Anita George reflects on John Monash at the Spirit of Australia Commemorative Service August 2015


On Friday 14 August 2015, John Monash Scholar Anita George offered her thoughts on General Sir John Monash and more specifically, reflected on her personal experience in learning more about the man who is recognised as one of Australia’s great leaders.

Anita was invited by the Spirit of Australia Foundation to make this address in the Legislative Assembly of Parliament House Victoria. The Spirit of Australia Foundation was established in 2005 to remember and commemorate Australia’s heritage through honouring significant Australians. The Spirit of Australia Foundation aims to educate Australians, especially school students, about great Australian role models who have made a significant contribution to our country in a variety of endeavours. The Commemorative Service is held annually at Parliament House Victoria and a John Monash Scholar is invited to offer their thoughts on John Monash and his role as a military and civilian leader of Australia.

Speech by Ms Anita George – 2012 John Monash Scholar:

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today. In 2011, when I first considered applying for a postgraduate scholarship, I spoke to scholarship department at the University of Tasmania. They recommended applying for a John Monash Scholarship. They gave me the usual advice which included to make sure your CV up-to-date, get copies of your academic transcript and get your references organised. I also received one critical piece of advice, and that was, find out more about General Sir John Monash.

This was the first time I had thought about Monash – the PERSON. I think of Monash as an educational institution; I think of Monash the freeway; I think of Monash as a hospital; But – Monash as a person?

So I did what any self-respecting educated person does, I did a google search. What I initially found nearly turned me off applying for the scholarship and I will tell you why.

Monash was an Engineer with highly developed mathematical and spatial skills, one of the war’s most outstanding commanders and an accomplished concert pianist. I, on the other hand, haven’t studied maths for about 15 years, struggle to read maps that aren’t orientated in the direction I want to go, went to a Quaker school known for its commitment to pacifism and play indie folk music with my band at festivals, travelling around Australia and Canada in a combi van.

I reached the conclusion that I couldn’t be more different from this intimidatingly accomplished engineer and war hero, General Sir John Monash, and perhaps this was not the scholarship for me.

But if I could give you one piece of advice, it is look beyond Google. When I started reading further afield, including Roland Perry’s book ‘The Outsider who won a war,’ I learnt four critical things about General Sir John Monash that really resonated with me and led me to be standing here before you today.

Firstly, Monash was considered by some to be an outsider, but had the capacity to surmount the harsh criticisms of his detractors through his outstanding conduct. John Monash was born in Melbourne in 1865, to a family of Prussian Jewish origin. His parents spoke German and he grew up bilingual. Throughout his life, he was forced to deal with detractors who, not being able to find fault with his professional capacity, made wild allegations relating to his cultural heritage including rumours that he was a spy and the suggestion that due to his German heritage he should not be promoted to command against a German enemy in the war. But his accomplishments spoke for themselves and he was knighted on the battlefield.

Growing up as the child of Indian migrants in the 1970s in Tasmania, I have somewhat of an idea of what it is like to feel like an outsider. Bearing the brunt of racial taunts at school, not speaking my parent’s language in public for fear of being teased, I often tried to suppress the things that made me different. But I grew to realise, and what Monash proved, is that it is often our differences that are our greatest source of strength. I know the task of learning French in my thirties was made much easier having grown up in a bilingual household.

The other key message we can take from Monash’s life is that if you act in such a way that people can’t find fault in your character and conduct, hollow criticisms will soon fade away.

Secondly, Monash valued lifelong learning. Learning was not just something to do between the ages of 0 -18. Monash obtained degrees in Arts and Engineering, and then, not content with that, went on to pursue a law degree. When I applied for the John Monash Scholarship, I was 35 years old. Many other scholarships had strict age restrictions but I felt my learning was just beginning and I felt I had even more to bring to my studies after several years of professional experience. I greatly appreciate the Monash inspired philosophies of Ancora Imparo which means, I am still learning, and the John Monash Foundation approach of looking beyond the age of their Scholars and focusing on what Scholars can contribute to our country.

Thirdly, Monash was a compassionate and respectful leader. A meticulous planner, he was known as a leader who consulted widely in the decision making process, valuing the views of those ranked below him in the military. This is not always easy when having to make time-pressured decisions on which the lives of many rest. To me, drawing on the strengths of those around you and respecting the dignity of all individuals, no matter what rank society has assigned to them, is the mark of a truly great person.

Finally, Monash gave to his community. He did not love the war but, he was committed to his community and he volunteered to serve his country – an incredible sacrifice.

Whilst in a very different context, I too have spent my life trying to find ways to contribute. I do this as a lawyer in a positive way to the community. I work as a global public health lawyer in the area of cancer prevention. It definitely helps me to get out of bed on a cold wintry Melbourne morning to know that my work will lead to the reduction in the devastating toll that cancer afflicts on people all around the world.

Armed with this more in depth knowledge of Monash, an outsider, who valued lifelong learning, and a respectful leader who gave to his community, I decided to apply for a John Monash Scholarship because behind the John Monash Scholarship IS a person. A person whose integrity, brilliance, determination and selfless commitment to his community continue to inspire me to this day.

Anita George is pictured with fellow 2012 John Monash Scholar Iwan Walters.