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Former Minister reflects on the importance of evidence-informed policy and rural careers

Introduction by Croakey: Since its establishment as Queensland’s second university in 1970, James Cook University (JCU) has developed into a major regional educator of health professionals. As well as nursing and midwifery, it offers courses in speech pathology, pharmacy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and psychology. It opened a medical school in 2000, and a dental school in 2009.

This autumn it invited JCU graduate and former ALP Senator Jan McLucas to give the Occasional Address to graduating health professionals. McLucas was born in far north Queensland, and attended Townsville College of Advanced Education (now part of JCU) to train as a teacher.

After entering local politics in Cairns in 1995, she was elected to the Senate in 1998 and served until 2016. She chaired a number of landmark Senate committee inquiries, including the Forgotten Australians Inquiry into the institutionalisation of children, and the inquiry into services for people with disability, which was one of the building blocks for the NDIS.

Under the Rudd-Gillard governments she held several Parliamentary Secretary positions related to health and community services, and was appointed as Minister for Human Services in 2013.

JCU recognised McLucas as an outstanding alumni in 2016, noting that she was the only graduate to have been elected to the national parliament.

In her Occasional Address, published in full below with permission, McLucas reminds graduates of their future role as leaders in their communities, with a responsibility to “trust the science” in engaging in public debate.

And she also extols the wide-ranging benefits of working in rural and remote areas.


Jan McLucas writes:

Thank you, Henrietta [Marrie], for your welcome to your country. I pay my respects to you and your family and to all First Nations people who are with us today.

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and President, Deputy Chancellor, Members of Council, Members of staff, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Graduates.

Jan McLucas

Thank you for giving me the honour of delivering the Occasional Address at this important graduation ceremony for the Colleges of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences; Healthcare Sciences; and Medicine and Dentistry. Those of you graduating today are about to embark on your careers changing the health outcomes of, hopefully, many North, Far North and Northwest Queenslanders.

This is not the first time that I have addressed a graduation ceremony. In 1978, I gave the graduates’ response at the Townsville College of Education’s ceremony. The College was amalgamated with James Cook University in 1981.

It was typed on foolscap – “What’s foolscap?” you ask.

There are a few spelling mistakes – no spell check on the clunky library typewriter.

And it’s clearly written by a starry eyed 20-year-old. And, no, I’m not going to share any of the pearls of wisdom from that day.

But dragging it out of the file, I was struck with the enormous changes that we have witnessed over those years.

Back then nurses were not university educated.

There were no undergraduate medical positions at JCU.

The University of Queensland was where one studied dentistry, and allied health was almost unheard of.

Tropical health research was undertaken in Sydney and London, with the Anton Breinl Centre yet to be re-established in North Queensland.

The other significant difference is the make-up of the graduating class. My year was very white and middle class, although I must say that the College had begun a very successful program of training Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to be teachers.

So today, I was thrilled to be part of the Cultural Sashing Ceremony earlier today where a number of First Nations graduates received the JCU Cultural Sash.

JCU can be very proud of how far we have come to ensure the student population reflects the population of our communities and our communities’ future needs.

The University can also be proud of the transformation that has seen JCU globally recognised for its teaching and research in fields of importance to the tropics, including tropical health and medicine.

The University Seal at the top of your graduation certificate will be highly regarded by your prospective employers.

Trust matters

As graduating students, you have witnessed significant changes in your lives but in your future you will, undoubtedly, witness great local and global changes that impact our society and our environment.

As health professionals, you will become respected leaders in the communities you serve.

You may not think that yet, but please know that the health professions are routinely regarded as among the most trusted members of the community.

As an aside, its unsurprising that the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says that it’s doctors who are the most trusted, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union says it’s nurses, and the College of Surgeons says it’s specialists, but you’ll get to know the trade union landscape in good time.

I encourage you to embrace the respect in which you will be held and use it for the betterment of our societies. Your contributions will be heard, so make them.

