Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

On liberal arts, being yourself, and helping people

Julian Leeser

On 11 October 2017, the boys of Warrane College welcomed MP Julian Leeser as their Wednesday Night Guest. The federal Member for Berowra since July 2016, he worked at Australian Catholic University before this appointment and served on several boards including Mercy Health, Teach for Australia, and Playwriting Australia.

Leeser shared his insights with the boys on a range of topics, from the importance of liberal arts education, to his work in parliament.

University and beyond: where you came from & where you’re headed

Leeser’s university days made something clear to him: people did not seem to know enough about the nation’s culture. “I think Western civilisation is very important and it’s something about which we should all be proud. And I think one of the things we face these days is a lack of pride in the things that have served us well,” he said. In his time at UNSW’s law school (which he chose for its welcoming atmosphere, its status as the best law school in the country at the time, and its overall vibe which was not too politically hostile for a person of conservative values), he was surprised to see that few professors had a broader outlook outside of their specific subjects.

“I think it’s a really interesting but tragic aspect of the Anglo-Australian academic environment: the tendency here is to narrow people as quickly as possible. Pick your discipline, get a narrow education, become the subject matter expert,” said Leeser. “So few students or academics have a sense of issues outside their own discipline let alone a sense of our history, our culture, of the ideas that shaped the country that we have today – the culture of the West. And if we don’t have a sense of the culture that’s given birth to the successful society we have today, we’re in great danger of losing that success.  If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how can you know where you’re going?”

Leeser was eventually asked to do a scoping study by the late Paul Ramsay for the establishment of centre for the study of Western civilisation. He spent the best part of a year going to universities in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia – to look at the way in which they studied Western civilisation and liberal arts. From his findings, the Ramsay centre will do three things that he thinks will be transformative in liberal arts education in this country. Leeser explained to the boys, “The first thing it’s going to do is it’s going to contract with two or three universities in our country to deliver a Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation – deep study liberal arts style courses in western civilisation.”

He continued: “The second thing it will do is it will provide feeder humanities courses for school students in Year 11 and 12 to harness their interest in the humanities   modelled on the national science summer school…there’s nothing like that for the humanities… Thirdly it will establish a series of postgraduate scholarships like the Rhodes scholarships for people who are interested in these subjects to go overseas and do postgraduate work in some of the great centres of Western civilisation… The idea is that eventually there would be a large number of Australians educated in the Western tradition who would assume positions of leadership across a range of fields of endeavour in our country and around the world.”

Leeser’s time at ACU

Before joining the parliament, Leeser spent four years at Australian Catholic University. “Working for a Catholic university isn’t exactly the best preparation for the brutal political world,” he said, “but I have to say they were the happiest years of my professional life prior to being a parliamentarian… There was a strong sense of mission, there was a sense of people working together, and every single day that I worked there I loved the job and felt that I was contributing to something that was bigger than myself. I was constantly looking forward, not looking back.”

Leeser continued: “So I spent four years at ACU and two years on the board of Mercy Health so although I had the privilege of working for these great Catholic organisations, I’m actually Jewish. A few of my friends said “Julian, you’re just hedging your bets in the after-life!” But the truth was, this was a great experience for me and I’m very proud to have had that aspect of my career working for Catholic institutions.”

Leeser told the boys about the words of the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has said that ‘non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.’ “His message,” said Leeser, “is be proud of who you are. Now part of my role at the university was to remind Catholics of that Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom applies to their faith too… You are attending a Catholic college here with a particular charism. There will be people who have a go at you and tease you about that. People often teased me about being at ACU. But what surprised them was the way I spoke about my time there with great pride, and that made them have another look and another think. And that’s what I say to you tonight: be proud to be at UNSW, be proud to be at Warrane. It is part of your CV, it is part of your life and you should always feel proud of it. Because you are part of a tradition that is almost as old as the West itself – which is the very noble tradition of Catholic education.”

Insights into parliamentary life

Leeser concluded the evening with some insights into parliamentary life.

“One of the interesting things about being a parliamentarian is nobody gives you a handbook – there’s no real road map,” he said.” So you rely on mentors, on people who’ve gone before you, on the example of others.”

It all starts with running for pre-selection: a process that can be short or long. Leeser had decided as a 10-year old boy that he wanted to be an MP, so the 10 years beforehand were really focused on getting there – becoming deeply involved in his party, and honing the range of different careers and skills that he could bring to the task.

“So you get pre-selected,” continued Leeser. “There’s no manual for how you run a campaign… and so you’re constantly reinventing the wheel. And then after the election campaign, you’re suddenly given an office and you have to employ staff and you have to work out…how to make a name for yourself in the community over the next three years. So it’s very much a ‘choose your own adventure’ exercise and every day is very different, and that’s one of the things I love about it.”

Leeser spoke about the need to help all his constituents “You have to try and help the people who voted for you as well as the people who didn’t vote for you too…to serve the broader community.”

Leeser also spoke about loving the diversity he sees in parliament. “Sitting next to me is a farmer from Western Australia, sitting next to him is a former journalist, sitting next to him is a former barrister, sitting in front of me is a businessman who’s spent his career working in China and sitting on the other side of me is a former magazine publisher,” he said.

To finish up, Leeser told the boys about his reasons for becoming an MP: “I think there are two very important reasons to be in public politics: one – because you want to help people, and two – because you want to reform something. There are some people who get involved in politics in our country – and more and more this is the case – and are just there for some power trip. That’s the worst reason to get into politics.”

He went on: “But my real reason for being in parliament is to help reform something… So what is it that I particularly want to reform? Slightly over 12 months ago… I gave my maiden speech in parliament…I spoke about a very tragic thing that happened in our family…of my father’s death by suicide, 21 years ago this year. And the reason I wanted to speak about it was firstly to put it on the public record, so that people around the country knew there was someone in our parliament who knows what it is to be bereaved by suicide, or for those who might be contemplating suicide to know very importantly that their lives matter and their death has an effect on people, and that it’s important for them to choose life… And because I think we have some real problems in the way we’re addressing this issue. This is a huge social problem for Australia.”

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