Friends of Australia. Friends of Israel. Friends of Hebrew University.
It is a great privilege for me to be here this evening and to receive the Hebrew University’s Torch of Learning award. Doubly so, because we are in the heart of Prime Minister Turnbull’s electorate.
I am not only deeply honoured to receive this award, but also to now be included among distinguished company that includes Australia’s 19th Governor-General, the late Sir Zelman Cowen, a brilliant lawyer who made so many important contributions to Australia incidentally, he had a grand passion for Australian Rules Football – a trait I deeply admired.
Awardees also include the inspiring Ruby Rich-Shalit, a champion of human rights and an advocate for women’s education and empowerment and as this audience well knows Ruby was honored by the Queen in 1967 for her work advancing the rights of women.
She was also the founder of this group, the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This University has a proud history of scholarship, diversity, multiculturalism, humanitarianism.
Founded in 1918, at the end of the First World War, and before the modern State of Israel was established – the Hebrew University boasts Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud as two of its creators.
It remains a world leader in providing education – creating and nurturing great thinkers and innovators from more than 65 countries.
The University’s alumni and faculty boast eight Nobel Prize winners – seven in the last decade alone.
Almost 25,000 students are currently enrolled – in Israel and abroad – contributing to almost half of Israel’s civilian research.
There are many great, young minds working on innovative new projects.
This research doesn’t just benefit Israel. The rather famous example of drip irrigation, which came from the Hebrew University, has transformed farming in Australia and our ability to grow crops in our drought-prone country. This is the kind of impact that research from Hebrew University can have – an enduring impact.
Even as it has worked to form the next generation of thinkers to guide Israel’s progress, the Hebrew University has worked to foster ties between nations all shape, composition – different people, ethnicities, religious backgrounds: Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims. That openness and diversity is a critical part of building a more positive future for the Middle East.
It will be the next generation of young people – of Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Libyans – all of whom will shape the future of the region.
That’s why institutions like the Hebrew University, who have shaped and are shaping the minds of successive generations, are so important.
The theme for tonight “The Changing Face of Politics, Innovation and Technology” actually encapsulates three matters of critical national and international importance – and I hope you don’t mind if I make mention of all three because this University makes an important contribution in all three areas.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Turnbull has stated innovation will, and must be, at the heart of public and private sector activity to drive future economic growth and prosperity in Australia.
New ideas, creativity and fresh thinking not only drive economic growth, but they also make government more efficient and effective.
Countries with economies that are growing, that are supportive of new ideas and new ways of doing business, are exceptionally liveable countries – because they offer exciting opportunities for advancement and they offer the jobs – the jobs of the future.
Innovation is now central to the activities of my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Last March I established an Innovation Hub – we call the innovationXchange – and it’s focused on improving the effectiveness of our foreign aid program, but also on internal government processes and it’s having a significant impact on how we deliver aid.
For example, we trialled a new way of public tender for the delivery of aid programs. Now this might not have you on the edge of your seat but, just think about it. Rather than cumbersome, detailed and prescriptive tender documents requiring an inordinate amount of time to prepare, let alone respond, our tender documents simply describe the problem, identify the money available and asks tenderers to come up with a solution – simple as that.
Instead of the usual five or six NGOs applying to deliver our aid projects, with this simple two paragraph request we received applications from 60 or more entities, including from the private sector who had never before tendered for an aid project, and the ideas and the creative thinking were just phenomenal.
Another example of turning old thinking on its head was in health.
There are many developing nations where vital health data is just not collected – births, the cause of death – yet billions of dollars are invested by donor countries in the name of public health policy.
So through the innovationXchange we are partnering with Michael Bloomberg’s Philanthropic Fund to adopt new technology that will collect the necessary data to fill gaps in knowledge about the causes of illness and deaths – a census if you like of basic health data in 20 developing countries so that public health policies and funding can be targeted and produce far better outcomes.
So we are embracing innovation as key to our future and will be releasing a National Innovation and Science Agenda shortly.
Australia recognises in Israel a fellow innovator, an entrepreneurial nation that has emerged as a major high tech global leader.
Our Assistant Minister for Innovation, Wyatt Roy, a very smart 25 year old, has been in Israel this month, looking for ideas and inspiration to better drive our innovation agenda.
Beyond the economic benefits of innovation, we also recognise the importance of innovation as a driver of social optimism.
Democracy too, is a powerful social motivator because people are energised by the opportunity to have a say in how they are governed.
In a similar way, innovation reminds people that not only is change possible but that we can, through clever, creative use of human agency improve the world in which we live.
So these two forces, democracy and innovation, are both clearly alive in Australia and Israel today, and they offer the hope of better times ahead.
The State of Israel is a source of optimism in a region that is struggling to contain a vast array of negative forces at present.
The Middle East is one of the most contested political landscapes in the world, and not always through the ballot box.
Violence and intimidation are utilised far too readily, in too many places.
It is also one of the least understood regions in the world, with complex tribal, and religious, and ethnic, and linguistic and geographic overlays.
