Sunday, 15 September 2013
Chancellor Mr Hendy Cowan, Vice-Chancellor Professor Kerry Cox and other distinguished guests too numerous to mention, but perhaps most importantly of all, fellow graduands. Before going any further, I would like to join with the acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the Wadjuk people who form part of the great Nyoongar clan of south-western Australia, and to pay my respects to their Elders past and present. As you might be aware, the land on which we meet is of particular significance to the Wadjuk people, having been reclaimed from the river known to the Wadjuk people as Derbyl Yerrigan, but which we know as the Swan River. That river is home to the Wagyl, a serpentine creature which plays a very important role in the dreamtime mythology of the Wadjuk.
I am greatly honoured by the award of this Honorary degree by this fine University. I am sure that those of you who have graduated today are at least as honoured by the award of your degrees - perhaps more so, because, unlike me, you have had to earn your degrees by undertaking extensive programmes of study and passing exams so as to demonstrate that you are worthy of the accolade which has been conferred upon you this morning. By contrast, all that I have done is to do my best to participate fully in a career which I have really enjoyed.
This marks another important distinction between my fellow graduands and I. You are all about to embark upon your careers, whereas I am approaching my professional use-by date. Armed with the knowledge and skills which you have received during your studies, evidenced by the qualification bestowed upon you this morning, you are about to embark upon the great adventure of life in your chosen profession or calling. That adventure is likely to lead you in unexpected directions, perhaps culminating in a professional destination which today you can barely imagine, much as In ever imagined almost 40 years ago, when I was in your shoes, that I would be standing here today dressed in clothes which are in some respects even more extraordinary than the purple flares and orange ponchos which we wore to university in the early 1970s.
It is difficult to imagine a more propitious time for you to have arrived at this point in your careers. The natural advantages enjoyed by this State, including, but by no means limited to, our natural resources, the industry and innovation of our people, and our geographical location in the fastest developing region of the planet mean that the only limits upon your opportunities are those provided by your imaginations and your courage. At the risk of succumbing to modern enthusiasm for pithy slogans and metaphor, I would like to encourage you to think big, and to be brave, as the world is truly your oyster. Or to use a more contemporary reference "YOLO" (you only live once).
I would like to illustrate this fundamental point by comparing the opportunities which you enjoy, as graduates of this university, in 2013, to the constraints which confronted Ms Edith Haynes in 1904 when, after training as a lawyer, she endeavoured to practise in her chosen profession. Her case has a particular resonance to this morning, because, of course, a number of you are female law graduates, and a particular resonance to this university, because it was, of course, Edith Cowan who ensured the passage of the Women's Legal Status Act in 1923, after becoming the first female member of Parliament in Australia in 1921. She was the great aunt (by marriage) of our Chancellor. The Act which she sponsored removed the legal barriers which previously existed in relation to women joining the professions. But let me return to that other Edith, Edith Haynes.
Edith Haynes was the niece of an eminent lawyer and politician, Richard Septimus Haynes, who was a King's Counsel and a parliamentarian. He was described as a radical thinker for his time, campaigning unsuccessfully against capital punishment, and the abolition of the property franchise for electors, but with greater success in relation to conferring the right to vote upon women. He was no respecter of convention, and freely made his legal services available for those whose causes were thought to be unworthy at the time. They included Reverend Gribble, who boldly drew attention to the atrocities that were committed against the Aboriginal inhabitants of this State during the 19th century which resulted in his vilification by the media of the day, and the revocation of his licence to preach by the church. Haynes acted for Gribble in his unsuccessful attempt too obtain vindication through defamation proceedings. It is perhaps not surprising then that Haynes encouraged his niece, Edith, to commence her studies as a lawyer by undertaking her articles in conjunction with him in 1900 at the age of 26. She was the first woman to undertake legal articles in Western Australia. At that time, this was the only way of obtaining the right to practise law in this State, as the first law faculty in Western Australia did not open until 1928.
