Dr Geoff Raby’s Honorary Doctor of Letters La Trobe address

Dr Geoff Raby’s Honorary Doctor of Letters La Trobe address

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we meet here today, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nations and their elders past, present and emerging.

I am grateful to the University Council for conferring this honour upon me. 

I am thrilled to be recognised by La Trobe University, my old alma mater, in this way. As someone who has earned three degrees from La Trobe, you can imagine that it has played enormous part in my life.  It still does. 

I remain immensely grateful for all that La Trobe has given me.  I feel it as the purest expression of what a university’s purpose in society is for.  Why it exists in other words. 

As Professor Eric Jones, my teacher, PhD supervisor, mentor and friend used to say to me, La Trobe is a great value-adding institution.  It was one of the things that motivated him as a Professor at La Trobe, even though, by the time I became his student, his reputation was reaching stellar heights internationally in the emerging field of studies into the nature and causes of long-run economic growth.

Then, La Trobe did not attract the best and brightest students, nor the kids from the wealthy private schools. I suspect the same is largely true today.  Although I had a private school education, my final grades were poor, I had little family background in higher education, and, honestly, the main reason I went to university was to go surfing down the west coast of Victoria mid-week.

I wouldn’t say that La Trobe was the only place that would have me, but it was pretty close.

Back in 1973, La Trobe was unrecognisable compared with today.  We had three students locked up in Coburg’s notorious Pentridge Prison for refusing to register for conscription for the illegal and immoral Vietnam War.  Demonstrations and battles with the police over the War were almost a routine weekly entertainment.  On my first day on campus, the South Vietnamese Prime Minister and I found ourselves barricaded in the Donald Whitehead economics building by burly Victorian policemen confronted by an angry mob of demonstrators.

Somehow, I began to think, wow if this is university, it could be way more interesting than surfing.

Suddenly, I realised there was all this stuff going about which I had either the sketchiest idea, or none at all.  I chose economics and politics.  The material my teachers had to work with was so poor it is a credit to them that, as I stand here today, they persevered with me.

For one of my first-year politics tutorials we had a part-time teacher who was a full-time Roman Catholic priest wearing a dog collar, which was a common Protestant nick name for a particular piece of liturgical dress.  I do realise that since the punk period the name has taken on other connotations.  I recall in one tutorial that a guy who I admired greatly, who had done his HSC at Melbourne High, which really did educate its kids well, and who seemed to know a lot about everything, began engaging our tutor about the Third World, or what we would call the developing world or the emerging Global South today.   The Third World!  I had no idea what they were talking about, and for a moment was wondering if I had joined the science fiction creative writing class by mistake.

It was then that I realised I had a lot of ground to make up.

At the end of first year, truly to my utter disbelief, two letters turned up at parents’ home a few days apart.  One from Professor Hugo Wolfson, the Dean of the School of Politics, and one from Professor Donald Whitehead, the Dean of the School of Economics.  Each congratulated me on my outstanding results and invited me to join the Honour’s stream in their respective disciplines. 

I had never discussed my studies with my father, nor come to think of it received a letter from a professor.  My dad had not gone past second form at high school and had little trust in the mysterious goings on inside a university, other than to note that a lot students seemed to end up in gaol.

On this occasion, however, I asked him whether I should choose politics or economics.  He was steadfastly against politics, saying it was a lot of rubbish. He liked the sound of economics because he thought it was like some kind of bookkeeping and that there would probably be a job for me at the end.

Economics it was to be with a minor in politics.

My maths was poor and so some compulsory units like microeconomics were a real grind and I struggled for four years.  The frustrating thing for me was that I could readily understand and grasp the conceptual thinking behind what we were studying but could not manage the technical skills to work through the proofs and problem solving.  And I was too impatient to do anything about it.

On the other hand, La Trobe offered a wonderful wide range of other subjects which, I believe, has made me a much better economist, at least as one working in the public policy space, than the technical subjects would have done.

