Simon McKeon, Australian of the Year Address to the National Press Club
National Press Club Address
16 June 2011
Thank you very much for having me here today. I have long been an
occasional listener, albeit from a distance, to these lunch time addresses and
I find it an extraordinary privilege to be at this podium today.
As I’ve said many times this year, I feel somewhat awkward about having
been named the 2011 Australian of the Year. Let me explain.
As I understand it, Australia is the only nation in the world with a government
recognised, national citizen award. And furthermore, Australia has had this
for more than 50 years.
And right upfront, I want to acknowledge the terrific team at the National
Australia Day Council, led by its CEO, Warren Pearson. And whilst having
the imprimatur of government is one thing, the Council relies on the financial
support of the private sector and, in particular, its long term and highly valued
sponsor, Commonwealth Bank. I’ll have a few words to say in a moment
about the role of corporations in supporting community initiatives.
In the 1960’s, we tended to select people who were doing very fine things but
they typically lived overseas. A couple of examples were Dame Joan
Sutherland and Sir MacFarlane Burnett. We then entered a relatively lengthy
period during which we felt the need to select people having a certain public
profile. Many of these were our sporting elite and there came a time when the
captain of the Australian test cricket side appeared to have a better than
evens chance of being named Australian of the Year.
But then in the last decade, the pendulum has swung distinctly towards those
who have been giants in a particular field of endeavour. Indeed, 5 of my last
6 predecessors have been distinguished academics and the decade itself was
kicked off with the honouring of surely one of the greatest Australians ever, Sir
And then along comes me. Not a giant in any particular field. Interestingly,
Australia has now had three Australians of the Year who have had some
connection with the business world. One no longer warrants mentioning. The
second was Dick Smith who has been, I believe, a great Australian
businessman but plainly was not appointed because of his contribution to
business – by his own admission, there have been numerous others who
have built more substantial enterprises. And the same applies to me.
In many respects, I am merely an ordinary Australian who has been touched
for a long time by the community sector and who has had the opportunity to
be a part of it for much of my adult life. I have been involved with a number of
different teams, some of which have occasionally done some good things.
And like some, I have my fair share of flaws.
But, amidst this awkwardness, I would like to think that what I do have is
passion. A passion that I hope is being put to some effect this year. Because
whilst I’m neither a giant in a particular field let alone one of those who have
sacrificed so much to commit their lives on a full time basis to the non-forprofit
sector, I can at least extol the importance for every Australian to connect
in some way to it.
And so my primary message this year has been to elucidate the critical role
played by the community sector and the fact that it endeavours to respond to
everything that society needs which is not able to be provided by either the
government or business sectors. And it is a massive sector spanning the arts,
sport, social justice, environment protection, overseas aid, education – the list
goes on and on. Various estimates suggest that it employs more than
800,000 people and has an annual productive value of around $60 billion
And I’m saying that with such a broad ranging sector, there must be a cause
that touches each of us. And there will be roles that play to our strengths.
We all think that we are busy but our talents, especially here today from those
working in the media, can be so well used in the community sector.
And I’m saying, as loudly as I can, that we should not just be motivated out of
guilt or some sense of moral responsibility. I think there is an element of that
which is appropriate but, for our involvement to be sustainable, it needs to be
a rewarding and fulfilling experience. And if it is not, we owe it to ourselves to
ask “Why not?” and to contemplate whether we are connected in the right
area and with the right role.
This year has also given me the opportunity to speak in support of a number
of specific causes that I am passionate about but at the same time happily
conceding that I am rarely the final authority.
And for example, I have been taking my opportunities to support the initial
recommendation of the Productivity Commission that the Federal Government
establish a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The Commission has
noted in its draft report that “the current disability support system is
underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient”. The proposed new scheme
would provide cover for all Australians in the event of significant disability,
however it arose.