Last year The Guardian prepared a ‘Guide to Middle East Politics’ but interestingly it observed that:
“In a landscape dominated by generals, autocrats and extremists … political space is shrinking.”
The assessment that the space for the peaceful practice of politics in the region is shrinking and giving way to force, repression and violence is sadly on point, and in stark contrast to what we might have imagined for the Middle East in the months following the Arab Spring.
The political awakening that we had hoped to see emerge has not been realised.
Countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria have fallen further into turmoil and violent repression rather than becoming stable nations where citizens have the opportunity to determine their own future.
Libyans continue to experience conflict and uncertainty, after overthrowing a repressive regime. Egyptians continue to experience economic and political volatility.
The political stability that we had hoped to see in Iraq is being challenged by the terrorist group Da’esh with its self-declared Caliphate across vast areas of Syria and Iraq, with a brutality and barbarism unprecedented in recent times.
Indeed, the deadly conflict in Syria has been the catalyst for a surge in refugees and a humanitarian crisis the scale of which has not been seen since the Second World War.
Millions of Syrians are now scattered across dozens of countries, from the border countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to the far reaches of Northern Europe.
As we gather in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris and an ongoing siege in Mali, we must acknowledge that in contrast to the regional political, social and military turmoil, Israel remains a strong, democratic state built on positive values that remain of contemporary application.
It is a self-reliant society committed to innovation, to growth, to transcending the challenges of the past on its way to creating a better future.
Israel is a reminder that democracy in the Middle East is not only possible; the people of the region should have the right to choose it as a preferred form of government if they so wish.
Nation building, looking forward, accepting challenges and meeting those challenges – that is how I see Israel.
Indeed, there are many Israeli attributes that Australians have in common – resourcefulness, confidence and optimism.
We also share the important values that underpin democracy, freedom, openness and a commitment to rule of law and pluralistic societies.
Coming back to one element of the theme for tonight, the ongoing technology revolution is a major disruptive force in societies around the world. It was clear to me from recent visits to San Francisco and Los Angeles that we are still in the early stages of this remarkable revolution. Many of the major tech companies were established just a few years ago, yet are now world leaders.
We need to be clear-eyed about the potential impact of technology as it can be used for constructive as well as destructive purposes.
For example, secure messaging services can protect dissident networks living under repressive regimes, but have also been adopted by terrorist groups such as Da’esh and al Qaeda to hide their communications from security and intelligence agencies.
Social media was credited with driving the Arab Spring revolutions but is now a recruiting platform for extremists and terrorist organisations.
Australia joins with other nations in adopting anti-radicalisation measure to curb the capacity of Islamic extremists and terrorist organisations to operate online.
However, technology as a positive force for good will continue to transform our world.
I was struck by one company I visited in San Francisco, Planet Labs. It’s a small company and they are manufacturing and producing “nano-satellites” – the size of a shoe box, they make them at their desk!
There are 48 nano-satellites circling the earth – launched from the International Space Station – and once a critical mass of 125 is operating these nano-satellites will photograph the entire globe in high definition every 24 hours.
Now the possibilities are endless – just imagine how much more effective the agricultural sector would be in terms of production and efficiency and how world food supply could be transformed if we can access daily updates on crop health, on irrigation needs, on drought and weather patterns.
Robotics, innovative devices the internet, it’s clear these will continue to radically transform our lives, and we need to embrace and not fear that change, so the world can gain the greatest benefit.
As Australia’s Foreign Minister, I confirm without hesitation, unequivocally, that Australia is, and will remain, a staunch friend and supporter of the State of Israel.
Australia fully supports the right of the people of Israel to live within secure borders, in peace and security.
I have stated our unambiguous support many times, particularly at the UN General Assembly where we join a very small number of nations prepared to oppose one-sided unfair and discriminatory resolutions that target Israel, and only Israel.
I have given personal assurances to my counterpart Foreign Minister, Prime Minister Netanyahu, of the Turnbull Government’s ongoing friendship, commitment and support.
And we will not hesitate to call out anti-semitic discrimination, where we see it wherever it occurs, particularly the pernicious BDS campaign that is still to operating in this country.
With respect to the Peace Process, our Government continues to advocate for a two-state solution as the only viable pathway to a final settlement with the Palestinian population.
The responsibility lies with us today – and with the next generation of leaders many of them probably studying at the Hebrew University, to work towards peaceful, negotiated, solutions to the current challenges in the Middle East.
I’m hopeful indeed I’m confident, that we can succeed in this endeavour.
Ladies and gentlemen, while there are many global challenges and opportunities that must be encountered, the work of organisations such as the Hebrew University will hopefully inspire the peaceful outcomes that most people crave.
Tonight, in accepting the Torch of Learning Award, I commit anew to the powerful relationship between our two countries.
Israel’s struggles are our struggles. Their fight is our fight. Israel’s opportunities are our opportunities. Israel’s values are our values. We must both be prepared to continue to defend them.
Australia and Israel – ours is a special friendship, a special relationship and long may it endure.
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