Thank you Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Deans, Staff, distinguished guests, graduates and your families and friends.
In the beginning, eons ago, before graduations, sex and comedy, there was sound – a Big Bang apparently - and probably some malodorous gases. But there was no one to hear, nor smell. Today we have music, talk and Real Housewives of Sydney. In this fine country, we’ve made great advances: we’ve got a Reality TV show fusing comedy and tragedy, without even knowing it.
Australia was a special place when my parents arrived from Italy in the 50’s. It still is, but there are ominous signs of decline. Just one viewing of Real Housewives reveals a creeping malaise. It’s our duty to fight back against bad makeup and fashion. I’m sure our fashion undergraduates here tonight are onto it.
Also as a sophisticated and well travelled audience, you’ll all appreciate the need for good design. My father, loved industrial design, and Italy still surprises. One invention of theirs may be a small, but it brings great happiness.
The French have a word for it: they call it ‘the little pony’, and it’s the Italians who have universally hopped onto it. However, there are very many countries - and I’m sorry to say Australia is one of them - which have been slow to mount the pony. We think we’re living in the first world, but let me tell you something. A few weeks ago, my family and I were with with my Italian father-in-law…. my wife is here in the audience to attest …well, we all travelled to London, to give him a treat for his 90th birthday. He’d never been to the UK before, and he was simply shocked to see how incomplete his hotel bathroom was. You don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to appreciate how convenient the bidet is over showering.
Well, this may appear to be a bit rambling so far… but I am trying to cover off all our fine graduands here tonight. It’s not easy, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Seriously, what I really want to focus on, in the few minutes that I have, is the question of choice. Life is as much about choices, as anything. Some personal, some public. It’s our lot…we can’t escape having to make choices. In a real sense, it distinguishes us as humans. We choose to do this, that or the other. One might say chance plays a role, but that’s not really up to us. Often the art is in making the right choice when the chance presents itself.
In 1951, my father, as a young engineer had the opportunity to come to either Australia or Argentina. At the time, my mother advised him that Australia would be a better choice. Italy had just come out of a military regime, and it wasn’t such a good idea to go into another. And so they chose to come here. That was a great chance and a good choice. It was also a fortuitous time, as Australia was embarking on its biggest ever resource infrastructure program, and my father, and the company he was about to establish, rode that pioneering wave.
I was born lucky. I’ve been blessed with building a career around that successful family business. I graduated as an Architect, and then came to UTS to do a postgraduate in Urban Estate Management. Now, after 30 years in business, together with my brother, I look after the family investments, as well as my own private ones. But it was in the course of doing large infrastructure projects with government, that I started to get interested in how public choices are made. And how the political machinery worked. I was regularly approached by political parties to donate to their election campaigns. And that got me thinking: Why support one party, and not the other? And I often saw how good projects became sidelined because of political expediency. For example, a new road project wouldn’t proceed in a particular location, as it was in an opposition electorate. That wasn’t often, but I thought that should never be part of democratic, public decision-making.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well I don’t know how to tell you anything tonight, or how to even pretend to give advice, without uncovering my own lived experience. And perhaps my experience, and my thinking, might give you some insight. Just perhaps!
When my parents settled down in Australia in the 50’s, Robert Menzies was Prime Minister. He was like a good sofa, not just part of the furniture, he was the furniture: comfortable and reliable: the longest serving Prime Minister ever. Back then, we respected our politicians. Now, it’s completely changed. When Australians are asked today whether ‘People in Government can be trusted’, barely 25% agree. Correct, only a quarter of us trust our politicians. But we’re not alone. In virtually every country, survey after survey, politicians don’t rate much higher than car salesmen. Plumbers are more respected. Doctors and nurses remain the most respected. Even though politicians are hard working and well meaning, we still don’t trust them. Why?
Because, I think, in the past, Politicians were more like Patricians. Today it’s a continuous election contest, a never-ending Punch and Judy show. And people are sick and tired of it. Real Housewives is better viewing.
There is so much media, so many voices, that the power has dispersed, and there is limited space for political elites. And because they’ve lost the capacity to collaborate (if they ever had it) there is just so much more disillusionment around politicians.
So with a few other sick and tired friends, we set up The newDemocracy Foundation. We wanted to see if democracy could be done better, and we really think it can. We think it’s the system, not the politicians, who are generally good people, stuck in a fight club.
I wouldn’t have gotten that interested in politics if it weren’t for my career in public infrastructure, and the support of the big family business. So how do we think the system can be fixed?
Democracy, when it was originally conceived, never had elections. Yes that’s right, elections are a recent device. The genius of democracy was that it encouraged social cohesion. And Elections do the opposite: they divide and conquer. I know this sounds like blasphemy. Every book on democracy has as its first chapter: ‘Free and Fair Elections.’
The Council of Athens was randomly selected, like a jury, from the citizens at large, rich and poor. We use it everyday in our criminal courts, over matters of life and death. Many European city states, during the Renaissance, used it to determine their governing class. But for a peculiar set of circumstances - mostly to do concentrating power – it fell out of favour. But there is a growing sense that the time is ripe again for citizen juries.
The Irish used it in 2012 for their Constitutional Convention, where most of the delegates were randomly recruited. That Convention was the one that agreed to proceed on their marriage equality referendum. And in South Australia last year 350 citizens deliberated on, and determined not to proceed with an international high level nuclear waste facility.
I won’t labour on…for now. I just want to say that there are proposals in several countries to trial a third house - a Citizens’ Senate - like paid national service.
So that’s my career.
I thought some insights might come out for you.
I’m hoping one of you clinical psychologists can counsel me after this.
As well as the comms graduates.
I’m sure this speech could do with some serious editing, if not a total re-write. My wife would probably agree.
What can I say by way of conclusion. Each of you will have your own trajectory, your own passions. I hope that you all prosper and find fulfillment.
We are a lucky, lucky country…
…and before planet earth dissolves into malodorous gases again - taking Australia with it...
...before we drown in plastic, and Reality TV...
...before we get dispirited by bad design and fashion...
We have choices to make.
Thank you Chancellor.