Occasional Address delivered by The Hon John Dowd AO QC, At the graduation ceremony held at Macquarie University, On Thursday the 21st September, 2006
Chancellor, Professor Schwartz, Graduates, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour for me to be here today as part of this ceremony. This is an occasion for all of the graduates and their families to enjoy and enjoy throughout the day. For me it is an occasion to come back to this land which I knew as bush land some fifty years ago, it is also a university where I have had the honour of presiding over moots for the Law faculty, and is it also the university, where as of today’s graduation ceremony, two of my four daughters are now graduates of Macquarie University.
I want to just give you a few thoughts about the process of change and the skills that you will need to apply in each of your disciplines over your lifetime. it is now only a quarter century since I wore, in this day of mobile phones, the first voice pager in Sydney. It was a little unsophisticated because at that stage if you pressed down on the open channel, you heard everybody’s messages, because there was only one band and they took a few months before they got round to having more than one band. It made one fairly discrete in what messages were sent out.
Those of you older members here would remember the first faxes when they came through. Funny grey little things that rolled out of machines, you would now look with amazement at those fax machines.
The change that you are part of now its not just in terms of technology, its not just in terms of new devices on your phones, and I suspect most people here don’t even know all of the things that can be done on their mobile phones but it is also people that are changing, and values that are changing. I have the pleasure of employing a couple of generation Y graduates. In the trade we call them “Generation Why Not”, but whether you are a generation X generation Y or the few generation Z’s that are here, some of whom are my grandsons, the attitudes of each generation has changed so dramatically from the world in which I was brought up, where now some generation Y comes to seek a job and in the course of the interview says, “look I hope you don’t mind if make my own initiative and do my own things and assist in ways that I think are appropriate”. For me, if I had gone for a job at that age, I wouldn’t have contemplated telling a prospective boss in my day that I was going to change things, but that’s a generation Y.
What is going to be different however, is your life expectancy will alter significantly. It gives a whole new meaning of “till death do us part” if you’re contemplating marriage. If your going to be together for one hundred years, that young fresher you have been eyeing off all year, don’t look at her mother to know what she’s going to be like, look at her great grandmother and then in stead start contemplating her brain which may be of more relevance. The changes that you’re going to have to deal with are in terms of world balance. I was born into an era of European and European cultural domination. You will live in an era of the domination of China, of India, countries which have unleashed economic and social forces that not even they can control or understand. The development that goes on in the Peoples Republic of China, Japan and the other Asian nations will mean that these nations and the sleeping giant of India will dominate the world. The United States and Europe will be there of course, but not the un-checked dominant forces that they were.
I want to remind you of a book that some of the older people here will remember, a science fiction book of an author, John Wyndham who wrote in the early part of the last century. He wrote a book, as some of you may remember, called “The Day of the Triffids”. Where after a catastrophe, which blinded most people, intelligent vegetables that could move were taking over the world and could also render people blind. A group of people came together, some of them blind, some of them partly blind, having being involved in crimes of looting just to survive and in breaking every law that they had then known. An old man amongst them, in the book he was about 70, which means he’s not that much older than me, addressed the group and said:
“ ‘We must all see, if we pause to think, that one kind of community’s virtue may well be another kind of community’s crime: that what is frowned upon here may be considered laudable elsewhere; that customs condemned in one century are condoned in another. And we must see that in each community and each period there is a widespread belief in the moral rightness of its own customs.
“Now, clearly, since many of these beliefs conflict they cannot all be “right” in an absolute sense. The most judgement one can pass on them — if one has to pass judgements at all — is to say that they have at some period been “right” for those communities to hold them. It may be that they still are, but it frequently is found that they are not, and that they communities who continue to follow them blindly without heed to changed circumstances do so to their own disadvantage — perhaps to their ultimate destruction’.
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“He then went on to say, ‘Man remains physically adaptable to a remarkable degree. But it is the custom of each community to form the minds of its young in a mould, introducing a binding agent of prejudice. The result is remarkably tough substance capable of withstanding successfully even the pressure of many innate tendencies and instincts. In this way it has been possible to produce a man who against all his basic sense of self-preservation will voluntarily risk death for an ideal — but also in this way is produced the dolt who is sure of everything and knows what is right’ ”.
For you in your careers, in your lifetimes, parameters will change. Customs in one era will cease to be customs and will be disregarded and forgotten. The basis of our society, the nuclear family may not be the life foundation for a large number of you. What you have got to do as students, and some of you will come back here for more studies and some of you will learn through your life, that what your generation is going to have to do, whichever your generation may be, is to prepare yourself for changes beyond your present contemplation. Technology will change beyond that which we know now.
The assumptions upon which you make most of your decisions will also come into question. The goal posts will not only shift, they may in fact disappear all together in your lifetime. You have to constantly analyse new situations as they are presented to you, and spend time, stand back from them and see what is happening here and why it’s happening. You need to think ahead if you see changes occurring, but in every new situation the main thing I want to say to is if it’s a brand new situation, go back to first principles. If you have a decision to make, don’t ask others, don’t look at books or whatever, say “what are the applicable principles here and how do I apply them”, but I want to warn you this. Things that you now think are principles may well not be principles at all; they may be something that you have been taught as being a certainty, something you have taken for granted, something your parents or your faith has brought to you, and it may well not be true at all.
I have had the pleasure of changing some laws in my time in the parliament and my time as the Attorney General. I have removed some common laws which had been there for centuries, and for centuries had not been applied, but were there. The concept of male homosexuality being a crime was intolerant for me and I moved the first parliamentary motion to have that law removed, something young people now will find amazing that homosexuality was a crime for males. So that what were certainties are not. Therefore in every situation, analyse carefully as you refresh your learning, as you go into new situations. Above all, can I say this, I have found in my role, involved in education that I can learn so much from you — the generation X, Y and Z. you bring a difference of approach to things that I was taught. I was taught that I would have one career, I wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t true now. You can bring a fresh approach, you can bring your own approach and the fact that it’s different, the fact that people don’t necessarily agree with you doesn’t make you wrong. It may well be that they are wrong.
I congratulate you on your studies. I congratulate you on your graduation. I wish you well in your careers ahead because you, with the changing world that you have, you are going to have a lot more difficult decisions than I had to make, but I know you will make them that much better because of the qualifications that you have gained here and the capacity that you have gained here to learn and renew your self.