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Faculty of Computing, Health and Science and Faculty of Education and Arts - Occasional speaker

Sunday, 6 September 2009, 1.00pm

Senator Chris Back


On behalf of the Faculty and staff and your families and friends, can I add my congratulations to you on this most important graduation day.  For some of you it cannot have come quickly enough and for others, if you are like me, you probably wondered if it would ever come at all!

You are graduating in an era of incredible excitement and opportunity, not only in Western Australia but Australia generally and the region. And of course I urge you as graduates to play your part in plotting the future of our state, our country and our region.

It is absolutely critical that you grasp your opportunity with both hands so that you can say at the end of your career that you have made a useful contribution to the wellbeing of our communities.

I say this in relation to economic development but also in cultural terms. To those of you who are not Western Australians, who will be returning to your homes, don’t ever forget where your qualification was earned and please become ambassadors for Australia when you return to your home countries. It is important to us in the context of the region that you will call on us as the source of your university education so that you can build on those links and take advantage of these networks to advance the interests of your home environments into the future.

In 1980 when I was on the Faculty of the University of California, I attended a graduation ceremony to support our veterinary students and the occasional lecturer on that occasion said if the graduates continued working throughout their lives to normal retirement age, they could expect to have seven complete changes to their career. I ask you to reflect on that comment as you also may find yourselves in that same position over time.

This has been my experience and it was about this time last year that my wife Linda woke to the fact that I had just concluded my seventh career change by moving into an executive role in the oil and gas industry. Fearful of the fact that I might retire and want to follow her up and down the supermarket aisles and not only push the trolley but challenge her on what we were buying this week, she said to me

“Why don’t you go into Parliament, dear?”

And that’s why I’m here today!

I do say to you that when you have made a mark in your professional life, some of you may consider a career in our state or federal parliament -  but please wait until you feel you have had a range of experiences and feel you have something to contribute.

Coming into the Parliament with a range of experience at this stage of my life I feel I can make contribution as a member of several committees of the Senate in which I had the privilege of being a member. One issue we are examining is the matter of tertiary student youth allowance and having been an academic in a Western Australian university, I believe I have an understanding of the issues confronting students and their families.

The second issue is associated with the conditions for the education of international students in Australia. Having worked in India, Asia and the Middle East for the last few years I know something of the culture of those countries. The third issue relates to Australia’s states and the commonwealth approach to bushfire management. As the Pro-Chancellor noted, I was CEO of the WA Bushfires Board in the mid 1990’s and, as a result, can make a contribution in the unfolding story following the Victorian bushfires in February this year.

The fourth relates tragically to the whole issue of exotic diseases and the need for a “One health” approach to disease control. Only this week we lost the second veterinarian in one year from a devastating viral disease called Hendra and so again I feel somewhat encouraged that I can make a contribution in our approach to control these diseases.

If you need a role model in directing your future then you need look no further than the person after whom your university is named. To those of you who have not read the story of Edith Cowan, I urge you to do so. She was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament here in W. A. She was certainly a person who would have been scornful of the concept of a glass ceiling confronting women and in every field in which she participated, she excelled. King Edward Hospital for Women owes its existence to her persistence and influence. She was a champion of the needs of children at a time when little regard was paid to their wellbeing.

The second example I give you, again, is within your own University. It was a privilege recently to attend the Joondalup campus and visit the School of Nursing where we were able to observe the simulated learning program. The session commenced with the students practicing emergency nursing procedures on mannequins in a life-like scenario. We were then introduced to a scene in an examination room with the nursing sister, a highly irrational irate patient, there with his glamorous girlfriend simulating a hospital emergency admission following a road accident trauma case.

We were astounded at the quality of this education experience. We were impressed that the students could get this sort of experiential learning in such a format. The people involved were professional actors and on further enquiry we learnt that ECU is now conducting a formal certificate in health simulation, so successful has this been as a learning mode for undergraduate students and for professional development of nurse practitioners in WA. This is undoubtedly world’s best practice.

