26 October, 2014, Northcote High School, Melbourne, Australia
In keeping with the spirit of reconciliation, I’d acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we gather today, the Wurrundjeri people, and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. I recognize that this has always been a place of teaching, learning and celebrating rites of passage.
I’d also like to thank Kate Morris for inviting me to give the valedictory speech tonight. It’s a great honour and a great pleasure to have the chance to join you all in this special milestone event.
I reckon I’m well placed in several respects to stand behind the microphone.
For one, I was myself a Year 12 students once, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I well remember my own Graduation Night in this very room. I thought it was boring and unnecessary and bloated to bursting by long-winded speeches delivered by pompous, self-satisfied adults giving well-meaning advice that I was sure we’d all forgot by the time we spilled out onto Swanston Street and tried to find an underage drink.
I’m also the parent of two kids at Northcote High, one who will be doing his Year 12 next year. So I have some idea of the anxieties and pressures that beset today’s high school students, particularly at the pointy end of your secondary education. I know from the inside what those uncertainties and misgivings about the next step look like.
And, because I work at a university, I’m actually on the front line of what does happen next in that great leap forward. Not all of you will go on to a tertiary education, but most of you will experience not only the sense of elation in finally achieving some hard-won freedom and autonomy but also the disappointment and frustration of life’s inevitable crash landings. I watch those first year students wave and flail around and bob up and down in the heaving tide of new experiences and expectations, but I’ve yet to see one drown.
So now that I’ve convinced you that I’m the right woman for the job tonight, or perhaps that I’m one of those smug windbags I abhorred when I was 17, let me begin. I want to tell you a bit about me, a bit about you, and a bit about the country we live in.
First to me: my favourite topic. I did my Year 12, or HSC as it was known then, at MacRobertson Girls High School in 1986. (The Maths Methods students have just figured out I’m 45.) I got straight A’s for my final exams, with a perfect 100% in English. It was the last perfect thing I ever did, though it would take me until I was about 40 to realize that perfection wasn’t the goal. I took a Gap Year, worked and lived in Canada, travelled in Europe on the money I made waitressing in Toronto. I lied on my job application. Told the restaurant manager I was 18 and knew how to make a good coffee. (I was from Melbourne wasn’t I?) I snogged boys and ate a lot of junk food. From those experiences I learnt that it’s hard to make a good coffee, that it’s much easier to get boys to kiss you than to take you seriously, and that eating fast food was about as satisfying as being a fast girl.
I came back to Australia and started an Arts/Law Degree at Melbourne Uni. I did Law because that’s what you were expected to do if you got straight A’s in your Year 12 exams. I spent a lot of the first semester of Uni crying. I felt homesick in my own home and I hated Law. (Well, I actually loved the intellectual rigour of Law as a discipline, but I could see that Law as a profession was going to right for me.)
But in the midst of that confusing, lonely year, I was very lucky. I fell in love twice. I fell in love with the boy who is now my husband and the father of my three children. We’ve been together for 26 years, enjoying a relationship of true companionship, respect, conversation and humour. I also fell in love with History, the Uni subject I most adored, despite the fact that I had no idea what I could possible do with it. And I was fortunate for another reason: when I told my parents I wanted to drop Law and just study History, they told me to do whatever made me happy. They told me to do what I must do, and do it well. (I later discovered that’s a line out of a Bob Dylan song, but it was well chosen for the occasion.)
And so, that is what I have done. I did an Honours degree in History, a Masters degree in History, a PhD and postdoctoral research in history. I’ve published two history books and made two history documentaries for tv. I’ve won awards and received numerous grants and scholarships. But I also need you to know that my path to professional success and personal fulfillment hasn’t been all straight and narrow. I’ve suffered periods of depression and anxiety, moments of profound despair, and run myself ragged in the attempt to be 100% in control and on top of my game. I learnt the hard way that it’s ok to fail every once and a while.
I tell you all this because I’m sick to death of watching successful women either undermine their own achievements or blame themselves for every blemish.
