Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Arvi Parbo - "What I would say to young Australians?"

"Thank you for the invitation to speak here today.

On another occasion some time ago, I was asked what I would say to young Australians about their future. It occurred to me that you may be interested to know what my answer was.

I would begin by telling young Australians that they belong to a small group of privileged people. It is difficult to find a country and a people in more favourable circumstances than Australia and Australians.

We have a democratic political system, personal freedom rarely matched anywhere else in the world, freedom from terrorism, and no historical or religious enmities with our neighbours or, indeed, with any other country. We have a wonderful climate, an impressive record of economic development, high living standard, and a proven ability to establish and operate world scale and world competitive enterprises.

We have the ability to produce far more food and fibres than we need. We have an abundance of virtually every mineral and a high potential for discovering more. We have far more than adequate land, no really serious environmental problems, relatively few natural disasters, no racial problems, and a literate and diverse population living happily together. We are a part of the Western Pacific region, an area with a highly promising future.

Australia is a great country to live in, as I remind myself every time I return from a visit to another part of the world. We are the envy of many people elsewhere in the world.

But I would also tell young Australians that this good fortune does not entitle them to anything. One the contrary, it imposes obligations to prove by making wise use of these advantages that they are worthy guardians of what is entrusted to them. This is not something which can be done once and then put aside; it is an ongoing obligation in a continuously and rapidly changing world which requires an ongoing response.

I would tell them that the worthiness of this response will be the sum of their individual responses. They should not imagine that government, or business, or unions, or any other part of the social and economic machinery can carry the responsibility for us while we, the citizens, just look on. The machinery is necessary, but it is not governments, or business, or unions but the energy, the risk taking, the ingenuity, the dedication, the persistence, and the acumen of individuals, individually and through organisations and enterprises, which determines our future.

I would tell them that we can only continue to enjoy the advantages we have if we are aware that there are threats to our own society to our freedoms and our way of life and accept individual responsibility for guarding against these threats. I will come back to these.

I would tell them that Australia is today very much a part of the world. What happens elsewhere in the world has a direct influence on us.

There have been many changes in the world in recent years, and many changes in Australia. These changes will continue. Before the end of their working lives today's young Australian are likely to work and play using processes and equipment not yet in existence and perhaps not even imagined; certainly their children and grand children will.

I would tell young Australians that the most valuable asset for them is the best possible education or skill which allows them to develop their talents to the fullest, and an attitude which enables them to access changes as natural. It is also one of the few personal assets they can always take with them wherever they go.

I would tell them that the purpose of education is certainly not just preparation for the working life, but I would also tell them that any education which does not recognise that work is an important part of life fails both the students and the community.

I would tell them that the most important thing for them is to spend their future doing what they really like doing, and the second most important thing is for them to be very good at it. In these circumstances work will not be drudgery, but fun and a privilege. It does not matter what this chosen activity is, as long as it is what they really like doing.

I would tell them that to find a job they want they may well have to go out looking for it. All Australians, including the Aborigines, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who travelled long distances to get here. Some 25% of the people in Australia today were born in another country. They came here looking for the opportunities to do what they want to do. There is not particular reason why jobs for young Australians should be available around the corner from the where they live. The pioneering spirit is needed today as much as in the past.

I would tell them that the economy is not an end in itself, but that a worthwhile society depends on a strong and prosperous economy. The quality of life in its many facets, not only material but also social, cultural, psychological, religious, environmental, and so on, depends on having the economic means to achieve the desired result. To use economic performance as an indicator of wellbeing is not an expression of greed or a mindless quest for material acquisitions by simply a shorthand way of expressing our ability to achieve high standards across the whole spectrum of human activity.

The purpose of business is to establish this economic base. Business and the community are not antagonists as they are sometimes portrayed. Winston Churchill once observed that "Some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be shot at, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon. "The reality is, that it is very much in the community's interest to have a strong, competitive, and prosperous business sector. This applies particularly to those who want further improvements in welfare, social services, and environmental care. Such improvements are only possible in a successful and prosperous economy, which can only develop if the community appreciates and encourages economic activity.

