VC Update

Published: Wednesday 8th October 2014

Musings on a life led by faith


I was recently asked to talk about my life in a faith context for the Catholic Man Breakfast Series. In Australia, because we’re such a young country we’ve never been terribly good at thinking around beginnings. To reflect on my family today, I really need to go back much further than my own childhood.

The Cravens came from Ireland, and I used to often remark to my father how pretty it looked, and ask why they left – and he repeated what his father told him – you can’t eat scenery. There are so many people in Australia, whether from Ireland or somewhere else, that are here today because you can’t eat scenery.

It really has moulded us as people, and moulded us as a Church – the tremendous experience of coming from privation to the extraordinary prosperity that we have here.

My great-great-grandfather who came to Australia in 1867 was called Thaddy. He didn’t speak English. He got off the boat speaking Gaelic, and was handed a piece of paper – which he couldn’t read, because he was illiterate. The paper said that his name was now Timothy Craven.

The one absolute constant in the long life of my family in Australia has been Catholicism. The other thing that really strikes me when I look back is the social transformation that has taken place. My great-great-grandfather was a wheelwright, his son was a woollen mill worker, his son, my grandfather, was a prisoner of war in Changi and a cook, my father was a journalist, and I’m a Vice-Chancellor. And I can tell you how that happened. It happened because of Catholic education.

I say to people, had it not been for Catholic education, I would be digging a road somewhere outside Geelong. Most of them say that’s ridiculous, that I would have done it anyway. Yet the cemeteries of Ireland are filled with the bones of brilliant men and women who never learnt to read. The Catholic Church gave us that and we must never forget it.

I had a very happy Catholic childhood, which came to a terribly abrupt end when I was 12. I was very close to my sister Paula, who was born 10 months after me. She was killed in a road accident, and I was standing next to her when she died.

It would be fair to say in a temporal sense that it destroyed my family. My mother never recovered from it. My father, a happy-go-lucky Irish-Australian journalist, died seven years after that. He was 47.

People have asked how on earth did I stick with a God who did that. But it was the exact opposite actually. The one thing it left my family with was hope. Paula had died, and she was a wonderful person, but if that was the end of Paula, then life would have been over at that point. Our faith was intensified, because that was what you were left with – the promise of God.

I was the second person in my entire family to go to university, and I had several possible careers to choose from. I could have been a teacher, or I could have been a journalist. But I got the marks to get into law, and although that is the worst possible reason to choose a course, that’s what I did.

I then got exactly what I deserved. I went to Melbourne Law, and I hated it. I had decided to leave and drop out, and then I met this girl. She was doing law, so of course I hung around a little longer for the girl. That turned out to be one of my better decisions. I’ve been married to that girl now for 35 years, and I fell in love with a particular area of law – constitutional law.

My time at university was the first time I was outside the Catholic context. So most people will tell you you’re stupid, you’re dumb, and you’re a dag for having a religious view. That’s a very confronting time of life.

My family and career started at nearly the same time. Anne and I married when we were 21, and had our first child at 24.  People often start to think about God again when they have children. You start to wonder how you are going to propel them through life without help.

The other thing I’d say when you’re a Catholic is that the time comes when you have to be prepared to stand up for certain things. You also realise how vulnerable you are, and how much you need to rely on God – and it’s not necessarily an easy relationship.

This was true for me when I became Crown Counsel for the Kennett government. For three years I was absolutely hated – a very interesting and somewhat humbling experience. In politics, the slipperiness of ethics is evident. Politics becomes a game, and when something becomes a game, people become toys. There is the external slipperiness where it’s incredibly easy to do things that you would not otherwise do because you think I’m not actually hurting anyone, I’m just achieving a policy, and hitting a ball back over the net. And then there is the internal slipperiness, where you can become unsure about your own values.

After I left being Crown Counsel I had a great opportunity to set up the law school at Notre Dame in Freemantle. It was tremendously fulfilling. When you’re doing something to further education, and you’re also doing it for God, that’s an unbeatable proposition.

After Notre Dame I became deputy vice-chancellor of Curtin University, but I really missed that double commitment. However I was happy there and when the job at ACU came up, I didn’t apply. Then they approached me, and I saw that they were quite serious, and I was quite undecided.

I was in St Francis lighting candles as my mother taught me, and I prayed on it. I said to God just for once, can you give me a useful sign about what to do? At which point the choir began to practice my single most favourite hymn, the Magnificat. I said ok, ok, no need to go over the top.

So I went to ACU and it has been a wonderful opportunity. Our student numbers have doubled, and our influence and research have grown. And now we have a Catholic university we can be proud of, not just because it’s Catholic, but because it’s a really good university.


A version of this speech was given at the Catholic Man Breakfast Series in Melbourne earlier this year.