As a non-scientist, I’m also keen to promote the importance of science in
assisting society to solve challenging problems and in continuing to improve
our standard of living. Unfortunately, as a community, we tend to hear far too
much comment on scientific matters from those that are neither scientists in
the relevant field, let alone properly peer reviewed. And of course, it is
important that the scientific community itself recognises that it is not enough
just to be buried away in the laboratory – there is an onus on the scientific
community to communicate effectively to the public. In this regard, I am
delighted that we have seen this year the launch of “The Conversation” by
Andrew Jaspan, the former editor of the Melbourne Age. The Conversation is
a fabulous online initiative enabling our best scientists to communicate
publicly on a basis whereby they are receiving editorial assistance such that
the final product is attractive to a wide audience. But not in a way which
compromises scientific integrity.
And I’m accepting invitations to address my colleagues in business on the
importance of business being seen to not just be interested in profit
maximisation but to also do its bit to be a part of the solution in addressing
society’s problems. If business simply lobbies hard for a playing field which
suits its interests, whether that be a particular tax or industrial relations regime,
then it will continue to be treated with derision by the consuming public. And
as Harvard Professor Michael Porter points out, that is a very difficult
environment in which to maximise profit. Indeed, not only the consuming
public, but increasingly a younger generation of talent coming into the
workforce is simply expecting more of business nowadays than a weekly pay
cheque and a career ladder.
Generation Y and Z know that the corporate world is, on the one hand,
required to maximise profits and returns to shareholders, but is also replete
with an enormous amount of resources which can, from time to time, be put to
intelligent use to assist the non-for-profit sector. Whether it is IT or marketing
departments, providing financial or strategic advice or simply putting in place
a workplace giving program which might be matched by the company itself,
there is an enormous opportunity for the corporate sector to do more than it is
presently doing today. And most importantly, when intelligently executed will
be, perversely for some, a reason supporting growing not decreasing
To the corporate world, I say that the company which is not engaged with the
community will ultimately miss out on its fair share of the new wave of
management talent coming through. But it is worse than that. The business
community itself, if it fails to be in synch with community thinking, will simply
end up, frequently through the actions of government, having more and more
restrictions on how it operates.
An example of this was the proposal earlier
this year by the Federal Government to strengthen the Workplace Gender
Equality Act. I was personally saddened to read of this reform. Not that I am
in any way against promoting workplaces that are more conducive to women.
No, not at all. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that it has been
inaction by business over a long period of time which has now led to more
compliance. As usual, we will see another mini-industry established to help
business navigate more red tape. Perhaps the saddest reflection has been
the lost opportunity for business over a long period in accessing appropriate
levels of female talent.
And I have also been keen to support the bipartisan increase in foreign aid to
0.5% of Gross National Income over the next few years. This is important
because whilst some of us think that we are amongst the most generous in
supporting the world’s poor, the facts suggest otherwise. We currently rank
just 15th out of 23 eligible OECD countries. It was disappointing earlier this
year to see cutting foreign aid virtually singled out as a way in which we could
pay for the damage resulting from the Queensland floods. In the current
economic climate, other OECD countries have, I would suggest, stronger
grounds to contemplate the cutting of foreign aid which fortunately they are
And tonight, I’m looking forward to addressing, along with our Foreign Minister
an organisation that I’ve had a modest involvement with for several years – an
indigenous led organisation which cares for its own community who resides in
Melbourne’s western suburbs.
All of the foregoing is work in progress. Never enough and never perfect but
at least there is activity. But there is an area which to me appears so dormant
that I can only describe it as the elephant in our room. And it is highly
appropriate that I raise it here today. Indeed, in the standard background
information given to any National Press Club speaker, it is stated that this
forum “is Australia’s most recognised vehicle, an icon chosen for major
statements initiating change.” And today I sincerely hope so.
And so I start by stating that the elephant is the stark fact that our wealthy are
collectively far from generous.