Girls, be proud of your accomplishments, don’t apologise for your strengths and talents, don’t be afraid to take up too much space, don’t be silent about your dreams and your grievances. There is enough in our public culture to demean and trivialize you, and enough in even our own homes to threaten and belittle you, that you do not need to contribute to your own denigration. And boys, trust the women around you. They will be your friends, your workmates, your bosses, your lovers and your staunchest allies. Give them credit where credit is due, and give yourself some credit too: credit for having the courage to swim against the tide of prejudice and discrimination that can so easily carry us away.
Since the death of Gough Whitlam earlier this week, there has been a lot of reflection about the legacy of this larger-than-life former Prime Minister. Whitlam came to power at a time in Australia’s history when there was a great wave of restless energy and ambition, largely on the part of young people, to change the world that they had no choice but to live in. The era was not unlike the gold rush period that my latest book is about: a youthful population who were angry about the fact that they had no right to participate in the institutions or systems of making the very laws that governed them. Later, once men had secured democratic voting entitlements, women also began to fight for their rights to be heard, to be recognized, to be treated as full and equal citizens. And in the 1960s white men and women came together to support indigenous Australians to also be included in the democratic process. At this same time, young men were being sent off to fight a war that most Australians didn’t support – imagine that: instead of leaving school and going to uni or learning a trade or starting your own business, you are being shipped off to Vietnam whether you like it or not — and non-European people could still be excluded from entering the country under the legal framework of the White Australia Policy. Successive conservative governments had turned a blind eye to the changes in the Australian population and the global movement towards social justice.
And then along came Gough – with the election campaign slogan IT’S TIME. Time for a better, stronger, fairer Australia. Time to use power to make a difference. You will have heard a lot this week about his reforms: indigenous land rights, single mother’s pensions, free tertiary education. But I want to read you some lines from one of my favourite of Whitlam’s speeches. He said these words in Ballarat on 3 December 1973, while unveiling a newly restored Eureka Flag.
He said: “the kind of nationalism that every country needs … is a benign and constructive nationalism [that] has to do with self-confidence, with maturity, with originality, with independence of mind. If Australia is to remain in the forefront of nations … if it is determined to be a true source of power and ideas in the world, a generous and tolerant nation respected for its generosity and tolerance, then I believe that something like ‘the new nationalism’ must play a part in our government and in the lives of us all”.
With his deeds in the parliament, and his carefully chosen words at moments like these, Whitlam created a vision of the sort of country Australia could be. He wanted this country to be the BEST country it could be. He didn’t try to instill fear and anxiety among the Australian people. He didn’t say that it was okay to be a bigot or a racist or a homophobe or a sexist pig because what harm was there in a little fun right? He didn’t try to set neighbor against neighbor; community against community, in the hope that a scared and vulnerable population would cling to the familiar terrain of what they already knew of the world and its ways. “Better the devil you know”, goes the saying (or the Kylie Minogue song if you’d prefer), but that is such a monumentally unadventurous and conformist position from which to face life that no self-respecting teenager could ever agree. “Workers of the world: you’ve got nothing to lose but your chains” is the aphorism I prefer. If you don’t try to change the world, who will?
So what does all this have to do with you. Gough Whitlam was the Prime Minister in 1972, long before you were born. Ancient history. And I’m certainly not trying to turn you all into Marxists.
But listen closely to Whitlam’s language: self-confidence, maturity, originality, independence of mind, generosity, tolerance. These were all values and attributes that Whitlam wanted for Australia. And as you make this tentative but inevitable leap from high school to the world of work and higher education, they are exactly the skills and outcomes I wish for each and every one of you.
Some, but not all, of you will be high flyers. Few of you, I sincerely trust, will be low hanging fruit. You have been given far too good an education to resort to that. Most of you will live quietly productive lives, making objects, making homes, making children, making money, making grand designs. I hope more of you are producers than consumers. You will be happier, believe me. But all of you will have to make choices about what sort of person you want to be and what sort of a country you want to live in.
And here I have only one piece of advice: do what you must do, and do it well.
Be ambitious, be creative, take risks with your ideas, your philosophies, your opinions. Make mistakes, learn from them, reach out when you are flailing and throw others a line when you can see that they are not waving but drowning too.
In other words, be your best self. It’s all — and everything — you can be.