Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

A New Era of Engagement with the World

19 August, 2008, The Sydney Institute


Thank you, Gerard [Henderson, Executive Director of The Sydney Institute] for that introduction and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Institute this evening.

The Sydney Institute plays a very valuable role in stimulating and contributing to the public debate about which policy settings best serve Australia’s national interest.

In that context, let me start my remarks tonight about the modern Australia’s position in the world at the start of a new century and a new era of Asia-Pacific influence. 

While Australia is only the 50th or so largest country in terms of population, we are in the top 15 largest economies.

In terms of living standards measured by income per capita, we are among the top 20 countries and we are also among the top dozen military or peacekeeping spenders.

We are a significant and a considerable nation.

We are a regional leader.

We are not, however, a powerhouse or a superpower.

As a consequence, regional and multilateral institutions are essential for a nation like Australia.

Australia benefits immensely from a global and regional order based on principles, norms and rules which regulate relations between nation states.

Working to strengthen the mechanisms of that international order helps underpin Australia’s prosperity and security.

We need to take the opportunities available to us in international affairs, working with major powers, globally, regionally, bilaterally and, importantly, taking much greater advantage of international institutions to make a positive contribution to international security and increasing the wealth and prosperity of nations.

If we fail to take advantage of these opportunities, we will find our capacity to protect and enhance our national interest reducing, and our security and wellbeing declining.

This is particularly so in the new era that is upon us this century, the Asia-Pacific era.

The Asia-Pacific era

This new era is marked by an inexorable shift in global economic and strategic influence to the Asia Pacific. 

Within Asia we have the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, two of the top three economies, China and Japan, the largest democracy in the world, India, and the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia.

China and India are adding their enormous energy to the already considerable economic strength embodied in Japan and Korea.

By 2020, it is forecast that Asia will account for around 45 per cent of global GDP, one-third of global trade, and more than half of the increase in global energy consumption.

By 2020, 56 per cent of the world’s nearly 8 billion people will live in Asia. 

Asia’s surging growth is helping to drive Australia’s own economic prosperity. 

In 2007, Australia’s total global merchandise trade stood at over A$350 billion.  Of that, over A$200 billion, nearly two thirds of our merchandise trade, was with Asia. 

The shift, however, is not just economic or demographic.  It is also strategic, one of the reasons we have proposed the Asia-Pacific Community initiative.

Three of the world’s five largest military forces, China, India and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, are located in Asia.

East Asian military spending alone is now equivalent to that of all the European NATO countries combined.

With this transfer of economic and strategic influence comes an expectation of, and the actual exercise of, greater political influence.

In ASEAN itself, we have also seen comparable economic and demographic growth. 

South East Asia will always be critically important to Australia’s strategic, security and economic interests.  

How South East Asia adjusts to the shifts in economic and strategic power and influence in the Asia Pacific in the coming decades will shape Australia’s strategic environment.

The continuing rise of China and the emergence of India will almost certainly produce the most significant of these shifts.

Our security and prosperity will hinge to a significant degree on the political and economic development of our friends and neighbours in South East Asia. 

Transnational challenges

This new era also sees the rise in great transnational challenges.

Today, as ever, the world faces significant challenges and problems faced by nation states. Those problems are rarely confined to their borders alone but have transnational impacts.

Today, factors like climate change, international terrorism, weapons proliferation, transnational crime, environmental degradation, energy security, health pandemics, poverty and inequality as a cause of instability are all key factors affecting Australia’s security as a nation.

The Australian Government is determined to look afresh at our strategic and national security challenges and how to respond to them. We need to adapt and respond to new challenges.

In this new era and century, a globalised world demands more than ever a committed and active bilateral, regional and multilateral diplomacy from Australia.

The Government’s foreign policy approach

The new Australian Government came to office intent on making a difference as a good international citizen. 

We are determined to embark on a foreign policy both shaped by and reflecting our democratic values, our respect for the rule of law, domestic and international, our tolerance and our deep-seated belief in a fair go for others.

Three pillars of foreign policy guide Australia’s relationship with the international community. 

One pillar is our commitment to Australia’s Alliance with the United States. 

