Australia’s foreign policy directions

National Press Club Address

Speech (as delivered)

26 June 2013

Thank you Laurie, it's a privilege to be here at this well-worn, revered forum, and I welcome the opportunity. There's a solemn and rather long speech that's been circulated, you are welcome to it, that's got the weighted expressions. I might talk to it today, to provide more time for questions and to give all of us a bit more flexibility.

I remember on my first visit to the UN in April last year, walking up First Avenue. It was a somewhat windy New York spring day, and there was a big body, a massed group of demonstrators facing the UN. As we approached it from Beekman Place — our Ambassador's Residence — their chanting became clearer, they were chanting: “Shame, shame, shame on the nations of the world. Shame, shame, shame on the nations of the world”.

That phrase, the nations of the world, has stuck in my mind ever since, as a summation of diplomacy, of foreign affairs agenda.

What are Australia's relations with the nations of the world? Where do we sit among the nations of the world? What good can we do with the nations of the world? I like that expression, the nations of the world?

It explains communities, represented by nations, seeking more or less to rub along with one another. And if there is an essential view of diplomacy it's that the nations of the world should be able to get on with one another, and what's Australia's role in allowing that to happen? The nations of the world has, sort of, echoed in my mind since that April, that spring day in New York.

And it was confirmed when, in seeking a vote for the Security Council last year, I went to a boardroom, this would have been about September last year, and there were the fourteen nations of the Caribbean represented there. A long way from Australia, no immediate, obvious common interests, the fourteen nations of the Caribbean.

And I was like someone seeking a victory in a pre-selection: one meeting, I could walk out of there with fourteen votes in my pocket, if the branch secretary ticks me off. And that was my mission, to pick up fourteen votes for the Australian candidacy.

And I spoke to them without a script. I said: I understand that you share our great concern with climate change and I know that you give a great deal of importance to the marine environment — it was a subject I took up in my inaugural speech as Foreign Minister in the Senate — and we've got a lot in common when it comes to an arms trade treaty, because your countries have been affected by the sale in the illegal trade in light weapons around the world. And you know that, with some of you, we're one of the seven co-sponsors of the motion to get an arms trade treaty.

And I notice — it's not top of the agenda but it's an important one for both of us — I notice that you have long sought to get a memorial to the transatlantic slave trade, hugely important for the fourteen nations of the Caribbean. And I said I just remind you that we have given modest support to that, but we opted to give support.

After I made my presentation, there were some questions and they re-affirmed that they would be voting for Australia. And Dessima Williams, a Permanent Representative of Granada, a country a long way from Australia, not a country with which we have got an enormous amount, an obvious agenda, in common.

She rose and she said, well I'm happy that we are supporting Australia, all fourteen of us, the CARICOM nations, all of us say again, for the third time, we are supporting Australia in this ballot. She said, what you say on climate change, what you say on the arms trade treaty, on the marine environment, is important. And she said — that support for the transatlantic slave trade memorial — she said, we expected no less from a country that's got an ethical basis for its policies, as shown by the Australian apology, as shown by the apology.

So that apology had a resonance all the way to that very different world, the Caribbean. So there is Australia saying something that means something to that group of nations of the world, fourteen nations of the Caribbean. They voted for us, they said it publicly and they delivered for us. Australia, middle power in the Pacific, focused on Asia, can say things meaningful, things with a resonance to countries as far from us as the Caribbean.

I will give you another example. On October 18, that happy day when we won that ballot — it's always great to see your nation take out a prize — we won 140 votes out of 193. Not a bad performance test of how a nation is going, by the way.

Among the first nations to congratulate me was Mali. Now, of all the nations there — a civil war, millions of refugees, a tiny struggling nation in the Sahel — but he thought it appropriate to thank Australia. When they had their coup earlier in the year, the European nations apparently cut off their aid to send a message. We didn't. We saw the humanitarian imperative of getting tarpaulins to those refugee camps, drinkable water, emergency food, child protection workers; and we continued our aid to the Sahel, but our aid specifically to Mali, it was a significant quantum of aid. Mali is a long way from Australia but they identified with us.

Indeed, when it comes to Africa, when we engage in the exercise of seeing who in Africa, who among the nations of Africa didn't vote for us, after one or two obvious choices — I'm too much of a diplomat to name them — it was very hard to come up with any others. Australia has resonance there. When Kevin said to them, to the African Union, on one occasion: we're not America, we're not Europe, we're Australia, and we look across the Indian Ocean at you and engage with you, that carried a lot of weight. They saw Australia as being an interesting proposition.

