Professor Rosalind Croucher, President, Australian Law Reform Commission, 21 May 2010 at Sydney Olympic Park
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, graduands, family and friends, it is a great pleasure to be here tonight. I was last in this precinct for the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games, singing with a thousand (and more) keen choristers from all over New South Wales, as part of the Opening Ceremony. It was freezing, sitting in the raked benches as the ‘Cauldron Choir’. Australia won many gold medals during those games—and I am reminded of them tonight, looking at so many of you wearing the gold strip in your graduation hoods. One of you has an even higher colour—the red of the doctoral designation, like mine and those on stage with me. (Although gold shows itself as prominent again in the robes of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor!)
It is indeed a great pleasure to be here again, and, on behalf of the Australian Law Reform Commission, may I pay my respect to the elders, past and present of the Wann-gal peoples, the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we celebrate this evening.
In speaking to you tonight, I want to share a little of my own story and of a chance meeting that had a profound effect on me.
I grew up with the value of education imprinted in my DNA—particularly on the maternal side. I come from a family of women—my mother is one of seven children, including four daughters. I am also one of four daughters. My mother and her siblings were born from the 1910s to the 1920s, with a 17-year gap from top to bottom. My grandfather was an enlightened man, and placed a high premium on the value of education—and especially for his daughters, at a time when tertiary education for women was not a high priority. The eldest of those sisters said to me that her father told her that although he could not give them ‘equity’—anything material—he could give them an education. Three of them have PhDs (the eldest, in 1998, at the age of 82), one became a Reader in History at Birkbeck College, University of London; one an entymologist and researcher in PNG on mosquitoes, with her medical doctor husband; another, my mother, a poet, playwright, novelist and all-round extraordinary woman. The youngest had the prospect of doing medicine, but, as she said to me, she wanted to get married and medical study was not amenable to married women at the time, so she did physiotherapy instead.
My father was the first in his family to go to university—as was my husband—as, no doubt, many of you or your parents are.
Looking at you and thinking about myself when I was sitting in a similar place, I would NEVER have imagined I would end up here. And this is the curious thing about career paths—they really only make viewed backwards. Career paths only have a kind of natural order look to them in retrospect. I would never have imagined I would end up where I am now, as President of the Australian Law Reform Commission. It was certainly not a ‘career path’ I would have sat down with a careers adviser to plan.
Career paths are actually formed through a wonderful conjunction of twists and turns—opportunities—filled also with lots of life’s experiences. Life just turns up different opportunities and you need to be alive to them. And the logic comes in retrospect. The problem is, if you lock your thinking too much into a fixed idea of where you want to end up, then you miss seeing the opportunities for diversions that will lead you to that point which, in retrospect, appears so logical and natural a pathway. You may also miss out on doing things that are really fun—and you should never regret things you do; only the things that you don’t.
Life also brings you into contact with the stories of others. Here, too, the lesson is a simple one: to leave off your introspection and self-absorption, and listen—and learn. I will tell you a story that has stayed with me: it is a story of a Cambodian taxi driver.
Cambodian taxi driver
I don’t even know his name, but he taught me so many things.
I was catching a plane to the airport—long before the Eastern Distributor had opened—and we were stuck in a traffic jam. I had a plane to catch to present a seminar paper somewhere in New South Wales in 1989. There was important new wills legislation that had just been passed and I became in instant expert and was doing CLE presentations all around the state.
I was (am) an excessively punctual person. Punctuality was almost an obsession for me. And here I was really stuck. I could see the hands on my watch going round and round before my eyes. Panic seized the pit of my stomach: my worst fear was going to be realised—“I am going to be late! I will miss my plane!”. To allay the sick feeling in my belly, I turned to the driver and asked him about when he came to Australia. And then he told me his story.
Cambodia lies to the north of Malaysia and is bordered by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west and Laos to the north. My driver’s family had been small business people in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. They just ran a little shop. But this was the time of the Khmer Rouge—the extreme Communist regime, under the notorious, Pol Pot that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. It changed the country to ‘Kampuchea’—and killed an estimated 1.5 million people in a population of only 7 million as it worked to create a new society. Capitalists were the enemy. Families and religion were rivals in loyalty to the state.
My taxi driver was 14 at the time. His family, the little family of shop owners, parents and children, was the enemy. They and many others were rounded up and put on trucks and driven out of the city. The whole population was to work in collective farms or forced labour camps. The whole society was to be re-educated—or die. His parents pushed him and another boy out of the truck and told them to “Run away!”
He never saw his family again. Their graves—as undoubtedly they are dead—are not marked, nor will ever be known. They lie with so many of their countrymen and women in the mass graves of the ‘killing fields’, probably having dug their own graves
The two boys hid in the trees and the fields for several months. Eventually they found their way to a refugee camp on the Vietnamese border. I don’t know how long he was there, but at some point he befriended an Australian soldier. He worked for him in the camp. And through his support he came to Australia.
He then found his way to the Cambodian community in Sydney and eventually to driving my taxi. He had recently married a woman from the local community—she also had escaped.
He changed my whole perspective on life. He made my concerns seem awfully trivial. I will never forget that journey.
How many of you here today—or your families—have stories like these to tell?
Just what would you do if your world ended up like my taxi driver? If instead of this auditorium built for an Olympic games, you were fleeing for your life—and your entire value system was thrown upside down?
At moments of profound confrontation and challenge you will need all the lessons you have learnt. A university education is one that trains you in critical thinking. Quite apart from what you have learnt, the most important skill is the training in how to think. It is that which is the central core of your tertiary accomplishments; and using that skill wisely will help you achieve in the real sense in life.
It may lead you to question and challenge things in public life. It may also lead you to survive—when all you have left about you is your wits.
I know today is a day of celebration and I did not wish to throw a pall upon such a day. I take heart in my taxi driver’s story as one of survival and also the power of optimism.
Be proud of your achievements. Appreciate the love and support of all those who have helped you to this point—your families, your teachers and your university, the University of Southern Queensland. Value your education and value each day for its own sake.
I hope that none of us has to learn the lessons in the way my taxi driver did. But I also hope that each of you learns a story that provides its own epiphany for you.
Professor Rosalind Croucher