Graduation Address

John von Doussa QC

15 December 2006

I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders.


I speak to you now, not as the Chancellor of this University, but as the President of Australia’s national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

In your professional and personal lives you are likely to wear many hats and, perhaps, like myself, many hats at the same time. How you juggle these different hats without losing hold of your health, your happiness, or your family, is something I would like you to think about today, and as your journey through life continues.

But first things first! Again, congratulations! Today is the culmination of your studies. You can throw your student hats in the air; bask in the glow of familial pride; and take stock of your achievements.

Sometimes people say your student years are the best years of your life. But while I hope you will always have fond memories of your time at Adelaide University, I believe– and I suspect you do too – that the best is yet to come.

Today, as you take off your student hats, you can look forward to bright and promising futures. But as you plan your rapid escalation of the professional ladder, remember that an office is a hollow home. The end of your student life should not mark the end of your social life. Remember that life must not only be professionally exciting but personally fulfilling.


In short, remember to be happy. Working life should be a challenge; it should not be a straitjacket. You will hear many employers parrot the phrase work/life balance; make sure you find the real thing.

This is no easy task. You live in an age where you have the technological flexibility to work from virtually anywhere: the challenge is not logging on, but logging off.

Earlier this year I attended a lecture by a visiting Canadian expert on professional health, Professor Mamta Gautum entitled ‘Managing Mental Wellness in the Legal Profession’.

She described the constant struggle for professional people to juggle, as she put it, ‘five balls ... the work ball, the home and family ball, the relationships ball, the friends ball, and the self-care ball’.

What she said next is worth remembering: ‘the work ball is the rubber ball – if you drop that one, it will bounce right back again...the other balls are more fragile; when you drop them they might crack, they might scratch, they may even shatter’.[1]

Caring for yourself becomes more challenging when you are trying to balance work responsibilities with caring for family members.

You will inevitably need time to care for family members, especially as they age, and you will always need time to care for yourself.

Balancing work and family is sometimes pigeonholed as a women’s issue. It’s not. While it is true that women continue to carry the disproportionate burden of carer’s responsibilities, many men are expressing an increasing desire to have a greater involvement in the lives of their children.

Yet workplace, financial and cultural pressures still put the onus on men to be primary breadwinners and women to be the primary carers. While there seems to be acceptance of the ideal of equality in paid work and family responsibilities, the reality is that equality is not being met in many Australian families.

The unequal division of care needs to change. Relationships, children and happiness can all be the casualties of failing to strike the right balance between paid work and family. Men and women need to be able to choose how to make that balance.

Yet sometimes, if you’re working in an office with a machismo culture of 70-80 hour weeks, where meetings are routinely held outside business hours, you might feel like you don’t have a choice.

Early next year the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) will grapple with these issues in the final paper of our ‘Women, men, work and family’ project.


This project gets back to one of HREOC’s key functions – promoting understanding and acceptance of human rights in Australia. You might be thinking what has promoting human rights got to do with balancing work and family?

One of the challenges HREOC faces is overcoming the popular misconception that human rights principles are abstract ideals which are remote from every day life.

But the principles of equality and non-discrimination are not abstract ideals. They are basic rights which should be recognised in families and in the workplace.

To strike the balance we need structural change in the workplace to support gender and carer equality. And we need attitudinal change. Both men and women need access to family friendly employment provisions like flexible working hours and parental leave. We need to create a culture of shared work and valued care.

Addressing discrimination is not just the responsibility of law makers, or human rights organisations. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

Importantly, it’s your responsibility.

As graduates of law, business and economics you will be entering the private sector, the public sector, and academia. In your daily working lives you will have a responsibility to help foster a discrimination free environment.

You can speak out in favour of family friendly workplaces and paid maternity leave. You can recognise that in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘post-feminist age’ the challenge of achieving gender equality is still real. Women are still grossly underrepresented in political life, in executive management, and on the benches of Australian courts. [2]

In the world of big business, you can think about what corporate social responsibility means to your company. One of the encouraging developments HREOC has witnessed is companies taking a leadership role on issues like the gender-wage gap, climate change, and reconciliation.

The main drive comes from within the corporations: employees expect their employer to contribute to the community. [3] Companies who take CSR build their reputation in the community at large and among future employees.

Of course, corporate social responsibility starts in the corporate office. Companies need to be encouraged to introduce effective anti-discrimination and anti-harrassment strategies and promote family friendly working culture. A productive, cohesive and family friendly workplace not only increases the pool of potential employees, it makes existing employees happier and more productive. The message is simple: good practice grows reputation, and is good business.


You may be thinking that such advice is premature; that it will be many years before you will have a meaningful say about company policy.

So let me say two things. Firstly, never underestimate the importance of speaking up. It is a competitive market place and if successful companies want to recruit and retain the best people they need to be responsive to the wishes of their recruits.

Secondly, your time will come. When I look at you, I am looking at the future. I am looking at future CEOs, future lawyers, judges, economists, business leaders, politicians, parents, employers. I am look at people who can make a difference.

You graduate today equipped with an educational foundation on which you can build professional success. But I hope you graduate with something more than that. I hope you graduate with a sense of the importance of your relationships with your fellow students, your university community, and indeed, your fellow man.

Ultimately, the way you define yourself is not just about the hats you wear, or the awards or accolades you win. It’s about the way you regard your fellow humans; your sense of social responsibility; your commitment to social justice.

At the moment there is a lot of talk in the political and media circles about values. What I believe we should all value are not peculiarly Australian values, but the universal values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: values of equality, fair treatment, of regard for our fellow human beings.

We all have the opportunity to apply these values to our daily lives. Too often we assume that the rights we enjoy everyday are enjoyed by all Australians. They’re not. Today, the gross disparity between the health status of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is undisputed, unacceptable and a matter of national shame. So too is the high incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians in our gaols.
In 1991 Mr Elliott Johnston’s Royal Commission report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was greeted with enormous hope by the Indigenous community as a blue print for change. Fifteen years later those hopes have not be realised.

What I would like to say to you today is remember to think beyond the walls of your office. Whatever career path you follow you will have opportunities to promote equality, to speak out against intolerance, to use your education and your ability to foster a more inclusive and humane society.  And I hope that when such opportunities arise – and they will – you will speak clearly, without hesitation.

Once again, congratulations. I hope each of you has the courage to do what you love, and the character to love more than yourself.

After all, the kind of society we become depends, in no small measure, on the kind of society you want.

Human rights principles help to define the difference between a democratic civil society, and a society where the winners take all. As you step outside the university into the wider world I urge you to use your education, your ability, and your integrity, to foster a society that respects and promotes human rights.

I wish you all – good fortune and happiness

[1] Associate Professor Dr Mamta Gautam, Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture, ‘Towards Managing Mental Wellness in the Legal Profession’, Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture, 2006

[2] The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace census in 2004 showed that in the top 200 listed companies women held only 10.2 per cent of executive management positions.

[3] See for example, Simon McKeon, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility makes an impact’, The Age, 31 August 2006.