Speech to UQ Economics School Scholarships and Awards night

I was honoured to address the University of Queensland School of Economics’s Scholarships and Awards Night tonight. Below are my prepared remarks. I varied them slightly in the delivery, and cut a couple of paragraphs, but this is more or less what I said.

I feel honoured to deliver this speech tonight for two reasons. First, because of my long-standing relationship with the School of Economics, and second because I’m speaking at a ceremony in which an award was given in memory of my late friend and colleague Dr Tony Hand, who I’d met while we were both research students in the School in the late-nineties.

My relationship with the School began in 1993, when I enrolled in an Economics and Law double degree. While at uni, I ended up enjoying economics so much that I eventually did an honours year in economics and gave up on the legal career I’d once aspired to.

Some of the audience members may remember economics was very prominent in the public debate in the early and mid-nineties. The 1993 election was a referendum on Fightback! and the GST, and Australia was struggling to recover from the deep recession of 1991. These issues certainly made me more passionate about economics, and I expect some of today’s economic issues, particularly the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis, will inspire a number of people here today.

This is my first major message to give you here tonight: do something you’re passionate about, something that makes you think and enthusiastic to get out of bed in the morning.

While I valued the law subjects I’d taken, I just could never get passionate about it. Whatever your chosen career – economics, finance, business, law – make sure you’re passionate about it, because it will help motivate you and help you push on through tough times. My passion for economics certainly helped me get a first class honours degree and a University Medal, which have always stood out on my CV and have no doubt benefited me in various ways over the years.

I won’t give you too many more messages tonight, because there are so many books and lectures out there already on the principles of success – a recent brilliant lecture by Tim Minchin at UWA comes to mind and can be viewed on Youtube.

I could tell you to work hard, be resilient and keep trying, but you’ll either know that already, or you’ll learn it soon enough when you get into the workforce – when you discover that many of the challenges you face aren’t as neatly packaged up as exam or term paper questions.

So I’ll only give you two more messages, which I’ll illustrate with examples from my career to date.

My second message is: find good people to work for and work with. Nothing will drive your career further than seeing what successful people do and learning from them. Find good role models, and do what they do.

To illustrate, one of the best moves I ever made was to a newly created research unit in the then Queensland Department of Employment, Training and IR, a unit which was led at the time by Professor John Mangan.  This was in 2000, after I’d spent a few years trying, unsuccessfully alas, to complete a PhD.

The research unit position was a good one, because it was involved in important policy debates within the Government on employment and IR policies. Some of you may recall Premier Beattie had promised to get Queensland’s unemployment rate down to 5%, and there were still around 2½ percentage points to go when I joined the Department.

The research unit was a stimulating intellectual environment – thanks in large part to John’s efforts and guidance, and also because we were located on the same floor of the Neville Bonner building as the most senior executives of the Department. Fortunately, for us, although I appreciated it less at the time due to the tricky questions we got, the Deputy Director General Peter Henneken took a personal interest in the unit’s work.

Working for someone like Peter extended me greatly, and I learned a lot about how a professional should behave and work. Peter remains one of the best public servants I’d ever known – dedicated to the job, hard working and trying to achieve things. His dedication meant that he sought the best information and analysis he could get to advise the Minister, which is why he valued the role of a research unit.

So I consider myself very lucky to have started my post-University career in such a stimulating environment, working with many good people, including many others in addition to the two I’ve singled out.

What this means for you is that, when you’re weighing up which jobs to apply for, think about where you’ll find the best people. For economists, I think that’s likely to be in places like Treasury Departments, the RBA, QCA and some professional services firms (although you need to choose the right one).

After the Queensland public service, the next major development in my career came with a move to the Federal Treasury in Canberra in 2005. I’d attended a networking breakfast in mid-2004 at which then Treasury Secretary Ken Henry spoke about the fiscal challenges arising from the ageing population. It was a fantastic speech, and I knew then I’d found another good person I wanted to work for. So I applied for a job at Treasury, told them how inspired I was by Ken’s speech, and managed to snare a mid-level job in Treasury’s Macroeconomic Group.

Macro Group was led by another person who has been influential in my career, the current Treasury Secretary Dr Martin Parkinson. The most important piece of advice I got from Martin was something he told us at a Macro Group Strategy Day, a piece of advice you might not expect from a senior bureaucrat. It’s stuck with me to this day, and is my final message. Be courageous and take risks. Sensible risks of course; just don’t let fear stop you from giving things a go. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make them happen.

My late friend and colleague Dr Tony Hand implicitly understood this piece of wisdom. Tony was the exemplar of courage. He had a great intellect and, as a number of you in this room will recall, fiercely prosecuted his views, and he was unafraid to take on big challenges.

I eventually returned to Brisbane from Canberra in mid-2009 to work with Tony at Marsden Jacob, where he was a Director, because I knew I could learn a lot from him. Natural resource economics was always a favourite topic of mine, and Tony was one of the leading economists in Australia in the field.

Tony had then recently completed a cost-benefit analysis of Traveston Dam and was in high demand as a consultant around Australia. He was another inspirational figure in my career, but sadly we lost him in tragic circumstances in June 2010.

Now, every year, with the presentation of the Marsden Jacob Prize in Memory of Dr Tony Hand, for the best Natural Resource Economics student, we honour him. To those who knew and loved Tony it is a fitting honour. I owe him a huge debt for his friendship and his role in shaping my career.

It was Tony who encouraged me to be courageous and abandon a comfortable Treasury job, with a well-laid out career path, for the less comfortable and more uncertain world of consulting. But I’m glad I rejected the fear now, because the job has personally extended me and the work has been very interesting and rewarding, involving lots of travel and meeting interesting and diverse people across the whole breadth of Australia, including Perth and Cape York.

I’ve also applied what I’ve learned about courage in smaller ways, too, through writing opinion pieces, blogging, and media commentary. All of these have helped raise my profile and have introduced me to many interesting people and opportunities I never otherwise would have encountered.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve emphasised and illustrated my three important messages:

  • do something you’re passionate about,
  • find good people to work for and work with, and
  • be courageous and take risks.

Your future is largely yours to determine, so go make something happen. I wish you good luck. Thank you.

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4 Responses to Speech to UQ Economics School Scholarships and Awards night

  1. Well done Gene…what a great honour!

  2. kirbyp says:

    Great speech Gene.

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