“LIKE about a million other Australians, including Prime Minister Gillard, who also came to Australia as a child, I was born in Britain. As well as people, the British Isles have given Australia our language, our system of law and our parliamentary democracy. The conviction that an Englishman’s home is his castle and faith in British justice, no less than the understanding that Jack is as good as his master, have taken strong root in Australia. As my former teacher, Father Ed Campion, used to say of our country: the English made the laws, the Scots made the money, and the Irish made the songs!
So when the plane bringing me back to Britain flew low up the Thames Valley and I saw for the first time as an adult Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s cathedral and the Tower of London, I had a sense of belonging, not because I was born here but because our culture was. Australians shouldn’t be oblivious to our heritage just because we have refined it and improved it and because we also honour the way it has been added to and deepened by the people of many other cultures who have been attracted to it.
China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia. Size, proximity, and economic and military strength matter. Of course they do; but so do the bonds of history, of shared values, and of millions of familiar attachments. This century will inevitably be more of an Asian one than the last, as Asia’s economic strength grows. Australia’s foreign policy should rightly have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus; but Asia is not the only region where there will be an Australia citizen to be protected, an Australian interest to be advanced, or an Australian value to be upheld. As John Howard often said, we do not have to choose between our history and our geography but should benefit from both.
These days, Britain might only be our largest trading partner in Europe, the second largest source of direct foreign investment in Australia, and America’s most important and most reliable military ally but Australians, of all people, shouldn’t underestimate its standing as a beacon of democratic freedom, as a powerhouse of ideas and as the world’s sixth largest national economy. Even the Australians and New Zealanders who regard their time in England as an essential rite of passage love to grumble about English weather, food and service and to be outraged about standing in the non-EU queue at Heathrow; but my own experience of this country only deepened an instinctive respect for values and institutions that have stood the test of time.
As a student of The Queen’s College, my residence was the Florey building, named in honour of the inventor of penicillin. Along with Rupert Murdoch, another Australian graduate of this university, and Sir John Monash, arguably the finest allied general of World War One, this Rhodes Scholar, Nobel prize-winner and provost of The Queens College is probably the Australian who has made the most impact on the wider world. These days, Lord Florey is more honoured in Britain than in the country of his birth. He testifies, though, to successive generations of Australians’ ability to feel at home here and to make their mark in a country which is somewhat different to our own but hardly foreign. As with all the countries that think and argue among themselves in English (that these days include Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaysia and even India), what we have in common is usually more important than anything that divides us.
The first person I met on arriving at Queens one autumnal evening in October 1981 was the college porter, Arthur Still. As the graduates of this place know, the college porter is no mere baggage handler but the senior member of the non-academic staff. My early reaction was to bridle at a vestigial element of the class system by insisting that he address me as “Tony” rather than as “Mr Abbott” lest I call him “Mr Still” not “Arthur”, so “Arthur” and “Tony”, I’m pleased to say, it eventually became. Some months later, when I was the successful heavyweight in the annual varsity boxing match and knocked out my opponent after 45 seconds of round one, a less easy-going Englishman commented: what could you expect when we import gorillas from the colonies?
My college philosophy tutor was the renowned interpreter of Wittgenstein, Brian McGuinness. As I was half way through reading out the first paragraph of my first essay, he interrupted excitedly to ask about the deeper meaning he thought that I was alluding to. My blank stare doubtless made him fear that he was dealing with a rugby player only masquerading as a serious student. After a few months of the tutorial system, it started to dawn on me that my tutors wanted my personal assimilation and personal appreciation of the issues under discussion, not a regurgitation of the authorities. Reading the best that’s been thought and said, forming one’s own conclusions and defending them against expert probing, is a superb preparation for any form of advocacy.
Alas, as the distinguished historian of the Conservative Party, Lord Blake, observed at my final Provost’s collection, “Mr Abbott needs to temper his robust common sense with a certain philosophic doubt”. After my final exams, I had to dictate some papers to a typist because the examiner, apparently, had been unable to decipher my hand-writing. “Do you mean to say that the typist was able to decipher your speech”, quipped one friend, late of Eton and Christ Church.
More than a century ago, Cecil Rhodes sought to bring to Oxford the best young leaders from the world’s strongest countries because he was convinced that the Oxford tutorial system would give them a shared understanding of what really counts and create an international brotherhood for peace and progress. He believed that this university, as much as any other, exemplified the ideal of a community of scholars engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth and knowledge for its own sake. The New College chapel contains a moving memorial to a German Rhodes scholar who “entered into the spirit of this place” but returning fought and died honourably for his country.
Although the Rhodes scholarship hasn’t entirely lived up to its founder’s utopian dream, it has, nevertheless, helped to foster the ideal of servant leadership and to forge the lasting friendships that come from sharing a formative experience. An American Rhodes scholar once ruefully observed that Oxford had left him “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life”. I prefer Evelyn Waugh’s description of the lasting impact of university life: “it was this cloistral hush that gave our laughter its resonance and carried it still, joyously, across the intervening clamour”.
