Peace, Dignity and Equality on a Healthy Planet: How Australia can contribute to the UN Common Agenda

DOUG EVERINGHAM ORATION [delivered via zoom]

30 OCT 2021

Presented by LEANNE SMITH,

Director of the Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University





Good morning Brisbane! I am joining you for this Oration today from the lands of the Gadigal  and Wangal peoples of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. I stand with our first nations sisters and brothers in their demands for truth, justice and reconciliation through the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to deliver the annual Doug Everingham Oration today. My sincere thanks to the Hon Clare Moore, Dr Donnell Davis, Rod Welford and all at UNAA Qld for the invitation. Thanks too to Griffith University. And congratulations to all the worthy recipients of the SDG champions awards – the work you have done and continue to do in support of Australia’s commitment to the SDGs is truly inspiring.

The Hon Dr Douglas Nixon Everingham was a pioneer, an intellect, a man of compassion, a passionate defender of our democracy and a true international citizen. At this point in my life, I feel I am wearing a few hats of relevance to this great man’s legacy and UNAA QLD work.

As some of you will know, I spent over ten years working with the UN in peacekeeping, in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Sudan, Timor Leste and Liberia, amongst other countries and most recently at UN headquarters as Chief of the Policy and Best Practice Service. I still count myself as part of that diverse and courageous UN family.

On coming home to Australia in 2016, this connection inevitably led me through another former Everingham Orator, Maj General (retired) Mike Smith, to the UNAA with which I have been associated in various roles since. Now, as Ambassador for UNAA QLD.

The second hat I wear is one I am about to hang up – as Director of the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney. But there is an important connection to Doug here as well.

The third hat I am about to don, is in my new role as Chief Executive of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Australia’s NHRI is a precious statutory institution that protects and promotes the rights of all Australians, particularly marginalized Australians, and also acts as an important bridge to the UN through its relationships with the UN Human Rights Council and the Treaty reporting bodies and Special Procedures mechanisms.

I am wishing two things today – firstly, that I could be in Brisbane with you all and secondly, that I could have had a chance at several points throughout my career, and today, to talk with the Hon Doug Everingham about Australia and the world.



The Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney was tasked by Gough himself to ‘help the great and continuing work of building a more equal, open, tolerant and independent Australia’. It is deeply committed to Australia’s engagement with the world. I know some of you joined us in 2019 for the Whitlam Oration delivered by High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Michelle Bachelet where she explored Australia’s historic role in the establishment of the UN, Gough Whitlam and other Australians leadership on international human rights law over the decades as well as the range of human rights challenges Australia faces today and why it needs to stay engaged internationally.

Gough Whitlam himself, was greatly influenced by his father. Fred Whitlam represented Australia at the United Nations to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fred Whitlam participated in the many conferences that helped fashion the post-war global legal environment particularly in the field of human rights. He became a ‘fervent internationalist’ and Gough embraced the same. Gough’s commitment to global cooperation contrasted markedly in the late 1960s with the rather isolationist attitudes of Australia to which the nation reverted in the post-war decades.

When he took office in 1972 Gough was determined to have Australia take its place in the world – being open to both opportunities and responsibilities.

As the Hon Michael Kirby noted in his excellent Melbourne Law Journal article, ‘Whitlam as Internationalist’ during the Whitlam government over 133 international treaties entered into force for Australia. Whitlam said in 1975 about his government’s ratification of international law:

We have done a great deal more, I believe, than all previous governments. We have communicated to the world our commitment to international law and our eagerness to contribute to co-operative endeavours… And Australia has come to be regarded as an independent voice.

This commitment to international cooperation and international law, I believe, changed Australia forever, for the better.



Doug Everingham of course served as Minister for Health in the Whitlam Government from 1972 to 1975. He represented the Labor Party in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1975 and 1977 to 1984. He is remembered for his pivotal role in the formation of the Whitlam Government’s Medicare program.

But I don’t need to tell any of you that! What I hoped to share with you today was something of Doug and Gough’s ongoing relationship after 1975, which I have the privilege of learning about through the Whitlam Prime Ministerial Collection, of which the Whitlam Institute is custodian.

Thanks to our wonderful archivist, I have been able to explore a file of correspondence between the two great men from the 1980s onward. I have hand-picked a couple of items for this Oration.

