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May I begin by acknowledging that we are attending the annual Australia 360 conference on the lands of the Ngunnawal peoples and paying our respects to their Elders past and present.
A 360-degree scan is as important in taking one’s policy bearings as it is in determining one’s geospatial position. Recognising where we’ve been is a vital part of knowing where we are, and both are essential if we are to chart the course to where we need to go.
It is almost five years since my friend Julia Gillard, as Prime Minister of Australia, launched her ground-breaking White Paper Australia in the Asian Century. Australia in the Asian Century began with a stark observation.
Predicting the future is fraught with risk, but the greater risk is in failing to plan for our destiny. As a nation, we face a choice: to drift into our future or to actively shape it. . . . Our nation should actively plan for and shape our national future. Only by doing so can we realise our vision of being a land of increased opportunity, prosperity and fairness.
This is precisely what I meant when I said, a couple of times this year, that planning and shaping is what will give us ‘first mover advantage’.
Australia in the Asian Century identified contemporary issues that government needed to address, such as the decline in the teaching of Asian languages in Australian schools and complacency in our attitudes towards ‘Asia’. But more importantly, Australia in the Asian Century was aspirational, providing a roadmap to the future.
It proposed a five-pronged approach to realising Australia’s opportunities in an increasingly prosperous and vibrant Asia.
- First, build on our strengths, reinforcing the foundations of our fair society and our prosperous, open and resilient economy and bolstering the areas where we already perform well, in order to extend our comparative advantage. Critical to this is ongoing reform and investment across the five drivers of productivity—skills and education, innovation, infrastructure, tax reform and regulatory reform.
- Second, invest in our people through skills and education to improve Australia’s productivity performance and broaden and deepen our understanding of Asian cultures and languages, to become more Asia literate.
- Third, support innovative, competitive Australian firms and institutions in creating collaborative relationships with others in the region, developing new business models and new mindsets to operate and connect with Asian markets.
- Fourth, accept that we are irrevocably tied to the stability and security of our region, and have much to offer through cooperation with other nations to support sustainable regional security. Work to build trust and cooperation, bilaterally and through existing regional mechanisms, recognising that Asian countries deserve a greater role in promulgating a rules-based regional and global order than they currently have.
- Fifth, strengthen our deep and broad relationships across the region at every level. These links are social and cultural as much as they are political and economic. While we need a more active diplomacy across Asia, unions, community groups and educational and cultural institutions also play an important role. Stronger relationships will lead to more Australians having a deeper understanding of what is happening in Asia and more of our neighbours in the region will know us better than they do today.
In my view, this regional foreign policy agenda remains relevant. It not only recognises the need for mutuality in constructing our place in the consciousness of Asia, but it also emphasises the need for engagement across the board – what Prime Minister Bob Hawke called ‘enmeshment’.
Julia Gillard’s Australia in the Asian Century also acknowledges the complexity of the task. This complexity is, in part at least, due to the fact that the term ‘Asia’ belies the fact that, as a descriptor, ‘Asia’ covers cultures, religions, languages, ethnicities and societies that are deeply and fundamentally different from one another. But Asia is much more than a cultural, linguistic and ethnic melting pot. It is also a confluence of each of the great religious traditions of the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism and countless animistic cults – as well as the great civilising traditions of Confucianism and Taoism.
To Australia’s west and north lie a landmass and a series of archipelagos bounded by the great cultural influencers, China and India. And that landmass is afforded even greater complexity and character by the economic powerhouses of Japan and South Korea, and a group of ten nations, the members of ASEAN, that have invested continuously for over half a century in the stability and prosperity of the South East Asian and Indo-Chinese regions.
We are indeed lucky to occupy the continent that underpins Asia.
We are indeed the ‘lucky country’ as Donald Horne reminded us, with characteristic irony, over fifty years ago. Remember what Horne said? “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.”
Horne was writing at the peak of the Menzies era, distinguished by its complacency, introspection and risk aversion. The correction to the mediocrity of which Horne wrote was the arrival of the Whitlam government with its imagination, innovation, flair, and yes, flaws. Whitlam broke with complacency. He broke with mediocrity. And he broke with the past.
But it was more than a break with the past. It was an enthusiastic acceptance of a different future.
This is Gough Whitlam speaking at the Singapore Press Club in 1974.
. . . It is a mistake to see our policies only as a break with the past. For four reasons. To do so ignores much that continues. . . . Secondly, it ignores the steadiness of the Australian people, and any elected Australian government ignores at its peril the determination of the Australian people to protect their reputation for reliability and dependability. Thirdly, it ignores the consistency of policy formulation with the Australian Labor Party. . . . And fourthly and most importantly, it ignores the fundamental fact that our policies are directed towards the future, not against the past.
We are not merely repairing the past; we are preparing for the future.
This goes to the core of Labor’s approach to our foreign policy: consistency, constancy and preparation for the future.
