UNSW Law School Ngoc Tram Nguyen Scholarship Dinner – Canley Vale

Ngoc Tram Nguyen Scholarship 

University of New South Wales (UNSW) Law School

“The keys to the kingdom”

(Check against delivery)


I was born and raised here in Cabramatta.

I went to Cabramatta Primary School just around the corner and to Canley Vale High School just over the bridge.

After I finished high school I caught the train and then caught the bus to get to the University of New South Wales.

That is where I met David Dixon.

David taught me one of the best subjects that I learnt at university in Policing and Law Enforcement.

I didn’t know it then, but it’s come in handy as Minister for Home Affairs.

I’d also like to acknowledge the presence of Justice Michael Kirby, here tonight.

For law students, current law students and old law students, Michael Kirby is a jurisprudential rock star.

Law students love reading Michael’s judgements, usually dissenting judgements.

They love reading his judgements for two reasons:

The first is because they’re clearly written – they’re written with passion and they’re written with lots of subheadings.

The second is because Michael’s judgements give us a glimpse of the future.

The law isn’t static. The law constantly changes.

And it changes because of the force of argument – the force of argument of people like Michael Kirby.

Ideas that start out as dissenting judgements can morph overtime into the views of the majority.

Some of the ideas that Michael pioneered on the High Court have now become an established part of our common law.

The same thing happens in politics.

This week the Parliament voted on a bill to recognise same sex marriage.

I voted yes.

I was in the minority.

But just like a lot of the issues that Michael has championed, I think things will change here too.

Michael it is an honour to be here with you here tonight.

Tonight I want to talk about my home town.

Cabramatta has changed a lot in the last forty years.

I remember as a little boy going to Cabramatta Primary School, meeting kids that told me stories about boats, about pirates, about war – migrants and refugees from all around the world.

That’s what makes this place so special. It’s a place where life starts again.

It’s not Disneyland. I also grew up here at a time when Cabramatta was known the heroin capital of Australia.

I remember being offered heroin almost every day when I got off the train.

One of the kids I went to school with became a heroin addict. Another one of the kids in my class became a drug dealer and ended up in jail.

I didn’t get the privilege of meeting Ngoc Tram, but I know that she knew this side of Cabramatta as well.

She saw what drugs did, but she also saw what education can do in a place like Cabramatta.

I saw it too.

It’s what propelled some of the refugees that I shared a classroom with to become doctors and to become lawyers.

Others went on to work for big companies. Some set up small companies of their own.

And all of that happened because of the power of education.

Education is the most powerful cause for good in this country.

It’s the great equaliser in an unequal world.

It’s not magic – but its results are.

Let me give you one example.

When I was elected to Parliament I went back to Cabramatta Primary School.

I met with the principal and I asked him how things were going.

He told me that most of the kids that start Kindergarten at Cabramatta Public couldn’t speak English or spoke very little.

Only a few could spell their name.

Now, here is the magic.

After three years at school we test literacy and numeracy of children right across the country.

And these kids, at Cabramatta Public, when they are tested are at the national average for writing and are above the national average for spelling.

That’s the power of education.

And that’s why I’m here tonight.

Everybody’s got a story about somebody who has inspired them.

Somebody who set them on the right path.

Someone who believed in them.

For me it was my history teacher at Canley Vale High School. His name was Peter Valenti.

He taught me about Greece and Rome, and the First Fleet.

More importantly he taught me to believe in myself.

He taught me about the power of politics to change people’s lives.

To change them for the better.

And he changed mine.

Everyone needs somebody like this – someone who believes in them and somebody who inspires them.

And for Ngoc Tram – one of those people was Dr Lisa Maher.

Lisa saw something special in this young woman and she gave her an opportunity that no-one had given her before.

The chance of an education.

She changed her life. And if it wasn’t so tragically cut short, she could have done anything.

She could have been the next Michael Kirby.

That’s the purpose of tonight’s fundraising dinner. To find and fund more people like Ngoc Tram.

This scholarship will help change the lives of a lucky few.

We need to change the lives of many people.

And the key to that is our education system – it’s what gave a boy from Cabramatta the chance to go to the University of New South Wales.

There is still a lot more that we need to do.

Let me tell you why.

The percentage of young people who finish high school here in Western Sydney, is lower than the national average.

About 79 per cent of people who go to high school here will finish Year 12.

In North Sydney – its 97 per cent.

The differential is almost 20 per cent.

This is what we’ve got to fix if we’re going to dislodge disadvantage.

Remember unemployment here is almost double what it is across the rest of the country.

Contemplate this. Most of the jobs that are going to be created over in the next two decades are going to require people to finish school and then complete a TAFE Certificate or a university degree.

Unless we make sure that as many people finish school here in Western Sydney as other parts of the city and then go on to TAFE or university, we are going to entrench disadvantage.

That’s why the things that we do to make sure that people finish school are so important.

We’re making some good progress on that front.

The percentage of young people that finish school here in South West Sydney has jumped from 73 per cent to now 79 per cent in the last three years. That’s really encouraging.

Even more encouraging is the increase in the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who now go on to university. There has been a 12 per cent jump in the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university.

At the University of New South Wales I’m proud to say its double that – it’s over 24 per cent.

I’m proud to be part of a government that’s doing this. That’s doubled our investment in school education. That’s opened up tens of thousands more university places and is now set to do more.

These are the sorts of things worth fighting for. Because of the changes they make and because of the opportunities that they create.

Paul Keating grew up not far from here.

He got this too.

He described education as “the keys to the kingdom”.

The key that unlocks every door.

The key that unlocks all of the opportunities of life. That gives you the opportunity to achieve anything that you put your mind to.

The fact that there are so many people here tonight tells me that you understand this too.

You’ve handed over your hard earned cash because you understand the power of education and the potential that a scholarship like this offers.

The potential to inspire another young person to become a Michael Kirby or a David Dixon.

The potential to change one life.

That’s only possible because you’re here tonight.

And for that, I thank you very much.