2001 Australia Day Address

by Bryan Gaensler

The following is a transcript of the 2001 Australia Day Address, which I gave on 24 January 2001 at Customs House, Sydney, Australia. (The Australia Day Address is part of the annual Australia Day festivities organised by the Australia Day Council of New South Wales.)

You can also listen to parts of the address using RealAudio.

This speech is ©2001 Bryan Gaensler, and may only be reproduced or distributed for private use unless my explicit permission is given otherwise.

The celebration of Australia Day has long been a contentious issue. But even just a few years ago I never understood what all the fuss was about. Sure, there were some nominal historical overtones, but what Australia Day was really about was getting the day off work, getting together with some friends for a BBQ, and agreeing over a beer that Australia sure is a beaut place.

But since moving overseas, I've been forced to look at things a little differently. For the last few years, I've been in Boston when the 26th of January has come around, and so have gotten together with some fellow Aussie ex-pats to celebrate the occasion. Last year we managed to find a shop that sold Vegemite, another which stocked Coopers, and even got some authentic meat pies shipped in. We invited along some American friends to share in our celebrations, who asked us what this was all about. I explained that it was the Australian equivalent of their Fourth of July, but of course quickly realised that this wasn't quite true and that it needed further explanation. And I must confess that while I began the day filled with the pride that every ex-patriot feels for their homeland, after I had explained that we were celebrating the day when British redcoats established a penal colony and set about taking away land and dignity from indigeneous people, all of a sudden the beer and the meat pies didn't feel quite right.

Now I'm not one who advocates that we shouldn't have Australia Day at all - as our oldest Public Holiday I think it has achieved some symbolism and significance in its own right. But I certainly think that we are all belittling our nation and our history if we use this day to celebrate nothing but sunshine and mateship, and don't indulge in some reflection and debate on how we got here in the first place. Some have argued that we should consider moving our national day of celebration to some other date. But I think one can make a case that tradition carries many important lessons, and shouldn't be overturned lightly. If some day we do decide to become a Republic (and the pros and cons of such a decision is something I'm going to stay well away from today), I certainly hope that the day we make this transition is on the 26th of January. That way Australia Day, while still retaining the legacy and lessons of history, could at the same time be a true National Day that all Australians could be proud to be a part of.

But unlike most Australia Days, this time around it's about far more than tall ships and convicts. Just over three weeks ago we marked the Centenary of Federation. And while this has been cause for much celebration, I don't think we all realise what an astounding and jaw-dropping anniversary this is. The French or the Americans might argue that much of their national character emerged during the overthrow of their oppressors which was needed to establish their nations. And indeed we in Australia perhaps lack their fiery and passionate commitment to self-determination. But we have something which I think is much more special. One hundred years of Australia. One hundred years of uninterrupted democracy and stable government. One hundred years free from civil war, coup d'etats and major constitutional crises. Not many other countries on earth can lay claim to such a record. I think that when we talk of Australia as the Lucky Country, we shouldn't think of our ``sweeping plains'' and ``broad horizons'', but the amazing combination of geography, history, people and government which has given us such a free, tolerant and stable society.

And so every January, and in this January in particular, we should be focusing not just on the achievements of individuals or the advances made in our society since 1788, but what the nation of Australia has accomplished - socially, economically and politically - since we stepped out on our own in 1901.

The National Council for the Centenary of Federation has proposed three themes around which we should focus our celebrations. They encourage us to use this opportunity to reflect on Australia's heritage, to take pride in the present, and to look to the future with confidence. And what I'd like to try and do for you today is share with you the thoughts on the past, issues for the present, and dreams for the future that encapsulate what being Australian means to me.

Last month I was asked by one of the newspapers to participate in a ``Centenary Time Capsule'' piece they were writing. The idea was to create a hypothetical time capsule, in which a collection of items which summed up Australia's last 100 years was to be buried. Each person invited to contribute had to come up with a few items to be included, with a sentence or two explaining their choice.

This sounds like a simple enough idea, but to sum up 100 years in just a few handheld items turned out to be a surprisingly challenging exercise. I considered and then discarded dozens of possibilities. The heart of Phar Lap? A bit problematic considering he was actually a New Zealander. A can of VB? Maybe wouldn't taste too good after being buried for 100 years. And the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Probably a bit too big for a time-capsule.

In the end I came up with three items which to me indeed each captured the themes I mentioned before: our heritage, our present, and our future.

And so the first thing I asked to be included in this time-capsule was my grandmother's boat ticket, which gave her passage from Nazi Germany to Australia in 1939. My grandmother's story is an incredible one. Adolf Hitler came to power when she was just 17. She had an exciting future ahead of her - she was just starting university, and had plans to travel around Europe with some friends - a path not that different from what many 17 year olds here in Australia follow today. My family are Jewish, and when the Nazis took over the country there were some obvious concerns over whether Germany would still be a safe place to live. My great-grandfather was unconcerned - after all, he was a hero. He had won the Iron Cross fighting for Germany in World War One. They would never come for him or his family.

