SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

SPEECH

3 August 2017

AUSTRALIAN VALUES IN A TIME OF DISRUPTION

GRIFFITH ASIA INSTITUTE’S ‘PERSPECTIVES: ASIA’ LECTURE

GRIFFITH UNIVERSITY

BRISBANE

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May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we are meeting today, and by paying our respects to their elders past and present.

Election campaigns are always fascinating and occasionally revealing. They are fascinating because the players in the pit of politics are on continuous public display. They are revealing because the truth has the uncomfortable habit of sometimes slipping out.

So it was at the National Press Club in the lead up to the last federal election. In the June 2016 debate with my friend Tanya Plibersek, the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party and Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, had this to say: ‘In our pragmatic approach to foreign policy we deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.’

Let me say that again: “we deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be”.

What does this statement tell us?

It certainly explains the pedestrian nature of the present Government’s approach to foreign policy, where running on the spot has replaced moving the foreign policy enterprise forward.

It also reveals why the Turnbull government has been so apparently lead footed in its response to the disruption that now characterises the global environment in which Australia must make its way.

Quite clearly, Julie Bishop’s sentence needs a different ending. Of course we have to deal with the world as it is, but advancing Australian interests and values matters.

The statement I would make is this.

We deal with the world as it is, and we seek to change it for the better – to shape, as best we can, the world in which we live.

Australian interests and values should not be dismissed as wishful thinking. They are what give our foreign policy purpose and direction. They enable us to understand what we want to do and why we want to act.

In other words, we need a foreign policy that is both transactional – that deals with the day-to-day issues – and transformational – that addresses the longer-term strategic opportunities and challenges the nation faces.

A transformational foreign policy is one that pursues our national interests and is informed by our values.

A transformational foreign policy is critical to Australia’s ability to navigate a disrupted world. A transformational foreign policy is purposive: it reflects the confidence that comes from knowing what we want and how we set about getting what we want. And where does that confidence come from? It comes from being crystal clear on what our national interests are, on who we are and what we stand for.

Last month, speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, I identified Australia’s core national interests as:

  • The security of the nation and its people.
  • The economic prosperity of the nation and its people, enabled by frameworks that will allow Australia to take advantage of international economic opportunities.
  • A stable, co-operative strategic system in our region anchored in the rule of law.
  • Constructive internationalism supporting the continued development of an international rules-based order.

I also used the opportunity afforded by the Lowy Institute to clarify what Labor means by ‘the national interest’ – a somewhat more nebulous but no less important a concept than ‘national interests’.

While our national interests give purpose and direction to our foreign policy, the national interest gives it authority and legitimacy. ‘The national interest’ is all about Australia’s identity and power as a nation.

Central to Australia’s identity are our values: what we stand for defines who we are as a nation. Our values give coherence and strength to all dimensions of public policy, just as they inform both the content and the conduct of our foreign policy.

That is why a nation’s foreign policy, axiomatically the protection and advancement of its national interests, also involves the expression of national identity and the projection of national values.

Identity, of course, is at the heart of what I wish to speak to you about today, because our national identity is principally defined by the values that unite us as a nation. Values define who we are. Values guide our behaviour as individuals and as nations, determining the moral compass that is as necessary for national leaders as it is for the individual.

When I use the term ‘values’, I mean the ideas – be they ethical or not – that motivate our action: ideas such as fairness and equality, or injustice and exclusion.

Values are what drive action. Values motivate the pursuit of interests. If interests describe the reasons for action, values describe the motives for action.

Hence values inform our interests and how we seek to advance and secure them. So it is important that we talk about those values, explore them and consider their contemporary relevance to how we think and what we do.

Equally, it is critical that we recognise that the contest between values is the pivot on which public policy finds its balance – a point to which I shall return in a moment.

I have long advocated the centrality of values in public policy, whether in the domain of national policy that seeks to deliver equity, equality, respect, acceptance and tolerance to our own citizens or international policy that seeks to deliver peace, prosperity and security to all the world’s citizens.

In my first speech to the Australian Senate, I emphasised the need for compassion as the “core value at the heart of our collective consciousness”.  I remain of that view today. The experience of fifteen years in the Australian parliament has reinforced my conviction that those who have the power to design and implement public policy must act with compassion for those who have less, who are marginalised or who are ignored.

Experience has made me even more convinced that values need to permeate public policy at all levels and in all dimensions, international as well as domestic.

