Graduation Address

John von Doussa QC

14 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. And while my remarks are addressed primarily to today’s graduands, I suspect what I am about to say will resonate among parents and friends.

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, 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 that your student years are the best years of your life. 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, to chasing your dream careers, to realising your professional ambitions.

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. We are living in a time when most people on average are working longer than ever before. We have the technological flexibility to work from virtually anywhere: the challenge is not logging on but logging off.

The challenge of balancing work and life only becomes more complex when families are involved. To some of you, who have no immediate intention of starting your own young family, this may seem like a long way off.

But family responsibilities extend beyond parenting to caring across the life cycle. You will inevitably (if you do not already) need time to care for family members, and you will always need time to care for yourself.

Balancing work and family is all too often pigeon holed 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 a desire to have a greater involvement in the lives of their children. And these days they may unexpectedly, and suddenly, find themselves caring for a parent as well.

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

The unequal division of care needs to change. Relationships, children, 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 about how to balance the competing demands of paid work, and unpaid work in the home.

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.

Both men and women need to have access to family friendly employment provisions like flexible working hours and parental leave. What we need to do is break down the social, workplace and legislative barriers to balancing work and family and create a culture of shared work and valued care.

These are challenges the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) will grapple with in the final paper of our “Women, men, work and family project”. This paper, which will be released early next year, reflects 18 months of research and public consultations. It examines how men and women, governments, employers and employees can work together to strike a balance between obligations to paid work, and to their families and their households.


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 I encounter – as one of the public faces of HREOC – is dismantling the popular misperception that human rights principles are abstract ideals which are remote from everyday life here in Australia.

What I think the “Women, men work and family project” illustrates is the relevance of human rights principles. The principles of equality and non-discrimination are not abstract ideals, but basic rights which should be recognised in families and in the workplace.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises that in order ‘for the full and harmonious development’ of children’s personalities, children should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. When the demands of paid work and unpaid work become overwhelming parents and children suffer.

To strike the balance in the workplace we need structural change to support gender and carer equality. And we need attitudinal change. Addressing discrimination is not just the responsibility of law makers, and human rights organisations. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

Importantly, it’s your responsibility.

In our daily working lives we all have a responsibility to help foster a discrimination free environment. As employees or employers you can all play a role in addressing discrimination and promoting human rights.

You can speak out in favour of family friendly workplaces. You can speak out in favour of paid maternity leave, and support flexible working arrangements. You can recognise that in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘post-feminist age’ the challenge of achieving gender equality is still real. The average weekly earnings for full-time women workers in Australia is still only 84.4% of their male equivalents.

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.

Business leaders have acknowledged that the main drive for corporate social responsibility comes from within the corporation: employees expect their employer to contribute to the community. [1] Companies who take CSR seriously build their reputation in the community at large and among future employees.


When I look at all your faces, I look at the future. Among you are future leaders, future employers, parents, artists, diplomats.

You graduate today equipped with an educational foundation on which you can build professional success. Yet 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 human beings.

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 in Australia about values. What I believe we should value are not peculiarly Australian values but the universal values set out in ithe Universal Declaration of Human Rights: values of equality, fair treatment, and regard for those around us.

At a basic level we all have the opportunity to apply these values to our daily lives. 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 you have 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] See for example, Simon McKeon, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility makes an impact’, The Age, 31 August 2006.