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2008 graduation ceremony address – David Black

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Many years ago when I was working at the Education Department the Minister for Education was asked to speak at the annual Christmas Party for the department”s head office staff. On that occasion his memorable words were simply ‘I don”t want to spoil a good occasion by talking’. These are words which I should always bear in mind but I hope I am not overstaying my welcome if I end this talk by reflecting for a few moments on a matter dear to my heart which is the concept of leadership. These days I spend most of my time working at Parliament on the history of our Parliament and its electoral system but I also spend time with the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, the first such prime ministerial library in Australia. Our university (your University and mine) is named after a great Australian and I have spent many hours reading and writing about John Curtin and I can think of no better model to illustrate what are the essential qualities of leadership. In your future life you may be a leader one day, whether it be a team leader, the head of a government department, the head of a business enterprise or part thereof or it may simply be that you are working for a leader (and in that capacity the best advice I have even been given is that ‘you should not go a leader with a problem but with a solution’). But what are the capacities which define the good if not great leader whether it be in politics, business, government employment, sport or what have you.

During the four years I spent as a leader in Curtin University my first rule for myself was always ‘never ask of others that which you would not do yourself’. As a music lover I always enjoyed the songs written by Gilbert and Sullivan in their musical “The Gondoliers” about the Duke of Plaza Toro, of whom it was said that sometimes he led his men into battle but he always led them out of it. Unlike the Duke of Plaza Toro as a leader I believe that you should lead from in front which means that you should be working every bit as hard as those you are leading and that you should never ask of them that which you would not do yourself. Curtin as a wartime leader worked day and night, and when on occasions he had to ask his men to run risks he could not share (something which invariably happens in war) it caused him great stress because that was not his way of doing things.

Secondly, you must believe in the cause or enterprise you are undertaking whether it be to make your cricket team a better team or make your department or business work more efficiently. John Curtin’s cause was summed up in the epitaph on his gravestone as “his nation and his fellow man” and it was his joint commitment to the preservation of Australian society during the war but also to making possible a better life for all in the postwar world which governed his leadership during the war.

Thirdly, and perhaps above all, the leader must inspire trust. In 1940 John Curtin almost lost his own parliamentary seat in Fremantle to a candidate from the United Australia Party-Curtin was trailing in the early count but when the votes cast by soldiers at the front were counted and the preferences distributed he won narrowly. During the 1960s I had the opportunity to interview the man who was secretary of the United Australia Party in 1940 and he told me that (a) his party had a belief that somewhere and somehow the votes were “fiddled” to enable Curtin to win and (b) nevertheless his party would not try to do anything about it because Curtin was the only leader on the Labor side they could trust and the last thing they wanted was for him to lose and be replaced as leader in wartime by someone they did not trust. Getting people to trust you can take quite a while; losing that trust can happen very very quickly.

I could go on at length-leaders must be willing to take risks and accept unpopularity when necessary. They must also accept that all too often there is no absolute right or wrong but they must still make the best decision they can as decisively as possible. When Curtin became prime minister he doubted his own ability but he met the challenge head on, he made decisive decisions and he gave the people of Australia a leader who commanded such respect and trust that the Labor Party in 1943 used the campaign slogan that ‘if you want to vote for John Curtin you will have to vote Labor’.

My concluding message is very personal one-one that has become particularly relevant with the terrorist issues around us today. I believe that the means we use to achieve any end are not just means to that end but are an end in themselves. In these times when terrorism is a dark threat we must not forget that if we resort to being undemocratic to preserve democracy the danger is that we preserve the body of democracy but destroy its soul. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance but this vigilance must not be such as to destroy the liberty we are trying to preserve. Curtin’s duty as prime minister in time of war was to preserve the nation but it was also to protect the rights and liberties of his fellow men.

May I wish you all a life ahead which enables you to fulfil your dreams, to find the path to your own personal happiness and to build on the wonderful opportunities you will have after attending a very fine university in this wonderful and privileged nation of ours.