Doctor of Social Science Honoris Causa Acceptance

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM at the RMIT University Honorary Awards Conferring Ceremony. Melbourne, 7 May 2004

Opening Remarks

Thank you, Chancellor. Well, what a joyous and humbling occasion!

I accept with gratitude the honorary doctorate bestowed upon me by the RMIT University - a great University established in 1881 to serve Melbourne's "working men".

And I accept it as an endorsement of my past work to advance a fair go and human rights in the context of a multicultural Australia and also as a thank you to all those who have supported me in my work and made this achievement possible.

My special thanks go, of course, to my wife Hanna and my children for their support. Also my thanks go to my mentors and work colleagues for their intellectual stimulation and encouragement. And, to Australia which has provided me with such fantastic opportunities.


I arrived in Australia in 1975 with my wife Hanna and son Adam as refugees from then Communist Poland. We arrived here without passports and with no material possessions.

We chose to migrate to Australia because it is a democratic country with a solid economy. We chose Australia over other countries because it is an open society which one can join, and because it has a strong culture of a fair go. We also chose Australia because of its distance from Europe and because it has a fantastic weather.

Australia has been good to us. It has given me and my family a feeling of belonging. It has opened up opportunities beyond our wildest dreams which we have taken and used to advance our lives and then to contribute back in return. All this would not be possible without Australia's fair go culture and policy of multiculturalism.

Human Rights

I want Australia to stay fair and open to all people born here or arriving as migrants or refugees. And, I want Australia to provide opportunity for everyone. As such, my public life has been committed to these goals.

But everything has a price . . .

Only if we continue to judge individuals on their ability and hard work and not by the colour of their skin, accent, gender or religion. And only if governments are committed to the removal of barriers of prejudice and opportunity, and encourage good community relations based on respect for difference. Only then can Australia continue its remarkable economic and social progress.

We, therefore, need to work together to further develop our culture of fair go, inclusion and human rights. And as these things cannot be taken for granted I have on occasions publicly argued for the adoption of an Australian Bill of Rights.

Children in detention

As you probably know, I have just completed my inquiry into the human rights of children in immigration detention. I cannot give you details now, as my report has not yet been tabled in the Federal Parliament, but that time is not too far away.

I can however say that Australia, by signing and ratifying the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreed in international law that "detention of a child shall be used as a measure of last resort" and "for the shortest appropriate period of time".

But when we look at our detention practices - we discover that the longest period a child spent in detention in Australia was almost 5 and half years, after which a permanent visa was issued; and then the child was told: "go now, catch up with schooling and be a useful member of the Australian community!"

I can also confirm that long term detention creates mental trauma and illness and that some 90% of boat arrivals are sooner or later released into the Australian community.

So I ask: What has happened to our ability to deal humanly and rationally with difficult social issues? Where are our compassion and our commitment to the principle of a 'fair go'?


I ask of you today, that you ponder deeply the following questions: What kind of Australia do we aspire to live in? and What kind of Australia do we wish to leave to our children?

An Australia ravaged by social division and prejudice. Or an Australia which is socially just and inclusive for all of us?

I know what my choice is.

Again, thank you for the honour. And thank you for your support.

Last updated 19 May 2004.