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Occasional address by Andrew Penfold AM – UTS Law graduation ceremony

Thank you, Professor Booth

I would like to acknowledge and thank the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor, the Dean of the Faculty of Law, members of Council and distinguished members of the Faculty and welcome guests, graduates, families and friends.

It's a huge honour to be here today to have the opportunity to share a few of my thoughts with you as we celebrate your incredible achievements.

I know how hard you've worked because I did it too, and I'd say that it is probably still one of the hardest and most gruelling things I've ever done.

The good news is that it is over.

I would honestly say that things get easier from here.

There will be plenty of late nights, long hours, drama, stress, anxiety, pressure, politics and anguish as you go through your careers, but you know inside that you have what it takes, and this knowledge and self-belief will get you through all those challenges.

Because if you didn't have what it takes you wouldn't be here tonight.


At the outset I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which UTS stands, the Gadigal and Guring-gai people of the Eora nation, and their Elders both past and present.

The people who nurtured this land for tens of thousands of years before the British got here, pretended it was empty unoccupied land, and took it.

If that sounds like a controversial thing to say - it shouldn't.

As lawyers you will no doubt be aware that this is a factual statement and the High Court said as much in its historic Mabo decision in 1992.

When the British arrived in 1788, they declared that Australia was terra nullius (empty land - or land that belongs to nobody).

As a result of this make-believe, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' occupation and connection to the land were not recognised, and the British took the land without agreement or payment.

Eddie Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander who believed Australian laws on land ownership were wrong and fought to change them.

He was born in 1936 in the Torres Strait.

In his heart, Eddie believed the land he lived on belonged to the Torres Strait Islander people who had lived there for thousands of years.

But the Australian Government also believed that it owned the land.

As you graduate tonight from being students to being lawyers, if you want to understand the power you have as lawyers to change the nation consider this:

In 1981, Eddie Mabo made a speech in Queensland, where he explained his people's beliefs about the ownership and inheritance of land.

A lawyer heard the speech and asked Eddie if he would like to challenge the Australian Government in the court system, to decide who the true owner of that land was-his people or the Australian Government.

And this is exactly what Eddie Mabo did.

The High Court of Australia decided that terra nullius should not have been applied to Australia.

The decision recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land - rights that existed before the British arrived and can still exist today.

The Mabo decision was a turning point for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' rights, because it acknowledged their unique connection with the land and there have been a lot of legal, financial, social and economic outcomes that have flowed from that decision.

This is part of the reason why I acknowledge the traditional owners.

It is a mark of respect and integrity, and an acknowledgement of the truth of our history.

All humanity has skeletons in the historical closet.

What nation has an unblemished record when it comes to crimes against humanity?

Unearthing the fullest possible truth of tragic events will show that we all live in glass houses and result in a better knowledge of the human condition.

History reveals parallels and patterns that are crucial to understand.

This is not to say we should break out the black armbands.

European colonisation with all its odious practices can be regarded as historically inexorable and pointing the finger of blame is not an especially productive exercise.

But what we must all accept is that while each of us here tonight is not personally and individually responsible for the past, we are personally and individually responsible for the future.

By understanding this and acknowledging the truth of the past, we can begin to change the future.

The lawyer who heard Eddie Mabo speak back in 1981 didn't just listen, he decided to act.

His education empowered him to do more than just listen, and his skills assisted Eddie Mabo to change our nation for the better.

As lawyers you have exactly the same power as he had.

No more and no less.

The question simply is how you choose to exercise your power by how you choose to deploy your intellect and capability.


As I said before, the hardest part is over.

Today marks the end of a course of study in an education that will continue for the rest of your lives.

All of us here are still learning.

One thing I've learnt is to believe in people - and never underestimate the importance of others believing in you, and that you have to take the opportunities and work harder than everybody else so you prove that you were worth believing in.

Almost every turning point in my life came because someone decided to give me a break and believed in me.

  • Because my mother and grandmother believed in me when I was bouncing out of schools in and out of constant trouble, they bent over backwards to convince St Joseph's College to take me in even though I fought it every step of the way.
  • Because a coach believed in me in Year 10 I got promoted to the A team in rugby and built my self-esteem and confidence even though I played in the Es the year before.
  • Because a tutor believed in me and voluntarily coached me three nights a week for my last two years of school I gained first place in Maths, History and Economics in Year 12 even though I was at the bottom of the class in Year 9.
  • Because my girlfriend believed in me she became my partner and wife for the last 30 years even though she was a conscientious school prefect and I was the exact opposite.
  • Because UTS believed in me I was accepted as a law student and later graduated with Honours even though my HSC mark wasn't high enough to gain entry on marks alone.
  • Because another UTS law student believed in me he hired me as a legal clerk even though my only work experience was in restaurants and labouring.
  • Because a partner at Mallesons believed in me he hired me as a lawyer even though I didn't come from a posh university and didn't meet their usual entry criteria.
  • Because a partner at Freshfields in London believed in me he hired me in the middle of a recession in 1991 even though I had no relevant experience for the job and they were simultaneously firing lawyers left, right and centre.
  • Because a Japanese banker believed in me he hired me as a banker in Hong Kong even though I had no banking experience and had never even used a spreadsheet.
  • Because a Prime Minister believed in me he committed the Australian Government to invest $20 million in the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation even though we had no staff, no office, no money and was only my wife and I working voluntarily from our dining room at home.
  • Because media and corporate leaders believed in me and believed in the capability of AIEF, we've been able to raise nearly $100 million and achieve the highest success rate of any program in the country even though we only started with 43 students in 2009.

Looking back now, every one of those events I mentioned all led to the next one, and this is why it all starts with family and education.

For my whole life I've worked my guts out to prove to those who believed in me that they made a good decision.

And when you take the opportunities and work hard, you get self-belief as well, and this enables you to create your own luck.

The belief of others willing to give you a break when there were lots of more suitable candidates and many reasons not to, is the greatest gift I have received, as it underpins every achievement in my life and is a strong motivator for my work in trying to help Indigenous kids smash through the barriers to quality education and careers that hold them back.

Last year alone AIEF supported 469 students and 230 students have finished Year 12 or university degrees on AIEF Scholarships since we started with 43 students in 2009.

I know from experience that if we believe in them and open doors to quality education and careers, they will be empowered to make a difference and maybe one day change our nation.

Your time at UTS has equipped you with the skills to make a difference, regardless of what career path you embark on.

You all have the potential to become leaders and the fact that over half of you enrolled in the voluntary Brennan Justice and Leadership Program shows that you are committed to social justice.

All of you understand the power of education and are supported by people who believe in you.

Make sure they see that through your work, they made the right decision to believe in you.

My sincere hope is that you will all graduate with the belief that what you've learned here can lead you anywhere and that wherever you go and whatever you do, you will use your skills to change the future.

It is up to you now to prove you were worthy of the belief that others put in you.

Make them proud of you.

Congratulations, and thank you.

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Improving access to quality education for Indigenous children is the essential first step towards Closing the Gap, and AIEF is doing just that, while also providing a platform for the students of today to become the Indigenous leaders of tomorrow.

Nova Peris OAM
first Indigenous woman elected to Australian Parliament


The AIEF Scholarship Program and the AIEF Pathways Program are supported by the Australian Government in collaboration with individual, philanthropic and corporate supporters from the private sector.