The ANUSA Commencement Address furnishes the ANU community with an opportunity to formally and symbolically welcome the beginning of the academic year. Last Wednesday, the Honourable Senator Penny Wong presented the address and took the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of ‘everyday ethics’.

Although the official topic of the address was ‘Our ability to succeed tomorrow depends on the education we provide to day’, Senator Wong deviated to consider personal morals in both a public and individual sphere. The Labor Senator, who confessed her aim was to be ‘meaningful’ rather than ‘funny’, drew upon a parliamentary speech, a public campaign and a personal anecdote to consider the importance of actively making ethical choices in the face of inequality and discrimination, and emphasised how a tertiary education empowers one to stand up against inequity.

Senator Wong referred to comments in fellow Senator Nova Perris’ Closing the Gap report to the Senate in 2014. Particularly, she echoed Perris’ appeal for the community to not ‘just talk about it; be about it’ and encouraged the student body to take constructive actions in creating societal change.

‘To be about it, a [person] needs an education’.

Referring to her own ‘formative’ years growing up in a marginalised immigrant family in the 1970s, Wong highlighted the effectiveness of outward displays of solidarity in the face of racism. Senator Wong also encouraged students to peacefully campaign for issues that they found important, quoting the warning of Lieutenant General David Morrison: ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’.

Questions were opened to the floor following the address, inviting Wong to comment on political issues of climate change, asylum seeker policy and environmental campaigns, and the shaping of her public identity. It was during this time that the Senator identified climate change and changing economic dynamics in the Asian century as the biggest challenges facing contemporary Australia.

The evening began with an acknowledgment from ANUSA Indigenous Officer, Clementine Pickwick, to recognise the traditional owners of the land. ANUSA President Cam Wilson then introduced Senator Wong as, amongst other accolades, a ‘nice person’ (a comment courtesy of contract builders) after Vice Chancellor Ian Young highlighted the successes and advantages of study at the ANU in an academic and ‘curiosity-driven’ community.

Each year – with the exception of 2013 – ANUSA has invited a keynote speaker to address ANU students and staff with an inspiring message for the year ahead. The address was introduced in 2010 by then-ANUSA President Tully Fletcher. Past speakers have included the Honourable Bob Hawke, Chris Taylor and Andrew Denton.

Watch our interview with Senator Penny Wong:

Photo by Janis Lejins