Ralph Willis was awarded an Honorary Degree by Victoria University on Thursday 4 June 2009. He was admitted to the degree of Doctor of the University honoris causa, as an exceptional Australian, who through his remarkable devotion to community service and the economic advancement of Australia has served the interests of Melbourne, its western community and the nation.
At the ceremony VU's Vice Chancellor Professor Elizabeth Harman said that the University was proud to recognise the contribution of the Honourable Ralph Willis, both for his service as a federal politician and for his untiring efforts in support of the local community.
Ralph Willis was born in Melbourne on 14 April 1938, the son of Stan Willis, a shop steward at the Newport Railway Workshops, one of the strongholds of organised labour in Melbourne's West. Mr Willis has remained loyal to the region and to the labour movement throughout his long and distinguished parliamentary career.
He held the seat of Gellibrand for 26 years, retiring at the 1998 election. During that quarter century he held five different portfolios in the Hawke-Keating Governments, most notably as Treasurer in 1991 and again between 1993 and 1996. The pundits say that he was the most mathematically competent member of the Cabinet in that period, and perhaps its best classical economist.
As a Minister of the Crown he was regarded by those who worked with him as restrained and deeply reflective, a political leader not driven by fashion. He never accepted simple answers to the problems that confront an economy.
These interests and commitments came together in his main achievement in political life, the Prices and Incomes Accord. The Accord was a novel idea in Australian political history - that government and organised labour could come to a compact on people's overall living standards during a period of dramatic macro-economic reform. Australia was able in this period to reclaim its position in the world's economic rankings without leaving its poorer citizens behind.
On the national political stage Mr Willis brought this same combination of social responsibility and economic consideration to everything he touched. He was an economist who attempted to achieve the most social value within the boundaries of what was politically possible at all times. Perhaps because of his father's influence he remained a tireless advocate of working-class democracy and accepted, indeed welcomed a role for organised labour in the nation's macroeconomic reform. As a classic engine-room man he was a quiet participant in many of the important macro-economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era.
Since 1998 when he retired from federal politics he has continued to serve the community. As a tireless advocate for Melbourne's West Ralph Willis will be remembered for three main achievements. One was his support for this University from early times in its history. Another was his championing of a standard railway gauge from the Melbourne docks to Adelaide. This reform helped the transport industry; it also took a lot of trucks off the road in the streets of Footscray; and it helped revive the Commonwealth's interest in rail reform generally. But it was his third achievement that most marked his regional commitment, for he was instrumental in getting the Western Ring Road built.
The Western Ring Road was both an icon for the West, giving people and industry a renewed sense of the region's economic capacity, as well as historically the most cost-beneficial road built in Australia. The Western Ring Road has paid for itself many times over since its completion only two decades ago.
He was a member of the United Nations High Level Panel on Youth Employment, which advised the UN Secretary General. He also became involved with Victoria University and became a member of the Advisory Group for the Workplace Studies Centre - a research unit in VU's Faculty of Business and Law. He is currently Chair of Western Health, and LeadWest, both important partners of Victoria University and is also involved with a number of organisations related to the performing arts, including the Melba Foundation and the Melbourne City Opera.
Ralph Willis continues to support Victoria University as a Director of the Victoria University Foundation.
Photos of Dr Ralph Willis are available on request
Andy Gash, A/Media Manager
Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University
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