Public Advocate receives honorary doctorate from RMIT University: Acceptance speech
Friday 18 May, 2018
Professor Paul Gough, distinguished members of the University, fellow graduates, family and friends. I am grateful for the honour you have bestowed on me by awarding this honorary doctorate in the field of Social Science.
I dedicate my award to my great grandmother, Annie Ralph, an Aboriginal Australian from the Yuin mob who lived in Nambucca Heads in northern NSW.
From the late 1800s, successive NSW Ministers for Education and Education Boards instructed schools to remove Aboriginal children from school if non-Aboriginal parents complained. In 1915, Aboriginal children, including Annie’s, were excluded from the Nambucca Heads School.
Incensed, and determined to fight this injustice, Annie demanded the children’s re-admission. On a visit to the Education Department she asked why she should allow her eldest son to fight for Australia in the First World War when his siblings were not allowed to go to the public school. She never gave up the fight for justice for her children and, some years later, her children won the right to be readmitted to school.
In the 100 years since these events took place, much has changed in our thinking about the role and place of education.
Today, RMIT champions inclusion and diversity, understanding the benefits of an inclusive multicultural student body and workforce. It understands how fair treatment and equal access to opportunity creates successful and engaged students and staff. RMIT also values the unique culture and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, welcoming and encouraging their participation and contribution.
RMIT embraces the challenge of helping to shape the world through its distinctive educational approach. It is making a difference to how we see the world around us.
In accepting this award, I pay tribute to my colleagues at the Office of the Public Advocate, the fierce human rights advocates I have worked with for more than 30 years and the hundreds of volunteers who work with my office. Their collective courage and dream of a better world continues to inspire me to fight for justice in a world that is increasingly characterised by inequality and injustice.
As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
As Victoria’s Public Advocate, a key focus of my work has been advocating for the human rights of people with a disability, particularly in regards to the unacceptably high levels of violence they experience. I believe that two of the most pressing human rights issues for people with disability are fighting abuse and removing the significant barriers to access justice. Abuse is often hidden, underreported, and rarely investigated. Only a few cases reach court, and an even smaller number result in a successful prosecution.
Like my great grandmother, my life has been shaped by an unshakeable belief in the right to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability or beliefs. The struggle for a better and more sustainable world isn’t easy and there are days when I feel overwhelmed but I am sustained by my dream of a fair and just society, my belief that change is possible, that justice will prevail, and dignity without discrimination can be achieved.
My work has reinforced my conviction of the need for a fundamental change in the community services sector. There is no longer a place for a welfare model that fosters a culture of dependency, management and treatment. In its place, we need a human rights paradigm that demands equal rights, equal opportunity and equal access for all people and empowers us with the knowledge that our rights must be recognised and cherished.
Human rights can seem far removed from our everyday lives. I don’t see it that way. For me, it is about every person being important and precious and treated with dignity and respect. It’s about being treated fairly and treating others fairly, and having the ability to make choices about our own life. It is about celebrating difference and recognising the value of inclusion in all aspects of life.
To my fellow graduates, congratulations on obtaining your degree. I know some of you feel trepidation about your future, I know I did.
As you move onto the next stage in your life’s journey, I encourage you to become lifelong learners, using the rich knowledge you have gained throughout your degree as a springboard for finding something you love doing. Apply yourself and be determined to aim high in your chosen field of endeavour.
Dream big and show imagination. Be courageous and take risks, knowing that you will fail often. But if you can put your fear of failure behind you, work hard and never give up on your goals, you will have the chance to triumph over your fears and succeed beyond your dreams.
Remember who you are and believe in your own dignity and worth. Respect others and advocate for the rights of others. Your actions and choices in life have consequences, so choose wisely, act with heart and courage, and believe you have the power to succeed.
I wish you all the best as you take your next step into the future. Thank you.