and inadequate solutions from the generation that is over 40. We live in a country that is not thinking beyond the mining boom. A country that is heating up, but avoiding facing the final consequences of what that means. A country richer but less inclusive and a world that’s missing its great chance to bring prosperity to the billion hungry people of the world. In 1862 in the middle of the war to abolish slavery Abraham Lincoln said the dogmas of the quiet past are in inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion and our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. Lincoln’s challenge to think anew and to act anew is one that we must accept and ladies and gentlemen, it’s a challenge that is being embraced especially by the young.
I count myself lucky to see evidence of this new hope and vision in my travels. One place I’ve been fortunate to live was when I was 19 years old, I was fortunate to live in a Zulu community in Southern Africa and I was working there at the time with the Oaktree Foundation a former organisation I used to work with and there was one day I was with this amazing Zulu girl by the name of Tandeca and Tandeca took me to the community hall that day and she said, ‘Hugh I want to show you what kind of impact the work we’re doing is having in the lives of real people’. And so for about two hours we walked together, it took us forever to get there and eventually we rocked up at a community hall that day. We walked inside and there was about 100 Zulu students sitting around this big classroom. I will never forget walking inside, it was quite dark, about as dark as we are here tonight. She whispered to me first, she said, ‘Hugh I’m going to ask them if my work has actually had any impact on their life,’ and then she yelled at the top of lungs and she said, ‘Guys, you know I’ve trained you for the last three months now, has my training actually had any impact at all in your life’. And there was this awkward silence, you know, noone says anything and I’m so nervous, I’m like oh no, we’ve just spent $50,000 on this project and maybe it’s had no impact at all. Then she yells out to them again and goes, ‘Come on guys, you know I’ve trained you for the last three months now, what kind of impact has this training actually had on your life?' All of a sudden this one young girl up the back, she puts up her hand and she was quite shy at first and she goes, ‘When I’m older I want to go and I want to be a nurse and serve my community and your training has helped me to do that.’ I thought that was pretty cool. Then all of the sudden, this one young guy up the front, he puts up his hand and he goes, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to start my own small business and serve my community.' Then all of a sudden, all around the room all of these hands are going up one after another until quite randomly in the middle of the room, this one girl stands up and she goes, ‘Yeah, when I’m older, I want to start a morgue in my community.' Now no-one was quite sure how to handle that comment, they kind of gave that awkward laughter that you guys just gave, you know, they’re like, ‘What do you mean you want to start a morgue in your community,’ and then they look at her with even more adamant attention than before and she stands up with this real boldness of character and she says this, ‘Issues of HIV and AIDS are so severe in my community and there’s such a massive stigma associated with this disease that noone in the older generation owns up to the fact that people die due to HIV. So what they do is when people die, they take the body of the person who passed away and during the dead of night, they’ll take them to the next community and they’ll bury them there, so that no-one will ever find out why they died.’ She said, ‘I’m going to start a morgue in my community to educate my community that issues of poverty are real, that issues of HIV AIDS are real, but that yes we can have a big impact.'
In so many ways her courage to confront these issues I believe truly is the measure of greatness of our times. She had the clarity of youth to see the real problem and the audacity to speak and express the unspeakable at the time. Drawing on the spirit of that young girl in South Africa, I’d like to focus on four of many issues and solutions that demonstrate the need and capacity Australians have to effect permanent and profound change both at home and abroad. Firstly, I’d like to look at the challenge of giving world class education to more people. Secondly, the challenge of creating a renewable energy industry. Thirdly, the challenge of increasing our security within Asia. Fourthly, a challenge which is very close to my heart, the challenge of ending extreme poverty within our lifetime. I want to suggest that young people of our world must be part of the answer. Not just because we’re the ones who will have to suffer the consequences of that which is done in our name, but because like Keith Murdoch, youthful thinking provides the insights to see our problems in a new way and propose new solutions to address them. The ideas I will be drawing on tonight aren’t mine alone, but they were generated as part of a fantastic coming together of young people last year, to produce a book called The future by us. They’re an inspiring group of people and in the future you’ll be hearing a lot more about them. The research included in my speech tonight comes largely from this gathering of young minds.