This first one taught me something about the Honourable Doug Everingham that I never knew – he was Trustee of the Spelling Action Society, determined to simplify the English language. Take a look at this:

[show slide]

I found this letterhead on the back side of a piece of correspondence between the two. This commitment to simplified English was reflected throughout his correspondence with Gough. They both wrote to each other as ‘DUG’ and ‘GOF’.

Something else I learned more about, was Doug’s commitment to Australian democracy and how it might be improved. He was, at one point in 1999, particularly enamoured of the Swiss system of democracy and wrote correspondence to Gough advocating that Australia should change its system in favour of the Swiss model. I found this letter sharing Gough’s own views, and I thought you might appreciate the humour between the two, as much as the content of their discussions:

[insert slide]

There are many more I would have loved to share with you, including a piece of correspondence about an RSL joke (that some of you may know more about than I), and a cable from Gough at UNESCO Paris to Doug in QLD. But in the interests of time, and given the subject of this Oration, I thought it best just to share this one last archival piece with you. From 1984, it is Doug’s proposal for a ‘Code of Conduct for Countries and World Citizens’.

[show slide]

Great ideas never age, and Doug’s commitment to our own society and democracy as well as his commitment to a just and democratic global order are as relevant today as they were in 1984, if not more so given the crisis the world is facing.



Peace, dignity and equalityon a healthy planet: how Australia can support the UN Common Agenda, Our Common Agenda

On 10 September, over a month ago now, UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ presented his Report to the General Assembly in New York, outlining his plan for “Our Common Agenda”. You may recall this Report was requested by member states on the 75th anniversary of the UN last year.

In Australia, perhaps because of our focus on Covid, borders, the economy, even in fact what position Australia will take to COP26 – the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference – we have heard almost nothing about Our Common Agenda. I have searched Australian media, the DFAT webpage and even the webpage of the Australian Permanent Mission to UNNY – not a trace. Please let me know if you have had more success than I.

And yet, the resonance of what the SG had to say should be clear, relevant and incredibly pertinent to a country that has over the last two years faced drought, devastating bushfires and now over 18 months of pandemic crisis.

As the SG said when he launched the Report last month,

COVID-19 is a wake-up call — and we are oversleeping. The pandemic has demonstrated our collective failure to come together and make joint decisions for the common good, even in the face of an immediate, life-threatening global emergency.’

Shame on us all. He went on to describe the litany of ways in which global cooperation is broken, and how our collective efforts now appear to be ‘too little, too late’. Not putting too fine a point on it, the SG said we are at a fork in the road where we can either ‘breakdown, or breakthrough’.  The future of the planet and humankind is at stake, nothing less.

I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime I don’t think I have every felt a more urgent call to action. And the SG’s report IS a call to action, for member states, civil society, regional organisations and us as individuals. The call to action is built around 4 aims – strengthening global governance; focusing on the future; renewing the social contract; and ensuring a United Nations fit for a new era.

Here is just some of what the UN is proposing:

  1. Firstly, for 2023, a high-level summit of the future. This summit will aim to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and how we can secure it. The summit will include a new agenda for peace, that takes a more comprehensive, holistic view of global security. It would also include tracks on sustainable development and climate action beyond 2030; a global digital compact to guarantee that new technologies are a force for good; the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space; and plans for the management of future shocks and crises;
  2. biennial summits at the level of Heads of State and Government, between the G20, ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council], the heads of international financial institutions and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The overriding aim of these summits would be to create a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient global economy, including fairer multilateral systems to manage global trade and technological development.
  3.  The SG will convene all stakeholders ahead of the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement in 2023 to consider further urgent steps. Member States are already preparing a strong post-2020 biodiversity framework, as well as for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, and the Stockholm+50 Summit on the environment next year.
  4. The SG proposes a declaration on future generations to provide a new focus on the world’s young people, and future generations who will inherit the consequences of our decisions — but are barely represented at the global table. The SG will appoint a special envoy for future generations, to give weight to the interests of those who will be born over the coming century. A new United Nations youth office will upgrade engagement with young people across all UN work, so that today’s young women and men can be designers of their own future. To start, there will be measures on education, skills training and life-long learning, including a transforming education summit in 2023
  5. a futures lab that will work with Governments, academia, civil society, the private sector and others, bringing together all our work around forecasting, megatrends and risks. The futures lab will collect and analyse data, building on existing mechanisms, including the annual IMF early warning exercise, to issue regular reports on megatrends and catastrophic risks.
  6. To improve our preparedness for future shocks, the report recommends an emergency platform that would be triggered automatically in large-scale crises, bringing together leaders from Member States, the United Nations system, key country groupings, international financial institutions, regional parties, civil society, the private sector, and research bodies
  7. A series of measures to renew the social contract between Governments and people, and between people – to provide universal health coverage, education, housing, decent work and income protection for everyone, everywhere. The SG proposes a world social summit in 2025 around a new social contract in particular to give a strong push to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.
  8. Finally, the SG report makes the case that the United Nations itself must adapt to support the vision of Our Common Agenda. The United Nations is the only institution that exists with universal convening power. Our Common Agenda must therefore include upgrading the United Nations. The SG advocates for a UN 2.0 that can offer more relevant, system-wide, multilateral and multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Just one example of how he intends to strengthen the UN is by re-establishing the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board, to strengthen the role of the United Nations as a source of reliable data and evidence.

