Advancing our common future

11 December 2019

At the University's inaugural Grand Graduation, Helen Clark was given an honorary doctorate. In this address to graduates, she says that despite the world facing many challenges by coming together we can overcome them. She urges all graduates to play their part.


Right Honourable Helen Clark

Remarks at Ceremony Conferring Honorary Doctorate at Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

Tuesday 10 December 2019.



Vice Chancellor,

Members of the University Community,

Ladies and Gentlemen.


Let me begin by thanking the University for conferring on me this honorary doctorate. It is a great honour to receive such recognition from the Australian National University.

I have visited Australia many times in a range of capacities over some four decades. As a New Zealand political leader, I was well aware that my country's relationship with Australia was the most important relationship we had. Not only are our countries close neighbours, but also:

 -         we share democratic values;

-         the shape of our institutions across the executive, parliamentary, and justice spheres is very similar;

-         we have a shared military history from the South African War to two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and in peacekeeping in the near region and in the Sinai to modern times; and

-         we enjoy one of the world's most far reaching free trade agreements, freedom of movement between our countries, and deep family ties.

For all these reasons, maintaining a good relationship with Australia was at the top of my government's foreign policy priorities. Of course, there were differences of view from time to time, but overwhelmingly the relationship went smoothly to the benefit of both countries. Long may that be the case.

In my eight years as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, I continued to interact with Australia in its capacity as a core funder of UNDP and as a funder of specific initiatives, particularly in the Pacific. I personally enjoyed strong support from Australia as Administrator, which I very much appreciated.

Let me now address my comments to those graduating from the Australian National University.

It is 45 years since I graduated from Auckland University with a Master's Degree in Political Studies. I was the first member of my family to graduate from a university, which was true of many students at that time. My education provided essential building blocks from which to rise to the top of the New Zealand political system, then to one of the most senior positions at the United Nations, and now both to lead and to participate in a range of international organisations.

In 1974, my generation of graduates emerged into a world very different from that of today - for a start, there were no cell phones, no social media, and no internet. Democratic governments were not numerous. An apartheid regime ruled South Africa. The Cold War between the American- and Soviet Union-led camps was in full swing. The Vietnam War had not ended. China was still a very poor country and far from being the major geopolitical force it now is. Climate change wasn't in anyone's vocabulary. Extreme poverty was widespread in developing countries.

While a relentless tide of bad news often makes our world today look like a dystopia, actually a great deal has changed for the better for many. But progress has been uneven, and a number of the old challenges remain, from the perpetuation of extreme and multidimensional poverty to denial of civil and political rights.

To those are added new challenges - including the changing nature of conflict, with a number of intractable civil wars, terrorist groups with global reach, and societies bought to their knees by organised crime; disruptive technological change which has profound implications for economies and societies; the scale of the impacts of environmental degradation, not least on our climate and on biodiversity; and the rapid pace of urbanisation - around 55 per cent of people live in cities now, and that will grow to more than two-thirds of the world's population by 2050.

That is the world in which today's graduates will apply their talents. It is very important that each and every graduate believes that they personally can make a difference for the better - whatever the course of study completed, and wherever one aspires to work

My career choice was to be in public life and decision-making, but that is only one of many ways to contribute. Inspirational leaders are to be found in all walks of life - from those who work with and for the most marginalised populations to those who educate, who research, who provide health and other services, and who make a difference for the environment. ANU's graduates will surely be found among the inspirational leaders of the future.

In 2015, the international community agreed on an ambitious agenda in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals. To drive progress on those, we need people with a capacity for systems thinking, we need institutions and processes which can work across siloes and sectors, and we need the rapid spread of innovation and enabling technologies. 

Among the fundamental premises of the global agenda is to leave no one behind in development and to reduce our ecological footprint. Traditional ways of developing have placed the ecosystems on which life depends at grave risk - to the extent of threatening to roll back advances in human development made to date. So, we cannot go on as we are.

Problematic as the times we live in are, I remain an optimist. It is within our capacity as a human community to overcome the challenges before us. That will require leadership, investment in human capacities, and a determination to grow and develop in ways which are both inclusive and sustainable. 

I therefore encourage all ANU graduates to think about how their knowledge and skills can be put to the service not only of advancing personal careers, but also of advancing our common future. 

I thank the University once again for bestowing on me the Honorary Doctorate and wish all graduating from ANU the best for the future.