Speech at the Farewell of Australian Volunteers for International Development
Old Parliament House
5 June 2013
Thanks very much, Margaret [McKinnon]. It’s a real pleasure to be here tonight farewelling Australian volunteers for, I think, the fourth occasion on which I’ve had to pleasure to be here.
Like Auntie Jeanette Phillips, can I acknowledge that we’re meeting on the traditional land of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
I want to acknowledge the Ambassador from Mongolia, Ambassador Bold Ravdan, and to wish particular luck to the six volunteers who are going to be going off to Mongolia.
I want to recognise other members of the diplomatic corps here tonight, and the AVID partner Agencies: Austraining International, the Australian Red Cross, and Australian Volunteering International.
This year there will be 1,800 Australian volunteers going off to work in developing countries. You’re the latest batch of more than 15,000 Australians who have gone to volunteer in developing countries since the AVID program began.
And I want to speak tonight about the man who initiated the Australian Volunteering Program, Herb Feith.
Herb was a family friend of ours. I lived as a little kid in Kuching, Jakarta and Banda Aceh. I remember Herb then, coming to stay with us.
But that was near the end of his life. He was wonderfully eccentric, a campaigner and an academic. And I want to take you right back to the beginning. Because Herb’s life story is an extraordinary story in itself, but it also, I think, says a little about modern Australia.
Herb was born in Vienna in Austria in 1930. His family was Jewish and one of his earliest memories was of his mother holding him up to the windows to watch the synagogues burn.
This was Kristallnacht, and the Nazis were wreaking havoc across Austria and Germany.
Herb’s mother wanted her little seven year old boy to remember this moment, to have this moment seared forever on his memory.
The family got out. They came to Australia and they settled in Melbourne. And in Melbourne, Herb went to high school and settled down to the life of a regular Melbourne lad.
But he wanted to give something back. He wanted to help those who were less fortunate than him.
And so he began collecting for the cause that he thought in the late 1940s was the most important. Guess what cause he chose? He collected for poverty relief for German people, left in poverty after World War II.
This is Herb Feith, the Jewish boy whose family had fled the Holocaust, who began riding the streets of Melbourne, going door to door asking people to contribute to help make sure that people in Germany didn’t starve.
And he continued this work for a number of years, riding his bike from door to door, raising money and sending it to Germany.
And then he got to know a girl at Melbourne University by the name of Betty. Betty was a Methodist, once leading Herb’s mother to say, “Herb, what did I do wrong? How did I not raise you as a good Jewish boy?” And Herb and Betty fell in love and they got interested in our local region.
Now Herb was very much the generation that took the view that Australia’s role in Asia required two things.
Firstly it required that we change our domestic policies. So he and others marched in the streets to get rid of the White Australia Policy; a set of de facto immigration laws which had meant that Australia wasn’t a colour-blind country when it came to who we admitted.
But then Herb did a second thing which was that he decided that Australia was at its best when we played a powerful role in the region.
So he went to Indonesia in the 1950s and worked on an Indonesian public servant salary, working to help this country, which had just won its independence from the Dutch, develop as best it could.
He commuted on bicycle, he ate simply, he did what he could to help in Indonesia. And when he came back to Australia, he had a notion that it might make sense to build a volunteering program.
So he and a few other colleagues went about brainstorming this idea and they went from place to place holding public meetings and giving talks about how a volunteering program might work.
One such talk was reputedly given in Canberra where then Prime Minister Robert Menzies was in the audience. Menzies is reputed to have muttered to Solicitor General Kenneth Bailey ‘How much will it cost?’. Someone made up a figure on the spot and Menzies said, “it sounds like a good idea. I’ll support it.”
And so the Australian Volunteering Program was born.
Herb continued to go back to Indonesia as an academic in Monash, studying Indonesia and remaining engaged with the region.
And near the end of his life, in 1999, he travelled to East Timor as an election observer.
You’ll remember this independence vote, the one in which the Indonesian militia hadn’t thought for a moment that the East Timorese might vote for independence.
But they realised on polling day that that was what the East Timorese were going to do and sections of the militia set about wreaking havoc on Dili; killing, setting houses on fire.
And Herb did what he could to prevent further bloodshed. And there’s a story of Herb famously standing in front of a house defending an East Timorese woman from the militia using only his shock of grey hair and his perfect Indonesian.
And for me, that image, that life, which begins with the awful holocaust of the twentieth century and ends with devastation in East Timor that could have been much worse were it not for people like Herb sums up so much of what Australia does when we’re at our best.
So they’re the footsteps in which you’ll be following.
I’ve made Herb sound like he was a terribly worthy man, and he was. He said things like, “volunteering is symbolic of human equality”.
But Herb was also someone with a delightful sense of humour.
I remember as an eight year old boy, Herb who was a vegetarian looking across at me and saying, “Andrew, are you going to eat those chicken bones?” I said, “no, I wasn’t planning on it.” He said, “Oh good!” and picked one up and began crunching away.
He would ride his bicycle everywhere. He would wear his batik shirts and he would always be one for trying new experiences, to delving into the unknown.
You’ll do much of that in your own travels. You will meet new people, you’ll enjoy new experiences. You may well fall in love with someone in the country that you’ll be visiting.
All of these are great experiences to be had.
And in the end, there are three big benefits that will come from it.
First of all, the countries that you’ll visit will be better for it. They will learn from your skills and your experience, and your ideas and your energy.
Secondly, Australia will be the better for it. We will benefit when you come back to Australia and you bring back those experiences to your workplaces. Some of you I know from experiences will end up at AusAID. But to other agencies, other jobs, other occupations.
But third, you will benefit yourself because life isn’t just about consequences, the things you do. It’s also about character, the person you are. This experience will shape you character.
You will, as novelist Frederick Buechner put it, find a place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. And in so doing you will become a richer person for your experience overseas.
And when you come back, I hope you’ll stay in contact with one another. That you’ll continue to maintain those friendships with people you’ve met overseas.
I held a gathering in my electorate office recently with a group of newly returned volunteers where one of them, Lisa Brown, told us about her experience with an NGO in Phnom Penh that works with children living in the garbage dumps. Lisa said, “there is no smell in Australia that could possibly bother me any longer”.
And so use that network of alumni and enjoy those friendships.
But most of all, push yourself, stretch yourself, go into experiences, go to places which you know are a little testing.
Herb was of a generation where Australia was mostly white and so he referred to the experience of volunteering overseas as one of experiencing “whitelessness”.
It’s a little archaic for a much more multicultural Australia but it catches some of the sense of what it means to be in a place where you are the one who is a little different.
I felt that myself as a school child in Banda Aceh in Indonesia and I hope you too, get to get some sense of that slightly unsettling feeling. It’s good; it will build your character.
So thank you for having me here tonight and best of luck on your journeys. I look very much to hearing some of your stories upon your return.
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