But before going further, it is important to acknowledge that much of
Australian society is generous. Indeed, in the Gallup produced World Giving
Index, Australia ranks equal first with New Zealand ahead of 151 other
countries. But, as with so many things, the underlying basis of the survey is
critical. And this particular index is based on three measures – the proportion
of the population who in the past 30 days has given money, volunteered time
and helped a stranger.
It is when we look at the upper echelons of wealth in this country, however,
that we start to slide into the mire.
There is little need for me today to restate the numerous statistics and data
which have been produced over the years by a number of bold advocates,
including the likes of Daniel Petre, Dick Smith and Peter Winneke. Smith has
been colourful and to the point when he says “in Australia, it is utter greed and
selfishness.” Petre has consistently reminded us that generosity is a relative
term and not only should the amount given bear some relationship to the net
worth of the individual but that generosity must surely mean that the giver
“notices it”. And Winneke takes every opportunity to ram home the financial
facts. In that regard, he points to the most recent Australian Taxation Office
data which discloses that of the approximately 8,000 Australians who
declared an annual income in excess of $1 million, a remarkable and
inexplicable 37% did not claim a deduction for a mere $2 gift to a charity with
These three collectively say “rubbish” to any proposition that the wealthy in
this country “give quietly”. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this.
Smith has called upon the Business Review Weekly to produce a “BRW
Giving List”. Such a list is published in the US. But the best that BRW could
do three weeks ago in its 2011 BRW Rich 200, was to compile an odd looking,
incomplete and indeed pathetic list of the giving by our top 35 billionaires.
Sadly, BRW had to list against many of these individuals the word “unknown”
whereas there appeared little difficulty in including an estimate of their wealth.
Some of their nominated donations appear to have been made some years
ago and, overall, the amounts were a very modest proportion of the column
headed “Wealth”. Curiously and notwithstanding the gaping holes in the data,
BRW blew its own trumpet by stating that in relation to giving, “BRW has
completed its biggest ever examination of the issue”. But it concluded
correctly by saying “The results are alarming. Only 0.2% of their wealth could
be traced back to donations”.
I don’t propose to dwell any more on the data – there is no need.
The real question for me is “Why is it so?” I believe that we have all but
developed a movement in this country which promotes a line of logic as to
why the wealthy should not give. Let me deal with a handful of the arguments.
We hear from time to time that our overall level of taxation is high, thereby
obviating the need to give. A related argument is that the government ought
to do everything (especially if it raises very substantial sums by way of
taxation). The reality is that our level of taxation is neither particularly high nor
low. According to research conducted by the Petre Foundation, our overall
level of taxation places us not far from the mid point in the ranking of
developed nations. And anyone who genuinely believes that the government
sector can afford to do everything has simply never been involved in any
applications for a serious level of government funding.
It is contended that the charitable sector is inefficient or ineffective. I happen
to believe that this is true, at least in the context that not every facet of it is
perfect. But equally, it is precisely what I also observe in the corporate world,
but yet the fact that some corporations prove to be failures has never led to
any movement against investing in the stockmarket. Indeed the response is
simply an analysis as to who is effective and who is not and investment
decisions are made accordingly. And, in any event, if one considers that a
particular charity is operating below par, surely the obvious response is to
become involved and address the issue, for example, by joining its board.
It has also been suggested that, unlike Australia, the United States retains
death duties which provides Americans with an incentive to give. But when
one stops for a few seconds to think about the logic of this, it makes little
The typical wealthy American donates during his or her lifetime and
then upon their deathbed, their estate is also facing an obligatory payout. In
our country, both while we are alive and on our deathbed, we avoid the
opportunity or obligation to give. I fail to see the logic – surely the fact that we
do not have death duties here should actually be an incentive to give.
And it has also been argued that in Australia we suffer from the tall poppy
syndrome. Namely, to stick one’s head above the parapet and become a
public benefactor invites some sort of negative exposure. I’ve been
particularly curious about this one and have asked two or three Australians
who do have a reputation for giving as to whether they have experienced any
negative tall poppy syndrome. Unsurprisingly, their answer has been “no”.
