Speech by the Governor of Victoria for the Melbourne Law School's Honour Boards' 160th Anniversary. 



The Honourable Justice Christopher Maxwell AC, President of the Court of Appeal, and other Judges – past and present

Mr Allan Myers AC QC, Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and Mrs Maria Myers AC

Professor Carolyn Evans, Dean of the Melbourne Law School, and Dr Stephen Donaghue QC, Solicitor General of the Commonwealth

The many distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

First, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we are gathering and pay my respects to their elders past and present and to any elders here with us this evening.

160 years' ago

My husband, Tony and I are delighted to be here on the special occasion of the 160th birthday of this Law School and the celebratory unveiling of its Honour Boards.

Significant milestones, like 160th anniversaries, don’t come around very often. Obviously. It is a privilege for the Governor of the day when they do, the more so for me in this instance, when it happens to involve an institution already dear to my heart. Tony is connected to it too. He may have obtained his law degree 'in another place' but at least he did then study criminology at this university.

It is extraordinary that the Melbourne Law School was founded 160 years ago, when you contemplate those times.

1857. The colony of Victoria was only 6 years old. The Gold Rush had seen the population grow by a massive 73% in the 3 preceding years, to just over 400,000 people.

The fledgling city of Melbourne looked quite different. Remarkably, the beautiful Old Quadrangle ‘across the road’ had been completed in 1854, when this University got underway. The State Library though had not yet been completed, the construction of Parliament was just in progress and our magnificent Government House was still some 20 years from being built.

Sir Henry Barkly was the Governor of the day: the highest paid Governor in the Commonwealth. Victoria was apparently considered the most difficult of all the colonial postings!

And so, into this young colony, Australia's first law course was born. 

In my day

Melbourne and Victoria have travelled far since then, as have the University and its Law School. 

The Law School has come a long way indeed, not just from its founding in 1857, but even from when I was an undergraduate here in the early 1970s: at a time that I now realise was more than one-quarter of the Law School's lifetime ago.

Yes, I was here in the 'olden days,' when you could study law as a single undergraduate degree, be finished in four years, and be practising law by the age of twenty-one. Some may regard that as an upside, although I have no doubt at all that the contemporary model of a law course here is a vast improvement.

In any event, I can tell you there were downsides. My contemporaries will recall them.

The Law School was dusty, dark and draughty. The books were heavy. Yes, we used books. The lectures were long. Yes, we actually attended lectures. Where, I might add, we sat in alphabetical order and were addressed by surname. I wonder if the millennials would submit to such rigid formality.

There were of course wonderful aspects of all those things. The need to use books kept us in the Law School library, and the draughtiness made us cluster together around the heaters. And so, there was great camaraderie. And attending lectures meant we were part of a cohort. We knew most of the people in our year and some from above and below.

And the numbers of students allowed that. (By1970, when I started, the number of students enrolled in the Law School had grown from the initial 33, to 601, compared to the 2730 students of today).

For all that, I would say, with the benefit of hindsight, that in addition to the paucity of women, (and I shall return to that), the single greatest downside was the narrowness of my education compared to today, and I shall definitely return to that as well.

Those who aren't on Boards

The Law School’s history is quite a story, and the Honour Boards we are unveiling tonight talk to us about it. They tell a wider story too: a story about our community and about its different eras. Just as the rings on a 160-year old tree can reveal important facts about the environment in which it has grown, the names on these boards tell us about the environment in which this Law School has evolved.

Some of what they tell us is told by what is missing.

First, they remind us that, throughout history, in the wider world as well as here, there are leaders, innovators and geniuses whose names never made it to an honour board in any university or educational institution.

Some were even expelled before they completed their course of study. Einstein, from school. Shelley, from Oxford. Salvador Dali, from the Academy of Art in Madrid.

Some were drop-outs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. In Australia, Paul Keating. Lindsay Fox. Comedian Anh Do, (perhaps not someone who would commonly expect to be mentioned in the same breath as Einstein or Keating but successful in his craft, and he did drop out with only 6 months of his combined Business/Law course to go). Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, the young billionaire founders of software company, Atlassian, are another two. And, of course, there is Barry Humphries AO CBE, who dropped out of this very Law School.

It’s too depressing to contemplate their successes, for those of us who studied late into the night and in weekends, who persisted in reading the whole case, (not just the head note – although that was so very tempting), and who had to concentrate and write down every word in lectures. The more so for those who, like me, did all that without ever really loving the study of law. (Thank goodness I loved its practice).

And so, acknowledging that success can come in many forms, and can be built on different foundations, it is still fascinating to see these Honour Boards, and to contemplate the wonderful accomplishments that shine through them so clearly.