I don't need to tell you that this isn't how things turned out. By 1938 my family decided to get out of Germany before it was too late. Suddenly these affluent and law-abiding citizens were turned into refugees. My grandmother was able to get a ticket on a ship headed for Australia; in the confusion and panic her husband, whom she had only married a few months before, ended up boarding a different ship - she never saw him again.

Many months later, alone and not knowing what lay ahead, she arrived in Melbourne, Australia, to begin a new life in a strange country. She tells me that she only knew three words of English when she got off the boat: ``Yes'', ``No'', and ``Bloody''.

She had no job, no useful skills (Australian institutions refused to recognise her degree in veterinary science), and no family (her parents escaped to the Philippines, but she didn't see them again until the war was over six years later).

So apart from being of great personal relevance for me and my family, why do I think the story of this young Jewish refugee says something important about Australia and its history? Because of what has happened to my grandmother since then. When she talks about arriving in Australia, she repeatedly points out just how friendly and welcoming everybody was to her. She wore strange clothes, didn't speak English, came from an ethnic and religious background that few in Australia were familiar with, and was fleeing from some conflict, which, at least at first, seemed incredibly distant and irrelevant to people's lives here in Australia. But despite all this, people didn't tell her to ``go back to where she came from'', nobody complained that her English was poor and her accent hard to understand (she still complains that she ``can't get rid of this bloody German accent''), and everyone was eager to help her adjust, make new friends, and find work.

Let's turn the clock forward. My grandmother is now 85 years old. In the 62 years she has been living in Australia, she has re-married, had three sons, and gone back to university to get a degree in psychology. She now has five grandchildren, is heavily involved in various community service activities, takes courses on politics and comparative religion at the University of the Third Age, and tells me she has just discovered the internet. If in the next 60 years I can give as much back to society as she has done in her time here, I'll be very satisfied. [see footnote 1]

So the lesson I think we can all learn from this is that we should be both intensely proud and extremely grateful for all the immigrants and refugees who we have welcomed into our country over the last 100 years. For some, Australia has simply been a safer and happier place than the one they left behind. For others, it has meant relief from famine or poverty. And for many, like my grandmother, it has meant nothing less than escaping genocide and certain death. So as Australians, we've given an incredible gift to these people - hope, freedom, and the chance to start again. We have given this gift over and over again, with no strings attached and without expectation of return.

But while I might speak loftily of the altruism behind giving all these people a new home, any effort or expense involved in accepting these immigrants has repaid itself 100 times over. Because these people have brought to our country their culture, their food, their music, their identity and their ideas. They have made Australia a diverse, stimulating and vibrant country to live in. People like Tan Le, Sir Gus Nossal, and Tatiana Grigorieva, to pick three Australians from very different walks of life, have demonstrated to all of us the important difference that immigrants make to our society.

What's more, these people's children and grand-children grow up with a unique twin heritage. These kids grow up as Aussie as everybody else - they play cricket, they love Vegemite, and they sing ``Advance Australia Fair'' in school assembly. But they also carry within them the traditions and culture of their forebears. I think the pool of first- and second-generation Australians which have become such a large and important part of our community, and of which I am proud to be a part, can only serve to guarantee our tolerance and respect for all peoples, and to ensure that the persecutions and horrors seen elsewhere in the world can never happen here.

And so we come back to my grandmother's boat ticket, if it were not for which I would never have been born. Not only does this little piece of paper symbolise the multi-cultural heritage of our nation, but I also think it entrusts upon us a heavy responsibility.

Holocaust survivors, of which there are a great number in Australia, often wear a lapel badge on which is written the word ``Remember''. And I think that indeed we must all remember what happened, and learn from it. Despite the generosity shown by Australia in taking in so many people like my grandmother, the sad fact is that there were many tens of thousands more who Australia refused to take in, and who died in the gas chambers. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC a few years ago, and there's a section in which the United States is criticised because of its failure to take more refugees from Germany. I found myself thinking that we Australians weren't like that, until a little further in the exhibition I read that Australia too denied many requests for asylum during that period. Indeed, this museum actually quotes Australia's Foreign Minister of the time as saying, ``Australia does not have a Jewish problem, and it does not wish to create one''. [see footnote 2]

As horrifying as such a comment is, it's easy enough to say that we didn't really know what was happening, that times have changed, and that we've learnt from the lessons of the past. But the sad reality is that in some parts of the world times haven't changed, and that persecution and atrocity continue. So I think that if we are to truly take pride in the multi-cultural society we have created in this country, if we are to honour the memories of all the people who could have been allowed to come to Australia but instead died in concentration camps, if we are committed to carrying forward into our second century what we would like to think Australia stands for, then it is our responsibility, now and in the future, to provide a home and a haven to those who need it, and to open our doors wide to those who have nowhere else to go. My grandmother's story demonstrates that even the most helpless and discombobulated foreigner can ultimately make a sincere and long-lasting contribution to our society. And so when we see someone who looks different, who can't speak English, or who is struggling with our system and our culture, we should be understanding of their difficulties, make them feel welcome, and look forward to them and their children eventually adding their diversity to Australia.