There are, of course, those who dismiss values as a ‘trap’ that only encourages contention and conflict. Perhaps such people are swayed by embarrassment, lack of empathy or some naïve ‘realist’ belief that everything can be reduced to transactions between power centres.

This is as much a failure in analysis as it is a failure in logic. It is a failure that is further exacerbated by those who see values and interests as some kind of binary pairing, where one is only advanced at the expense of the other.

The fact is that values and interests differ one from the other. Far from being alternatives in the construction of a robust contemporary foreign policy, values and interests are intimately interrelated.

Indeed, they are each of them critical dimensions of policy which, when policy is purposive, disciplined, coherent and properly transformational, are mutually reinforcing. Values should and do underpin the full gamut of public policy, constituting the ‘glue’ that gives cohesion and coherence to policy domains as distinct as education, health and social welfare, on one hand, and defence, security and foreign policy on the other.

Much of the contemporary discussion of ‘values’ lacks precision. For some, the term ‘values’ connotes a vague ‘do good’ notion, too soft and imprecise to deal with the hard world of public policy.  But values are not simply about doing good. It is important to realise that, for others, greed is just as much a value that could underpin a foreign policy as is generosity.  Similarly, prudence may be just as strong a motive in decision-making as courage.

Values enable consistency and coherence of policy, and further ensure that policy is consonant with community attitudes and views. I agree with Alexander Downer when he said in 1997 “national interests cannot be pursued without regard to the values of the Australian community”.

There are some, of course, who are not sure of what the values of the Australian community are. You would all recall that the Prime Minister’s recent foray into citizenship testing stumbled when he was asked directly what Australian values were. He simply couldn’t say.

In my experience of the Australian community, I have found that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are good and decent people who have a pretty sound idea of the things that make us what we are – a strong adherence to ‘a fair go’ for everyone, a ‘live and let live’ approach to the beliefs and views that people might hold dear, a wish to help people who are ‘doing it tough’ and pride in the fact that we are a tolerant and inclusive community. And as we see repeatedly during cyclones and bushfires, floods and droughts, Australians are good at cooperation and collaboration. The ability to work together is a significant contributor to our national resilience.

A call for compassion is not a plea for some bleeding-heart view of the world, nor is it intended to shirk the responsibility of leadership to make difficult decisions when required. Difficult decisions, however, are rarely if ever ‘a clash of values and interests’, as some commentators would have it.

As I touched upon earlier, hard policy decisions are more likely to arise when there is a clash between values, or a clash between interests. Hard decisions are always taken in a dynamic, non-linear, environment.

Hard decisions arise when there is a need for a trade-off between all of these, and the myriad other factors that impinge on public policy – things like entitlements, expectations, hopes, needs and demands, not to mention prejudice, ideology, discrimination and the many forms of rent-seeking that roll up to the doors of government.

Indeed, in my experience, a clear appreciation of the reality of these contests is often what empowers us to take the difficult decisions. Values are often linked in apparently opposing pairs: efficiency and effectiveness; generosity and frugality; personal freedom and social order; social welfare and reward for effort; permissiveness and control; liberality and authority; peace and war.

This point was brilliantly made by Isaiah Berlin nearly forty years ago. He pointed out that not all values are compatible one with another. We choose any given value precisely for what it is.

Let me illustrate this point. Some commentators point to the cuts to international development funding as the triumph of an interest – in this case economic strength through budget deficit reduction – over a value, that of global equity through the eradication of poverty.

Closer analysis suggests an entirely different and more accurate view.

Cuts to international development funding are the result of a clash between two competing values: thrift in the form of prudent financial management competing with its counterpart equity in the form of generosity to those who live in abject poverty.  It is not an interest clashing with a value.  It is two values in competition.

In the same way, cuts to international development funding can also be seen through the lens of national interests – the contest between the need to maintain growth and economic prosperity through rigorous economic management and the need to contribute to regional stability and prosperity.

There are many ways of describing the values that unite us as a nation and as a community. There are values that are shared by all people of good will, whatever their nationality and wherever they might happen to live. Values such as order, respect, generosity, hospitality, tolerance and resilience guide human behaviour in most functioning societies. But what distinguishes the values system in democratic societies is the fact that the various specific values that we might identify come to a focus in what we term ‘the rule of law’.

Of course, we all value democracy. But it is important to understand that democracy is essentially a political practice rather than a ‘value’.  It depends for its legitimacy and its longevity on the rule of law applying to all citizens regardless of birth, station or wealth.

