The first thing you notice about a Paul Callaghan talk, is the variety of people that show up. Packing the town hall almost to capacity are a mix of students, business-people, old folks, high school kids, academics and……..me. You can almost feel the weight of tradition here, I could swear that the person I’m sitting next too must have graduated from Victoria over 100 years ago. Slides of Victoria university’s grandiose history flicker slowly overhead – stretching from black and white still of the campus to images of Sir Paul Callaghan from his graduation address at the end of 2010. The low background murmur of voices dips as chancellor Ian McKinnon steps to the podium to begin his address. I must confess to a little unease at this point, as McKinnon’s voice begins intoning Sir Paul’s professional and academic history, I am reminded of the time where McKinnon was my own terrifying headmaster – he has the exact same mannerisms still, and addresses the crowd as one would a room of naughty children who are about to get a rare treat, even when they haven’t earnt it.
Behind him sits the vice-chancellor, Pat Walsh, and the man of the hour, Professor Sir Paul Callaghan. Paul looks slightly out of place flanked by the chancellors, both sporting black and glittering gold trim, whereas Paul’s suit looks well-used and possibly a little faded – his shirt almost identical to the one I saw him wear at the last talk of his I attended. His eyes are alight though, darting back and forth over the dark masses assembled before him. Ian McKinnon turns to yet another speech card of Paul’s accolades, and Paul’s face momentarily flashes to a look of what may very well have been boredom. Then – finally – Ian welcomes Paul to the podium, which he immediately eschews, choosing instead to stride boldly to the very front of the stage and peer out at us, his opening comment being a mix of his trademarked humour and humility, as he expresses genuine surprise at the over 1400 people seated before him.
Over the next hour and a half, Paul takes us on an irreverent, humorous and yet at times deeply unsettling look, at his take on the New Zealand economy. He deftly intertwines history with his personal stories of respect to the scientists that first decided to try, and then succeeded, in researching world class science in New Zealand. ‘Phase II” scientists he calls them. He describes the value system of science as a ‘means of overcoming common sense’ and paraphrases Carl Sagan in likening science to a candle in an otherwise dark and ‘demon-haunted’ world. But then he asks of Phase III scientists:
“Why are they flocking overseas in droves, making names for themselves in Cambridge and Silicon valley, rather than here where they are needed? 24% of our university graduates go overseas, never to return – Why?”
He notes the bad in the economy, notably the GDP per capita gap between us an Australia, but he also points out the good: our property rights, political and legal systems, low corruption and proportionately low taxation rate. He mentions the ‘New Zealand paradox”; that we have excellent credentials but low economic growth. So why? He believes that it’s due to our lack of innovation, or specifically our lack of innovation in the right areas. He believes that it’s because of the little lies we tell ourselves about our country everyday – that we are ‘clean and green’, that we don’t rely on nuclear technology, that we do everything possible to protect our environment. We need to be honest if we want to be prosperous, and avoid our current “egregious hypocracy”.
Then he shows us something that completely floors me. PET scans of his cancer. He shows their reduction after treatment with an expensive monoclonal antibody treatment that isn’t accessible to us here in NZ – why?, because we can’t afford it. We are simply not prosperous enough; not for good healthcare, not for good roads and not for good environmental protection.
“We NEED prosperity.” he says.
But Paul is nothing if not pragmatic. He does not pose the question without looking at some answers. Increasing tourism and dairy are obvious choices, both with their own unique flaws and costs. Paul believes that we need to aim at high-value manufacturing, to get the ‘Price of knowledge’ into our exports. He notes that picking ‘winners’, is not a strategy that has worked well for us in the past:
“We will be good at what we’re good at”
He says that we need to target ‘niche’ markets too small to attract large international players and to
“make NZ a place talent wants to live”
and in that regard, he says we are well equipped to rise to the challenge. NZ is well placed with resources that matter – water, land, freedom and space and, as always he remains relentlessly optimistic about New Zealand’s future.
Taking a step back from the front of the stage, where he has stayed throughout his entire presentation – barely referring to his slides – it is clear just how many times he has told this story before. However, the passion he exudes is as vibrant as if it was the first time it was given. Paul retreats to his seat under the thunderous applause of a standing ovation – and one that is entirely deserved. A wave of pity washes over me as Pat Walsh steps forward, awkwardly shuffling his cue cards, as he tries to follow the act of an expert communicator, as the applause rolls….and rolls……..and rolls…. (Paul motions for silence at this point after wiping at some mysterious irritation at the corner of his eye)…and rolls….until finally he is able to thank Paul once again for his talk.
There is no doubt that Paul is a great orator and a simply marvelous human being – but the thing I respect about him more than anything else is his humanity and humility, which were summed up nicely in his final anecdote where he described his father disappointment at his own rugby playing skills – and yet he still finished his talk with the resounding phrase:
“Go the all blacks!”