One of the real paradoxes of our culture is that many Australians are indeed totally tolerant of foreigners and welcoming of new immigrants, but at the same time are dismissive, unsympathetic, or just plain racist when it comes to their attitudes towards indigeneous Australians. I've certainly encountered many people who would consider it in poor taste to make crude jokes when talking about Asians or Indians, but who don't hesitate at sharing their latest joke about Aboriginals.

There seem to be two reasons for this disturbing double-standard. One is that ever since the first British explorers and settlers made their not-so-learned observations about the local peoples, it seems somehow acceptable by many Australians to regard indigeneous people as somehow inferior. Furthermore, most Australians can't appeal to that standard explanatory line, ``Some of my best friends are Aboriginal'' because, let's face it, your ``average Australian'' simply doesn't know any indigeneous Australians. It's shameful that most Australians probably have a greater awareness of and empathy for the plight of the Kosovars, the Kurds or the people of Tibet than they do for the situation of indigeneous Australians.

The challenge of Reconciliation can seem formidable at times. The problems and solutions are not simple, and the issues have been heavily debated and discussed, particularly in the last few months. Having grown up in Sydney, and like most Australians, having had little contact with Aboriginal people in my day-to-day life, I haven't seen for myself what it's like to confront issues of alcoholism, youth suicide and land-rights.

I don't know anyone who was part of the Stolen Generation. I can count the number of Aboriginal Australians I've met on one hand. And I know that most Australians out there similarly have little personal experience to draw on when thinking about these issues.

As a consequence, the concept of ``Saying Sorry'' is something which many Australians have a great deal of trouble with. When National Sorry Day has come around, I've found myself having a lot of heated debates and arguments with my friends. ``Why should I say sorry'', they say. ``I've never done anything wrong by any Aboriginal Australian. I have nothing to be sorry for''. But I think people who say this are thinking of themselves only as individuals, and not as part of Australian society. Because when I signed the Sorry Book, I wasn't just saying sorry for any wrong I personally might have committed against indigeneous Australians. Nor am I apologising on behalf of Australians of former eras who persecuted and discriminated against Aboriginals. And I'm not even saying sorry to make up for all the Australians out there now who don't think there's a problem or just don't care.

I'm saying sorry because the culture that I grew up with and am a part of is to blame for the situation these people now find themselves in. Although it is tempting to say ``it wasn't me who wronged the Aboriginal people'', the expectations, attitudes and prejudices of whichever people are to blame were shaped by the society they grew up in - this society. Simply by being Australian and being proud of being Australian, I am implicitly endorsing the long chain of events and actions which have got us to this stage.

So aside from all the practical solutions to Aboriginal issues, which people far better qualified than I are working hard on, at a more fundamental level we also need to have a hard look at ourselves, and set about changing our attitudes and assumptions.

Head down to any pub or restaurant in any city in Australia, and ask the people there what comes to mind when they think about indigeneous Australians. You all know as well as I the caricatures and stereotypes that are going to come forth. I've even heard people insist, ``I'm not being racist, I'm just stating the facts.'' Trying to reason with such people makes one realise just what an uphill battle this Reconciliation process is going to be. Even if a treaty is signed, even if hundreds of thousands of people walk for the cause throughout Australia, even if perhaps the Prime-Minister says he's sorry, how is this going to change anything if a large fraction of the Australian populace think that the Aboriginal people aren't worth helping anyway?

And the problem goes even deeper than that. Back in December, I made a brief visit to Australia. On the long flight back to the US afterwards, I took out my pen and paper to start making some notes for the address I'm giving you today. I had chatted earlier in the flight to the guy sitting next to me - he was a reasonable approximation to the ``typical Aussie'' we so often talk about - a white Australian in his early 20s, brought up in suburbia, and now heading to the US for a ski-ing holiday. He asked me what I was working on, and I told him that I was writing a speech for Australia Day, and that I was trying to express my personal thoughts about Reconciliation. He made a face and told me that people were sick of Reconciliation, and that it's not something that anybody cares about anymore. He recommended that I instead talk about the price of petrol, which he felt was far more relevant to Australia and its future.