I would tell them that excellence and job satisfaction, and having pride in what one does are important for personal reasons, but they are also important because this is what Australia needs. Even the simplest jobs can be done proudly and well, or dispiritedly and badly.

Better performance is not so much a matter of working harder than it is improving our skills, removing unnecessary obstacles to the efficient functioning of the economy and, above all, developing a community attitude which encourages and applauds achievement.

In evaluating our personal and community performance we must compare ourselves not with what we did previously, but with our competitors who, of course, are improving their performance at all times. We are aiming at a fast moving target.

I would tell young Australians that is we perform well, we can have increasing instead of decreasing living standards in all respects, material and otherwise. Many of our competitors are in countries with high wages and living standards. There is nothing wrong with high rewards, provided these are justified by high performance.

We must make full use of our natural advantages and create additional advantages though skill, innovation, quality, and superior service. Once having established these advantages we must be very careful not to destroy them through foolish actions or our own, as we have done not infrequently in the past.

I would tell them that being competitive does not mean being ruthless egomaniacs lacking compassion and morality, as people in business are sometimes portrayed. For every unscrupulous person in business there are millions of honest strivers. One of the great pleasures of my life has been the privilege of working with people of the highest personal and business standards and who are amongst the very best in their professions. Regrettably, such stories do not sell books or attract high television ratings.

A competitive society does not mean ignoring those in the community who, for one reason or another, cannot look after themselves. On the contrary, a strong and competitive economy will enable us to look after such people better. It does, however, mean that no-one is entitled to handouts just because they happen to be Australians.

I would tell young Australians to be proud of the achievements of their predecessors and not be influenced unduly by those who can only see things to criticise in the past. Let us by all means admit the mistakes made in the past which we can now see with hindsight and from the comfort of where we are today, but let us also recognise that many of the privileges and comforts we now enjoy arise from the efforts of the early settlers who faced and overcame difficulties which very few, if any, of us today would be prepared to face.

I would tell young Australians that they should be proud of their history and their country, but that their future depends on understanding and becoming comfortable with the rest of the world.

I would tell them that the first step in this process is to develop a genuine interest in other countries and their people. To do this, they need to learn something of world history and learn to appreciate different cultures. I would also them to remember that, compared to many other countries, our own short existence as a nation is only a blip on the screen of history.

I would tell them that we are very fortunate because English is becoming the universal language throughout the world, but that it is necessary to learn something about the characteristics and structure of other languages to be able to understand other cultures and people. Every young Australian should learn at least one other language.

I would tell them that while we in Australia have made great progress for the better in recent times, there have also been developments which are cause for serious concern.

I would advise them to reject the negative attitudes which have crept into the Australian community in various guises. Much of this comes from attempts by small groups of people, skillful in getting the attention of the media, to gain influence and political power through treating the truth carelessly and promoting fear and guilt. There is no future in just being against something. The future depends on being for something.

I would tell them to think in terms of "contributions" and "responsibilities" instead of "entitlements" and "rights". Nothing in life worth having is free, or obtainable without effort.

I would advise them not to accept uncritically what they hear said, including what I say. They should make up their own minds about what makes sense and what does not.

They should be particularly wary of glib statements and slogans that something is necessary to save the world, or is for the public good. Such slogans are often used to divert attention from the weakness of the argument.

I would tell them to prize above all free speech, the irreplaceable ingredient of a free society. There are serious threats to this freedom in Australia. Verbal intimidation of people expressing "politically incorrect" views, which has been commonplace for some time, is starting to include the threat of physical violence. This strikes at the very core of a worthwhile society.

Democracy is not just elections and voting; it is most importantly the liberty of the individual and his or her protection by law so that people can make a free choice as to how we live their lives. This is above all what makes Australia a great country to live in. We must guard this liberty jealously.

I would tell young Australians that they face a future full of challenges which offers no soft options for them or Australia. I would also tell them that this is not a reason for despondency but for eager acceptance, because it means that the future is in their own hands. History leaves no doubt that people who master and accept such challenges benefit greatly from it.

I would tell them that what they need in facing the future is not foolish optimism, nor destructive pessimism, but realism and willingness to deal with world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

I would tell young Australians that they have an exciting future. I only wish I could be starting out again together with them."

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