Originally published in The Australian, 20 November 2017
It is never easy to talk to someone about death, even in the abstract, but it’s especially daunting to raise it in the context of “what happens after you’re gone”; and if it involves a vast sum of money, it’s all so much the harder, seeming both ghoulish and mercenary.
It took me many years to work up the courage to talk to Paul Ramsay about the legacy he might leave to the world; and when I did, I presumed on a relationship with him going back more than 30 years, to the days when he’d been a volunteer driver for his Jesuit brother’s rowing crews; and also on the authority of my being the then leader of the Liberal Party, which he’d supported for decades.
Paul was not only one of Australia’s richest men but, like Cecil Rhodes a century earlier, he had no immediate family waiting for an inheritance. In another echo of Rhodes, he had strong views on the kind of people he liked and respected and the sort of world he wanted to support and build. And so over a series of dinners, mostly also involving his great friend Tony Clark, an idea became a scheme that, since his death, faithfully nurtured by his trustees, has crystallised into the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation that’s officially launched today.
Paul was an instinctive patriot, not just for Australia but for the wider culture and civilisation of which we are a part. Naturally he was grateful for the opportunity our country had given him to build a vast health and hospital business here and overseas. His loyalty, though, 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. 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.
He was especially conscious of the scriptural observation: to whom much is given, much is expected. We talked about the legacies of wealthy people: to the arts, to medical research and to intellectual endeavour. Rhodes was 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”.
When Paul was young, a good education meant familiarity with our great books, the New Testament and Shakespeare, and the study of British history where “freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent”. Paul’s intention was to give our future leaders something of the intellectual formation that he had received but which is largely absent in the postmodernism of today’s schools and universities. Hence, there were to be undergraduate scholarships for the study of Western civilisation, postgraduate fellowships for budding leaders interested in the Western canon, plus lectures and summer schools on “the best which has been thought and said”.
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 can no longer be taken for granted in our premier teaching and academic institutions makes the Ramsay centre not just timely but essential.
It would be surprising if a musician did not in some sense love music or a writer love literature. Likewise, no one would be shocked by Muslims insisting on respect for their faith or by Aboriginal people demanding the means to keep their culture alive. Indeed, we’d be taken aback if they were indifferent to their heritage, let alone hostile to it. These days, though, the one culture that is not normally allowed to celebrate and cherish itself is our own.
A decent and sensitive man, Paul Ramsay 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 Ramsay centre is now in the midst of discussions with universities about where to base its undergraduate courses. The challenge will be reconciling the Ramsay mission with university autonomy while avoiding capture by the left. With both John Howard and Kim Beazley on the Ramsay centre board, there’s a determination to respect objective fact and to appreciate moral distinctions. This is an important national project. It’s not every day that about $3 billion is dedicated in perpetuity to raising the tone of our civic conversation so we must make the most of it.