Address by Nicholas Whitlam on the award of the degree Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa by the University of Western Sydney on 12 April 2016. 


Eighty years ago George Bernard Shaw, the British intellectual who never went to university, famously rejected the offer of an honorary doctorate.  He wrote back to the equally famous university: "I cannot pretend that it would be fair for me to accept...when every reference of mine to our educational system, especially to the influence of universities on it, is fiercely hostile."

Well, for my part, I was more than happy to accept the offer from this fine institution, and I thank the Trustees of Western Sydney University for it!

And Shaw was wrong, at least with respect to Australia: the influence of universities in Australia has almost always been for the common good and the betterment of our society.  At its heart is the teaching of reason.  People who have had the privilege of a university education learn reason.  (Of course you don't have to go to university to be able to reason; but you'll find it difficult to get through university without it.)  Our decisions are reasoned: logical analysis, data and experience lead us to reasoned conclusions.  Reason teaches you that global warming is about as debatable as smoking being bad for your health.

In Australia now, more likely than not, and largely because of economic imperatives, universities prepare students for a vocation - like the law or business.  The system I enjoyed, of a liberal arts first degree and a second degree with a vocational bent, is largely gone.  In many ways this is regrettable.   Yet, to face the practicalities of today, you have the opportunity of reversing the order.

In another place, when undergraduates are granted their first degree, they are famously admitted to "the fellowship of educated men and women."  Well, you too are now part of that fellowship.  You'll get a job and now, with the security of your vocation, you'll be able to find time to read, watch, hear and listen to the literature and culture that you may have foregone - a privilege previous generations had often absorbed before they acquired a vocation.

I know it costs plenty to gain a university education these days, and for many of you paying off your HECS will be a big issue.  Just owing that money means that you cannot help seeing your degree as an investment.  It is that.  And every study shows that, as a result of your degree, you will earn more than would otherwise have been the case.  You will make a contribution to our GDP.  But as Bobby Kennedy said:  "[GDP] measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.  It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Material success is important.  Most of us want to own a house and a car and more.  We are entitled to enjoy loving relationships, we hope for good health - and most of us want to be a good person, whatever that means.


I urge you to be yourself.  Be authentic.  Care for others, of course, but be yourself.  Your parents and pees have expectations of you, whatever those expectations may be, but they also want you to be happy.  You may be surprised where your degree will take you.  These days, in America, most people with a law degree do not practise law.  The best investment banker I ever came across was trained as an athropologist.  Waleed Aly graduated in engineering, then law - and look where that got him.

Western Sydney University is a young institution and a fine one.  I understand that many of you who are graduating today and many other graduates from the University are the first in your family to have attained a degree.  Cherish it!  Celebrate the University!

My own association with Western Sydney University has been via the Whitlam Institute.  It houses the Prime Ministerial papers of my father, Gough Whitlam - over there in the splendid Female Orphan School - plus an outstanding permanent exhibition.  And it has busy public policy and public affairs programs which reach out to the wider community.  If you haven't visited the Institute, I commend a visit to you.  There is an Open Day this coming Saturday.

Let me indulge myself with a few concluding remarks.

The University has recently launched itself with a new identity.  New name.  New graphics.  Self-identity is fundamental to how we think and feel about ourselves.

Does it really make any sense to have Australia's head of state resident in a foreign country?  And does it make sense for he or she to be head of state because he or she is the head of state of another country?  Or leading a church to which most of our fellow citizens do not subscribe?  If you started it all anew, and we can, would we have this set-up?  Of course not.

Can you imagine Nike putting Adidas' stripes on its footwear?  Why doesn't Samsung put an apple logo on its phones?  It's unthinkable.  Yet we carry the flag of another country on ours; indeed it dominates our flag.  Flags are meant to distinguish one crowd from another - be they tourists following their leader, hitchhikers who don't want to be mistaken for the other lot, or supporters of a national sporting team.  Our flag is not distinctive.  It is a colonial flag from a past era.  It might as well be the ensign of a yachy club from the Cinque Ports.

Do not get me wrong.  I have great affection for Great Britain, for the British and indeed for the Royal Family.  My wife was English when we married.  She Australian now - and I have always thought of her as a princess.

And finally, on being Australian:

We wouldn't countenance a person proclaiming himself to be the most intelligent, the bravest - think of a superlative - person going around.  So why do we cheer those that trumpet that we are the best - the best place to live in, "the greatest country in the world" and so on.  It's self-indulgent, unnecessary and embarrassing.  Better to aspire to those qualities and let others be the judge.

Enough preaching.  This is a day for celebration.  I congratulate all the graduands on attaining your degrees.  May you grow and prosper.

And to you first-time graduates: Welcome to the fellowship of educated men and women!