Expanding Australia’s Power and Influence: Speech to the National Security College - Australian National University - Canberra - 23/11/2021

23 November 2021


Acknowledgements omitted


The purpose of Australian foreign policy is to advance Australian interests and values – to ensure our security, our economic strength and to shape the world for the better.

We must build the region and world we want – one that is prosperous, peaceful and in which sovereignty is respected.

We must expand the choices and options available to us, to enable management of differences without escalation to conflict.

And we should act to generate and preserve global public goods that give form to our values and which benefit all nations including our own.

To succeed in this, we must expand Australia’s power and influence.


This has seldom mattered more.

We live in a time of great uncertainty. Many of Australia’s challenges are without precedent.

We haven’t known such a vexing convergence of circumstances since the end of the Second World War.

Rising nationalism, fraying multilateralism, great power competition, emerging COVID strains, an ever-warming planet.

And a more assertive China.

We must face this reality: our region is being reshaped.

This generation of political leaders has a responsibility in this reshaping.

To protect Australian interests, today and in the decades ahead.

To assure opportunities for the next generation as good as those created for us by the last.

Our interests won’t be advanced simply by a series of individual deals and transactions.

Rather, the features, the architecture and the attributes of our region - and of the international system itself - are being contested.

We are in a contest – a race, you might say – for influence.

Maximising our influence means we need to use all the tools we have.

Military capability matters.

When I say military capability, I mean actual, real capability - not announcements.

But we need more than that.

We need to deploy all aspects of state power – strategic, diplomatic, social, economic.

The expansion of Australia’s power and influence is grounded in a growing, resilient economy.

So much of our wealth comes from the markets to which we export, but increasing resilience is not just about more diverse markets, as important as that is.

The world’s demands are changing, and what we offer will need to change with it in order to maintain our economic strength.

This is why it’s in Australia’s national interest that we reinforce our economy’s resilience by becoming a renewable energy superpower.

And it’s why we must have a future made in Australia, shoring up our resilience to supply chain failures and other economic shocks.

But my focus today is how we need to better understand, and better give effect to, the role of foreign policy.

Foreign policy must work with other elements of state power to succeed – in this the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, has observed that the ADF, as an instrument of hard power, is best at shaping our environment and deterring behaviour that is counter to our interests:

“when it partners with all of the other elements of national power and in particular with our diplomatic service—our presence on an enduring basis out in the world.”

It is not a question of separating hard power to deter conflict and soft power to do the nice things.

Because most of the challenges that our region faces fall short of kinetic military conflict.

Many of them fall in the grey zone.

The example most resonant for Australians will be trade - increasingly a vector for geostrategic competition.

Economic coercion and cyber intrusions are being deployed to pursue strategic outcomes and undermine agreed rules.

And not far from us, the flouting of norms for exploitation of natural resources including energy, water and fish stocks risk livelihoods and regional stability.

These are threats that can’t be deterred by military might alone.

Indeed, as the CDF says,

the best way to confound, to respond or to undermine those kinds of behaviours is to be a force and an influence of cooperation, of capacity building and of common interest in the region.

So foreign policy is not merely a stage for photo ops but a critical tool in delivering our national security.

I would also say that it is a disturbingly underutilised tool, if we are seeking to protect and promote our interests and values.

There are three drivers for expanding our power and influence that will be central to Labor’s foreign policy that I want to discuss with you today.

The first is projecting modern Australia to the region and the world.

The second is fostering genuine partnerships grounded in trust.

The third is enhancing our capability in navigating international relations, including in the grey zone.


Foreign policy starts with who we are.

We should understand what we project to the world about who we are is an element of our national power.

For generations, Australians have been advantaged across all our international endeavours by a reputation for being straight shooters who pull our weight.

That reputation has taken a hit thanks to recent behaviour by the Prime Minister – a hit the Australian people don’t deserve.

But beyond that traditional reputation, we should also consider what is the broader story that we are telling the world about today’s Australia.

How we articulate modern Australia can constrain or amplify our influence - from a business seeking new markets, to the promotion of our national interests in a time of geostrategic competition.

There is vast untapped power in modern Australia.