But I would point out, that I would expect a significant element of tall poppy
syndrome if indeed one attempted to represent that they were generous when,
in fact, it was plain that the amount given was insignificant in relation to the
ability to give.
And finally, if one was genuinely concerned about this so called tall poppy
syndrome, one could always give generously although I suspect, at this
particular time, most in this space would agree with David Gonski who
advocates for strong philanthropic leadership by way of some transparency.
The one statement I will accept is that there is a different culture in the US to
Australia, at least at the present time. As Petre states, everyone is expected
to give in the US - “Even the bad guys give!”. There are literally dozens and
dozens of very wealthy Americans who have acted in a manner consistent
with the Giving Pledge which was initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
And, frankly, those that don’t are at risk in that culture of simply being
regarded as social outcasts. Yes, the culture is different. But disturbingly our
culture is one which supports the rich being selfish.
So how do we change this? In “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge was
given a deathbed opportunity to change his life. Literally when he stepped
outside his skin and observed who he was from a distance and compared
himself to those who had little means but had real joy in their lives, he chose
to change his ways. Scrooge experienced his own real joy for the first time in
his life and become a shining beacon in his community. It is as if Dickens
wrote this novel for a contemporary Australia.
I believe that for the very wealthy to embrace generosity, it is fair and
reasonable that they should expect to receive something very significant back
And for all the satisfaction that one might get from amassing material wealth,
from building a business, from providing employment to large numbers of
people and from supplying goods or services to an appreciative public – all
that is well and good, but when one gives entirely voluntarily and can make a
transformational difference to a cause or the lives of real people, then we do
receive something over and above what business success can offer –
something that is very special.
I have little doubt that Bill Gates and his cohort in the US are experiencing
And this is something very tangible. Anyone interested in improving one’s
wellbeing will know from both the World Wellbeing Index conducted by Gallup
as well as the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index which focuses on us as
individuals, there is a much stronger correlation between wellbeing and giving
rather than wellbeing and material wealth or economic performance.
Our most generous philanthropist in Australia is not, of course, a resident of
this country. Chuck Feeney has gifted some $500 million into Australia
notwithstanding that he lives elsewhere. Chuck has been known to say to
those who have not yet given significantly “Try it. You might actually like
We have had great philanthropists in days gone past. And their legacies
continue to be felt profoundly today. But we are desperately seeking
contemporary Australian leadership in philanthropy. There is a pedestal,
there is an honour waiting to be conferred on one or a group but, at this stage,
all we see is a “vacant” sign. And yet it is a time that our nation is moving
from being the lucky country to the luckiest country. As the world inevitably
grows to 9 billion people, I believe we will continue to experience, with the
usual bumps along the way, material prosperity driven by strong demand for
the things that we are blessed with here.
Dick Smith has called for someone to establish the first billion dollar
foundation. I’ll never be as successful in business as Dick, and I’m therefore prepared to
set a different measure for the sake of getting the ball rolling. But I would
happily nominate as Australian of the Year the first of our 35 billionaires who
is prepared to say “I want something more. I want something special. And in
return, I shall commit a substantial proportion of my wealth”. Whilst in the US,
that might typically be in the order of 40 or 50%, I’m a pragmatist, and around
25% will suffice.
I’m a pragmatist because I acknowledge that in Australia this commitment
would be one which today would be contrary to our culture, which would in
effect be seen as swimming against the tide. Indeed it would be, in this
country, an act of courage.
But for someone, there is a position in history awaiting them as one of the
most significant Australians ever. Someone who eased the pressure off their
own children and released them to make their own way. But who also led us
all into an era of maturity for this great nation, indeed who pioneered a new
culture of generosity which took this nation to a level of wellbeing not hitherto