The Chancellor of the ANU sits down with Fergus Hunter to talk university, work, federal politics and foreign policy.
First class honours law student at Melbourne University, Masters student at Oxford University, 21 years as an MP, Attorney General, Foreign Minister, president of international organisations, chair of international commissions, and now the Chancellor of our university. It’s fair to say he’s done a bit.
Describing his role as “terrifically stimulating”, Mr Evans was enthusiastic to show his loyalty from the get go, claiming that the ANU is “absolutely right to claim to be the country’s finest university”, in an implicit dismissal of the main rival for this position (his alma mater and also where he holds a position) Melbourne University.
Ever the tease, Mr Evans slipped into the conversation that we’ll be hearing about some ‘major new developments’ in the university’s contribution to debate and policy, hastening to add that “I can’t talk about it now” but that all would be revealed soon.
On the challenging expense of student accommodation, Mr Evans labelled it “an issue that we’re constantly wrestling with”, not least because of the administration’s understanding that the “on campus presence” is an integral part of the experience, as well as an appreciation of the “economic imperative to keep the cost as low as possible”. He acknowledged the problem, but didn’t take it much further, instead offering up the observation that “what you get for the fees is pretty extraordinary”. On the new residences, Mr Evans said that he was “gobsmacked by the quality of the living environment” as well as the ‘quasi-college’ extent of services and support. He added that the administration was ‘working like hell’ to strike the ‘difficult balance’ between keeping prices low and giving value for money.
Moving on from university matters, I asked for his thoughts on what now seems like the completely ancient ALP leadership battle. He quickly mentioned that, due to his proximity to certain actors in the events (presumably the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, with whom he was going to have lunch with after the interview,) he didn’t want to comment too specifically. When asked if he thought the outcome of the leadership spill was the best one, he conspicuously failed to mention the victor, instead fast forwarding to the appointment of Bob Carr as foreign minister. When I probed him on whether he thought Kevin Rudd would have another go at the top job, he concluded that it’s not “beyond the realm of possibility”, but emphatically stated that it wouldn’t happen “in the life of this parliament”.
Mr Evans has been a strident supporter of Bob Carr since he was first mentioned as a candidate for the Senate vacancy and foreign ministership. According to the Chancellor, Carr is “an outstanding talent” who’s “not only got a voice but a brain to go with it”. Carr’s strengths are that he has “spent a lot of time absorbing information”, and is “nuanced in his understanding of global political issues” as well as possessing a “personality that people warm to” and “very good connections and personal relations with a lot of people in high places”.
On the ALP’s prospects in the next election, Mr Evans seemed calm and confident that a victory is entirely possible. “We’re only 6 points apart in two-party preferred terms, a number of governments in recent memory have bounced back from shortfalls of that kind in similar stages of the electoral cycle”. He emphasised the need to “demonstrate the nakedness of the opposition…in its present mode of not at all contributing constructively to the public policy debate”.
Trying hard not to imagine a naked Bronwyn Bishop (sorry), I quickly moved on to policy. First up, asylum seekers, an area he feels we have “to go back to fundamentals and recognise that we are talking about people who are seeking asylum from situations of terror, of despair, of oppression. And there’s a whole body of international law and practice, which says that their position should be supported”. He summed up with a call to “get real about the scale of the problem and get civilised in the way in which we deal with it”.
It could be said that Mr Evans seemed distracted and rushed during the interview. In his own words, he “[hasn’t] been slacking it”. He rattled off his 2011 travel in numbers with eager precision: 11 overseas trips, one being 4 weeks long and involving 12 countries, 15 cities and 25 speeches. He estimated that ANU related matters currently occupy 25% of his time (with the rest being Melbourne University, international advocacy and sitting on the boards of 6 global NGOs), and he’s keen to spend “more time, rather than less, at the ANU”.
To finish, I was keen to make him pick sides. Citing his education and position at Melbourne University, and his Chancellorship at the ANU, I asked him which his favourite was. He did the right thing and answered that now, “ANU really is where my heart is”.