Where are they now – Tony Arnel (SPC 1972)

February 24, 2020

The College recently reconnected with Tony Arnel (SPC 1972) who has enjoyed a full and rewarding career in city planning and sustainability, dividing his time between a professional role at Deakin University, a global engineering company and a number of board appointments. Tony has just stepped down from the board of Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) and urges others to follow their heart in life.

Tony Arnel.

Where has life taken you since leaving SPC?
After university, I lived and worked in Melbourne all of my adult life. Initially I worked as an architect and project manager in the Victorian Public Service and was able to work on a variety of large public buildings projects over the years before progressing on to general management at executive director and deputy secretary levels within a number of government departments. In the late 1990s, I was a Director at the City of Melbourne responsible for a variety of capital city planning and city services functions. In those days the city was nothing like it is today. For example, there were no high-rise residential apartments or towers, very few people actually lived in the city and commercial and retail development were few and far between. The urban planning and long-term policy settings developed more than 20 years ago have enabled Melbourne to become the world class city that it is today regularly being recognised by the Economist magazine as the world’s most liveable city.
During the 2000s, I was the Victorian Building Commissioner responsible for the regulation of the state’s building industry. At this time I maintained and focused my interest in sustainability and particularly the built environment and subsequently became the chair of the Green Building Council of Australia. I chaired the GBCA for five years during a period of substantial growth and also chaired the World Green Building Council based in Toronto.
In more recent times, I’ve been able to divide my time between a professorial role at Deakin University, a global engineering company based in Melbourne and a number of board appointments.
In 2013, I was appointed to the board of Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) which is the governing body for all Edmund Rice schools in Australia (including St Patrick’s College, Ballarat). Having governance oversight of more than 50 schools around Australia, comprising more than 40,000 students was a rare privilege.
Outside of the work environment, my wife Denise and I have raised two daughters and we managed to travel considerably with them during their growing up years. They both now have two children each which makes us proud grandparents.
Three years ago, Denise and I moved from the Melbourne CBD to Victoria’s surf coast. We love the coastal environment.

What are your fondest memories of your time at SPC?
I’m not sure whether times have changed much or not for teenage boys, but for me it was all about the sport. Without doubt it was important to apply yourself to the books and show some interest but my aspiration was to play in the First XVIII football side and the First XI cricket side which I managed to do. Playing team sports where there was so much passion was character building and great fun… and very, very competitive!
Apart from the “sport” I have fond memories of the teaching staff generally. There was genuine engagement and interest in ensuring that you did the best you could and the rest would take care of itself. I know that everyone’s experiences at school differ but that’s the way I remember it. My other memory is of the boarders of which there seemed to be so many at the time. The fact that they all came from far and wide – across the state and Melbourne – was true testimony to an education at St Patrick’s and all it had to offer.

Which teacher from your time at SPC had the greatest impact on you?
Br Dan Sexton had the rather unenviable task of getting me over the line in Calculus and Applied Mathematics which he somehow did. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with him decades later through St Carthage’s Church in Parkville. We would always exchange pleasantries or stop for a quick chat after mass. I was nothing special… just one of thousands of boys he educated and influenced with his great knowledge and dedication. I simply felt a debt of gratitude knowing without Dan and many like him it could’ve been a whole lot different.

How has education shaped your professional life?
I guess most people would say that without a quality education you wouldn’t have a professional life in the first place. In my case, it gave me the opportunity to embark into tertiary study and then into a variety of really interesting jobs.


How has your time at SPC shaped your personal values and your family life?
I hadn’t really reflected on the Edmund Rice tradition that much over the years until I joined the board of EREA and I realised what we now call the “touchstones” actually mean. I have always felt strongly about social justice issues and without doubt much of that has come from my education – the Christian Brothers and before that, the Brigidine Nuns. The idea of a liberating education, based on Gospel spirituality, within an inclusive community committed to justice and solidarity is unique to SPC and EREA.
In our lives we all like to talk about how we contribute – it can be in our work, in our home life, on the sporting field – the question really is, are we a “net giver” or “net taker”? In my view, every boy who is educated at SPC in the Edmund Rice tradition is privileged and has the opportunity to be a “net giver” by making a contribution to society. In the digital age of social media, it is a major issue for young people to become self-centred and narcissistic. Giving to society, volunteering, taking an active interest in social justice issues really do make a positive difference and are all part of the SPC tradition.

If you could pass on one message to the students of today, what would it be?
One thing I’ve learnt over time is to follow your heart.
I was fascinated about 10 years ago to read a book by the English author, Sir Ken Robinson, called “The Element”. It helped me make sense of my own journey and also how I’d observed a few colleagues over time. In the book, Robinson describes how “finding your element is everything”.

In life, we all know plenty of people who are really good at something, but don’t really care for it too much. It might be someone who is a good musician but doesn’t play much, a natural golfer who can’t really be bothered, or let’s say in academia, a good researcher who’s heart really isn’t in it.
Natural capacity or ability, a natural feel for something is very important… but it’s not enough.
You have to love what you do, you have to have passion!
Robinson says you are in your element where natural talent meets personal passion. Now I realise that to be in your element in every aspect of your life is hardly likely, but I think he provides us with a great framework about how we might align our personal lives and professional careers.
It may mean making a decision about a financial offer… yes, I can do that job well, it means more dollars, but will I be fulfilled, will I be in my element?
So, following our heart, in my experience, is important.

Tony Arnel.