The ANU Students’ Association 2015 Commencement Address set the tone for this year as ANUSA seeks to focus on diversity, equity and women in leadership. Dr Anne Gallagher AO, an alumna of the university, delivered the keynote address at Llewellyn Hall on Monday, the 16th of February, which centred on “the idea of thinking critically and well”.
In front of a relatively small but highly engaged crowd, Dr Gallagher told students that human rights were “radical” and “dangerous”, and that hard-won ideas were about the redistribution of power from the strong to the weak”. In particular, freedoms of thought, speech and expression required the utmost diligence to protect.
Dr Gallagher, who graduated from ANU with a Masters in International Law in 1991, is a leading global expert on the international law of human trafficking. She was the inaugural chair of the United Nations Inter-Agency Group on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling.
ANUSA Women’s Officer Loren Ovens introduced the night’s proceedings, which began with an acknowledgement of country from PARSA Equity Officer and Wiradjuri woman Jessa Rogers.
ANUSA President Ben Gill then spoke of ANUSA’s under recognised role as a provider of a safety net for marginalised, vulnerable and in-need students, not just as an organiser of large-scale social events.
Gill also foreshadowed the night’s theme of personal responsibility, saying, “Each of you is an important part of the ANU community, and so play a part in upholding its wellbeing”. Gill spoke of the need for better engagement of non-residential students and called for a reinvigoration of strategies to improve mental health on campus.
Dr Gallagher began by calling on students to carefully “interrogate the basis” of their own beliefs. The ability to critique one’s own ideas and developing a tolerance for having one’s ideas questioned was something she said she wished she had cultivated while at university.
Even the well intentioned, Dr Gallagher said, failed to think critically, with human rights lawyers thinking they had “a monopoly on truth”. The moral certainty she began her career with was slowly chipped away at by the realisation that rights could be irreconcilable.
On this, Dr Gallagher cited the right to freedom of religion and the human rights of women. Not speaking out against violations of women’s rights was, she argued, “a failure of courage” which “shames us all”.
Dr Gallagher reserved pointed criticism for the Australian government and their ratcheting up of the national security apparatus in response to a perceived threat from the Islamic State. The public in democratic nations too easily rolled over and allowed the violation of human rights because of fear.
More controversial with this audience was Dr Gallagher’s support for changes to water down the provisions against offence or insult contained within the Racial Discrimination Act. These qualifications to free speech, while borne out of good intentions, were, she said, analogous to laws against blasphemy and sedition used by dictators to retain power.
Linda Ma is the College of Arts and Social Sciences Representative for ANUSA.