The Honourable Sir William Deane AC KBE

Address by The Honourable Sir William Deane on the occasion of the conferral of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa at The University of Queensland. Thursday, May 29 2003.

At the outset, I acknowledge the traditional custodians on whose ancestral land Queensland’s first University stands.

It is now approaching eight years since I retired from the Bench. In the time since then I have effectively ceased to be a lawyer. Consequently, I do not feel qualified to offer any really worthwhile professional advice to those of you who are setting out on legal careers. The most I can do is to urge you to be true to your own personal principles and to the ethical standards which are essential to the proper practice and administration of law in this country. That having been said, I venture to share a few thoughts with you about the nation which will be increasingly reliant on the leadership of people like yourselves as it passes through its third half century.

Perhaps the most significant thing about our country that my years as Governor-General brought home to Helen and me is the importance, particularly in this modern turbulent world, of maintaining the mutual respect and acceptance which lie at the heart of our Australian multiculturalism. One sometimes hears well-intentioned suggestions that multiculturalism is divisive. I respectfully disagree. I’m convinced that it is our multiculturalism which has made possible our national unity notwithstanding that we Australians directly or indirectly come from all the regions, races, cultures and religions of the world.

For me, multiculturalism means inclusiveness not division. It’s enabled us to blend the many into a pretty harmonious whole without bringing to this new land old hatreds, old prejudices and old conflicts. It is our multiculturalism in that sense which inspires and sustains our modern Australia.

Our multiculturalism is not, of course, the only thing of which Australians should be justly proud. There is our land itself … this matchless continent, its islands, its surrounding seas. There is the commitment to democratic government under the rule of law which we have maintained tenaciously in war and in peace. Very few other nations can look back on more than a century of democratic rule unbroken by dictatorship of the left or right, civil war, military coup or conquest. And there are all the achievements of our Australian people who, as the preamble to our Constitution makes plain, are our nation. All that they are; all that they have been; and all that they have done.

Let me add a few words about what I see as the principal challenges which our country faces in the years ahead. There is the challenge to reverse the damage we have done to our land, its rivers and its coasts, and to make good our failure as a nation to do enough to help safeguard the world environment for future generations. There is the challenge to face up to the completely unacceptable yet growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this the land of the so-called fair go for all. For the plight of the disadvantaged even in affluent Australia is an overwhelming problem which no one of us who has a voice to speak or the means to help can in conscience ignore. And of course there is the challenge to achieve true and lasting reconciliation between our indigenous peoples and the nation of which they are such a vital part.

There is one challenge for the future leaders of our nation which I would particularly emphasize in this gathering. It is the challenge of justice and truth. The challenge never to be indifferent in the face of injustice or falsehood. It encompasses the challenge to advance truth and human dignity rather than to seek advantage by inflaming ugly prejudice and intolerance. Who of us will easily forget the untruths about children overboard? Or the abuse of the basic rights of innocent children by incarceration behind Woomera’s razor wire? Or the denial of the fundamental responsibility of a democratic government to seek to safeguard the human rights of all its citizens, including the unpopular and the alleged wrongdoer, in the case of the two Australians indefinitely caged, without legal charge or process, in a Guantanamo Bay jail? Some may think that these and other similar unpleasant things should be left unmentioned. But if our coming generation of leaders refuses to honestly confront the denial of truth or responsibility which they reflect, our nation will surely be in peril of losing its way in the years ahead.

Finally, I sincerely thank the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, and all the members of this great University for the honour done me by the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. I am truly delighted to be admitted to your company. I also offer my sincere congratulations to all my fellow graduates. Or should I say “classmates”? May all your plans be successful, all your ambitions be fulfilled and all your dreams become reality.


Doctor of Laws honoris causa