At about the same time, in his role as a member of the Legislative Council, Haynes sponsored a bill to amend the relevant legislation to make it clear that any person of the female sex could be admitted as a lawyer. Although the bill was passed by the Legislative Council, it was withdrawn shortly after Edith's articles were registered by the Barristers' Board. It seems a fair inference that the bill was withdrawn by Richard because of his apprehension that it would fail to pass the Legislative Assembly, and thereby make Edith's position even worse.
Four years later, approaching the completion of her articles, Edith endeavoured to arrange to take her exams. The Barristers' Board refused to permit her to take those exams. Imagine if you graduates, having completed almost all of your courses were told that you were not allowed to sit your final exam, simply because you are a woman, or even because you are a man! But that is what happened to poor Edith Haynes, only a little over a hundred years ago. She took proceedings in the Supreme Court. As the Chief Justice of that Court, I regret to advise that the outcome of those proceedings must feature in the chapter of the history of our Court entitled "Shame".
The Legal Practitioners Act at the time provided that "no person" was to be admitted unless "he" complied with certain conditions. However, The Interpretation Act 1898 provided that "unless the contrary intention appear … words importing the masculine gender shall include females". Nevertheless, the Barristers' Board contended that there were "disabilities" which the court could recognise as precluding a person from admission even if they were not mentioned in the Act, citing the example of an infant seeking admission. To its shame, the Court upheld that contention, implicitly affirming the proposition that being a woman was a disability, on the basis that it would be wrong to depart from what had always been the established practice both in England and in all the colonies and in the United States, and that the change could only be made by the legislature.
Unfortunately, that was the end of Edith's promising legal career. What became of her immediately after that decision is not known, although there is a record of her commencing work with a bank 12 years later, in 1916. We also know that when the law was changed in 1923, as a result of the efforts of Edith Cowan, and women were entitled to enter the legal profession, Edith Haynes did not take up that opportunity.
Happily, the world has changed a lot since Edith Haynes met that insuperable obstacle a little over a century ago. Discrimination on the ground of gender, race, ethnicity or religion is unlawful. Since about 1980, more than half of the graduates from Western Australia's law schools are women, and at the ceremonies for admission to legal practice over which I preside, usually about 60 per cent of new entrants to the legal profession are women. We have made some progress in increasing the representation of women at the senior levels of the profession, although there is still much that can be achieved in that area. You do not face the structural barriers faced by Edith and others like her. Your opportunities are unlimited, irrespective of your gender, race or background. Some of you may have overcome disadvantage to achieve the degree you have been awarded this morning. Edith Cowan herself provides an example of the ways in which people can rise above childhood disadvantage. The mother of Australia's first female parliamentarian died in child birth when Edith was only seven, and when she was 15, her father was tried and hanged for the murder of his second wife. I sincerely hope none of you have had that traumatic experience. Before I conclude, might I again express my appreciation to all involved in the university for the honour which has been bestowed upon me this morning. I have greatly enjoyed my association with the university, particularly through my continuing association with the Law School, and acknowledge the enormous contribution which the university is making to education and research in the fields of law and justice generally. I am confident that contribution will continue to grow in dimension and importance. Despite the kind words spoken earlier, it is true that all I have done is apply myself to the best of my ability to a career which has given me enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I sincerely hope that all of you get the same opportunity, and cannot see any reason why you won't.
Today is the culmination of many years of your hard work and effort, which has been recognised by the award of your degree. This is an achievement in which you are entitled to take great pride. No doubt it also reflects the support and encouragement which you have received from family and loved ones, and I trust you will give due recognition to that support and encouragement in the celebrations which I hope will follow this morning's ceremony.
I am sure you do not need me to tell you about the competitive world which you are entering, or may already have entered - a world in which geographical boundaries have become increasingly irrelevant as we move towards a truly global economy. You will enter that competition with the enormous advantage of a degree from a world class university.
How you use that advantage is, of course, entirely a matter for you, but in my experience the greatest sense of fulfilment you will ever achieve is through using your gifts, your talents and skills to serve and assist others, who may not have your advantages. You have probably heard the saying that much is expected from those to whom much has been given. You have the great advantage of a good education, which you can use not only to advance yourself in life, but also to assist others.
It only remains for me to thank you for your attention, and to return to my slogan - think big and to be brave, because the world truly is your oyster. YOLO.
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