The electorate punished Labor at the 1975 election. But it did not take the Australian people long to reject the Fraser government in 1983, inaugurating the Hawke and Keating governments that put in place the groundwork for over a quarter century of economic growth and national prosperity.
More than that, the Australian electorate voted in the architects of Labor’s foreign policy that allowed Gareth Evans in particular to bring new energy and imagination to asserting Australia’s place in the world. And notwithstanding the decade of complacency and risk aversion that marked the Howard era, the Rudd and Gillard governments rejuvenated Australia’s ability to build a new and confident future.
It was Kevin Rudd who secured Australia a place on the UN Security Council. And it was Julia Gillard who gave us a comprehensive plan for our future in her Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.
So where are we now?
The current government is running a very different foreign policy agenda from that of the previous Labor government.
First of all, the present government does not have a plan, for reasons I will explain in a moment. Julia’s Gillard’s Australia in the Asian Century has effectively been relegated to the ‘not invented here’ basket.
The constant preoccupation of the conservative side of Australian politics with a retreat to the past has distracted the government from the disruptive challenges that Australia currently faces. Where Prime Minister Abbott sought to entrench systemic inequality – witness his 2014 budget – Prime Minister Turnbull wants to turn Australia back seventy years by rediscovering Menzian liberalism, as though the 60s was some kind of Golden Age.
I do feel some sympathy for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who is not backward-looking, prejudiced or particularly conservative in my view. She is a hard-working and well-intentioned Minister. She was an effective representative in the Security Council position that Prime Minister Rudd bequeathed her. But her world is one of frantic wheel-spinning, running on the spot, and gesture politics. And it’s no wonder: there is a gnawing emptiness at what passes for the heart of the Turnbull government.
For the sad truth is: you can’t steer the ship of state if you don’t know where you’re going. This is as true in the domains of economic policy, health policy, education policy, aged care policy, and defence policy as it is in the domain of foreign policy. As I said, the government lacks a plan.
Just a couple of examples illustrate the point.
The lack of any kind of narrative sees our relationships with China, Japan and ASEAN drifting at a time when purpose and clarity of direction are essential. Without a plan for these key relationships and a better roadmap in Asia, Australia will not be able to manage the disruption currently facing contemporary international relationships.
The lack of plan has hampered the ability of the Abbott and Turnbull governments to build a deeper or more comprehensive relationship with Indonesia.
Similarly, Prime Minister Abbott’s offer to shirtfront President Putin at the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane was an exercise in self-humiliation. It also made Australia look stupid on the world stage.
The election of President Trump took many international leaders by surprise. There was considerable uncertainty surrounding the policies of the Trump Administration towards the Asia Pacific region. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe was quick out of the blocks, making his way to Washington to meet with Japan’s principal ally, barely a month after the inauguration. Prime Minister Turnbull, in contrast, was completely flat-footed, waiting five months before meeting our principal ally.
There is never a good time for complacency. But in a time of disruption, complacency becomes dangerous.
The disruption that currently confronts us represents a challenge that the global community has not previously had to face. But, beyond its unfamiliarity, there are no obvious or agreed diplomatic tools for dealing with it. Whereas our historical experience has been grounded in the convergence of strategic and economic power, we are now seeing geo-economic power, such as China is amassing, diverging from the geo-strategic power that has defined the global role of the US for the past seventy years.
The disrupted times in which we live also reflect a situation where economic power and strategic power offer divergent ways of jostling for pre-eminence. The emergence of geo-economic power as an alternative to geo-strategic power rather than its complement challenges traditional mindsets and traditional ways of doing business. Comfortable assumptions that military strength constrains global ambition are challenged by the way in which economic power is being focused and organised.
It’s not just China and India who argue for new and different rules. The United States wants new rules, as the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the threat to repudiate NAFTA suggest. Britain wants new rules, as the Brexit suggests. Russia, along with Hungary and Poland, wants new rules. And a number of groups in Europe want new rules, as the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France and Frauke Petry in Germany suggests.
This dissatisfaction is in part a reaction to the effects of globalisation, where either actual inequality, or perceptions of inequality, erode the political consensus as a result of the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs in Europe and North America. It is also in part a reaction to a spreading loss of confidence, in the West at least, that democracy remains a credible and viable form of political participation into the future.
To tackle the disruptive forces currently at play, we need to be measured, confident and deeply engaged with our neighbours. And to do that, we need to know who we are, what we stand for, and what our interests are. It is for this reason that I have recently put on the public record how a Shorten Labor government would approach the values that would underpin Labor’s foreign policy and the national interests that would establish the direction of Labor’s foreign policy.
Contrast Gough Whitlam’s Singapore speech that I mentioned earlier with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s speech to the IISS in Singapore in March this year. Where Gough looked forward to a world to come, the Foreign Minister displayed nostalgia for a world that no longer exists – if it ever did. She failed to address the two central concerns in contemporary foreign policy.
First, how do we address the disruption that characterises the present global environment? How should we understand it? How should we respond to it? How do we contemplate the divergence between economic and military power as determinants of strategic power?
