A Transformational Life - Griffith University Graduation Address

31 July 2015

What an auspicious day to gather on ancient Jagara land, and to pay our respects to their elders and traditions and those of the adjoining language groups.

This is my third Griffith graduation ceremony.  I remember the first, in the early 1990s, so vividly; that’s when my mum earned a mid-career nursing degree.  And so I know the pride your loved ones feel for you all today.

The second, in the late-90s, l won’t forget either – the day I graduated from the Government school, like some of you here.  And so I know something of your own quiet satisfaction – and perhaps your impatience to get to the pub!

This third occasion is a little different; my first time up the front.  And I must say, in a much fancier hat.

For this opportunity to talk with you, I wanted to thank and acknowledge: your terrific new Chancellor, Henry Smerdon; all the members of the official party; Larissa Meale – and Larissa, what a wonderful speech; families and friends; and most of all – those of you who graduate today.

I can’t guess exactly what’s in all your heads today, but I can tell you what was in mine on my first day at Griffith two decades ago.  A bit embarrassingly for a seventeen year-old, I already knew I wanted to represent my community in the federal parliament.  I kept it to myself, because I wasn’t sure I could make it happen. 

Little by little, because of this university, my studies, my professors, my mates, an achievable path started to clear in my mind.  And even if it took quite a few more years for me to achieve my dream, I look back and feel I left this place certain I could, and would, get there.

Some of you know what I mean.  Because you graduate today with something more than a piece of paper – as important as that is.  More than a qualification or even a vocation – though both of those are crucial as well. 

You graduate with a psychological advantage.  With confidence.  The confidence that comes from finishing something difficult.  Something that took you years - three or four or even more.  And for those of you from tough backgrounds, who started life speaking a different language, or came from outer suburbs like mine, or were first in family, or faced particular obstacles of any kind – yours is a special kind of confidence borne of struggle.

I come from Logan City – born and bred.  I represent Logan City, and your Logan campus.  I know something about the barriers people face.  And the confidence that flows from obstacles overcome.  The confidence you get, and I got, from a degree from an inclusive, forward-looking university like ours.

Now, of course, your real challenge is applying that inner confidence and knowledge so hard-won in this place.  That’s your call of course, and having studied and worked so hard your first focus will probably be on getting a job, a pay cheque and repairing the bank account.  All good.

But a degree from a place like this also carries responsibilities beyond the personal.  Whatever you studied, you’ve got the tools to participate in the national conversation as much as to earn a living.  And that’s what I want to give you a few thoughts on.

You see, you graduate at a time when the national mood is dominated by a sense of pessimism and powerlessness.  A time when we are told that technology will destroy our labour markets; That ageing will slow our economy; That we can’t compete in Asia while remaining a country where work pays well.  A common theme: that we are powerless and without choices.

Graduates, we need you to resist and repel that powerlessness which characterises our political and economic commentary.  We need you to understand the megatrends shaping our society – not in order to surrender to them – but in order to bend them in a way that benefits more of our people.

Some of you here would have been taught by the great Pat Weller.  Me too.  He taught us about James McGregor Burns – the guy who drew a distinction between two kinds of leadership: transformational and transactional.

As a serving politician, I think about that distinction pretty often.  That tension between making change and making deals.  And I struggle with it too. Don’t always succeed.  No politician ever does if they’re honest about it.

But I see my job today to invite you into that struggle – the struggle to live a transformational life not a transactional one.  A life of pushing and changing and stretching the boundaries you inherit.

And before this gets too abstract, let me ask you specifically: what can you do to help ensure that all workers – including those who have never dreamt of sitting at a Griffith graduation – will have secure jobs in workplaces dominated by technological change?  How can you shape that world of work, and help choose which path we take, and how many of our fellow citizens take it with us?

Don’t underestimate the power and influence you leave here with.  Not just the computing power in your pocket to tee up a lift home or arrange a date at incredibly short notice – but the conscious power in your imagination to change the nation for the common good.

As Griffith graduates I know you take this seriously.  And that you won’t waste the opportunities before you.  Thank you.  Congratulations.  Enjoy today.  And give me a call if ever I can help.