Now this fellow was intelligent, he seemed like a nice guy, and I didn't get the impression that he was racist or bigoted. And yet he didn't seem to think that indigeneous issues should even be part of the national psyche, that he was essentially sick of hearing about this problem, and hoped it would go away. What I think this illustrates is a complete lack of empathy and understanding on behalf of most Australians as to what this situation is really all about. Everybody is familiar with phrases like ``Mabo'', ``Wik'' and ``Stolen Generation'', but these words engender no sense of appreciation for the suffering, loss and injustice that they represent.

So while a big part of any solution to our problems is going to be legal, medical and social restitution for our indigeneous peoples, just as important a challenge is going to be changing people's attitudes. When Australians finally get a real understanding of what's going on - when everyone truly realises the conditions many Aboriginal people live in, when we acknowledge the continual discrimination and inequality that these people face, and when we all understand the health problems which our society has inflicted upon them, then maybe finally all Australians will be ready to say they are ``Sorry''. Only then will there be the public support and the momentum to effect long-lasting and far-reaching changes.

So how do we get people to change their attitudes? How do we create feelings of sympathy, empathy and outrage for indigeneous Australians amongst the general population? These are hard questions, without easy answers. I've certainly experienced first-hand that simply trying to reason with people one-to-one is utterly futile and frustrating. What we really need is a wide-ranging effort to educate people. And not just to explain to them the faces, stories and issues behind Reconciliation, but more importantly, to imbue in Australians a respect for the culture, beliefs and rights of our native peoples.

My own personal path towards a better understanding - a path I am still continuing along - began several years ago when I began work as a tour guide at Sydney Observatory. I was required to spend a couple of hours each night showing a group of 20 or so people around the night sky above Sydney, and part of this was sharing with them myths and stories about the stars and constellations. We were encouraged not to just restrict ourselves to the standard Western stories and patterns - Orion, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, for example - but to pass on to our visitors the appreciation that Australia's original inhabitants have always had for the night sky, and how they used the patterns they saw to explain the world around them. And so I went away to read up on Aboriginal Astronomy - Orion was transformed into a giant Emu, the Southern Cross became a gum tree, and the Milky Way turned into the fiery trail left behind by the Gooroo-Gooroo Bird as it flies across the sky. These patterns and the stories behind them, as well as being endlessly fascinating to an astronomer like myself, made me realise for the first time the wisdom and complexity of Aboriginal culture.

When I think of indigeneous Australians now, I see the living embodiments of a resourceful, spiritual and ancient people, and I realise what an incredibly unique heritage we have in Australia. Unlike many other countries, whose native peoples have been wiped out or totally assimilated, we in Australia have citizens who are directly descended, both genetically and culturally, from the people who first came here tens of thousands of years ago. As Bill Bryson has put it in his delightful book ``Down Under'':

``It is a fact little noted that the Aborigines have the oldest continuously maintained culture on earth. ... Imagine if there were some people in France who could take you the caves at Lascaux and explain in detail the significance of the paintings - why this bison is bolting from the herd, what these three wavy lines mean - because it as fresh and sensible to them as if it were done yesterday. Well, Aborigines can do that. It is an unparalleled human achievement.''

Just like for Bill Bryson, the beginnings of an understanding of and respect for our Aboriginal people emerged in me when I made an effort to understand their vast body of knowledge. And I can't help but feel that just as the amazing feats of our cricketers, swimmers and footballers produce a great deal of reverence and pride in the general populace, if the amazing culture of our native peoples can be truly appreciated by the rest of us, we might similarly begin to respect and revere them too. This lack of respect and understanding is a fundamental barrier - for many Australians, it has stopped their own personal Reconciliation from even getting off the ground.

And so I return to my grandmother's boat ticket from 1939, and the tolerance and compassion and diversity of Australia's last hundred years that this piece of paper embodies. If we are now to apply these same values to our own native peoples, we need a concerted effort - in our schools, in our media, and even to the bloke next to you in a pub or on an aeroplane. When Australians understand who our Aboriginal people are, realise what they stand for, and accept the responsibility for what our society has done to them, the healing process can begin.

The second thing which I planned to bury in my time capsule was another piece of paper - this time the ballot paper from November 1999, when we went to a referendum on whether we should become a Republic. Now as I said earlier, I'm not going to talk at all about the rights and wrongs of this whole on-going issue - definitely something for another place and time. But I think this ballot paper enshrines something remarkable about Australia and our system. Over the period leading up to this referendum, we had a vigorous discussion on nothing less than who was going to be our head of state. In one sense a minor, almost symbolic, tweak to our Constitution, in other ways a huge change to the way we'd done things for the last hundred years. But it was the way we went about doing this that made me realise what an extraordinary country this is.

