Live now: The Australian Governance Summit kicked off this morning in Melbourne. We’re looking forward to insightful discussions both in person and online over the next two days. To follow along on social media and share your thoughts use the hashtag #AGS23.

    Opening address by AICD chair John Atkin FAICD

    Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to the 2023 Australian Governance Summit.

    Thank you, Bill, for your heartfelt and thought-provoking welcome to country.

    I start by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their elders- past, present and emerging.  I also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people joining with us today.

    We are conducting the conference in hybrid format. We have 1400 people attending in person and over 400 people joining us online from around the country. Welcome to you all.

    The AICD is the largest and arguably the strongest of all the governance institutes in the world. With 50,000 members across Australia, from owners of small businesses to directors of listed entities, from NFPs to start-ups, religious organisations to government authorities, the membership of AICD more than ever reflects the diversity of leaders across modern Australia.

    The Annual Governance Summit is the Institute’s signature event. Our purpose is to strengthen society through world class governance.  We do that through our mission of being the independent and trusted voice of governance, building the capability of a diverse community of leaders for the benefit of society. That notion of community which enables peer-based learning and development – by directors for directors– is at the heart of what we do as an Institute. Coming together each year at this summit to learn together is the epitome of what we stand for as an Institute.

    I always find framing the opening for this summit to match the theme a real challenge. Each year the team comes up with the theme and assembles a great panel of speakers and presenters. They then throw me the task of framing the opening.

    I struggle over it every year.

    So this year, I thought I would get some assistance and throw the problem to ChatGPT.

    I signed up to create my account and then asked ChatGPT for the opening for a governance conference with a theme of The Opportunity of Tomorrow. Here is what ChatGPT had to say:

    As we gather here today, we find ourselves at a crossroads, where the choices we make will determine the trajectory of our future. The world is facing unprecedented challenges, from economic inequality to environmental degradation. Yet, amidst these challenges, we also see a world of opportunity - a world where technology and innovation offer new solutions to age-old problems, and where creative collaboration and strategic thinking can help us build a better future.

    All we need is an avatar, and my challenge is solved. I am out of a job!

    Over the next two days we will discuss many of those challenges – climate, cyber and AI – ChatGPT itself. We will look at different ways in which we seek to strengthen our society, sports, NFPs and the economy more generally. Along the way we will hear from many of the leaders in our profession.

    I am looking forward to some great discussions and I encourage you bring to those discussions the same disciplines that lead to good decision making in our boards. Let’s make sure we are informed. Let’s make sure we have listened to the experts. Let’s take a risk-based approach.

    Importantly we should seek and encourage a diversity of perspectives and with a diversity of views we should expect and welcome disagreement. When we identify disagreement we should explore it, not paper it over.

    But it is not a debate with winners and losers. Let’s seek to understand the concerns being expressed by others as it will lead to better decision making and better risk management.

    One of the topics we have on our agenda is reconciliation. And later this year all Australians will make a decision when we are asked to vote in the forthcoming referendum for the Voice.  I want to speak now on how we should, as directors, seek to encourage a deeper, more respectful and informed conversation on that decision.

    At last year’s AGS I spoke to the AICD’s commitment to the cause of reconciliation. At our AGM last November, I announced the Institute’s support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That decision was taken by the Board after extensive consultation and deliberation.

    We think it is both necessary and appropriate for the Institute to have a view on the Uluru Statement. It raises issues that go to the founding of our nation. It calls for an amendment to our fundamental governance document – our Constitution.  As Australia’s leading governance institute it would be odd if the Institute didn’t respond to the Uluru Statement.

    We see the Statement as a generous invitation supported by an overwhelming majority of our Indigenous people to walk together with them in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

    Why do I characterise the Statement as generous?

    Unlike, the other major former colonies of Britain – the United States, Canada and New Zealand – the British settlers in Australia never sought or obtained a treaty with our First Nations people. What was the legal basis for their settlement?

    While the Uluru Statement starts by reminding us that traditional sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished it goes on to observe that it “co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown“. That acknowledgement of Crown sovereignty is made in unqualified terms. It is by any measure a remarkably generous acknowledgment. We think the invitation in the Statement should be responded to with a similar generosity of spirit.

    So now a referendum for the Voice is in the offing.

    How do we respond?

    The wording of the proposed changes to the Constitution that would establish the Voice has not been settled. There is still quite a process to go through before the voting which is over 6 months away. The Prime Minister released a suggested draft last August. He has called for other suggestions.  

    There have been calls for more detail on how the Voice will actually operate – how many members will it have, what will it cost? Those are matters of detail that under the Prime Minister’s draft would be left to the Parliament to determine. That approach is not uncommon in constitutions. For example, the AICD’s constitution gives the Board power to create and abolish Divisions but leaves the detail as to the number of Divisions, their defining characteristics and their powers and operations to the Board.

    Ultimately, Parliament will be accountable to the people of Australia through our democratic process on how the Voice functions.

    We were delighted with members engagement with our recent webinar on the Uluru Statement. We had over 5,000 registrations and over 2,800 people logged in on the day. We are planning other ways where we can explore the issues that are emerging around the proposed referendum and, yes, we will be seeking to explore and understand a variety of different perspectives. While we will not be campaigning for a particular outcome in the referendum, we will be doing our best to promote an informed and respectful conversation.

    Let’s remember there will be risk in whatever decision is taken. Yes, there must be some inherent risk in altering our Constitution. As Shadow Attorney-General Julian Lesser rightly asks and as the Government has foreshadowed, let’s have the proposed changes to the Constitution examined by appropriate Parliamentary committees. Let’s get the expert legal advice at that point before we each make our final decision.

    But let’s also remember that the status quo is not risk free either. The divisions of the past will continue, the goodwill and generosity of the current indigenous leaders who authored the Uluru Statement and who are leading the Yes campaign for the referendum will be eroded and the opportunity to come together in a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood will pass.

    The Institute’s great strength is its membership and the commitment you have to our purpose. Many of you have already achieved great success in your careers but as I have observed, the days when directors commanded respect because of our positions of power in society are over. We need to work continually to earn that respect.

    We must set the tone from the top. “We must be the change we wish to see”. We must embrace diversity and difference, be humble in our approach, be transparent about our areas for improvement – our weak spots - and commit to continuing learning and development as individuals. Most importantly we must foster an inclusive environment of respect in our boardrooms that lets us harness the talents and insights of our fellow directors.

    Similarly, as a community of leaders in our society, we must foster an environment that encourages informed and respectful conversations on the challenges we face.

    By being here today, whether in person or online, you have demonstrated your commitment to learning and your own professional development. I share that commitment and I am looking forward to our conversation.

    And now to start the Summit, it is my great pleasure to introduce our first speaker, the Chair of AGL, Patricia McKenzie.

    Patricia has been the Chair of AGL since September of last year, and a director since 2019. She is also the Chair of NSW Ports and the Sydney Desalination Plant.

    Patricia has more than 40 years of experience in Australia’s energy sector. She was previously the Chair of Essential Energy, and a director with Macquarie Generation, Transgrid and the Australian Energy Market Operator. Patricia also spent seven years as the CEO of the Gas Market Company.

    AGL is at the front line of the challenges and opportunities presented by decarbonisation. You will have all followed the changes in the composition of the AGL board which Patricia chairs. Who better to give the keynote address for this summit?

    Please welcome Patricia McKenzie….

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