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Thank you Secretary.
I want to thank the Secretary and the Department for having me here today – and I particularly want to acknowledge and thank the Minister for the invitation.
This is the second Global Heads of Mission meeting and both times I’ve been asked to join you.
I want to emphasise how significant this is, and what it says about who we are as a country.
We are a resilient democracy and one with plenty of robust debate. Several times a year it is my job to ask hard – and sometimes awkward – questions to senior officers of the Department – many of you here today. And all year round it is the job of a shadow minister to hold the government of the day accountable.
So I do consider it a gracious act to invite me to speak with you at these events.
And I consider it to demonstrate the great strength of our institutions that we are able to engage in this way.
It signifies our collective commitment to the continuity of government in the national interest, and our commitment to the Westminster system.
And it helps to both illustrate and enable our largely bipartisan approach to foreign policy.
I know the Department deeply values this bipartisanship. It means we are projecting a consistent vision of Australia to the world, and can all be long term in our thinking about the world.
I believe the national interest is best served by a bipartisan approach to our international engagement. This does not mean uncritical support for all decisions by the government of the day.
Rather, it means having a sensible, calm and mature discussion without seeking to exploit complexities for political advantage.
And this invitation is clearly in service of that objective. I want to make one last point about this approach: it increasingly sets Australia apart from many other democracies in the world. And it is a massive strategic asset for us.
When I spoke at your last meeting I talked about the disruption that marks this time in history. One of the widely discussed characteristics of this disruption is political polarisation.
Political polarisation is manifest in nations around the world and it has changed domestic political debates on international affairs.
The consensus on foreign affairs within many nations has been breaking down, and what might have otherwise been considered above-the-fray foreign policy issues are increasingly part of the contested domestic political debate.
While the consensus still holds in Australia, the effects of polarisation elsewhere are being felt here.
The movement in many countries toward nationalism, and the swallowing of the political middle ground into a populist sinkhole, are contributing to the enormous strain on the rules-based order that has served Australia so well since World War Two.
An upshot of these global trends is that foreign affairs are now domestic affairs in a way they haven’t really been before – and this has been where globalisation has inexorably drawing us for some time.
Fortunately, I don’t believe there is desire among either of the Australian parties of government to retreat to nationalism as other countries have.
There is widespread acceptance that as a trading nation – and as a substantial nation, but one that is not a superpower – our interest lies in a cooperative global system based on agreed rules.
But we are not guaranteed this acceptance will last forever, especially if, as seems likely, the global system will continue to feel growing strain – with unpredictable consequences for us.
We need to learn from elsewhere to ensure that we are not overwhelmed by isolationist or reactionary movements.
What that means for everyone in this room is that we all need to consider that foreign affairs are, in reality, domestic affairs.
Historically – and I know many of you will find this quaint compared with the work you do today – diplomacy was the rarefied realm of elites. Once confined to Court, and later to salons, cloistered campuses, and Oxbridge foreign services – foreign affairs is now in the public square.
Your work is now squarely in the mainstream of public discourse.
Just as the Government and Opposition engage in the broader effort to maintain a common purpose in foreign affairs – so do we need to engage the Australian people to maintain their confidence in our collective ability to protect and advance the national interest.
World news is lead news much of the time. People are understandably anxious.
Whereas our diplomats have mostly been focused on explaining Australia to the world, increasingly we need our diplomats engaged in the effort of explaining the ever-more complex world to Australians.
Perhaps this is most pressing when it comes to Australia’s relationship with China.
I don’t think I need to document with this audience all the ways in which China is in the Australian public consciousness.
I also don’t think I need to document with this audience all the ways in which the China relationship matters.
Indeed, there is no foreseeable scenario where this will not be the case.
China is, and will continue to be, of great importance to Australia, the region and the world.
It is a relationship that is both complex and consequential, and only getting more so.
The key question for Australia is: how do we best make the relationship work for us?
How do we make it work, knowing that China will always press for what’s best for them, just as we should always press for what’s best for us.
It is obvious there is a strong interest in the management of Australia’s relationship with China in the community, and this is reflected by strong interest among members and senators.
There have been many expressions of this interest, including an array of public statements, a rather infamous op-ed, and a proposal for a Senate inquiry
It is my sense that all these interventions reflect the broader desire among parliamentarians to be more constructively engaged and better briefed on all the elements of Australia’s relationship with China.
It is reasonable and appropriate for parliamentarians to want assurance that our national interest is being served.
The wise thing to do is to provide that assurance.
If you consider what will happen without that assurance – if you consider what has happened elsewhere when confidence has been lost in government’s ability to manage a country’s place in the world – it is the only responsible path.
I’m sure there was a range of reactions in the foreign affairs and security apparatus to my request for a comprehensive and detailed briefing for parliamentarians from agencies such as DFAT and ONI on the China relationship.
It would be a matter for relevant agencies to determine the form and content of any briefing – but I believe it would be very helpful for parliamentarians to better understand the points of convergence in our relationship with China, and the points of divergence, and to understand how the Government is handling them.
The discussion on China is happening anyway.
It is in the interest of a sensible, calm and mature debate, and the hope of promoting a bipartisan approach to the relationship, that that discussion be well-informed.
This kind of briefing already occurs with relevant parts of the business community.
I see no reason why it should not be offered to parliamentarians.
Of course it is more than about engaging the Parliament.
