When ANU Chancellor Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans AC QC hosted the opening panel at this year's prestigious Australian Crawford Leadership Forum (ACLF) he left the hand-picked dinner audience both fascinated and amused. Both reponses were intended.
On stage at the National Gallery of Australia’s Gandel Hall was one of Britain’s most respected foreign affairs commentators, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times.
After ranging across the then May Government’s excruciating Brexit dilemma, Evans turned to British Labour’s mystifying ambiguity, a confusion partly derived from its leader’s past anti-Europe sentiments.
He began: “So, Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Seventies’ Polytechnic Trot.”
Cue immediate laughter, and pretty swift agreement from Rachman too, who admired the reduction as neatly framing the leadership vacuum within what should be the alternative government.
“Vintage Gareth” was how one admiring guest described it, just minutes later.
Vintage indeed - intelligent words, cleverly arranged, and where necessary, delivered like an ice-pick in the forehead.
Here was the skill-set of the practised politician, relaxed in front of a crowd, balancing his twin responsibilities as intellectual interrogator, and after dinner entertainer.
Evans’s caustic summation of Corbyn as Labour’s principal handbrake betrayed a particular contempt by the life-long Labor man for ideologues who place party before problem-solving, nationalism above national interest, grandstanding before governing.
Governing is something Evans knows quite a lot about after a career as a senator, an MP, a minister, and through high-level interactions with other governments as Australia’s top diplomat (Foreign Affairs Minister) and later, as head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
The gruelling ICG job was one of several high-profile responsibilities the barrister-turned statesman politician has juggled since leaving Parliament in 1999.
Back then, he’d been an influential figure in Bob Hawke’s Cabinet, an executive which many commentators still cite as the best – on a head-to-head talent basis – that the country’s ever had.
So it was only natural that Evans would lead the ICG and then equally sequential that as a coda to such elite-level public service he would become Chancellor of Australia’s national university.
Sitting in his Chancelry office one sunny spring day, the Melbourne-based Evans pondered his decade working with three “quite different” Vice-Chancellors and helping to drive significant reforms.
The numbers alone are testament. On his calculation, he has presided at around 80 graduation ceremonies, and chaired some 50 ANU council meetings. Travel to Canberra for these tasks has taken 200 plus return flights (but who’s counting?) along with another 80 overseas trips over that period.
Plus there’s been about 90 formal speeches as Chancellor along with countless “tiddly-pom-pom” talks and remarks offered off the cuff. And if that’s not enough, he reckons he’s shaken about 28,000 hands at graduation ceremonies.
“There’s quite a lot of time and effort that goes into this if you take this job seriously,” he told ANU Reporter.
It’s a busy life.
The 75-year old’s famous mid-brown hair and salt-and-pepper beard have now mostly turned to grey, and other senses – mainly his sight – are not what they used to be either.
“Which is really not good as I had been planning on reading two or three thousand books, which are, you know, stored up” he observed, in a quip that is probably no quip at all.
But for all that, he remains fastidiously unstooped, his gaze displaying that familiar piercing quality – a sharp analytical hunger to comprehend, occasionally softening as required to recognise wit and humour – frequently his own.
Taking stock, Evans, who at the time of the conversation was nursing a cold (too many handshakes perhaps?) looks “comfortable and relaxed”, to borrow a phrase made infamous by John Howard.
He told ANU Reporter the position of Chancellor was exciting from the moment he heard of it.
“I was excited by the prospect because I’ve always loved the idea of having a national university based in the national capital focused as it was right from the beginning on the big issues,” he says.
“Every great university has three great dimensions to it, obviously the research, obviously the teaching and learning experience but also, some form of community engagement.
“The ANU ‘value-add’ as I saw it, was unquestionably our contribution to public policy debate so that combination of things was obviously very exciting.”
Has the reality matched the expectation? “Very much so,” he beamed.
But for all of that, when he came to ANU, there was real work to be done, with finances and systems in need of serious reform.
He lists six areas on which he tried to focus: governance; strategic planning; campus physical planning; articulation of ANU values; advocacy of the centrality of public policy; and philanthropy – as in recognising that it should become a significant part of ANU funding, especially if the plan was to avoid the path of endlessly increasing international student places.
“One of the big decisions we made was to set a ceiling on the size of the campus – 20,000 – and not to go down the route of thirty, forty, fifty, sixty thousand, as had the other great Australian universities, so we had to recognise if we were going to punch above our weight and be the stellar university we wanted to be, you have to look at additional income sources and really the only option – other than government funding and student fees – is private philanthropy.”
Like most former foreign affairs ministers, Evans carried an extensive contact book into post parliamentary life – contacts that later would prove invaluable in promoting one of his pet projects and proudest achievements, the aforementioned ACLF .
In formally accepting the post of Chancellor in February 2010, he noted that all manner of people were saying nice things about him – even the frequently taciturn Professor Ian Chubb, the Vice-Chancellor who appointed him.
“I’ll try not to let it all go to my head,” he had said in his installation remarks.
“As my Oxford Chancellorial friend Chris Patton keeps reminding me – quoting Adlai Stevenson - flattery is all right, so long as you don’t inhale.”
Among the other things Evans stressed upon taking up the ANU post was the since unfashionable idea of nation states “being, and being seen to be, good international citizens - of acting relatively, selflessly, consistently with our stated values, and having a reputation for so acting”.
It was an attitude he tried to bring to ANU as well – the notion that there is an intrinsic value in an institution such as ANU seeking always to act in good conscience and in the best interests of the community it serves.
But he cautioned then as now against taking oneself too seriously, citing former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s memorable description of the role of a foreign minister as being “forever poised between cliché and indiscretion, between being dull and being dangerous."
It’s the space where he believes a great university must reside also.
Mark Kenny is a Senior Fellow with the Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.