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Address to the Australian Overseas Foundation

Craig Robertson

CEO, TAFE Directors Australia

17 April 2018, William Angliss Institute


Many thanks for your kind introduction.

I’m delighted to be here tonight, and humbled to be asked to speak.

I warmly congratulate The Australian Overseas Foundation for its incredible work over many years.

First settlers

The first non-indigenous inhabitants of Australia took just over 8 months to travel from the docks of London to land on the sunny shores of Sydney Harbour in January 1788.

Under a month ago the first non-stop flight from Perth to London took just over 17 hours!

The world is literally shrinking.

In our recent past, or at least mine, inter-state travel was the big adventure.

I remember the curiosity of

You swim in bathers in WA but its costumes or trunks elsewhere.

The curiosities of our regions are diminishing as we take an increasingly national view of things.

Australia had a poor beginning

If the English authorities had a plan to develop its dominion in the land down-under, then they started in a curious way.

The passengers on that first fleet were a ragtag of London’s criminal class.

They were not career criminals but petty thieves, trying to survive in the brutal environment of mid-18th Century England.

If you were starting a new venture you wouldn’t have imagined Mother England offering its underclass.

But as we know, their jails were crowded, and they needed a solution.

Most were skilled in some ways, but not in the areas needed to open up a new land.

And their predisposition was somewhat lacking.

Captain Arthur Phillip wrote of the convicts:

Among the convicts we have few [who are] industrious, or who feel themselves anyways interested in the advantages which are to accrue from the labours, and we have many who are helpless and a dead-weight on the settlement.[1]

Have you thought what it would have been like for those first fleeters?

They left the thriving metropolis of London and landed in pristine Sydney Cove.

When they left, the day temperature of London would have been 6 degrees with about 4 hours daylight, if indeed the sun could be seen through the coal fired fog.

They disembark in Sydney cove.

Blinding sunshine and stifling summer heat greet them.

Facing the Australian bush that hugs the shoreline they are confronted with unheard of noises, most likely the constant rhythm of the cicadas and the occasional shriek of the cockatoos.

And that’s before they catch in the shadows the curious stare of the Eora people, barely clad and spears in hand.

Truly they must have thought this was a new hell on earth.

The first fleet came with 2 navy ships, 6 convict transports and 3 store ships.

It docked in Tenerife in June, 1787, Rio De Janeiro in August and the Cape of Good Hope in October before embarking on the treacherous Southern Ocean passage.

This was one of the world’s greatest sea voyages – 252 days, 24,000 km.

For the 1336 who survived the journey the supplies were going to be short lived, so Captain Philips got everyone to work.

It’s well documented that the first crops failed and it was only replenishment from follow-up fleets that kept the colonisers alive.

From poor beginnings Australia was a remarkable success story

From that poor beginning Australia has experienced remarkable success.

Barely 4 generations later, Australia was one of the richest countries in the world.

During the 1850’s alone, Australia’s population grew from just 400,000 settlers to over 1 million.[2]

These new colonists came from all over the world.

And what did they come for – GOLD.

The majority were British but many came from Germany, Italy, France and even America.

They were adventurers and exiles looking for riches.

They saw the gold as their lottery to fortune out from under the upper classes of England and France.

Australia’s version of a ‘fair go’ can be tracked directly back to these prospectors.

Anybody had an equal chance to succeed as long as they put the work in.

Following the goldrush many of the new settlers opened up new land.  Australia then succeeded in Agriculture. Most of us would know about Australia riding on the sheep’s back.

And we’ve had our own experience of prosperous times.

The mining boom in the decade to 2012 boosted per capita disposable household income by 13 percent.[3]

Booms do not last

But booms don’t last.

In the most recent case, the rest of the world caught up on our iron-ore and gas supply and the bottom dropped out of the price of our key exports.

The romantic notion that Australia rides on the sheep’s back and our success relies on the land doesn’t stack up these days.

Agriculture contributed up to 20% to GDP in the 1950s but it’s down to around 3% these days.[4]

The rural sector’s contribution to total exports has dropped from 75% to 28% in recent times.[5]

Roughly half of our farms contribute less than 20% of commodity output.

And for broad acre farming the contribution is well under 10%.[6]

Technology and time has their impact

The march of time and technology has changed most of our industries.

When all the easily accessible alluvial gold was gone big companies came in with machinery to access the deep lodes, and the gold-diggers moved elsewhere.

As farm machinery improved productivity and competitiveness we didn’t need to small farmer any more.

Australia is a story about dealing with change.

It’s going to happen again

If there is one thing that’s certain is that more change is coming.

We are forecasting a new wave of change driven by technology and automation.

We have heard the predictions that automation will change jobs – even that over 70 per cent of the jobs young people are training for now – will be substantially changed in the near future.[7]

We may worry about job losses.

We shouldn’t, especially those of us in this audience.

A recent report by the International Monetary Fund exploring why wages are stagnant identified the hollowing out of jobs – mid level jobs that are suspect to automation – as a source of loss of hours worked and lower wages.[8]

Recent analysis in the US in the same report shows that the high wage dividend available to advanced technology workers are diminishing.

Technology is becoming more accessible and washed through the economy.

There is not as big a need for the specialists.

We in TAFEs see a new premium from the skills and knowledge you get from a TAFE qualification.

In TAFE you acquire skills and knowledge.

It’s the know-how to get things done.

This is the tangible value-add a TAFE graduate brings to industry and jobs.

At its core we focus on the human hand working with an ingenious mind.

That’s the TAFE dividend.

Sure there is change, but it brings opportunity.

It wasn’t until James Ruse developed robust wheat that food supply became more certain in the colony.

It wasn’t until the stump-jump plough was invented in the early 20th century that more land could be opened-up to farming.

The first fleet needed 3 supply ships and restocked at 4 ports in its journey.

The 236 passengers on the plane to London had all the food they needed on board.

We are a resilient people

One of the more remarkable results from a recent study by the OECD on adult skills[9] was the Australian result for problem solving.

In areas like reading and numeracy we are similar to New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

But for problem solving in a computer environment we are ahead of the pack, globally.

And that’s good news because technology and communication makes the world a much smaller place.

The tweets of a 71 year-old in a White House in downtown Washington can change the direction of the world, all in less than 280 characters.

We have access to instant communication around the world.

This lays the foundation for how we work in the future.

The world is your oyster

The change Australia needs to make is to be ready to operate on a global scale.

Our people, our qualifications, our skills need to be world class.

Much more of the business we do, or how we work, involves global communication or global IT systems.

Our skills need to stand-out.

The calibre of our people needs to shine.

Our aptitude to problem solving needs to set us apart.

A mindset focused on a fair go for all makes us an innovative, open country.

A country that can continue to grow.

These scholarships have been ahead of their time.

They recognise that Australia is operating on to the global stage.

Looking to the future

For those who had the foresight to set up and fund these scholarships, thank you.

For those who have been past recipients, well done.

For you who will receive your scholarship tonight, congratulations.

The world truly in getting smaller and you have a chance for a remarkable experience.

When you step out in to your Sydney Cove, think about the future you will help to shape.

The future you can shape for your industry is unknown, just like those who set sailed in the First Fleet.

You’ve been selected under more exacting criteria than our first fleeters.

That ragtag mob founded a new country.

I’m excited by what you can achieve, and I wish you all the best.





[4] 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2000 A HUNDRED YEARS OF AGRICULTURE

[5] Ibid

[6] ibid


[8] International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook, October 2017


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