The world is multicultural. So is Australia.

Home to the world’s oldest continuing cultures.

270 ancestries represented.

One quarter of Australians born overseas, one half of Australians having a parent born overseas.

This gives us the capacity to reach into every corner of the world and say, “we share common ground.”

It is a natural asset for building alignment that we are not deploying.

Conversely, expressing who we are in narrow and exclusionary terms can inhibit the potential for alignment.

And it can diminish the cohesion in the Australian community.

Recall Tony Abbott’s championing of the Anglosphere. Consider how that was received in the region and heard at home.

Recall Eric Abetz demanding Chinese-Australians denounce the CPC in a Senate hearing.

Not a demand made of any witness who wasn’t Asian.

Recall that the Foreign Minister was invited to rebuke Senator Abetz, but despite her responsibility to project Australia to the region, she declined to show any such leadership.

Narratives matter, as do perceptions.

As we strive for maximum influence, we need to understand this.

And we need to understand how our past attitudes and policy on race can provide others with the opportunity to promote narratives that limit our influence.

We can counter that, in part, by articulating who we are, our place and shared stake in the region.

That includes placing the experiences of First Nations Peoples – this land’s first diplomats – at the heart of our diplomacy.

Drawing on our vibrant multiculturalism we can ground a narrative which enables the possibilities of greater alignment with others.

We can also strengthen our social cohesion, which is in itself the foundation of our sovereignty.

We can express our values and demonstrate our interests.

We need to seize this advantage to tap into the power of modern Australia; to create common ground; to give us greater space to engage and to build alignment.


Alignment matters because it is the basis of partnership.

And partnerships are the second way we will drive an expansion of national influence.

As a substantial power, but not a superpower, it’s always been critical for Australia to work with others to achieve our aims.

And given the proliferation of challenges we face and the dynamics of great power competition, that need just keeps growing.

Creative middle-power diplomacy is what Australia used to be known for.

Because partnerships multiply our influence.

But a partnership isn’t just a vehicle for grip-and-grin photo op staged before a stockade of flags.

Nor is it simply a transaction.

Durable and effective partnerships demand an alignment of interests. The more aligned, the more powerful.

But a few key things about alignment:

It isn’t a static concept. It needs work to generate, to sustain and to develop.

Australia needs stronger partnerships in the region if we are to shape it in our interests. This should be based on alignment enabled by:

  1. A deep and detailed understanding of other states’ perspectives and interests.
  2. A compelling articulation of what is or can be shared.
  3. Identifying and creating opportunities for collaboration.
  4. Demonstrating authenticity and trustworthiness.

It is now beyond doubt that authenticity and trustworthiness are not qualities that are possessed by Mr Morrison.

But notwithstanding that, it’s clear the partnerships that need the most work are in our region.

Much more effort is needed to address our shared challenges – in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

And we need to treat Southeast Asia as the priority it is.

Starting with more support for the pandemic recovery and boosting the vaccine rollout.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of 60 million vaccines by the end of 2022 is a start, but clearly won’t be enough to ensure full coverage and boosters for those who need it, or strengthen frontline health systems in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The Government needs to ensure sufficient domestic manufacturing capability to deliver for ongoing vaccine needs for the region.

Mr Morrison’s short-term focus on ‘temporary and targeted’ assistance is easily interpreted as “piecemeal and uncommitted”, especially given this government’s short-sighted decision to cut health assistance to Indonesia by 80 per cent prior to the pandemic.

We must also address the emerging pandemic that is climate change.

Calls over years from Pacific leaders for Australia to do the right thing on climate have been stubbornly ignored.

Pacific leaders and Australians have come to the same conclusion: we are led by a Government that isn’t serious about climate change, and never will be.

And for proof – if more is needed – just look to the fact that before the Ambassador for the Environment’s ink was dry on the communique, calling for greater ambition in 2030 targets, Marise Payne had disavowed it.

As Julie Bishop said on Friday, this “unreliable” behaviour “gives rise to a lack of trust in our diplomatic efforts” and “our reputation is absolutely vital for broader national interest.”

It’s clear that a credible Pacific step up will only happen under an Albanese Labor government – a government that recognises the existential, national security and economic threat climate change presents to all, particularly our Pacific friends.