I want to begin tonight by talking about how we can build wealth from knowledge. To move forward into a new Australia we need to envision a future where innovation and new ideas are paramount. We are a country fortunate to have great mineral resources. They’ve given us one of the wealthiest societies on earth. Ranking us third on the human development index of prosperous and fair nations and clearly our resources will play a big role in Australia’s future too. This is not an either–or equation. But how sustainable is the current state of affairs? And does the fact that we’re the only country in the region whose recent growth has not been based on innovation, mean that we are not diversifying sufficiently and preparing ourselves for a day when the resource boom ends as inevitably it will. Let’s consider the facts. Firstly at present two thirds of Australian businesses admit to undertaking no forms of innovation in their organisations. Australia spends just 1 per cent of national income on research and development and today our universities produce just 7.8 PhDs per 1,000 workers compared to Germany’s 21.1 per 1,000 workers. There’s a lot of things that we can do to meet this challenge. I want to focus on the university sector. We have a number of great universities in Australia. I myself am a proud graduate of Monash University under the previous vice-chancellor Richard Larkins, a man whom I deeply respect. These great universities need to be encouraged and better funded certainly, but why not consider creating a new one or enhancing an existing one that takes our ambitions to this next level.
I am one of a small but rapidly increasing number of Australians given the opportunity to study at one of the great universities in our world, in my case, Cambridge. Every year more and more Australians like me travel overseas to study in Oxford, London, Boston, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and other great university cities where they are exposed to great thinkers and teachers, some of the greatest the world has to offer. We’re extremely fortunate and grateful for the opportunities we’ve had, but we believe many more should have this opportunity also. And in the era of digital communications there is no reason why Australians can’t be taught here in Australia by the best thinkers and teachers that Australia and the world has to offer. For this reason, I think it’s time we consider introducing the Australia degree – a tier one online university that provides access to the best lectures and diversity of topics from every university in Australia and the greatest universities around the world. Overcoming our geographical isolation by engaging with the greatest minds of our generation has the potential to turbo-boost our education system and raise standards across the board. Of course we know that any discussion around innovation necessarily leads me to talk about climate change and how we can create a vision for a prosperous and sustainable Australia.
I believe that in the era of climate change, Australia has the opportunity to become one of the most sustainable nations in the world. It should certainly be our aim because at the moment we have the third largest carbon footprint, behind the United States and Canada. When we think about sustainability we naturally conjure up images that have become the symbols and signifiers of green energy. Things like efficient light bulbs, insulation batts and rain water tanks and of course these are crucial in reducing consumption and being mindful of resources. But I want to focus on the bigger sustainability issue of all of them, the issue of energy. We have finite amounts of coal and oil and infinite amounts of renewable energy. It doesn’t take much to see that we need to change the way we produce and consume energy, from whatever source. But we have a big problem in Australia, it’s an energy problem, but I would argue it’s also a cultural problem and I’m talking about the unnecessary and unhelpful attitudes towards renewables. For when people reject renewables, they do so claiming that it can’t provide base load power, that it’s uneconomic that it requires expensive subsidies and that the market should be left to sort it all out itself. But I think that we all know that our own fossil fuel industries are heavily subsidised in countless way and in a market free for all, who knows what the outcome would be. This really isn’t a market problem at all. I suspect the real division here is actually a cultural one. That renewables are regarded as anti-resource and anti-Australian. In short I would go as far as saying they’re not macho enough; seen as the preference for white collar inner city workers, not blue collar outback types. It’s like the divide between Holden, Ford and Valiant. This is about cultural preferences, it’s certainly not a question of engineering. I propose a different way of seeing it, my proposition is that we see renewables not as anti-resource, but as a different form of natural resource. We need to harness the natural resources above the surface of the Australian continent just as much as we do those below. Wind, solar and wave, clean coal, gas and geothermal, they’re all natural resources, all take great engineering projects to exploit and all provide jobs for blue collar Australian and white collar Australians alike, in cities and in the outback. They’re as Australian as football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars.
Renewable energy can provide several different clean, safe, base load technologies including bio-energy, hot rock geothermal power, which is currently being developed in South Australia and Queensland, solar thermal electricity with overnight heat storage in water or rocks or a thermo-chemical store and large scale distributed wind power with a small amount of occasional backup from a peak load plant like gas. In fact the truth is that by 2020 approximately 40% of electricity could be produced from renewable energy sources and this could increase to as much as 70% by 2050. Much of this will be large scale off shore wind farms, geothermal energy and concentrated solar plants. The solution to this issue to my mind isn’t more economic modelling for we know the only winners for that are actually the economic modellers and the lobbyists who recommend them.