In some of these I excelled – economic history, development economics, comparative economic systems, history of economic thought, and Marxist economics (then politely called by the awkward euphemism non-neoclassical economics).

When I look back over my career, I could not think of a better, more comprehensive, and literarily mind-expanding set of subjects to have studied to have equipped me so well for the career I have been lucky enough to have had.

Distinguished alumnus Dr Geoff Raby AO pictured with his proud mother, Beryl.

In third year, for Comparative Economics Systems – a Cold War subject that no longer exists which looked at differences between capitalist and communist economic systems –  we had a Hungarian political refugee from the old Soviet bloc as our teacher. 

Laslo Csapo would pace up down at the 6pm lecture chain smoking – we all smoked La Trobe in those days – saying you bloody Australians don’t understand that economics is a bloody (well he was a little more forceful in his language) serious business.

Some 13 years later, on 4 June 1989, as I watched the students and workers marching past my apartment to Tian’anmen Square in Beijing and heard the gun fire and witnessed the ensuing chaos bring to an end a decade of economic reform, Laslo Csapo’s words were playing over in my head.  Economics is indeed a serious business.

But in October that year, the Australian Ambassador to Beijing, David Sadleir, an experienced diplomat, read a speech at the Hong Kong Press Club that I had written for him.   It said that economic reform in China would continue.  The Chinese Communist Party had no choice.  And so, it was to be. 

At the time, however, the speech that I had written caused shock and consternation in many capitals around the world.  How could it be that an ambassador from a western country, which itself was imposing sanctions on China to express its outrage over the murders of civilians by the military in Beijing could, at the same time, be confident that reform would be resumed, and economic growth continue?

My prediction uttered by the Ambassador turned out to be correct not because I was the brightest guy around.  Far from it.  It was not because I had special access into the thinking of the Chinese leadership. I couldn’t even speak Chinese.

It was because La Trobe had given me an excellent education.  It had taught me to think critically about economics, politics, and history.  It had enabled me to think about such matters free from dogma and free from ideology.  In every respect, mine was truly an enlightenment education.

It had enabled me to think about such matters free from dogma and free from ideology.

Today, dogma and ideology are too prevalent in media and public policy.  I sincerely believe that Australia would not have stumbled into the mess it now finds itself in with China had calmer more rational views been heard.

Thank you.

Dr Geoff Raby AO, Doctor of Letters (honoris causa), 29 September 2022.

Watch Dr Geoff Raby’s address in full

Dr Geoff Raby AO is a leading Australian economist, diplomat and public intellectual who has made an invaluable contribution to the interests of Australia-China relations, and multilateral trade policy and negotiations. He graduated at La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) in 1977, a Master of Economics in 1981, and his PhD in Economics in 1991. After completing his Master’s degree, he was put in charge of the Economic Section of the Australian Embassy in China.  His Ambassador at the time was Australia’s most eminent economist, Professor Ross Garnaut, appointed by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke to elevate Australia’s economic relations with China. Following several appointments, Dr Raby was made Deputy Secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2002 to 2006 and appointed Australia’s Ambassador to China in 2007-2011.

He is currently an independent non-executive director of ASX-listed companies Yancoal and Netlinkz, and is a member of the Board of the Garvan Foundation at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney. Dr Raby is regularly called upon to provide expert commentary and analysis on international affairs and is currently a columnist with the Australian Financial Review. He presents numerous invited lectures around the world on Australia’s relations with China, multilateral diplomacy and the resources sector.

Dr Raby has a rich relationship with his alma mater, La Trobe University. He was among the first group of individuals named a Distinguished Alumni in 2007, while in 2017, Dr Raby gifted the University a remarkable collection of Chinese contemporary art valued at $3.15 million — the single largest cultural gift in our history.

Discover more extraordinary individuals who have received an Honorary Degree from La Trobe University