These Boards tell a story

The over-achievers

They reveal to us, for example, some outstanding achievers.

The ultimate example is Sir Robert Menzies KT AK CH FRS QC.

His name appears no less than eleven times: for winning the Supreme Court Prize, as Commonwealth Attorney-General, as Prime Minister (twice), for being awarded an honorary doctorate and for being Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. Oh yes, and for being President of the Law Students' Society 6 times in a row.

And had some of the other awards been invented in his lifetime, no doubt his name would have appeared more times than that!

Then there is W Harrison Moore – who was Law Students' Society President eight times between 1893 and 1900. One wonders how long he was a student.

Was it a case of, as they used to say about President George H W Bush, that his last year of law school was the best four years of his life? I think not. W Harrison Moore went on to become Sir William Harrison Moore KBE CMG, a renowned professor of constitutional law, and the third Dean of this Law School.

The nation's leaders

It is striking to see just how successful this school has been in leading our state and our nation. 

It has spawned 4 Prime Ministers. Eight Premiers of our State. Three Governors-General. Four Victorian Governors (of the 9 since the last of the British Governors).

One very famous General – the one who gave his name to that other university, with its own very good law school.

Sixteen Commonwealth Attorneys-General.

Four Chief Justices of Australia (of thirteen). Six of this State’s Chief Justices. Thirteen of the nation’s 52 High Court judges.

Twenty-six Rhodes Scholars. And, as of a few days’ ago, when Allan Myers AC QC was installed, an extraordinary total of ten of the twenty-two Chancellors across the history of this University.

And I suspect that if we had additional honour boards for members of our state and federal parliaments, and heads of public service departments, there might not be a wall left in the building that would not be covered: the list of names would be so extensive.

So, what do these Boards really tell us?

They tell us of the strong sense of public duty this School has fostered in its students. Its graduates have aspired to serve the people. That is perhaps the most important boast that any university faculty can make.

They tell us too that its graduates have frequently risen to the top of our legal and political systems, making this School an ornament to our democracy. Victoria’s and Australia’s history have most certainly been enriched by it.

The Boards raise important questions

But at a moment such as this, when we pause to celebrate our history, we also have the opportunity to contemplate how that history might inform the future that we would like to see.

Is it, for example, a good thing that so many of those in positions of power in our legal and political systems, have come from one institution? Is it a good thing that the graduates of a single law school should win such a high proportion of the nation’s academic prizes and so many of the nation's honours?

These are of course not questions that pertain to this University alone.

In fact, they only arise because of its success, and can be asked of other successful Australian universities, and, on a global scale, of the likes of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and the elite French Écoles.

I have no doubt that the level of excellence that this University both demands and instills in its students, will continue to see its graduates well equipped to rise to the top of their chosen careers. However, I think a changed and changing landscape will see a greater spread amongst our leaders.

Whereas 160 years’ ago, there was only one law school in our colony – and when I started law there were (only by several years’) just two – law can now be undertaken as well at Deakin, La Trobe, Victoria University, the Australian Catholic University and Swinburne.

The reality is that, in the future, lawyers who rise to positions of power in the judiciary or in politics are statistically more likely to be drawn from a larger pool of universities.

I spoke before of what is missing from these Boards. Even a cursory glance tells us of eras past, when names from large swathes of our community simply did not appear. In that way, they reflect the society in which this Law School grew, and the social mores of the times.

The important question now is as to whether the graduates who populate these Honour Boards in the future will be representative of our community as a whole?

I think that increasingly they will.

This century sees us all with a heightened awareness of the need for diversity, for different perspectives, for the use of 100% of our talent pool to meet the unique cocktail of challenges presented by technology, disruption and globalisation.

And it sees the commitment of this University and Law School to equity and diversity, with programs specifically designed to support students from under-represented backgrounds, including rural and regional Australians, refugees, Indigenous Australians, those with a disability or those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

That support includes the granting of scholarships, favourable consideration of the marks required for entry, support officers, mental health programs and some specific additional learning and employment opportunities.

All that said, these Honour Boards do already reveal changes that have swept through society.

It is clearest when it comes to women.

Women on Boards

Although the 1st woman, Grata Flos Matilda Greig, graduated from the School in 1903, not one woman’s name appears on these Boards until 1939, (that is 82 years after the founding of the Law School – more than half of its lifetime), when Airlie Blake (nee Smith), one of only a small number of female students at the time, won the Supreme Court Prize.

Two years later, in 1941, Airlie Smith became the first female Law Students’ Society (LSS)President. What a trailblazer for women!

