Originally published in Quadrant, April 2018
Paul Ramsay was an unlikely billionaire. On his own admission, he was not a dominating personality; not an organisational expert; not an intellectual giant; not an impresario of ideas; and not a financial genius. Yet he founded a business from scratch and turned it into one of the world’s largest private hospital chains employing more than 50,000 people in a dozen countries. At his death, Forbes estimated his personal wealth at close to $4 billion; with $3 billion of that, his shares in the business he founded, dedicated to a range of good causes but, particularly, to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
Paul was one of those rare businessmen who had almost no enemies. He once told me that this was because a deal that the other person would never care to repeat, however profitable it might have been for him, wasn’t worth the cost in bad blood. For Paul, the most important asset anyone could have was his character and the quality that mattered above all others was loyalty. He was loyal to his extended family; to his friends; and to his staff. “Loyalty is number one for me” he once said; even “more than intelligence”. The most striking element of any lengthy conversation with him was always the expression of gratitude. Paul was immensely grateful to the parents that had raised him; to the country that had given him so many opportunities; and to the culture that had shaped his thoughts and formed his values.
He wasn’t a systematic thinker; at school, he was an ordinary student; and he dropped out of Sydney University within two years to work in his father’s property business. He knew, though, that nothing happens in a vacuum and that Australia worked as well as it did thanks to a set of values handed down from generation to generation. Paul’s gratitude extended far beyond the material blessings provided by a country such as ours, to the deeper cultural and spiritual heritage that’s necessary for a free market economy to work.
This was at the heart of the conversations that I started having with him from 2011. In Paul’s day, and still in mine two decades later, it was hard to pass though the education system without considerable immersion in the New Testament, Shakespeare and British history, where “freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent”; in other words, without a fair grounding in the rudiments of the Western canon. Like Paul, I’d been taught by the Jesuits who, at least in those days, had hammered the idea that each of us should strive to be in some sense a “man for others”. What this generation was missing, I put to him, was familiarity with the stories and the values that had made us who and what we are.
Largely missing, even from Catholic schools, was a deep focus on the Christian faith. The study of history was no longer narrative, starting with the cradle of civilisation and moving through Greece and Rome to the story of England and the birth of the modern world, its triumphs and its travails; but had become episodic. And every element of the curriculum was supposed to be pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives. Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.
Paul was especially conscious of the scriptural observation: to whom much is given, much is expected. So why not, I said, put the Ramsay fortune to work to give people a formation in the knowledge and the values that had once been taken for granted but were now at risk of being forgotten, even though no less necessary for our society to flourish? That was how our discussion developed over a quite a few dinners and breakfasts in the next few years, invariably involving Paul’s great friend Tony Clark whom I’d come to know through John Howard at the beginning of my time in the parliament.
It’s a mighty presumption, of course, to tell a man – even a good friend – what he should do with his money when he’s dead. But I wasn’t just trusting on Paul’s good nature. By then there was a relationship of some 40 years, dating back to the time Paul had driven some of his Jesuit brother Jack’s rowers to a regatta in Canberra in late 1973. And I was relying on my standing at that time as the leader of the political party that Paul had always supported and believed in. Even so, it was with much trepidation that I first made the suggestion that Paul should devote the bulk of his fortune to something like a Rhodes scholarship based here in Australia.
At first, Paul had listened with the indulgent humour that he always showed to the more outlandish ideas of his friends. But as time passed, he clearly warmed to the idea of doing something unique and making a difference in the future as well as in the present; of leaving a stand-alone legacy that could change our country for the better rather than simply making other people richer, and already existing institutions even better resourced. After all, if Cecil Rhodes, that other philanthropic bachelor, could help to create generations of “men for the world’s fight”, why shouldn’t he?
Rhodes became the philanthropist who most fascinated him because he’d invested his fortune in the leaders of the future. Rhodes’ scholars certainly needed to have “literary and scholastic attainments”, as his will stated, but it wasn’t just about getting ahead; it was about being of service. Rhodes wanted to nurture people with “moral force of character and instincts to lead” with “truth, courage, devotion to duty” and “energy to use one’s talents to the fullest”.
The project that crystalised in Paul’s mind had three purposes: first, to foster undergraduate courses in the Western canon at three leading Australian universities with scholarships for very bright young people who wanted to explore how our civilisation had grappled with life’s biggest issues and history’s greatest challenges; second, to provide post-graduate fellowships to outstanding scholars of strong character and a record of intellectual leadership; and third, to run lectures, seminars and summer schools promoting an understanding and appreciation of the high culture of the West.