Richard Woolcott — I spoke to him, this veteran Australian diplomat, my first weekend after I had been designated as Foreign Minister — and he showed me his submission to the inquiry into the paper on Australia in the Asian century. And it used an expression I've never forgotten. It was the expression “habits of consultation”. We must develop habits of consultation with the nations of Asia, the nations of the world in our region; and that struck me as being a very worthwhile test for our relations with the countries to our north.

And I'm happy to say that we've got them. Take our relations with ASEAN for example. It became clear to me that ASEAN had taken a forward-leaning view, a position of trust, in the reforms taking place in Myanmar. They concluded, the ten nations of ASEAN, these reforms were not going to be reversed. And I thought that's not a bad test to apply; and on my visit a couple of months after becoming Minister, I told President Thein Sein we were not suspending our sanctions on the country. We were lifting them, we were lifting them, and that — I saw him register that.

And then we went on to lobby the Europeans to do the same because it was important for getting investment into the country. And at the UN we worked hard to change the wording of the resolution that's carried every year about Myanmar, to see that it took account of the progress made about the country and, in the spirit of those long-rolling multi-page resolutions that come out of the General Assembly — that it didn't simply remind people of the bad things that had happened in its past. So these were significant things. It was a sort of Australian sponsorship of Myanmar, making this very delicate transition.

And I've said to ASEAN foreign ministers when I've met them in various forums: that's an example of Australia moving its policy in alignment with the policy struck by the ten nations of ASEAN, that's habits of consultation. And it's an ingrained habit. And it means you don't lecture them. You don't harass them. You speak to them, taking account of their concern for ASEAN centrality. And we've been doing that. But it's something that will have a cumulative effect as we go on. And Myanmar is a good working example of an Australian policy settled on after consultation, and after recognition of what the ten nations of ASEAN were doing.

Earlier this week I saw the ambassadors of the Arab world here, and I'm proud to say that in fourteen months as Foreign Minister, I've visited ten Arab countries. I'm the first Foreign Minister to go to three or four of them. And the Australian trade and investment in the Gulf is now quite arresting.

When I was in Qatar I spoke to a group of Australians who were there. There is growth in services and infrastructure Australians as advisors to this nation. There was a woman there who was up there to design the mental health system for the country. They wanted to get advice from a country that had top benchmark services, and here was one category of health services where they came to Australia. And this is — beyondd the resources boom, and running parallel with the resources activity — this is how Australia will present itself to the world, as a provider of services and there we were doing that in the Arab world.

And I've got to say, our decision not to oppose enhanced Palestinian status in the UN General Assembly in November last year was integral to the reception we now get in Arab countries. We can't say to this part of the world: we want you to buy our patrol boats, we want you to send students to our universities, you want to have us design your education and health services, we want to put a case to you for looking after the minorities in your country, such as the Copts in Egypt, the Armenians in Syria — we want all this, but we will vote you down every time the Palestinian cause comes up in the General Assembly. We weren't going to do that; that would have been hypocrisy.

But at the same time, the vote we took gives us the opportunity to do what I've done on several occasions, which is to put a case to the leadership in Ramallah that now is not the time to push further in representation on UN agencies, for example, or to go to the International Criminal Court. Now is the time, today actually, this week more than ever, to sit down without pre-conditions and give the world what it wants and your own people what they want — that is, a Palestinian state based on a recognition of all the security imperatives that Israel reasonably has.

We can put that case to the Foreign Minister or President of the Palestinian Authority because we didn't brush them away with a no vote when their case came up at the General Assembly.

When it comes to human rights, the largest, the two most systemic and offensive presentation of denial of rights in the world today are Syria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea]. We, I'm proud to say, drove hard for a resolution in Geneva to set up an inquiry into, yes, the systemic denial of human rights in North Korea, the most offensive denial, the most systematic denial of human rights we can identify on the face of the planet. And we will continue to do that while seeking for opportunities to engage with the Government of North Korea. The two are not incompatible.