We indulged in some heated debates, we made fun of each other, we argued and discussed the pros and cons with our friends and families. When the day came we cast our votes, and when the results were announced some were disappointed and others exultant. But when it was all over, most of us shrugged our shoulders, and got back to other things.

And as I said, this whole process was quite remarkable. First, we are of course lucky in that we live in a democracy - in many countries the people have no say at all in any aspect of how their country is run, let alone are given the opportunity to decide on such fundamental constitutional issues. Then there are other countries which are supposed to be democratic, but where groups of people who can't get their way simply take matters into their own hands. And we've seen recently that even in the United States, the self-proclaimed ``Greatest Democracy on Earth'', the opposing sides will resort to endless litigation in order to try and make sure the outcome is to their liking.

And then we come to Australia, where all these alternatives seem incredibly foreign and unthinkable. Where we can decide on something as fundamental as our head of state, and yet immediately accept the result whether it was to our liking or not. Where people divided on this one issue simply agree to disagree until it's put to the vote again.

The day of the Referendum seemed to me almost a comical sight - here we were, being given the responsibility not just of making this incredibly important decision about our country, but of sending out a strong statement about ourselves to the rest of the world. And yet rather than being a day on which the nation awoke imbued with the gravity of the situation, most people seemed more excited about the Rugby World Cup final to be played later that night. People would pull up to the polling booths on their way to the supermarket or to their children's soccer game. They would hurry in to cast their vote as quickly as possible, and would go back to more important things.

For me this day captured something fundamental about the Australian psyche. For one, it displayed our usual irreverence for our institutions and traditions, our dogged refusal to let anybody or anything be taken too seriously.

But you have to ask yourself: why are we like this? Why are we so easy-going about constitutional issues that in other countries might see protests, rioting or even tanks in the streets? Well I think we're laid back about it all simply because we can afford to be. In many other countries, people are doubtful or cynical of the system under which they live, and some live in fear of being oppressed or exploited. But in Australia, we have a system of government and democracy which is remarkably fair, smooth-running and stable. And while we might not ever specifically single out the integrity and stability of our system as a source of great national pride, the very fact that most of us don't dwell on such issues, and never take them too seriously when we do, demonstrates to me the underlying and even unconscious faith we all have in the way our country runs.

Americans sometimes express their horror that we Australians don't have our civil rights spelt out explicitly in our constitution. Near the beginning of the American Declaration of Independence, it is proclaimed: ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal''. What sort of free and fair country can we pretend to be, if nowhere in our laws is such an important promise to the people so specifically guaranteed?

The response I've usually given to this is that we too hold such truths to be self-evident, but that in Australia, such truths are so self-evident that they don't need to be written down - we don't need to make them law anymore than we need to codify ``mateship'' or ``a fair go'' - they're ingrained in the very essence of being Australian. And while all of us would like to think this is true, this claim entails a heavy responsibility. If there is no fundamental law specifically protecting the equality of every Australian; if the only thing safeguarding our rights is, as it was put in the film ``The Castle'', the ``vibe'' of the Constitution, then we really do need to be utterly unwavering in the sense of integrity and fairness that we would argue defines us.

I often wonder what it must have been like for those who engineered our Federation, back in the 1890s. After a long and drawn out process, the colonies had finally agreed to federate. Those who had been working so hard for self-determination had finally got what they wanted, but now faced a daunting task - how to set up a system of government that would actually produce the nation they had envisioned?

Writing a constitution is a profound responsibility. Leave the slightest loophole or make a bad choice in the way you define elections or distribute power, and, as we see in many other countries, you leave the way open for ineffective government, endless power struggles and disputed mandates. And it's usually very hard to go back and fix things later. So if you find yourself writing a new country's constitution, you're going to be very much aware that the well-being and prosperity of future generations depends crucially on the choices you make.

So this was the heavy responsibility weighing down on those who founded our nation. The document which they ended up producing appropriately reflects the mix of old world and new that is Australia. Our Constitution is a similar mix - we borrowed and adapted the British parliamentary system, the US senate and the Swiss system of referenda, framed it all with our own ideas, and ended up producing a document which, while rather terse, has done exactly what we hoped it would do. Our Constitution, with only a few changes over the years, has created a system which has run smoothly for an entire century. It's a system which works so well that most of the time we don't even give it a passing thought. And when an important decision like the recent Referendum does come up, we never doubt that whichever way things go, our way of life will remain unaffected. It's only when I turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, and read about countries enmired in constitutional crises or coup d'etats, of people stuck in endless cycles of civil war and instability, and all usually because of careless and hasty decisions made when their country was founded, that I realise just how good we here in Australia have got it. We can give thanks to both the carefully thought-out words written down in our Constitution and to the principles which this document has engendered in us and which make us Australian - the sense of equality, tolerance and fairness, which we truly hold to be self-evident.