And second, what options does Australia have? If we are to rise above the purely transactional, something must be said about vision and direction.
For Australia to be successful in a time of disruption, we need to remember what works best for progressive and prosperous democracies like Australia, and to invest analytical and diplomatic capital in representing our values and realising our national interests. Our economic and security interests are best realised in a globalised world distinguished by an open trading system and a set of agreed rules whereby the international community conducts its business.
Open trading systems and an agreed international rules-based order do not just happen. They come about as the result of sustained and focused work, work that is both constructive and inclusive. While all nations are obliged to play by the rules, the hard reality is that some nations claim that there is insufficient inducement for them to adhere to a rules-based order that they are not part of constructing. Supporters of a workable international rules-based system need to recognise that the world has changed, that new powers are on the rise.
The present government displays a complacency and risk aversion that keeps national policy buried in the past. Despite our own best efforts, or perhaps because of our worst ones, we remain, as Donald Horne said, ‘the lucky country’.
So, where to?
A Shorten Labor government will build on Labor’s long and proud legacy in foreign policy.
That legacy includes the war-time leadership of Curtin and his turn to America at a time of existential crisis for the nation.
It includes the deep engagement of Chifley and Evatt in forging a new international architecture in the aftermath of WW2.
It includes Whitlam’s expansive, optimistic, outward-looking view of Australia’s place in the world, his opening to China and his activist approach towards international treaties and conventions.
It includes Prime Ministers Hawke’s and Keating’s recognition of the importance of Asia, their formation of APEC and development of deeper bilateral relations in the region.
It includes Gareth Evans’ formidable contributions, both intellectual and practical, over many years.
And, in the most recent period of Labor government, it includes the work of Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard in elevating the G20’s role; advancing our traditional relations with countries like the United States and our developing relationships with countries like China and India; supporting international action on climate change; and significantly increasing Australia’s aid budget.
To channel Gough Whitlam’s remarks in Singapore all those years ago, it is Labor’s preference to maintain continuity where policy is appropriate and pertinent, and to change it where it’s not.
I am not one who supports bipartisanship for its own sake. But I am a very strong supporter of sound public policy that attracts bipartisan support. I would like to think that the White Paper Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has commissioned can attract bipartisan support. So it was in that spirit that I offered a few suggestions when I addressed the DFAT Heads of Mission in March. I also offered the drafters of the forthcoming White Paper a gentle warning.
I reminded them that the time of disruption in which we presently live reflects, in part at least, a growing dissatisfaction with the rules-based international order that has been part of the fabric of international economic and foreign policy since World War Two.
As the government’s White Paper comes closer to completion, I continue to recommend that it build on the sound policy initiatives that Julia Gillard’s Australia in the Asian Century advocated. I outlined them at the beginning of this presentation. We need an Asia policy more in tune with the confident and optimistic approach of the Asian Century White Paper than one which is diminished by trepidation or a preoccupation with the more transactional features of day-to-day diplomacy.
If the White Paper fails to build in the themes identified by Julia Gillard’s White Paper, it will simply fail as a guide to a transformational foreign policy.
And if first mover advantage lies with whoever sets the agenda, there are some additional items that need to be considered.
First, there must be renewed energy and vigour in negotiating international agreements to address the consequences of climate change. This has to be based on clear and evidence-based policy. As the global community becomes increasingly aware of the security dimension to changes in our climate due to global warming, Australia needs to work with insight and determination if our own long term security interests are to be protected.
Second, we need a China policy that begins with what China actually is, rather than through the lens of risk management. And we need a policy that looks at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with an eye to identifying points of mutual interest and complementarity rather than reflexive negativity. We should be prepared to look at individual initiatives under the BRI and, where determined on a case by case basis, pursue those that accord with our national interests.
Third, we need an alliance policy built around shared interests in global stability, peace and security. Our relationship with the US is of paramount importance to us. We need to ensure that it is both sensitive to the changes underway in the Asia Pacific region and conducive to creating a more confident, vibrant and robust regional security dialogue.
Finally, we need to revisit our aid policy, re-establishing development assistance programs that deliver real benefits to nations that are struggling, especially in our own region (Timor-Leste, PNG and the South Pacific).
A transformational foreign policy is unachievable for so long as complacency, introspection and risk aversion remain the rallying points of the present government’s policy. Mediocrity, the comfort zone of the second-rate people of Donald Horne’s lament, is the enemy of imagination and innovation.
Australia has a bright future in Asia, but only if we are confident, constructive, collaborative and, most importantly, comprehending – comprehending of the remarkable diversity of Asia that is, of itself, such a positive and powerful generator of opportunity.
A 360-degree scan reminds us that, from the energies of Chifley and Evatt in assisting at the birth of the United Nations to the foresight of Julia Gillard in charting a course for Australia in the Asian Century, Labor has always approached the task of building and delivering Australia’s foreign policy future with confidence and imagination.
And you can rely on the fact that a Shorten government would maintain the Labor tradition of an engaged and proactive foreign policy.