Story behind the man synonymous with education reform

By Pia White | 16 Dec 15

I Gave a Gonski | David Gonski | Penguin Books Australia

David Gonski is an impressive figure – albeit one who admits that he enjoyed considerably more anonymity prior to the debate around the education funding review, which his book I Gave a Gonski references in its title.

Having emigrated from South Africa with his family in the early 60s, Gonski forged successful careers in law and merchant banking. He is a businessman involved with too many public and private entities to list, but also a philanthropist and patron of the arts.

Despite his success, Gonski manages to maintain a genuine air of modesty. He explains on the book’s first page that his choice to publish a collection of speeches, rather than a traditional autobiography, was because he considers the latter an exercise that would be “arrogant in the extreme”.

The format lends an interesting glimpse into the types of addresses and speaking invitations Gonski accepts, but also leads to a fair amount of repetition as he covers overlapping topics in different chapters. Also, the opinions and insights contained in the book tend to be quite moderate. Whether this is a consequence of compiling speeches or an implicit part of being such a successful and well-networked businessman remains unclear.

In the opening chapter, Gonski gives a moving personal history of himself and his family interwoven with a chronology of contemporaneous human rights issues in Australia. It’s a compelling narrative device that reveals both how much and how little has changed. He signposts important political and social issues that bypassed him, and questions why it took him so long to step up and give more back, instead of focusing on “just doing his job”.

“With the added benefit of hindsight, Gonski provides an illuminating perspective on his methodology and findings as well as Australia’s response to the recommendations.”

Gonski devotes the second chapter to discussing the education funding report to which he lent his name (and many other talents). He frequently discusses throughout the book the importance he places on education and the transformative effect it had on his family.

So while it’s still somewhat unexpected that a prominent businessman and lawyer would have his name become synonymous with Australian education reform, his decision to chair the review knowing how controversial it would be is properly put into context.

Gonski reproduces the speech he delivered at the inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration in 2014: the first instance he had spoken publicly about the report. With the added benefit of hindsight, Gonski provides an illuminating perspective on his methodology and findings as well as Australia’s response to the recommendations.

Most of the remaining chapters are much less personal, with the human rights theme less pronounced. Seven out of the 11 chapters focus on aspects of business and corporate governance. Even the chapter dedicated to philanthropy mainly discusses John Howard’s tax reforms around charitable giving and Private Ancillary Funds.

This is understandable given Gonski’s passion for and expertise in business, but is perhaps of most interest to those wanting to follow his path into the business world. Even so, much of his advice seems relatively uncontentious and he largely steers clear of examining corporate ethics or questioning the degree of responsibility transferred to an individual choosing to become involved with companies such as Transfield Holdings.

Also somewhat disappointing is the chapter on gender diversity on boards. Gonski covers in detail the persistent male dominance that exists in the business world and the importance of eradicating it. However, he then spends a significant number of words arguing against quotas as a means of doing so. Admittedly, this chapter is adapted from a debate he participated in on the subject. However, it still feels like the topic receives unsatisfactory treatment from someone who enjoys as large a degree of influence as Gonski does, with less than a page dedicated to proposing alternate means of combatting gender inequality.

One of the ideas that Gonski constantly revisits throughout the book is the responsibility we all hold to contribute in whatever way possible to making Australia and the word a better place. He is earnest in this message – and given that the royalties from the book are being donated to ASPIRE, an educational outreach program, seemingly prepared to lead by example.

I Gave a Gonski is now available from Penguin Books Australia.