Two Deaths Two Gifts
A speech in presentation for the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa
March 2008

Ian Ross as Chairman of the Australian Research Council
March 2007

Peter Wray Cullen, MAgSc, DipEd Melb FTSE
A speech in presentation for the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa
19 December 2001

Robert Theobald
11 June 1929–27 November 1999

Right Honourable Sir John Grey Gorton, PC, AC, CH
A speech in presentation for the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa
20 August 1999

Paul Francis Bourke
6 July 1938–7 June 1999

Peter Howson
80th Birthday Celebration
20 May 1999

Susan Maree Ryan AO
A speech in presentation for the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa
22 April 1998

Donald William Rawson
23 March 1930–20 June 1997

Romaldo Giurgola AO
A speech in presentation for the degree of Doctor of the University of Canberra honoris causa
2 May 1997

How did Schubert die

9 May 1997

Liberal and Conservative. This is the title I chose for what follows.


About me, Don Aitkin

The eldest son of two high-school teachers, I grew up in Canberra and Armidale NSW, and went to the University of New England in the year that it gained its autonomy. Alphabetical primacy made me the University’s first enrolled student, and I left it with first class honours in history. I then changed course, and graduated from the Australian National University with a PhD in political science in 1964, moving to Oxford and later the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I learned about survey research.

Back in Australia I worked at the ANU, and then in 1971 went to Macquarie University as its foundation Professor of Politics, setting up the discipline there, recruiting staff, designing courses, teaching students. In 1980 I returned to the ANU as the head of the department in which I gained my PhD. Before long I had changed course again, becoming involved in science, research and higher education policy, as a member of both the Australian Research Grants Committee and the Australian Science and Technology Council, and as Chairman of the Board of the institute of Advanced Studies at the ANU. In 1987 I moved to the Commonwealth of Australia as the Foundation Chairman of the Australian Research Council, and when my term ended I became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, from which I retired in 2002.

In the ten years after retirement I kept up my interest in research policy by serving for several years as a consultant to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. At home I moved out of higher education into another of my strong interests, as Chairman of the Cultural Facilities Corporation of the ACT, which managed the city’s theatres, its art gallery and museum, and its historic houses. I served also as Chairman of the National Capital Authority, a Commonwealth body responsible for the Australian Government’s interest in the management and future planning of Canberra. An ACT Minister asked me to become involved in road safety while I was Vice-Chancellor, and I have been the Chairman of the NRMA/ACT Road Safety Trust for the past fifteen years, as well as serving as the Chairman of the Canberra International Music Festival for ten years.

That’s a sort of career history. My basic craft over the whole of my working life has been writing. An academic in the social sciences and humanities should be a writer, and I have done a lot of that writing — a dozen books and hundreds of chapters and article in journals. In addition I have been a columnist in newspapers, writing a weekly column from 1967 to 1983 and then from 2003 to 2009 — allowed, mercifully, to write about what I wanted to write about. For five years I wrote the Monday leader (editorial) for the Canberra Times, and briefly served as a Contributing Editor of Newsweek International. I wrote a novel, The Second Chair, published in 1977, and greatly enjoyed that. It did well, too. It was intended as the first of a trilogy about the politics of the 1960s, with a developing focus on the war in Vietnam; I’ve written the second book in that series (Turning Point, 2015), and the third, Nobody’s Hero, appeared in 2016. Two other novels, The Canonbury Tales and Moving On, have appeared since then, and there are more books in the pipeline.

My interest in political behaviour and my newspaper columns made me a frequent talking head on television and radio. From 1966 to 1983 I was one of the election-night commentators on television, and I did a lot of political commentaries as well. I’ve grown to dislike television as a medium, because it has progressively reduced the amount of time that anyone is allowed to speak, so that the ten-second grab is all that we get on the news. It debauches communication, especially that in politics, which is about debate and disagreement: you need to listen to both sides (or to many sides, really).

As a boy I was interested in almost everything, and able to pass examinations in everything too. But I had to choose at high school, and went down the humanities path. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I gone down the science path, as my two brothers did. From an early period at university I began to wonder what a good society really was, and whether or not it was achievable. I’m still not sure, but my general philosophy of life is that we should try to improve the society we live in, and that improvements should always be incremental, and in the interest of those who are less advantaged than ourselves. None of it is easy. For every presumed ‘right’ there is a ‘responsibility’, and we talk less about the latter than the former. I also have a great respect for ‘facts’, and for the difficulty of really finding out about anything. I have become a Popperian sceptic, someone who thinks that all facts are conjectural, and that our first obligation, when we think that something is so, is to see what is wrong with our assertion — it’s better to do it ourselves, and less embarrassing, too, than to have others do it for us.

I greatly enjoyed my working life — which isn’t over. I married three times, which at least shows that I value marriage highly! I met my wife Beverley when I was a patient in her ward in hospital. Fortunately, like me, she was a refugee from a failed marriage. That was in 1991, and I now regard the cancer that sent me to hospital as a stroke of the greatest good fortune. Bev and I have nine children and fourteen grandchildren between us, and I love them all.

I was a decent tennis-player when I was young, and then moved to squash racquets, which was the perfect game for me. I also played cricket, which is the only sport I like watching on television. I play the piano, have written songs, Peter Allen got his first gig with my band, in Armidale in the 1950s, and I’ve stopped buying CDs because there is so much music coming to me via the radio (ABC Classic FM) and the Internet. I learned to cook in the Army during National Service, and I’ve been cooking for the rest of my life. It is a great therapy at the end of a hard day, as is sitting down at the piano.

It’s been a great life, and I’m healthy and fit. May all that continue!

(Wikipedia has more detail, if you want it.)