Interestingly, the 2nd female LSS President did not appear until Frances O’Brien QC was elected in 1979. The 38-year gap seems incredible, considering it covered some of the most active years of the feminist movement.

It would make me think that my generation had completely failed, but thank goodness for my friend, Cathy Sweeney, (now Catherine Walter), who became the 1st female editor of the Melbourne University Law Review in 1973 ... the year we graduated. Sorry to spell out that date Cathy, but when we ponder these Boards, I am sure our ages become an open secret!

When it comes to other firsts for women, the first female Rhodes Scholar from the Law School, was not until Karen Yeung, in 1993. The 1st female Prime Minister was not until 2010 – I don’t have to say who that was. Nicola Roxon, the 1st female Commonwealth Attorney-General was not until 2011. And I have it on good authority that the 1st female Governor of Victoria was not until 2015.

As a reflection of historical evolution, you might be tempted to think that it does not reflect well on the University.

Of course, the fact is that it does not reflect well on any of us, within or outside this University, lawyers or non-lawyers, men or women. The pace of change for women has been, as many are tired of saying, simply glacial.

In fact, these Honour Boards can be seen as a source of optimism. Within them, we do see some progress.

There may not have been a female editor of the Melbourne University Law Review until 1973, but women have comprised 47 of the 117 editors since then.

Since the second female Law Students’ Society President in 1980, 17 of the next 38 have been women.

Of 78 Supreme Court Prize winners since the first woman in 1939, 23 have been women, including more than half of all the winners in the last two decades.

And of course, the honour roll now includes the names of the winners of the Joan Rosanove QC Memorial Prize – named in recognition of Victoria’s 1st female Queen’s Counsel – which, since 1976, has been awarded to the top-ranked final year female student.

For women, a steady advance towards more equal representation is clear, and hopefully it will continue and gather speed.

Other groups

But what about for others?

Where it is easiest to glean a hint from an honour board ... in other words, according to people’s names ... change too has started to come.

Over time, the predominantly English, Scottish and Irish names have started giving way to names from other nations. And, having seen the ethnic diversity amongst a Law Graduation ceremony that I attended here just last week, I have no doubt that those names shall continue to change at a more and more rapid pace.

As they do, and as they change to reflect every wave of migration – to reflect our 25% of Victorians born overseas, and the 45% of us with one parent born overseas – this University can be justly proud as a crucible of opportunity.

But of course there are some things that these Honour Boards cannot tell us just by looking at the names.

Like how many of those represented there have a disability. Or are indigenous. Or how many grew up in our less affluent suburbs and regions, went to government schools, or have been the first members of their families to go to university.

Past studies have found that across universities, law students were the least likely in any discipline to be from low socio-economic backgrounds: that high socio-economic status students were nearly five times more likely than low-SES students to be studying law, and that the University of Melbourne had a lower proportion of low-SES students than other Victorian universities.

The University’s well developed access and scholarship programs (to which I referred a little earlier) will, I am sure, underpin the broad-based opportunity that it seeks to promote.

Elementary considerations of equity tell us that no one should be excluded from any profession on the grounds of gender or background.

And elementary considerations of the need for diversity tell us that it is the firmest foundation on which the best democracy and community is built. Nowhere is that plainer than when it comes to the law.

It quite simply matters who makes, implements and adjudicates upon our laws. Lawmakers and interpreters inevitably bring to the task their own experiences, their own perspectives and their unconscious biases, no matter how hard they try to stop those things from intruding.

By way of illustration, when our laws were made almost entirely by men ... our courts presided over and populated almost entirely by men…and the system administered and policed almost entirely by men ... the self-evident result was that women did not have a voice.

It may be argued that their perpetuated absence engrained inequities, such as the disparity in pay that still pervades the workplace today, or the culture and systems that have seen rampant family violence.

Indigenous Australians, migrants and people with a disability could make similar claims throughout history.

When the legal system is unrepresentative, it risks losing its democratic legitimacy. The legitimacy of democracies is being questioned like never before in our recent history. It warns us to be more vigilant than ever about genuine representation in every part of our system.

Questions about the future

In looking to the future, there are other questions that occur to me as I read the history on these Boards.

Will the Honour Boards of the future need new categories of achievement to truly mark the success of the Law School alumni? To recognize, for example, those who will increasingly dominate in fields other than law or politics, or those who will practise law but in a different way?

Yes, I think so. And I hope so.

Given this generation’s broader range and expectation of career options, the linear (and narrow) careers of lawyers that we saw so seamlessly take them into the judiciary or into politics - the norm in generations of the past (including for me)- are unlikely to be seen in the same numbers in the future.