The Australian community wants to understand this relationship better.
Many Australians have a stake in that relationship being well-understood – none more so than the one-million-plus Australians who make up the Chinese diaspora.
The implications of how this discussion is handled in Australia is not esoteric.
It has direct consequence for the wellbeing of many of our fellow Australians, and we need to bear that in mind.
We must not allow this current discussion to be tainted by xenophobia and suspicion.
Because – again – the discussion is happening anyway. The question is how the Government plans to lead it – and whether it wants the discussion to be well-informed.
My underlying point in all this is that the knowledge of the foreign policy community has much more value when it is shared – and we have never needed to share that knowledge more than we do now.
You all know first-hand that the world is not a series of binaries.
It might be that the structure of news media tends to reduce situations to being one half of a binary or the other.
Is something an opportunity to exploit? Or a threat to be avoided?
Are we going to side with this country or that country?
We are counting on you to help explain not only how this approach is rarely necessary, it is often contrary to our interest.
The nuance that diplomacy brings to discussion has never been more important.
Our national interest is not helped by oversimplifying the world’s complexities.
Indeed, this is true in areas closer to your traditional fields of endeavour as well.
With all the factors I’ve already mentioned, and many more, we are at a time when we need sophisticated statecraft – we need to be sophisticated in how we position Australia for the world ahead.
Often it feels to me as though when we talk about Australia’s place in the world, and our tools for maximising our interests, discussion defaults to strategic policy.
I’m not saying this isn’t a hugely important part of the discussion. Plainly, it is.
But the nuance in understanding problems – and creativity in solving them – is something that is a particular value-add of diplomats.
Alongside our economic and military power, Australia’s diplomatic capability is fundamental to advancing our national interests.
Our people, our institutions, and our image are crucial to articulating Australian identity and Australian values to the world.
Put simply, Australia needs good diplomats and intelligent statecraft more than ever.
This is a time for ambition and boldness within the Department.
As Allan Gyngell has said, a function of foreign policy is to ensure that, whatever happens, we have options available to us.
Specifically he says that foreign policy’s role – diplomacy’s role – is to:
expand the space available to Australia in the international system within which it can advance its interests and promote its values.
I will be speaking more about this in the near future, but in the context of this discussion it has to be said that the strategic competition in our region means we need to think carefully and engage actively to avoid becoming collateral.
There are other significant countries in our region that also have much at stake.
And there are groupings of countries in our region that carry significant weight.
So again, here is a perfect illustration of the pitfalls of binary thinking.
It is the role of everyone in this room to help identify and develop the partnerships – and create the space – for Australia to advance its interests and promote its values in the world, even as our strongest ally and biggest trading partner are in this period of strategic competition.
As we seek to advance our interests and promote our values, our biggest diplomatic tool, our soft power, could be deployed more effectively.
I wouldn’t think that to be a controversial statement in this room.
The continued diminution of our development assistance budget – and the lack of strategy demonstrated by shuffling ODA funds around to solve short term political problems – is the most acute example.
More broadly, we are still yet to see any recommendations or outcomes from the soft power review. I hope this is a sign that there is a coherent, comprehensive strategy on the way.
But some of the signs are not especially encouraging.
The decision to shut down the Australia Network, and end ABC shortwave radio transmission in the Pacific – both doing their jobs well – and instead give funds to commercial broadcasters to do a job they don’t want to do, represents a triumph of ideology over interest.
In the current context of the Pacific Step-Up it really is an own goal.
Foreign affairs is an expression of identity as much as policy.
Without a fully-formed and all-encompasing soft power strategy, we can never fully maximise our influence.
Of course, our people are our greatest soft power assets.
The Department has made great strides in realising gender targets that increase opportunity in your workforce and help project contemporary Australia at posts.
And yet, as multicultural as Australia is, as rich as the history of our First Peoples, this is not represented as well as it could be in our diplomatic corps.
This is not just about equity. It is about strategy: we must tap into the diversity of Australia to better engage in a multipolar, multifaceted world.
Finally, our soft power strategy must prioritise investment in some of our key capacities. As I have previously suggested:
- There must be greater reward for those who commit to working in Asia and the Pacific.
- There must be greater prioritisation of aid and development skills.
- And there must be a greater capacity within the Department to integrate economic analysis and diplomacy as a core function. This geo-economic capacity should play a key role in-country in ensuring our development, trade, investment and diplomatic policies are integrated.
I can imagine many of you are listening to this and hearing more expectations for your already demanding roles.
I want to emphasise that I have no interest in making you feel like you have to work even harder and with even more stress.
I do recognise that Australia’s diplomatic effort remains under-resourced for a country of our economic weight and status.
This is even as it is more important than ever that we have the capabilities and people on the ground to manage cooperative activities, strengthen engagement and realise our national interests.
I hope that the necessary investment is a feature of future Federal budgets.
But I also want to be clear that the Department is already full of extremely capable people.
I have had the honour of working with many of you in different roles over my time in government and opposition.
From my perspective, as a parliamentarian who is engaged deeply in the content of your work, and sees the way things are playing out in the public debate, the Department as a whole should consider how to elevate its voice – even working with existing resources.
The country needs it.
I have represented Australia at international meetings with some of the people in this room.
I have visited posts that you lead.
I have seen how well you serve the country.
We need good diplomats more than ever, and so it is our very great fortune that we have you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.