All this sounds daunting, overwhelming. But let’s remember the UN has been consulting member states, civil society, regional organisations and academia about this Common Agenda over the last 12 months. It doesn’t come out of thin air. I myself know people who have been working at the coalface of this Report and who really believe it is not only essential but viable, if we commit to it. As the SG said,

Global governance may sound lofty or abstract. It is not. These decisions have life-or-death consequences for you and your citizens, from the quality of the air we breathe to the chance to earn a living wage and the risk of catching a deadly disease. Multilateral action led by the United Nations has achieved an enormous amount over the past 76 years, from preventing a third world war to eradicating smallpox and mending the hole in the ozone layer.

My report must be a starting point for ideas and initiatives that build on these achievements and take them further. ..I urge you all to act on your joint responsibility to ensure we achieve the breakthrough we need.

So despite the fact that we have barely heard about Our Common Agenda here in Australia yet, In some good news, on Tuesday this week, Australia spoke at the General Assembly (GA) in support of the Resolution on Our Common Agenda which:

  1. welcomes the report;
  2. Requests the SG to implement those elements under his Authority; and
  3. commits the GA to act on those elements within its remit.

Of course, supporting the Resolution in the GA does not prejudice future decisions nor commit any member state to action.

So it is now up to us, to those who care about the future of Australia and the future of the world to raise awareness of this new call to action. To ensure our governments, at all levels, know that Australians care about our common future and support the UN SG’s plan for ‘breakthrough, not breakdown’.



You all know we are on the verge of COP26 and will have observed developments in Australia’s stance in recent weeks. I neither have the time today, nor the expertise, to take a deep dive into the issues arising ahead of COP26, but a good friend of mine at UNDP was recently involved with producing a video, ‘Don’t Choose Extinction’ featuring the voice of Jack Black as Frankie the Dinosaur’ – and so with your indulgence I’ll share it and hope you’ll share it on – Don’t Choose Extinction

Australia’s responsibilities under the SDGs

On a final note about what else Australia can be doing to support international collaboration for our shared future, let me touch briefly on the SDGs, which have featured so pointedly in today’s celebrations.

Australia was one of 193 countries that came together at the high-level United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015 to commit to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As you all know, the SDGs are a universal agenda, and their implementation is the shared responsibility of all countries at all stages of development, including OECD nations like Australia.

A 2018 parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s SDG implementation issued 18 recommendations on how Australia could better implement its SDG obligations. None have been taken up by the Commonwealth Government to date. So, while we know there is much SDG relevant activity being done by Australian business, the civil society sector and some State and Territory and local governments, the Australian Government needs to stop treating the SDGs like a foreign policy commitment and set up a structure for the full implementation of the SDGs in Australian domestic policy, so that no Australian is left behind.

The Whitlam Institute’s 2020 research on the SDGs, “No One Left Behind: Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals in Australia” led by the wonderful Dr Claire Brolan from University of Queensland, makes a series of recommendations based on an analysis of international best practice about how Australia can do better. I encourage you to read the research at to find out how you can advocate about our Government’s responsibilities too.


If you are a parent too, or a grandparent or indeed anyone who cares about the future of humanity, you must be feeling, as I do, that the future I have been part of serving up to my seven-year-old son is a terrifying one. Historians will say, there is nothing new, there have been other times in history like this. Well not in my lifetime and I’m not sure how far back you have to go to to witness the same perfect storm of climate threat, geopolitical instability, security challenge, loss of trust in democracy and government, lack of faith in multilateral cooperation and inequality within and between nations.

We are out of time. We must take up Our Common Agenda – the alternative is unbearable.

In solidarity.

Thank you.