For that matter, they are unlikely to be seen in other disciplines either, when we consider the projection that a school leaver today will have approximately 17 different employers in their lifetime and up to 5 changes of careers.

Law itself has changed, and is rapidly changing even more.

In my day, there were not even will kits, let alone conveyancing services, online documents or outsourced legal services available from offshore around the clock.

Actually, dare I say it, there were no word processors. There certainly were no computers that could provide research at the tap of a key, and we were not on the brink of having cognitive computing that could perform discovery, or the near possibility of artificial intelligence deciding cases in the courts.

And inter-disciplinary collaboration, whilst common in the sciences, was certainly not common within the domain of lawyers.

But the more complex and disrupted industries of today demand it: whether for I.T. experts, product and other designers or for scientists who often need to collaborate well beyond just their scientific colleagues.

The big accounting firms are onto it. They have lawyers embedded in their offices to offer a holistic service to their clients. And PWC, for example, has just employed Russel Howcroft, a ‘TV man’, into the newly created role of Chief Creative Officer, to assist clients with brand and marketing strategy, in addition to the traditional accounting services.

Lawyers are not and will not be exempt from such cross-over.

This University has served its students well, recognising ahead of the curve that they could not emerge from university to succeed in their chosen field, without a broad based education.

Whether lawyers or not, they will need more in their tool kits than just an understanding of black letter law. They need not only to be capable of responding to disruption, but of causing it as well, so as not to be left behind.

It is inevitable that the lawyers of the future will dominate in fields other than law, or for that matter politics and the bureaucracy: those traditional paths in which they have been so over-represented in the past.

The first reason is simply numeric. With the advent of more Law Schools, every year, increasing numbers of law graduates are searching for a finite number of legal jobs. Clearly not everyone with a law degree is going to become a lawyer. Equally, not everyone who undertakes a law degree expects or wants to become a lawyer.

But the reason too is that contemporary thinking has informed us that those from backgrounds other than law are also well equipped for politics and public service.

I note that China's Politburo's standing committee is comprised of nine members: eight engineers and one lawyer.

In many European countries, engineering has traditionally been the most prestigious tertiary course, and many engineers take prominent roles in government.

To lead in our complex world, black letter law will not be the paramount pre-requisite. Well-tuned minds, developed research and problem-solving skills, rigorous thinking, clarity of writing and creative vision are fundamental. The Melbourne Model, of which this Law School is a part, is appropriately directed to that breadth of learning.

In the past, although we have predominantly honoured our graduates who have become lawyers, judges, politicians and even governors, we know that many from this Law School have in fact achieved renown in areas other than the law.

General Sir John Monash GCMG, KCB, VD, (already mentioned as an alumnus) is one of them. Mind you, he had completed engineering and arts degrees as well as law!

Waleed Aly, TV personality, academic and journalist has a law degree: another who obtained a degree in engineering as well as law.

And there is James Gorman, CEO and Chairman of JP Morgan. Ronny Chieng, comedian (I love him). Alice Pung, one of Australia’s most prominent writers. And the most powerful of all, Gill McLachlan, the CEO of the AFL. And, by the way, that drop-out, Barry Humphries, now has his degree: an Honorary Doctorate of Laws, bestowed by this University.

And so, as this trend inevitably continues – and increases - I wonder if these Honour Boards might look quite different in the next 160 years.

Shall we see the names of the brightest entrepreneurs? The finest creative artists? Those who have collaborated in new inventions? Or, for example, those who have best met the challenges of dangerous climate change as successful environmental activists, or perhaps, succeeded as the most effective campaigners for human rights?

These Boards will change. They will reflect different decades and centuries of our people and our expectations.

But some things – the fundamentals – the values and the ethos that underpins a law degree from this Law School, and the University of Melbourne’s moral purpose and relevance to the people of Victoria and the wider world, will not simply change with the passing of the years. They will adapt and they will evolve, but they will not simply bend to the fashion or trends of the day.

As it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, a qualification in law from this University in the 21st and the 22nd centuries is bound to be highly valued and respected, offering the potential of a fulfilling and challenging legal or other career.

The ultimate ideal of the lawyer - to safeguard the rule of law – is not something limited to the practice of law. It is a commitment that a graduate from this Law School can take into every part of their private, professional and community life.

That leaves me only to say that I wish the Melbourne Law School a happy 160th birthday, and I congratulate its leaders on this initiative. I especially congratulate those whose names appear on these Honour Boards, and look forward to unveiling the plaque that will recognise the installation of these Honour Boards.