Labor understands this is essential to being a trusted partner of choice; to match our strategic ambitions and build the region we want.

One that is prosperous, stable and in which sovereignty is respected.

We will have more to say on these priorities in the coming months.


Finally, the third driver is capability.

Australia’s ability to influence the reshaping of our region is highly dependent on the capability of our foreign service.

This capability goes to both comprehending the scale and features of the external environment, and the ability to identify how and where alignment can be initiated, fostered and strengthened.

And it goes to our diplomatic capability, as the key means by which we put foreign policy into operation.

Our foreign service has many talented, skilled people, but they have been hampered by a lack of leadership, degraded resources, and a lack of clarity of how they are expected to deliver for Australia in these changing times.

DFAT needs clearer political leadership and a sharper understanding of its role, responsibilities, and its potential in these times.

And it needs the tools to deliver this, including a rebuilding of our development assistance program.

But there has been too much unnecessary collateral damage to Australia’s national interests.

We know that these short-term political plays were a reflection of Mr Morrison’s character, and his obsession with announcements at the expense of doing the whole job.

But it seems to me DFAT and the national security community more widely should take the opportunity to review their advice to government – in general, and also with particular reference as to the handling and implementation of the submarine announcement.

An Albanese Labor government will provide the leadership and direction our foreign service needs.

We would ensure a more central role for foreign policy in the content and implementation of strategy.

And we would be focused on the key task of maximising our influence in the reshaping of the region.

But these three elements of Australian foreign policy – projecting the reality of modern Australia, partnerships, and capability – are also how we can shape the world for the better.

Because it is in our national interest that Australia works to generate and preserve global public goods.

Shaping the world for the better includes promoting issues and principles which we believe are of common benefit to all nations and all peoples.

This is at the heart of Labor’s foreign policy tradition.

This requires not only effective multilateral capability in DFAT, but a clear mandate based on our domestic priorities to prosecute these interests abroad.

It’s why we should have a more robust domestic framework to eliminate modern slavery.

It is why we must ensure our ODA program has effective targets and oversight to not only alleviate suffering but also to address the structural barriers that are holding women and girls back.

It is why we should have Magnitsky sanctions and formalised engagement with NGOs to target those responsible for human rights abuses around the world.

And why we must ensure compliance with our nuclear non-proliferation commitments and redouble our efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

This should be made an urgent priority for Australia – and a starting point should be for the Government to appoint a stand-alone Ambassador for Arms Control and Counter-Proliferation.


The drivers of our expanded influence will work across all three core spheres of Labor foreign policy: multilateralism, the region and our alliance with the United States.

One of the most central multilateral groupings for our engagement is ASEAN.

Not just because of the centrality of ASEAN as an entity, but also because of our geographic reality.

Labor understands this and we believe Australia can and should do more to demonstrate our ability to build trust and alignment with ASEAN leaders.

As we made clear in our support for the AUKUS partnership, such engagement with our traditional partners must be in addition to more regional engagement.

Which is why we will appoint an ASEAN Special Envoy – a roving high-level representative, respected in the region, to complement our diplomatic network, and forge close relationships with capitals.

The countries of Southeast Asia have made clear they don’t want to choose between the great powers – but they want to exercise their own agency in how the region is being reshaped.

And it’s why I and many others have advocated for a settling point in the escalating strategic competition between the US and China – one that is favourable to the region and that upholds the rules of the road.

President Biden has recognised the importance of managing this competition responsibly and the need to impose ‘common-sense guardrails’ to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.

So we welcome reports that the US and China have agreed on the need to engage on nuclear and strategic stability issues – in addition to their collaboration on climate change.

Clear and consistent communication and guardrails between the two powers will be vital in managing the growing number of potential flashpoints in our neighbourhood.

The greatest risk to peace, stability and prosperity in our region is the risk of conflict in Taiwan. That said, it is not a risk that is contained to our region.

The consequences of a kinetic conflict over Taiwan, with the potential for escalation, would be catastrophic for humanity.

That is why successive Australian, American and regional governments have taken a careful and sober approach to cross-Strait relations.