On Syria, the world is rebuked by the scale of this humanitarian crisis. I can not believe that there has been such a focus on the big solution — namely a ceasefire and a peaceful political transition in the country through the establishment of a Transitional Council with full executive powers, such a focus on that that prevents the UN and nations from settling on what I've put forward as a medical pact, an agreement to get all the sides in Syria to see that medical convoys can move from one zone to the other within the nation, that doctors and nurses will no longer be slaughtered in the foyers of hospitals because they are accused of treating someone from a rival militia two days earlier and that hospitals will not be targeted or not used as bases.

The world is rebuked by the scale of this humanitarian catastrophe. I've spoken to refugees in the camps in Jordan, the settlements in Lebanon. I acknowledged the huge pressures being placed on this these countries by what is let loose there. I acknowledge how difficult it is in the Security Council to get the international framework that enables a legal intervention. I acknowledge that. All I'm saying, all I'm admitting as a plea is that in the absence of that, the countries of the world agree on a humanitarian intervention to get the medicines into the country, the absence of which is causing more death, more sickness and more heartache.

The UN, and the Special Representative in particular, have got to settle on this, even while all the argument about the urgency of Geneva II is carried through. Now, Syria and North Korea are rebukes to the human rights values that the world aspires to.

In the UN in September — Leaders Week — I sat there as President Obama delivered what I think is one of his finest speeches, a speech that belongs in any anthology of speeches by US presidents. He dedicated his speech to the murdered US Ambassador in Benghazi and he gave the speech at a time when the Arab world was angry, teetering on the edge of violence, violent protest, because of the offensive YouTube video and its treatment of Islam.

President Obama dedicated the speech to his murdered Ambassador and he mounted a defence of an American value which he posited as a universal value — that of freedom of expression. And in sinewy arguments, he wove the case that, as offensive as we all found that video, Muslims especially, there was no justification for clamping down on freedom of expression. I don't think it's been put in any of the great speeches by US Presidents, been put better a case for a fundamental value for human rights.

Our relationship with the US is based on common interest and common values, shared values. And that speech to me encapsulated the shared values and I think Australians will always feel comfortable with those values.

The Lowy poll out this week — with, I think, 85-86 per cent support for the American alliance — would confirm that Australians feel interest and values are easily aligned here. We reject any notion — by the way, I get advice from time to time — that we should, for the sake of it, pick an argument with Washington to demonstrate our independence. I'm in a Labor Government, the Government of a party that opposed the Iraq war, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and if there had been a Labor Government in power under Kim Beazley, there's no way we would have supported that war. I believe our position is justified. I would argue it more strongly today than I endorsed it when I was Premier of New South Wales, the State leader of the party.

But it is very hard for us to pick arguments for the sake of it or because we believe in it, with a US Administration, a US Administration committed so wholesomely to multilateralism, to consultation, to human rights, to the rights of women and girls put on the international agenda so eloquently by Hillary Clinton, to a non-proliferation agenda which has been a hallmark Australian policy. I note the President's speech reported in our media this morning a commitment to action on climate change, notwithstanding the resistance in the US Senate expressed in the last decade.

And this is an administration with which we can do business very comfortably, based on shared values and shared interests, that would sustain the relationship with America, even when there might be disagreements on principle and on policies between Canberra and Washington.

We don't have to choose. We have said this repeatedly, it's almost a cliché, between America and China. I don't believe there is anyone of us who is not transfixed by the story that China represents.

I was reading a book in recent months about the intellectuals in Asia who first played with the notion of nationalism. One of them described India and China in 1900 as shadow nations. Once great nations. China once the largest economy in the world in the early 1800s, reduced by the depredations of imperialism to being shadow nations.

One Chinese thinker of the time described the colonial powers as ravening wolves tearing at China. One thinks of the opium wars, the unequal treaties, the sacking of the winter palace. We refer to this — I don't think any of us knows how deep this trauma, how significant a sediment this trauma is in Chinese thinking and Chinese character. And therefore, the fulfilment of Sun Yat-sen's dream of a united China and a prosperous China reaching for Western standards is simply a revolution in human affairs. Even more dramatic than the urbanisation, the enlargement of America that took place in the years, the hundred years after the civil war.

This is the drama of our times and I was proud to be there with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in April when we laid the basis for something few other nations have, and that's systemic consultation between the Australian and the Chinese leadership. We call it a strategic partnership and in that context, we acknowledge the leadership that China is increasingly displaying on global and regional issues. We want more of it, not less. We are very comfortable with China achieving its place in the councils of the nations of the world.