Our stability, prosperity and guiding principles give us a serious responsibility. All around us are countries which aren't as fortunate as we are - just in the last year we've seen uprisings against the government in Fiji and in the Solomon Islands, widespread corruption in Papua New Guinea, and anarchy and mass murder in East Timor. It startles me every time I get out a map to see just how close to us all these countries are.

So it's not enough for us to sit around the BBQ with our mates and tell each other that `` 'Stralia's a top place''. If we really mean it when we say this, we have to be prepared to give help and guidance to those around us. For me, it's a source of great national pride that we indeed heavily commit ourselves to foreign aid. It feels pretty good to be Australian when I see a brief snippet on American TV about East Timor, and I see that it's our soldiers who are keeping the peace. My hope and vision for the future is that we never use our prosperity as an excuse to turn inward, but remain always ready to offer help to our neighbours when they need it.

So after 100 years, Australia is still free, tolerant and democratic - definitely a cause for celebration. We perhaps fail to beat our breasts about our nation and our system as much as other countries - you certainly don't hear us talk about Australia as ``the Land of the Free'', and few of us could tell you anything about the details of our Constitution. But I think this is the way it should be. I hope that on election days hereafter, voting is still an afterthought, a quick five minutes squeezed into a busy Saturday. That voting in Australia has always been simply a choice made in the context of peace and stability, rather than symbolising some titanic struggle for freedom and independence, is the real mark of our nation's achievements.

And so we come to the final item to go in my time capsule. To go alongside my two pieces of paper, I've decided to opt for something a bit different - the spinnaker of Australia II, which won the America's Cup back for us in 1983. This wonderful victory was a seminal moment for me - I was just ten years old, and until then had felt that Australia was utterly insignificant and unimportant in a global context.

I remember owning an atlas, in which various statistics for different countries - number of people, highest mountain, longest river, and so on - were all compared. And amidst this myriad of facts and figures, the only place where Australia even managed a mention was under ``number of sheep''. Even back then I was very keen on space and astronomy, but while my astronomy books were full of the achievements of the Russians, the Americans and the Europeans, there was never any mention of anything any Australian scientists had ever done. As a result of such experiences, I had formed the opinion that Australia was an unimportant little backwater, not involved in important issues, and not really capable of mixing it with the Big Boys.

But then along came Australia II. I can recall bounding out of bed each morning at 5am to watch race after race. Even when we were only meters away from claiming the Cup, I assumed that the Americans were somehow going to come back and claim victory. After all, this was the natural order of things, and was certainly what had always happened in the past.

But unbelievably, our yacht got home. I'm sure you all remember the moment when the cannon fired to announce that we'd crossed the line. You could almost sense the whole country sitting there in stunned silence, all of us feeling complete disbelief at what we had just seen happen. Not only had we just done something a lot of us thought we could never do, but we had done something so extraordinary that the whole world sat up and noticed. Americans were singing the song ``Down Under''; in yacht clubs all over the world, people were looking up Fremantle in their atlases and making plans to head down there in four years' time. To my young mind, all of a sudden Australia didn't seem small and unimportant anymore - we were as good as anyone else.

While for me nothing can ever top that magic moment in 1983, the last few years have just been incredible ones for sport in Australia. In 1999 we won just about every world title and championship imaginable. If after that there were still any lingering feelings that we weren't quite as good as everybody else, surely the last vestiges of that sentiment were swept away by the Olympics and Paralympics of just a few months ago, when there seems no argument that we put on the greatest show the world has ever seen. It's taken a long time, but finally we have convinced both ourselves and everybody else that, when it comes to sport, we're the best there is.

I know that some Australians get a little uncomfortable when one waxes about our sporting achievements - they rightly point out that we have high achievers in many other fields, none of whom are feted with gold medals and ticker tape parades the way our athletes are. When I was named as Young Australian of the Year, a great many people came up to me afterwards and told me, ``Thank goodness it wasn't a swimmer for a change.''

I don't share these sentiments, however - as well as being a hard-core sports fan, I think there's some important lessons to be learnt from our devotion to our athletes and our obsession with sport. Sport is an important part, perhaps even a defining part, of our national character - it reflects our love of the outdoors and our competitive and gutsy spirit. But it also teaches us how we, as an isolated country with a small population, can achieve and excel. Unlike other nations, who often succeed in the sporting arena through sheer resources and population, we have to rely on two things: our determination and our ingenuity.