It’s not because everyone who has gone before us has been weak or afraid.

It’s because of a dispassionate, clear-eyed assessment of interests.

And because of the need to support the people of Taiwan and maintain regional stability.

In Australia, this approach has involved the bipartisan adoption of a One China policy, and advocacy to deter unilateral changes to the status quo.

It’s not just the bipartisan Australian position, but the approach taken by successive US administrations since President Carter, – and reaffirmed recently by President Biden.

Republican and Democratic administrations have also taken a deliberate position of strategic ambiguity in relation to Taiwan.

In maintaining this position of strategic ambiguity, the US declines to declare a definitive position on military conflict, including whether to “join” a war if one were started by others.

As a US ally, Australia has taken a position consistent with theirs.

This strategy has rightly been adopted as the path most capable of averting conflict and enabling the region to live in peace and prosperity.


So when Peter Dutton talks about it being “inconceivable” that Australian would not “join” a war over Taiwan, he is wildly out of step with the strategy long adopted by Australia and our principal ally.

Surely the real question is not, as he suggests, whether we declare our intentions, but why the Defence Minister is amping up war, rather than working to maintain longstanding policy to preserve the status quo – as advocated by the Taiwanese leader, Tsai-Ing Wen.

Mr Dutton knows exactly what he is doing by using words like “inconceivable” in the same context as the “threat of conflict” – and after his former Secretary declared the drums of war were beating.

And it is notable that Mr Morrison has not used the same febrile language, sticking more closely to Australia’s traditional position.

This is the same duplicitous game we see from the Morrison-Joyce Government in a range of areas – as with climate change, where Mr Morrison makes empty promises to sound like he cares, while Barnaby Joyce tells you what they really think.

Here we have the same dynamic between Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton, but in this case they play political games on something so grave as whether they commit Australia to war against a superpower.

It has been widely reported that the Morrison Government want to make national security a focus of the coming election.

Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history.

A tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost.

And as the Lowy Institute’s Natasha Kassam has pointed out, the PRC’s narrative has long been that “the only options available to Taiwan are unification or war.”

Mr Dutton does Australians and the Taiwanese no favours by amplifying Beijing’s fatalism.

This is the worst in a litany of cases of the Morrison-Joyce Government seeking to use foreign policy and national security for political advantage.

One of the most shameless examples is when Mr Morrison was asked a question about the French president calling him a liar. He proved the point by telling a new lie, fabricating that the Labor leader “backed in the Chinese Government and a number of others in having a crack at me as well.”

It’s true that China has changed, and our relationship has become harder to manage.

But desperately playing politics on China whenever he’s in trouble does nothing to strengthen Mr Morrison’s authority with Australians or Beijing.

The underlying point, though, is that there is now an overwhelming body of evidence to show that Mr Morrison’s base instinct is always to lie and blame others.

He lies about being at the front of the queue, about being in Hawaii during the bushfires, about electric vehicles, about vaccine mandates.

He lies about the mistakes he makes, like describing Australia’s position on Taiwan as “One Country, Two Systems”.

He lies about others, like Anthony Albanese and even the French President.

And then he tells new lies to deny his old lies.

Mr Morrison has rendered his own word worthless, and Australians can no longer believe a word he says.

Neither can world leaders, who will never trust him again after he leaked private text messages – which in fact proved that President Macron did not know what was coming; exposing another lie.

Mr Morrison doesn’t have the character to be the custodian of Australia’s interests in the world.

When he lies, Australia loses.


Australia’s leaders should take the world as it is, and seek to shape it for the better.

It’s what we need now, as much as we have ever needed it.

To expand Australia’s power and influence, we need to set political interests aside from our national interests.

We need to look beyond the news of the day.

We need to focus on more than announcements – we need to do the whole job.

We need foresight.

We need to bring all the aspects of our statecraft together to protect and advance our interests.

We need to improve our performance across the whole range of capabilities required to shape outcomes in the world – including our effectiveness in navigating the grey zone.

We need genuine partnerships, grounded in trust.

And we need to reach into the vast, untapped power of our people, and project a confident, unified, modern Australia to the modern world.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.