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Remarks by Mr Peter Varghese AO, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on being conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Queensland

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Speaker: Mr Peter Varghese, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Peter Varghese

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate, members of staff, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to thank the University of Queensland for the honour it has extended to me this morning.

I am humbled by it. Not just because this is my alma mater but because this university is such a large part of my family's Australian story.

My father taught here. Six of my siblings are UQ graduates. I courted my wife on this campus and she remains for me the most influential alumnus of this institution. Our only child began his engineering studies here and completed them at the Australian National University showing that at least one member of the family can rise above parochialism. And already six of the next generation of the Varghese clan have graduated from the University of Queensland with many more likely to come.

This roll call speaks to the connecting thread which education has played in our family history: not just as a harbinger of upward mobility but more importantly the power of education to mould our world view; to rearrange and update our mental furniture. Education at its best helps us find our better angels. That is, unless you prefer Teddy Roosevelt's more utilitarian view which was that "a man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad".

It was education which took my parents from rural villages in India to university, propelled them to make careers as teachers in Kenya and finally brought our family to Australia where my parents saw greener opportunities for the education and careers of their nine children. And if our genes lay some claim to the argumentative Indian, the combination of genes and a UQ education, often made our dinner conversation an endless seminar.

Now I know that graduation speeches are meant to inspire the graduands. But perhaps the more accurate purpose was best captured by the Irish wag who observed that graduation speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party but nobody expects you to say very much.

It is the conceit of every generation that they live in an age like no other with challenges like none which have gone before.

And for your generation there is much truth to such a claim. You live in an age where technology is transforming not just workplaces but life styles. You are better educated, better fed, more healthy and more worldly than any generation which preceeded you.

But yours is also a generation which has to live with unprecedented paradoxes. You have to grapple with self confidence and anxiety. Technology brings you together but the larger environment is one where the ties of community are fraying. Information is so much more accessible but you are also more alone in having to put it all together and make sense of it.

And in making sense of it all, you will face the additional challenge of living in an era where the rest of the world will intrude more into your peripheral vision than ever before.

This is the challenge about which I wish to speak today. How do you prepare yourself to live in a world where technology, globalisation and travel connects us but where our primary frames of reference are still anchored in the local and the familiar. How do you embrace the world while holding on to your core values? How do you navigate national identity in a nation and a world where pluralism reigns supreme?

When I was at university one of the books which most influenced my thinking was Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. The power of this book was not just what it had to say about the moral bankruptcy of totalitarian systems. That is after all hardly a difficult case to make.

Popper's larger appeal was the way in which he challenged us to see the virtue of pluralism but not to conflate pluralism with the absence of conviction. It is a message which applies just as powerfully today as when he penned his treatise in 1945.

Successful open societies know one big thing: that the cause of freedom lies not with a nanny state that thinks it knows what is best for you; not with a charismatic leader who thinks he embodies the spirit of the nation; not with the peddlers of manifest destiny or sweeping theories of history. No, the cause of freedom is best advanced when we nurture an environment where ideas can flourish; where contending philosophies have to make their case in the marketplace of ideas and where those who govern are held accountable to the governed.

These are truths which are never more relevant than today. Some will argue that as true they may be they are largely the lived experience of western democracies and as such hold little meaning for those outside that cultural and historical tradition.

For Australians, it is important that we understand what is at stake here. How much of our core values – the values which define who we are and what we hold dear – are to be considered universal and therefore applicable to all? And how easy will we find it as a community to forge consensus on this question.

Posed as a practical question, this is relatively new territory for Australians. It has been easy for us to assert our core values as universal values because from the time of European settlement, Australia has been closely aligned, culturally and intellectually, with the dominant global powers: first the British empire and then the United States. We were part of the system which wrote the rules; which authored the international conventions on human rights and which gave universal reach to our founding principles.

We must also recognise that the values of liberal democracy evolved gradually in the west. The journey from the divine right of kings through to one person one vote was long and difficult. For most of human history the values which we today think of as self evident truths – the rule of law, the accountability of the government to the people, freedom of speech and assembly and a free media – were anything but universal.

Yet it seems to me quite unsatisfactory to consign our most cherished ideals to the prosaic logic of time and place. Yes, we are all products of our history. But does that mean that our history is incapable of producing a universal truth?

I think you only have to look at the history of liberal democracy to find the answer. When India in 1947 – overwhelmingly illiterate and caste bound – chose liberal democracy surely it was making a statement about universal values and universal rights? And since then we have seen across Asia, Africa and Latin America so many countries embrace not just the trappings but also the philosophy underpinning democracy. More and more the argument that democracy is a western construct is seen for what it is: an excuse to continue a system unwilling to succumb to the consent of the governed.

I raise these issues because as someone who has toiled in the field of diplomacy and international relations for over three decades I believe that the best way to engage the world is with a clear sense of who we are and what we believe in. This applies as much to our domestic policies as it does to our foreign policy.

The point here is not to think we can force our values on others – that way lies disaster – but to hold true to the values that define us. And never to forget that foreign policy is not just about our hard interests. It is also about our values and the principles which we want to see embedded in the international system.

We need a clear compass because we are living through a transformative phase in international relations. Power is shifting from west to east. Population has been returned as a key variable of economic weight. Economic interdependence sits side by side with deeply rooted strategic rivalries.

These are large challenges for your generation and they will not be resolved slowly or easily. But Australians should also understand that this is a time of great opportunity for our country if we get the policy settings and the mindset right.

We live close to a region which is fast becoming the centre of gravity of global economic weight: Asian economies, as they grow, will have a voracious appetite for food and energy. And Asian communities, as they urbanise, will become huge markets for services. Their demand and Australia's capacity to supply will be in neat symmetry.

But if this engagement is to succeed, it must be more than transactional. It must be anchored in an Australia which is outward looking, which understands the diversity of its region, which is comfortable in the company of other cultures and which instinctively accepts that an Australia open to people and ideas is a richer and immensely more secure community.

I look back at my university days as a privileged opportunity to think and reflect and to make a substantial down payment towards the intellectual capital which has shaped my career. I was lucky to have some inspiring teachers – none of whom I am pleased to say met W H Auden's withering description of a university professor as someone "who talks in someone else's sleep".

So to today's graduands I say: you are the beneficiaries of a sound education from a great institution. You will give best effect to what you have learnt if you carry for the rest of your lives the tools which have always pushed out the boundaries of knowledge: a curious mind, a questioning spirit, a healthy scepticism of pretension and – above all – a fidelity to the responsibilities of an engaged citizen ready to promote and defend the values of an open society.

Last Updated: 19 July 2013
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