I might say since the leadership transition only a few months ago, we are seeing encouraging signs from leaders who, along with their other qualities, have a familiarity with Australia. Australia's a reasonably smart country and we have embraced opportunities — reasonably smart in our thinking about these things — we have embraced opportunities to see that people who emerge in leadership positions in Asia have a familiarity with Australia.

It's true of the new President of South Korea and the reception she got when she was out of power, a long way from power, and was treated in Australia as a special visitor, as an investment in the future.

It's true of relationships we have enjoyed throughout the ASEAN world. When I went to the Indonesian Parliament, for example, and spoke to their Foreign Affairs Committee, everyone there had studied in Australia or had sons or daughters or grandchildren studying in Australia.

Can I conclude by saying — and again the more solemn weighted comments are in my speech, this is an abbreviation — can I conclude by saying that we've got, and I'm confirmed to this more than ever, we have got certain national strengths, considerable national strengths that we draw on in making foreign policy. We are one of the oldest self-governing democracies in the world and when we talk about human rights, we do so with some authority.

We are a country with a strong tradition of multilateral activism. A history in the UN and the World Trade Organisation and all that bears that out. I'm increasingly impressed by the forum that the Commonwealth represents for us. I've chaired meetings of Commonwealth foreign ministers, because we had hosted CHOGM in Perth, and it has actually transmuted itself into a community of democracies.

The new charter which we adopted commits all members of the Commonwealth to certain values, and if members of the Commonwealth depart from those values, they are suspended from the Commonwealth until they return to them. It's that old idea of a community, a world community of democracy, and quite striking and I think quite useful.

You don't speak with authority in international affairs unless you have got a strong economy and the way we address productivity, economic management, the twenty-two continuous years of economic growth gives us credibility.

We have a commitment to education, excellence in education. When I dined with the foreign ministers of Latin America last night, the thing they kept emphasising was the large number of students from South America streaming into Australian universities. And I said: hasn't the high value of the dollar deterred them? He said no, the advantages offered by universities here is so marked, so strong, that it has not deterred them.

The multiculturalism of Australian society is a great strength. When I've spoken in the UN, for example, to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, I talk about how, I, as Premier of New South Wales, every year and as party leader of New South Wales for seventeen years, would turn up at the Lakemba Mosque for the end of Ramadan celebrations. I said this was a recognition of the importance of that community in Australia. The multiculturalism of Australia is part of our character and foreign policy.

People I meet, foreign ministers or permanent representatives of the UN who we brought here in significant numbers in the lead-up to our successful bid for the seat, say that when they leave the hotel in Melbourne or Brisbane or Sydney, they are struck by the number of Asian faces. It's forced them to review their — review old-fashioned notions, out-dated stereotypes, about Australia.

There's a level of comfort with the way we are positioned in foreign policy and I think it's also acknowledged that we have been prepared to work hard with those who share our values and interests, and even harder with those who don't. I want us to build on this as we approach this election.

I just make one observation. Tony Abbott has spoken many times about the Anglosphere, the importance of the Anglosphere to him. He did it in his book, where he is not constrained by the obligation to prove he's not a fire-breathing right-winger. He spoke about the Anglosphere more frequently and forcefully. I value very highly the comfort in our relations with other English-speaking democracies and it means a great deal to Australia, those relationships.

Precisely because it is so comfortable and the relationships are so fruitful, precisely because of that, we have got to work harder to see that we have got those lines of communication with, for example, it's not an exclusive list, those nations of the Caribbean, those nations of Africa, nations of Latin America. We have got to work harder at that. And, of course, the big commitment we have made to Asia.

For a conservative minister of Australia who had once been in tutelage of John Howard, talk of Anglosphere is very dangerous. It sends a very wrong message about where Australia is, the character of our country, the content of our foreign policy. And I would enter a very strong warning about that. A lot of it, a lot of the interpretation placed on that, were it to happen, might be wrong or unfair, but source considered, comments about an Anglosphere could be widely, wildly misinterpreted and do Australia great harm.

The nations of the world, we've got a good foreign policy. Kurt Campbell, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, said Australians get embarrassed and they get uncomfortable when you tell them their foreign policy is working well, that our foreign policy is a success. But it is, and it places well with the nations of the world. Thank you.

Media enquiries