By way of example, you may have heard that our former Mayor refuted the plea from a local oral health professional to re-instate fluoride into our water supply by saying of him, “That’s just one person”.

Whilst his language was derogatory and unprofessional, it flies in the face of the irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

I commend that dentist for his courage in speaking out.

It’s through actions like his that our community will look more to the evidence and not deliberate misinformation.

Which raises the question of trusting the science.

As health professionals, you all understand how science works.

You understand the need to be skeptical, to ask questions and investigate the evidence.

Yes, let’s question the science, but when it is clear, we must accept it as a basis for good policy and actions.

So frankly, I’m a bit over the conspiracy theorists and the key board warriors who deny that the climate is changing, who say vaccinations are dangerous, that the Great Barrier Reef is just hunky-dory, and that women already have an equal place in society.

Step up

In the debates that are to come, please play your part.

Our communities rely on our leaders to help us navigate these sometimes-difficult questions, and you will be one of those leaders.

Not all movements for change are successful, however.

I was deeply disappointed, last year, when the modest change to our Constitution requested by First Nations peoples was not agreed to in the referendum.

This would have given Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a real voice, a respected voice and a voice that would have led to much improved outcomes in many areas of their lives, notably, in this context, in their health outcomes.

But remember nearly all the peak health and medical professional bodies came out in strong support of the Voice.

They did this, not because of a political stance, but because they know from years of experience just how fundamental engagement and empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is, to ensure they get good health outcomes.

This debate is not over.  We will again have to discuss how we all can be proud of who we are – as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Australia.

I am not proud, and I want to be.

Whether this will happen in my lifetime, I’m not sure. But it will happen in yours. Please be part of that change.

Rural and remote futures

So, what happens next for you all?

When I was at college, most of us had Queensland Government bonded scholarships, which meant that there was a direct line of employment to Education Queensland.

Your paths will be quite different and, I expect, less certain.

My father had one job, my mother had two – running a household and a paid job.

I have had three proper jobs.

The research says that you will have more than 12 jobs over your lifetime.

That will require a nimbleness and an openness to accepting change and opportunities.

I want to suggest to you that working in rural and remote regions will enrich your career options and your personal development and you may well stay.

I was appointed to Charters Towers as my first teaching position.

Aside from my day job teaching children, a group of friends and I ran a campaign to save one of the original grand homes built in 1883 from demolition.

We won.

We ran a campaign to stop uranium mining at Ben Lomond at the head waters of the Burdekin River.

We won.

And I thought, “This politics stuff is pretty fun.”

But I also think that I would not have had such a formative experience had I been in the city.

Working in smaller communities gives you a feel for that community. And in your professions, I expect that working with small populations will allow shared goals to be developed and ultimately achieved.

The other reason that I think that you should consider work in rural and remote centres is that JCU has always argued that, if the Government gave them more medical placements and undergrad nursing positions, more graduates would move to work in more remote places.

So, you just have to keep up your end of the bargain!

Research opportunities

As Tianna mentioned, I am a member of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, which has been a real delight to understand the work of some brilliant researchers doing impactful research for the Tropics. I have also been the community representative on the Human Research Ethics Committee of Queensland Health based here in Cairns.

Both opportunities have absolutely underlined that you don’t have to live in Brisbane, or Sydney or London to undertake some really amazing and relevant research, right here in North Queensland.

Ensuring research on tropical health and medicine is also based in the tropics will maximise the prospects of improving the health outcomes of the communities the research is designed to assist.

I can’t imagine how we could have released Wolbachia infected mosquitoes into Cairns’ suburbs without having researchers, who actually lived in those suburbs, making the case for their release.

My congratulations to those graduates who have received their Doctorates today. And for those starting on your health profession journey, research might also play an integral part in one or more of those 12 jobs that you undertake over your career.

To all the graduating students, my best wishes for your success. You have an opportunity to make big differences in people’s lives.

Use it well.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on education, as an important social determinant of health