I think the story of Australia II illustrates this nicely. Over the last 140 years, the New York Yacht Club had built up an aura of invincibility - every opposing yacht had to overcome the psychological challenge of taking on a team which had never been beaten. And so a large part of Australia II's victory was always going to have to be a belief in themselves, a grim determination to never throw in the towel, even when the way ahead looked impossible. And aside from the mental battle, there still remained the details of actually being the faster boat and winning the race. In stepped Australian innovation, in the form of Ben Lexcen and his winged keel. The Australians won the mind games, they had the faster boat, and it got them the America's Cup.

This theme has continued over the time since then - with determination and innovation, we've taken almost every sporting prize there is to offer. The lesson to be learnt is that if we apply similar principles to other disciplines, we can similarly aspire to be the best in the world.

And not very surprisingly, the area where I feel that such a future awaits us in our science. This 21st century which we began just a few weeks ago is going to be a truly incredible one. While the technological advances of the last hundred years have changed the world completely, the next hundred years are going to be ones which are going to be totally dominated by scientific discovery.

Computers are getting faster and more powerful at an exponential rate - the computer which landed Apollo 11 on the moon would now be comfortably outpaced by your pocket calculator. The internet and the web, two terms which were meaningless only ten years ago, have already begun to transform our lives. But compared to the wireless world of the near future, all these achievements will seem as primitive as the telegraph does to us today. The computers of the future will have virtually unlimited potential - computers that can think, computers that can make connections or discoveries that no-one else had thought of, and computers that immerse you in a virtual reality which will be indistinguishable from the real thing - these are what the future holds.

And then there's the world of biotech and genetics. Just last year, it was announced that the entire human genome had been sequenced - the list of chemicals that defines our very humanity is now sitting on some hard drive. Cloning animals is now relatively straightforward, and - for better or for worse - cloning humans can't be far away. And we can already genetically engineer plants and animals to our specifications - wheat which produces insecticide, strawberries which make their own anti-freeze, and rice which naturally produces essential vitamins and amino acids - all of these are now common place. So again, the future is hard to imagine - it's not ridiculous to suppose that you'll soon be able to grow a new organ from your own cells rather than wait for a transplant; incurable genetic diseases will be overcome with just a series of injections; and oil spills will be easily and quickly cleaned up by petroleum-eating designer-bacteria.

And so I paint a picture of an exciting and maybe frightening future, but one which certainly involves many changes in the way we live. And the question we need to ask ourselves is: does Australia want to be a part of, or even to lead the way in this future?

I would hope that the push for Australia to become a science leader would be driven simply by our national pride and our desire to achieve. In the last dizzying century of scientific discovery, Australia has certainly made many important contributions - penicillin, the bionic ear, and the measurement of the Universe's expansion, just to name a few. We would not be faithful to this legacy if we did not maintain this commitment to excellence and discovery in the future.

But there is far more than pride or tradition at stake. In the past, the economy of a nation has largely depended on its natural resources - and indeed our country's prosperity is largely a result of our minerals, industry and agriculture. But the drivers for economic growth are changing. The prosperous countries of the future will not simply be those with the most sheep, but those who lead the world in innovation, ingenuity and scientific discovery. The ``Clever Country'' and the ``Knowledge Nation'' are not just cute terms. If we want Australia to be strong and prosperous, if we hope to continue enjoying the standard of living we've come to expect, if we want to be competitive and dynamic on the world stage, then this has to be the way forward.

And it's not just a case of making sure Australia has lots of funding and good scientists. The more science comes to dominate our lives, the more critical it is that all people are responsible and informed when it comes to science. Already, we face the prospect of serious health threats from drug-resistant ``super bugs'' because people fail to finish their courses of antibiotics. Evidence is perhaps beginning to emerge that electromagnetic radiation from power lines and mobile phones is a serious health-hazard. And with genetically-modified food now turning up in our supermarkets, and usually indistinguishable from unmodified alternatives, it's critical that people start to make informed decisions about what they eat. And as the changes and innovations that technology brings come faster and faster, it will be increasingly more important that people understand the issues so that they can have a say in how they let science shape their lives.

Aside from all these arguments as to why science is important, I would like to think Australia is a place which is about more than economic growth and our standard of living. Australia is also a country which values culture, beauty and diversity. And so just as we treasure and appreciate great art, music and poetry, we should surely value science even aside from all the benefits and applications which it offers, but simply for the sense of wonder and insight that it gives us. Right now as I am standing here speaking to you, above our heads there are stars being born and others dying. Beneath our feet, hot magma is seething and bubbling at the earth's centre. And in every cell in our bodies, clever little chemical reactions are turning our food into energy, grabbing oxygen out of the air and keeping our blood clean. All this is going on all the time - it seems a terrible waste if we aren't trying to find out more about the beauty and detail of all these amazing things.

So I would argue that our future well-being and prosperity, both as a nation and as individuals, is truly in our science. We have a lot of scientists in Australia, and most of them are very good at what they do. We certainly have the levels of determination and innovation required to become world champs in science as well as in sport.