At the core of the values to which we as Australians adhere is the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person by virtue of their basic humanity – their fundamental right to exist, to live a life of worth and fulfilment, to chart their own course through life and to pursue happiness.

Far from being a sentimental, romantic or even a religious notion, the idea of the intrinsic worth of each individual was the gift that the Age of Enlightenment conferred on the framers of the US Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson, Adams and Franklin gave the idea political force when they wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

This is a truly important political fact. That extraordinary enterprise which is the USA, has, as its wellspring, a sense of human value that not only legitimised its claim for independence from Britain but also legitimised the construction of its own constitution. It is a value that underpins what we term ‘the rule of law’ and on which values such as equality, care, compassion, respect, tolerance and acceptance ultimately depend.

It is this respect for the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person that gives substance and credibility to what I think is the value that tends to distinguish Australians as a community – fairness. Australians generally have a strong sense of equality and react strongly to perceived inequality. The failure of Prime Minister Abbott’s 2014 Budget essentially hinged around this value: the electorate thought the 2014 budget to be unfair.

One can be born lucky. It was my good fortune to have been born into a family having two ‘values’ traditions – those of China and what we loosely term ‘the West’. So it will not surprise you that I do not accept the view that some former Asian leaders have propounded that ‘values’ are an artefact of Western imperialism.

Values are not some kind of stalking horse behind which ‘the West’ – and many people see that as code for the US – seeks to assert and defend a form of political dominance. Nor are they simply the legacy of what some describe as the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Just as my family inherited two cultural traditions, so too did it comprehend two religious traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, both of them traditions which situate the individual in the context of family and community.

Values underpin the common experience of humanity. And while values do adopt a variety of forms that reflect ethnic, communal, societal and cultural differences, there are common threads such as community, respect, hospitality, honour, care and dignity the observance of which depend on a fundamental acceptance of human worth.

And while, as I noted earlier, democracy is a principle of political participation as distinct from a value in the strict sense, democracy itself depends ultimately on the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person. Democracy is a political expression of values. And, what is more, democracy delivers to each person the opportunity to live a life of worth, to achieve personal fulfilment and to be happy.

In a world where democratic principles and practice protect individual and political freedoms, nations such as Australia are deeply invested in protecting and promoting democratic principles.  We see this as the best way to ensure that individual rights are recognised and that individual well-being and prosperity are best advanced.

As a politician, I see the rule of law as central to our practice and defence of democracy. As a lawyer, I see it as the cornerstone of the legal profession. In saying this, I have the confidence that comes from the Westminster tradition extending from Magna Carta, through the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 to our own constitution of 1901.

1688 was a big year in British history and in British politics. The overthrow of the Stuarts prompted John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, an extended meditation on the relationship between the individual and the law. In the Second Treatise, Locke wrote:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

Locke, of course, was just one of the thinkers who so influenced the founding fathers of the US.

As citizens, we appreciate that the rule of law expresses an implicit bargain between the individual and the government. As Professor Geoffrey Walker put it, the rule of law can be summed up in two points: the people, and the government, should be ruled by the law and obey it; and the law should be such that the people are willing and able to be guided by it.

Values, therefore, are enshrined in law, albeit at times imperfectly. And if values are enshrined in law, values must inform all dimensions of public policy.

That’s why I think that values, as a core element in the construction of a foreign policy, are not just desirable, but necessary. Foreign policy is purposive: it is about managing the complex of international relationships in such a way that the political, economic and security aspirations of our citizens, and the citizens of the countries with which we interact, are both safeguarded and enhanced.

Allan Gyngell offers an elegant definition of foreign policy. He writes:

Foreign policy is not just a government’s response to events outside its borders, but also an effort to anticipate and shape them in ways that advance the country’s interests and values. Together with diplomacy, which is its operating system, foreign policy requires imagination and effort. First, a government has to determine how it wants the world to look – a vision – then what it can do to bring about that outcome – a strategy – and finally – tactics – how to use skilful diplomacy and negotiation to bring it into being.

While foreign policy is inevitably about dealing with things that happen – transaction – it is equally about conditioning events – transformation.

A basic principle in the conduct of Australia’s foreign policy should always be to give ourselves the maximum amount of room in the international system for us to be able to operate, and then to maximise our options as we set about realising our interests. The question arises, of course, how best to deliver on this basic principle.