The challenge and encouragement I give to you as graduates is to use the experience that you gain at this university together with your life experience and your professional qualifications to enrich the next generation of students as you have enjoyed in the example I have presented.

Pro-Chancellor, I am conscious of you being an accountant and I am a simple veterinarian so I have to choose my next words very carefully. They relate to financial well-being for graduates.

  There are only two principles to consider: The first relates to income and expenditure and the second is assets and liabilities.

It is patently obvious, although we all seem to forget it that the aim should be to maximise income and minimise expenditure over time. All being well, there will be a surplus. I make this point both in terms of human capital and monetary value that you will not be wealthy either financially or in human terms if all you achieve is a surplus.

There is a more important element and that is the concept of assets and liabilities. An asset is something that adds to net wealth while a liability is something that decreases wealth over time. It is important that, over time, you get that balance right and you invest more in assets than liabilities if you want to achieve financial and professional security during and at the end of your working life.

I make the point that all the goodwill in the world doesn’t always work out the way you want. By way of illustration I have to relate a story that occurred before Christmas last year at the GPO in Perth. There was a young fellow working in the mail exchange who came upon a letter rejected from the automated sorting system. The letter was simply addressed to “God” with no further detail. He turned it over and on the reverse side was the name Beryl whose surname and address cannot be revealed for confidentiality reasons.

Realising that the letter would be destroyed due to lack of postal information, he opened the letter and read the contents; her story was tragic. It turned out that Beryl was an 87-year-old pensioner who had no family. She wrote to God in desperation because she had no one else to turn to. All she had left in the world was $100 in a purse which had been stolen. It was coming up to Christmas and was her turn to put on Christmas lunch for her friend which she couldn’t now do and she had nothing until the next pension day in early January.

The young fellow was deeply affected by this story and, in typical Australian fashion, he had a whip around amongst everybody else in the postal room and they came up with $96. The postal delivery boy was dispatched to deliver the envelope to Beryl’s letterbox.

As you can imagine, they were all joyous over the Christmas period was a great sense of bon homme  as they all related the story at Christmas tables around Perth describing what they’d done and how pleased they were. They were all keen to return to work after Christmas with a sense of anticipation and sure enough on the third of January here was another envelope addressed to God in the same scratchy handwriting from Beryl.

They all gathered round and opened the envelope to hear what Beryl had written. She wrote:

“Thank you God. You were the last person I could turn and of course the money came through as I requested. We have a wonderful Christmas; my friend and I shared small gifts and I now have sufficient money to last me through to pension day.” But she went on to say that “unfortunately there was only $96 in the envelope. I suspect it was those thieving devils from the post office who stole the other $4!”

I conclude if I may with a summary of a 70-year research project, recently been released by Harvard University USA, which had its origins in 1938 and concluded in 2008. The objective of the study of 268 Harvard undergraduate students was to identify what sort of professional and social characteristics or criteria might predict excellence in management and leadership for careers in retail and the military.   Professor George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, conducted the study for the last 40 of its 70 years. After the initial study was finished Vallaint decided to continue the study to the end of the participant’s lives.

He was asked to summarise the most significant outcomes of this lifelong study of 268 Harvard graduates and the answer was simply this:

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationship with other people. Happiness equals love. Full Stop.”

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity in Broome to participate in an indigenous economic forum during which we had the opportunity to examine the programs that were being run in the Kimberley by indigenous people. These included bush tucker horticulture including harvesting bush plums and tomatoes and other activities including bushfire burning with the objective of reducing carbon through early season fuel reduction burning.

At the end of the two days we came together to work out the way ahead. There was a wonderful indigenous lady who got up to speak at the end of the workshop and I leave you with her words as I can say them no more eloquently for graduates on an occasion such as this.

She said this:

“Find out who you are;

Work out where you belong;

Know your responsibilities and face up to them.”

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