But innovation isn't just something which spontaneously develops. It needs to be nurtured, encouraged and invested in. And unfortunately we're falling behind other countries in the way we do our research. The fraction of our economy which is invested in generating new knowledge is now one of the lowest in the developed world. And in an age of multinationals and globalisation, where it's private industries rather than government-funded institutions that are going to make more and more of the big breakthroughs, it's embarrassing that the commitment to research by Australian companies has steadily decreased for the last five years. The fraction of our GDP put into private research and development is now less than half the developed-world average.

If we look at a country like Canada - a country with a similarly sized population and economy to ours, and a similar history of reliance on commodities and natural resources - we see some striking contrasts to Australia in the direction they have decided to take for the future. In the last few years, Canada has made a definitive decision that their future is going to be centred around innovation. Their government has made a series of huge investments - three billion dollars to go into their university system, a billion dollars per year to support research in private industry, and six hundred million extra dollars for research grants. But when we turn our attention to Australia, things look a little different - repeated cuts to the university system, increased taxes for industry-based research, and regular reductions to research funding.

A series of recent reports from various scientific organisations all have the same message, all full of indicators demonstrating ``the fragility of Australia's innovation system'' and all urging that ``we need to act now if we are not to be left behind.''

There have certainly been some steps in the right direction in the last few years - Australian funding for medical research will double by 2004, and special government programmes aimed at getting research companies up and started have been very successful. But this is not enough - university departments are merging and closing down, thousands of young scientists, like myself, are moving overseas because of lack of funding and opportunities, and a myriad of indicators as to our scientific output shows us on a downward slide.

But it's not too late to turn things around. Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, has given his recent report on the state of Australian innovation the title ``The Chance To Change''. He paints an exciting future of a ``can-do'' Australia, ``an ideas-based economy with tremendous growth and dynamism'', a country where science is synonymous with excitement, and a place where global technologies emerge. To quote Dr Batterham:

``Today, Australia stands at the crossroads - it can continue ... to slip behind other countries or it can take a bold step and move into a new and exciting era. ... Now is the chance to change.''

And so it's really up to us. It's up to our politicians, to drastically reinvigorate our science and technology sectors with increased funding and new programmes. It's up to our media, to report responsibly on new scientific developments, and to highlight the achievements of Australian researchers. It's up to our scientists, to keep doing world-class work. And it's up to the public, to be enthusiastic and supportive of the work our scientists are doing.

My dream for Australia is that we will soon fulfil the potential offered by our determination and innovation. That our scientific achievements will make the world sit up and take notice in the same way that our sporting achievements have. In my vision for Australia's future, there are Australians regularly winning Nobel Prizes and making key scientific breakthroughs. And in my vision, these achievements make us feel as good about being Australian as our sporting triumphs do now.

And so I'm ready to seal my time capsule. The three items which I've chosen - my grandmother's boat ticket, a ballot paper from the referendum, and the spinnaker of Australia II, are objects which both capture important moments in the past, and which, to me, embody what it means to be Australian.

But they each contain a challenge for the future as well. I want my time capsule to be opened in January 2101, when we celebrate the bicentenary of Federation. The challenge to our descendants who open this capsule will be whether the items within it mean the same things to them as they do to us - will they just see two scraps of paper and an old sail, or will they see tolerance, democracy and innovation? My hope and vision is that these objects will still carry the same powerful message in a hundred years as they do now. I see an Australia which has extended its compassion to include our native peoples. I see a way of life in which stability and equality are still so deeply embedded that nobody gives them a second thought. And I see a country in which the ingenuity and brilliance that we used to display only on the sporting field now manifest themselves in all our achievements.

If this is all going to happen, then Australia Day has to be more than just a time to celebrate. Australia Day has to be a time to think carefully about what makes us Australian - a time to decide just what it is that we should be celebrating, and to focus on what there is that we still have to do. In effect, I'm really asking that every Australian choose some items to be put in a time capsule, and then that we all work towards ensuring our choices still have their symbolism and their potency a hundred years from now.

Happy Birthday Australia, and thank you very much.

Note 1: Sadly, my grandmother passed away in September 2002.

Note 2: Since giving this speech, it has come to my attention that the attribution and quote given in the text of my speech were not completely correct. The correct attribution is Colonel Thomas W. White, the Australian Minister for Trade and Customs, speaking about the plight of European Jews at the Evian Conference in 1938. His statement was: ``We have no real racial problem, [and] we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.'' This information has been obtained from Australian Memories of the Holocaust.

This speech is ©2001 Bryan Gaensler, and may only be reproduced or distributed for private use unless my explicit permission is given otherwise.

Last updated: 07-Feb-2003
Bryan Gaensler