The solution is to look at this issue in a new way. From a different perspective, free from the blinkers that we’ve created for ourselves and indeed this is an attitude we need as we re-think Australia’s place in the world for the remainder of the 21st century. This brings me to my third point tonight, our future in the world. We need to complete one enterprise that already exists, this is the enterprise of fulfilling our destiny as a strong regional leader in the new Asia and we need to start and bring about a new enterprise into being, becoming a nation that promotes human freedom around the world. The task that falls to us is to envision a new foreign policy with bold vision and achievable ideas. Firstly it is crucial for us to invest ourselves in Asia for common prosperity, peace and freedom. Australia must work towards more trusting and respectful relations with the Asian region due to its geographic, economic and strategic alliances. As demonstrated by the recent detention of Rio Tinto’s employee Stern Hu, Australia and China still have some way to go to overcome their tensions. Now although we have a Mandarin speaking prime minister, we still need to engage more fully with our Asian neighbours on more levels than just diplomatic ones in order to foster cultural exchange of ideas and of values. For example on a social level it is crucial for us to invest widely in education and strengthen ties between our young people. Australians must learn a second language to engage with the world on global issues and an Asian language capacity could prove vital in this task. More broadly an Australasian education partnership could augment our economic relationship. In such a scheme every Australian university would be connected with a partner university in Asia, sharing information and new ideas. On a political level we could initiate an east–west emerging leaders program in partnership with other nations such as the US, the UK and Europe, this program would offer an intensive language and cultural immersion course followed by internships in the offices of politicians and high level public servants in partner countries. This type of investment promotes and creates channels through which we can learn, share and understand more about each others values and philosophies. Secondly we must change the way we think about our security. Now we know that strong defence forces are a necessity certainly but I’m convinced beyond all doubt that our real security in our region lies in eradicating the cause of conflict form their sources. So as well as strong defence forces, we need to think of a new concept, peacemaking for defence. Our defence forces and our defence industry today are predominantly reactive, designed to fight wars, not build peace. Now it is true that we have a proud tradition of peacemaking and there are many soldiers working tirelessly to stop conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor. But there’s a lot more we could do to keep these regions and ourselves safe in the long term. At the heart of the balancing act has been a basic tension in the defence debate. What’s the right balance between managing threats through military capacity and preventing those threats from emerging from economic and social development? I ask you to consider the current state of regions where Australia’s troops have been deployed in recent years. Whether it’s Timor Leste, Afghanistan, there’s a common problem, underdevelopment and poverty. Let’s take Pakistan for example where decades of failed development have made parts of Pakistan easy prey to extremist groups such as the Taliban. And because Pakistan has nuclear weapons, this isn’t just a problem for itself or its immediate neighbours; it’s a problem for all of humanity. This isn’t just a military problem.
Similar problems exist with Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia much closer to home, where young poor men are becoming easy targets to recruit. Now in this scary new world of Jihad, drug smugglers and people smuggling, Paul Keating’s mantra that we need to find our security in Asia rather than from it, takes on a brave new meaning. What we need is development for peace. In this vein, we could support a regional peace building plan with a long term goal of reshaping Australia’s military into a peace force supported by a fully fledged peace industry. If we can help the nations of our region like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, develop more vibrant and inclusive economies with improved health and education standards, then tensions that produce conflict will certainly decline. For if our region fails socially, economically and politically, it will create resentment, refugee flows and perhaps even terrorism.
This brings me to my fourth point tonight, for it’s actually the same as for the rest of the world and the challenge of ending extreme poverty for we know the best way to ensure peace and stability across the planet is to achieve progress in the great moral crusade of our times, the elimination of extreme poverty. I believe we can create a more just world by mobilising the power of citizen action to end extreme poverty on our planet. When we talk about extreme poverty we mean the affliction of people living on less than US$1.25 per day or across the whole week surviving on less than $10 – a kind of needless poverty where a child dies for a lack of a 30 cent immunisation. The problem is complex but the essentials are easy to understand. At present we live in a world where nearly one in seven of the world’s population goes hungry every night despite the fact the world has more than enough food to feed everyone, one and a half times over. We are living in a world where 850 million people do not have access to basic water and sanitation leading to around 2.2 million diarrhoea related deaths every single year, mostly with children under the age of 5, where people don’t have access to health care, education, opportunities for trade. Ending extreme poverty is both a moral imperative and an imperative based on enlightened self interest. The moral case is clear, it’s pure chance that others were born into poverty and we were not. Each of us could very well be born into circumstances of extreme poverty and be reliant on people like us in countries like ours to act on that obligation. But the self-interest case is also clear. For eradicating extreme poverty will reduce our vulnerability to swine flu, to people smuggling, to terrorism and to other problems as well. Indeed half of the world’s poor live in our immediate South East Asian region. This means that there are millions of people deprived of food, safe drinking water, health and shelter. Half a million children in South East Asia and the pacific will die this year from poverty related causes. Now it’s often said that charity should begin at home and we should support our own. I want to put it to you that in the age of globalisation our home is the globe itself and it costs us far more to do nothing and deal with the consequences, then it would be to end extreme poverty.