In early 2014, before a lunch at the Ramsay family home in Bowral, there was a discussion with Paul and Robert Salisbury, a British peer Paul knew well, about the difference that could be made by small numbers of committed and capable people. Crucially, there was also a morning tea at Tony Clark’s home in Roseville where Paul commissioned Julian Leeser (now an MP, then a senior manager at the Australian Catholic University) to produce a substantial study on how these Ramsay scholarships might best work. In April, at a dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of Ramsay Healthcare, Paul asked John Howard to chair the project he had in mind. And then, just a few weeks later, he died; with the vision well established but with the details largely to be worked out in conjunction with Clark, Michael Siddle and Peter Evans, the people he’d trusted for most of a lifetime and who believed in what he wanted to achieve.
In the light of how other scholarships had worked, Leeser’s brief was to consider how a Ramsay version could help shape future generations of Australian leaders who were well versed in “the best that’s been thought and said”. After months carefully studying scholarships such as the Rhodes and the Fulbright, and other programmes such as the Churchill fellowships; and after looking at liberal arts courses in the United States and in the United Kingdom, in April 2015 he produced a blueprint for the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
A decent and sensitive man, Paul wasn’t oblivious to the deficiencies, the failures and the blind spots of our civilisation; but he was convinced that, on balance, it had been far more good than bad. To the question: “what has Western civilisation ever done for us?” he would have ventured: not so much, perhaps, save for the rule of law, representative democracy, freedom of speech-conscience-and-religion, liberal pluralism, the prosperity born of market capitalism, the capability born of scientific rigour, and the cultivation born of endless intellectual and artistic curiosity. “The golden age”, he liked to say, “is before us, not behind us”.
The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it. The fact that it is “for” the cultural inheritance of countries such as ours, rather than just interested in it, makes it distinctive. The fact that respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions makes the Ramsay Centre not just timely but necessary. This is an important national project. It’s not every day, after all, that such a big endowment is dedicated in perpetuity to raising the tone of our civic conversation.
In preparing the Ramsay Centre report, Leeser was acutely conscious of “O’Sullivan’s law”, first formulated by the former editor of Quadrant, namely that “every organisation that’s not explicitly right wing, over time becomes left wing”. This is a serious risk for the Ramsay Centre but I’m confident that this fate will be avoided: first, because the Ramsay Centre board (that includes Kim Beazley and Joe de Bruyn, as well as Howard, Leeser and me) is determined not to waste Paul’s legacy; and second, because even in Australian universities there is still a cadre of teachers for whom history can’t be re-written, facts are facts, and great books are still well worth reading.
Many of today’s best students are understandably and rightly fascinated with the lessons to be learned from other cultures. With the right stimulation, therefore, how much greater could their hunger be to explore their own culture with an “openness to the whole world, to new experience, (with an) adventurous spirit of discovery and curiosity, (a) desire to ‘strive, to seek, to kind and not to yield’ and, yes, (the) capacity to criticise itself…(that) has distinguished this civilisation from others”?
As Professor Simon Haines, the Centre’s first CEO, went on, “its very variety of cultures and values, so often incompatible and conflicted, has also given (our civilisation) a hybrid toughness, a capacity to adapt and assimilate, to tolerate and include. Millions of non-Westerners (including some who think it is wicked) want nothing more than to live in it, while Westerners lucky enough to have it as a birthright take it for granted. How we would miss it if it really didn’t exist! It may not be a perfect model for a fully inclusive or genuinely liberal human civilisation, one neither repressive nor prodigal, but truly magnanimous. Still, it may be the closest we’ve yet come as a species”.
The Ramsay Centre is close to finalising an arrangement with the Australian National University for a Bachelor of Western Civilisation degree to commence next year. The course will be an Australian version of the great books courses taught at America’s leading liberal arts colleges. More than half the students will be on scholarships based on the Tuckwell model that’s now been operating at the ANU for some years. Teaching will be tutorial based in the spirit of Oxford and Cambridge. A management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions. It’s a near certainty that this course, and the comparable ones to come at two other campuses, will be a magnet to our best and brightest students, especially as there’s the prospect for double and post graduate degrees.
I know my own debt to the mentors I’ve had and to the institutions that have shaped me: what an exhilarating prospect that upwards of a hundred bright young Australians every year might soon gain such inspiration. Person by person, the world does change. A much more invigorating long march through our institutions may be about to begin!