At Oxford, I first met George Brandis, now the shadow attorney-general; Don Markwell, the former warden of Rhodes House, now director of the Menzies Research Centre; and Tom Harley, Alfred Deakin’s grandson, and a long-term member of the federal executive of the Liberal Party. At Oxford, I met Paul Mankowski, the American Jesuit intellectual and embodiment of muscular Christianity who had kept me drinking one night until I agreed to join the boxing team. But for his presentation to me of a skipping rope, which was a major investment for someone whose wardrobe comprised the hand-me-downs of dead priests, I would have quit on my second day.
In coming to Oxford, I joined Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Kim Beazley and Malcolm Turnbull whose political personalities this university had helped to shape (along with those of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron to name only the most prominent contemporary political leaders who are graduates of this university). Bill Clinton is another Oxford graduate. I have often wondered whether his student experimentation with different types of cigarettes happened because the Rhodes House no smoking signs were in Latin!
With its white bowties and academic gowns and graduation ceremonies in Latin, this university is an institution that seems to defy change and to thumb its nose at modernity. Indeed, there are few institutions — perhaps not even the Catholic Church — in which tradition is more respected. By far its most important and honourable tradition, though, is the contestability of ideas. There are few problems that are ever finally solved. There are few subjects on which it can ever safely be assumed that we have heard the last word. There are hardly any arguments where right is all on one side. Truth matters — it matters as much as anything — but it is far more likely to be approached than ever finally to be grasped. This insatiable curiosity and ceaseless questioning that Oxford at its best embodies is the hallmark of Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) and provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world.
With its question-everything tradition, it’s hardly surprising that this university has educated so many democratic politicians from around the world. Democratic politics, after all, means mounting an argument that not only can withstand the most withering scrutiny but also can appeal to a majority of voters. Long ago, the senior members of this university who had understood that no one, however eminent or holy, had a monopoly on truth also grasped that no one, however exalted, should have a monopoly on power. It was Magna Carta that first put limits on the prerogatives of the king but it was the subsequent Provisions of Oxford that first declared the fundamental democratic principle that government should be by consent of the community of the realm.
The founders of Australasia’s universities were steeped in the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge. The motto of my other alma mater, the University of Sydney, makes explicit its objective to bring the same learning to a new country. For me, Oxford both reinforced an appreciation of the importance of education and also honed a particular leadership style.
There’s no doubt that the Rhodes scholarship has been a remarkable vehicle for building international understanding and for helping individuals and the countries they might lead to come closer to being their best selves. Of course, it was a product of one man’s idiosyncracy but there are lessons here for all who would seek change for the better. Similar thinking was responsible for the Colombo plan which has thus far been Australia’s most effective exercise in the projection of soft power. I was recently in a discussion involving an Indonesian minister and several of his senior officials. Of the seven people in the room, six had been to university in Australia. It’s unquestionable that differences are easier to resolve under such circumstances.
An incoming Coalition government will swiftly re-establish the Colombo plan as a two-way street student exchange under which Australia’s best and brightest can study in our region’s universities as well as theirs in ours. It’s my hope that this new Colombo plan will become the Rhodes scholarship of our region.
As I learned here, serious thinking involves the assimilation of others’ best thoughts. Likewise, effective decision-making involves the assimilation of expert advice. It’s not simply doing what one set of experts advises. It’s not simply picking the most authoritative of competing sets of advice either. It’s neither contracted out nor conducted in isolation. It involves engaging with the relevant experts and assimilating their arguments but the person who will take responsibility for the decision actually has to make it.
The next Coalition government won’t shirk hard decisions but will talk to the experts before decisions are made rather than just argue with them afterwards. As those who worked with me as a minister can attest, my style is to consult with the people that a government decision could impact and to work out for myself what are its real pros and cons. The next Coalition government won’t take an “officials know best” approach to the problems of the nation and won’t make decisions that impact on people’s lives without, as far as is possible, taking them into our confidence first.
A good way to cope with the inevitable slings and arrows of public life is to keep counting one’s blessings. My blessings include loving family, perceptive teachers, inspirational mentors, capable colleagues and committed staff. By no means the least, has been my time at Oxford. I have forgotten much and lost contact with many from those times but hope I will always keep an Oxford cast of mind.
In the classic movie, Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks admonishes the rescued soldier to “earn this”. To whom much is given, from whom much is expected. To study at one of the world’s greatest universities is an extraordinary privilege. Our duty is not to rejoice in our good fortune but to be worthy of it. That way we will “earn this” and ensure that others are grateful rather than resentful at our chance to enjoy this enchanted place.”