So how do we actually end extreme poverty? Ending extreme poverty is never going to be achieved, simply as a matter of charity. Those who are victims of extreme poverty need to be able to link into local economies that are in turn linked to the global economy. Becoming active participants in the market is the only sustainable way to lift people out of extreme poverty in the long term. If you look at the tiger economies of Asia such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, we see enormous gains in welfare that have been achieved alongside export orientated economic growth. The computers we buy from China, the cars we drive from South Korea and the help desk we don’t like to call in India have given these nations the income and the capital they need to import technologies and invest in health, education and welfare. So what does this actually mean for each and every one of us? The only way we’re going to end extreme poverty is to build public support for government led action. Our politicians won’t increase development assistance or change the rules of the global trade regimes unless they know it won’t cost them the elections and if they can see that it could potentially win them elections. But this won’t happen unless we can convincingly argue that it’s economically feasible. And if we look at the history we can see examples of enormous amounts being achieved by concerted government and international action. If we take the reconstruction of Europe following World War II for example, we saw that much of Europe was devastated in ways that we now associate with poverty and natural disasters to the developing world. We saw millions of people displaced, decimated infrastructure, severely disrupted industry and agricultural production and very weak governance structures. Yet through the Marshall Plan and other initiatives, Western Europe had recovered within a remarkably short period. This was achieved through a combination of aid and trade within a framework of commitment by allied governments to reconstruction and it is through just such a strategic alliance between aid and trade that it is economically possible to end extreme poverty today. For the plan is already there, it’s called the United Nations Millennium Development Goals but the current level of aide is insufficient to do this vital work for only five countries in the world currently give their agreed target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income to support the world’s poor in aid. In light of the horrific reality of the extreme poverty on our doorstep, it is not good enough that Australia currently only commits 0.3% with a projected increase to 0.5% of gross national income by 2005. The fact is, we actually know how to end extreme poverty through aid and trade, but for the first time in history we actually also have the wealth to do so. In the last 25 years the gross income of the world has tripled and the proportion of its people living in extreme poverty has halved – from 1981 52 per cent, down to 22 per cent in 2009. So we actually now have more money, even in light of the current global financial crisis to support fewer people, it’s affordable.
Private individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have invested billions to combat HIV–AIDS and alleviate poverty. But no matter how much they contribute, it can’t be done unless governments of the world pull their weight on behalf of the citizens of the world. That’s why my organisation, the Global Poverty Project, seeks to join with others to maintain pressure on Australia’s politicians to meet the targets that they have set. In fact we are actually only asking them to honour their promises.
Every generation I believe is called upon to make a great mark on this planet, whether it’s to see the end of the slave trade in England, to see the end of Apartheid or in our case, the end of extreme poverty. Every single generation can do it. We have the knowhow, we have the means, all we need is the collective will. Tonight I’ve talked to you about the ways in which I believe we could re-imagine our world and Australia’s place in it thinking about renewable energy as traditional resource, defence as peacemaking and ending extreme poverty as both good economics and good politics. For when Barack Obama said, ‘we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change we seek’ he wasn’t only talking about the Democratic party or even just America, he spoke of a new time and vision where hope isn’t just a campaign catchword, it’s a way of life where bold initiative counts and where positive change can be realised.
Our future in the world by its very definition depends on us to make decisive moves forward united in the belief that even the greatest journey starts with a single step. Now I’ve proposed a few ideas tonight, but they’re just some of many. It’s going to take every single one of us of all ages and all backgrounds to promote positive change, but it’s going to help if we listen to the young people and take seriously the concerns they have and the ideas they propose for in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, it was a child who had the sanity and the clarity to tell the emperor that he had no clothes when the ministers and the adults wouldn’t. Andersen could have been talking and writing about Keith Murdoch and he could have been writing about younger Australians, often derided by their older and wiser parents but whose ideas seem to me to be identifying and tackling our problems head on.
As the earth heats up and extreme poverty adds to the dangers we face it’s the young who can help us see the world anew and shape a new story for Australia. We listened to them when our nation was young and I believe it’s time to do so again today. Thank you for your time tonight.