Over the past seven decades or so, we have been able to operate in an international system where the ‘rules’ were largely conducive to success. They worked generally in favour of those who emerged on the winning side of WW2, and even for those who suffered defeat – particularly Germany and Japan – the ‘rules’ favoured national rebuilding and economic reconstruction rather than retribution and reparations.

For nations like Australia, an international rules-based order offers the best chance to negotiate a way through the many constraints upon and obstacles to progress.

But to have both effect and enduring relevance, the rules by which the international system operates must rest on and reflect the basic values that give purpose to action.

Just as the premise on which we operate our legal and political systems is the rule of law, so the rule of law must inform the extension of law and politics into the international system.

Like any other ‘market’, the environment in which foreign policy is conducted is inherently anomic and amoral.  Rules and norms of behaviour are the business of governments. Democratic governments have a particular responsibility to bring the values that underpin their polities into their engagement with the world in which the hopes of their citizens are realised.

The alternative to a values-inspired foreign policy is a purely power-based foreign policy, where, far from materialising hope, the ‘dog eat dog’ law of the jungle destroys it. In the world of the deal, ‘beggar thy neighbour’ might look like a smart way to do business. But it certainly is not a recipe for stability. The twentieth century is littered with examples of the failure of power-based foreign policy.

For nations like Australia, there is no alternative to a foreign policy that is built on values and pursues our interests if our citizens are to go about their business confidently, and if we as a nation are to contribute to the peace, prosperity and security of the entire international community. Just as fairness and equity are built into our national institutions to protect our citizens against predatory behaviour, so too must they be built into the international institutions to maintain global stability. That is what constructive internationalism is all about – the creation of an agreed and equitable rules-based order.

This does not simply generate a benefit to those around the world who, like us, are focused on delivering a better life for themselves, their communities and their families. As a small population at the far end of the world, anxiously defending our claim to the occupation of an entire continent, it is good for us too. It is how we get to play a part and to prosper.

But, as I noted in my Sydney Morning Herald comments following the US election last November, we need to work harder in our region if we are to play our part to the full. Australia’s foreign policy interests and the values we project in Asia matter now more than ever. We have no alternative but to step up our engagement on economic and development priorities. We need to consider how to create stronger partnerships and dialogue on human rights, as well as deepening security co-operation.

Our values underpin Labor’s approach to ‘constructive internationalism’ – the ‘good international citizenship’ that Gareth Evans advocated so effectively. Because they are what condition our behaviour as a national actor, they are what give us agency – the ability to influence events so that they deliver us preferred, or at least acceptable, outcomes. They also go to the heart of how we define and promote our national interests.

Values give energy to our foreign policy. Without them, the conduct of international diplomatic affairs would remain reactive, responsive, transactional and ultimately defensive. Australia matters as a nation that models and promotes the values that make our communities inclusive, harmonious and prosperous.

Ultimately, of course, values and interests come together in the sustained delivery of foreign policy.

Australia has an enviable record in this. To take just one example. Over the past quarter century, successive governments have sought to enhance the rights and equality of women in the delivery of both our domestic and foreign policy. Australia has used its advocacy in international fora and its aid program to ensure that the personal, social, economic and political rights of women are recognised and exercised. And it is to Julie Bishop’s credit that, notwithstanding savage cuts to the international development budget, she has sought to continue this aspect of policy.

Taken together, values and interests provide Australia, as a confident middle-ranking power, with the ability to contribute to the expansion, expression and consolidation of the international rules-based order. And to be both authoritative and successful, the international rules-based order must itself enshrine the values of peace, stability and harmony. And while I am optimistic that Australia can work with like-minded nations towards this goal, I wish to conclude on a more sombre note.

In the disrupted world in which we now find ourselves, values matter more than ever. Democracy and its supporting institutions are under challenge in a way they have not been since the outbreak of WW2. Open trading systems and the ideas underpinning them are constantly discredited. Ethnic and religious minorities are being scapegoated and vilified as though they were to blame for greed and inequality.

As Jonathan Freedland noted in his very perceptive essay earlier this year, we must never forget the lessons so hard learnt when globalisation and democracy and the rule of law were last put to the test – the lessons of the 1930s. When faith in the ability of globalisation evenly to spread the wealth shatters; when communities become hostile to those deemed to be outsiders, with wilful acts of hatred towards groups of individuals on religious or ethnic grounds; and when there is a growing impatience with the rule of law and with democracy – these echoes of a dark and bloody decade must be heard and heeded.

This is why a values-based foreign policy matters.