This Alliance remains a fundamental and indispensable bedrock of Australia’s security, strategic and defence arrangements.

In this context, continued active engagement by the United States in the Asia-Pacific is essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of our region.

A second pillar of our foreign policy is comprehensive engagement with Asia and the Pacific. 

As I have outlined, the region’s increasing strategic importance and global political influence mirrors its rapid economic and demographic growth.

Last month, I travelled to Singapore to take part in the annual series of ASEAN-related meetings.  These meetings reinforced Australia’s positive and constructive engagement with ASEAN, including in the areas of education and development assistance.

Complementing our relationships with Asia is the important work we are doing with our Pacific Island neighbours.

The Government is determined to bring a different approach to our Pacific neighbours: one based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility.

The Prime Minister’s Port Moresby Declaration on 6 March outlined a new vision for Australia’s engagement in the region, a vision typified by our Pacific Partnerships for Development. 

We are moving beyond the traditional modes of development assistance with our Pacific neighbours.  We recognise that our engagement must widen to involve trade and economic cooperation as well as policy and political dialogue.

As a practical expression of this, we announced this week a three-year pilot seasonal worker scheme in the horticulture industry for up to 2500 workers to address labour shortages in regional areas that can not be filled by Australian workers.

Australia’s Multilateral Engagement

The third pillar of our foreign policy approach is the one I will focus on this evening, namely the reinvigoration of Australia’s engagement with the United Nations and other multilateral organisations.

We do not accept that effort spent maintaining bilateral relations must come at the expense of effective engagement with multilateral organisations or vice versa.  This is a false dichotomy. We have vigorously pursued many bilateral relationships over the past nine months.

These are distinct but not mutually exclusive tools: in many cases they are necessarily complementary. 

Some issues are global by nature and require nation states to form collective responses, such as climate change, terrorism and weapons proliferation, among the greatest challenges that Australia will continue to face over the coming years.

Foremost among these global challenges is climate change.

We believe that Australia can only address climate change in concert with the international community.  There is equal futility in not acting or in acting alone.

Our first act as a Government was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.  Since then, Australia has played, and will continue to play, a leading and constructive role in international climate change negotiations.

United Nations

Australia has a long and proud history of involvement with the United Nations, a history which stretches back to its establishment as World War II drew to a close.

No Australian was more central to the development of the United Nations than Foreign Minister Evatt, who led Australia’s delegation to the founding meeting in San Francisco in 1945.

As that meeting struggled through the politically complex task of writing the United Nations’ Charter, Evatt was a remarkable advocate for the interests of small countries and middle powers.

He brought to those discussions a vision of an international body that would protect human rights and advance global economic and social development. 

After three months of negotiations, the Charter was agreed and much of Evatt’s work was brought to fruition. 

Indeed, the member states’ pledge to pursue within the UN these human rights, economic and social development goals became known in San Francisco as the Australian pledge.

It now forms article 56 of the United Nations Charter.

Evatt’s vision is more important today than it has ever been.  The need for effective, global responses to the challenges we face is more urgent and necessary than ever before.

The UN has a critical role to play in the global struggle for a peaceful, secure world free from poverty, disease and famine. 

For these reasons the Australian Government will work to ensure that the United Nations and its agencies fulfil their potential as agents for economic and social reform, for peace and as a protector of human rights. 

And as we do this, the UN will necessarily occupy a vital place in the way we pursue our national and global interests.


From its early years, Australia has been heavily involved in the practical work of the United Nations in bringing peace and security to nations riven by conflict.

Since the very first peacekeeping operation authorised by the United Nations Security Council in 1948, United Nations peacekeeping operations have saved lives, helped communities, helped societies and helped rebuild nations. 

Australia has a long and very proud history of supporting United Nations peacekeeping operations. 

In fact, if we take into account the 1947 United Nations Consular Commission to Indonesia, during which Australia – then a member of the United Nations Security Council – helped monitor observance of the ceasefire between Dutch and Indonesian forces,it’s arguable that we were the first nation state to have personnel on the ground in any modern peacekeeping operation. 

Geography alone, however, has not defined Australia's peacekeeping or security interests.

Since 1948, Australia has made contributions to United Nations and regional peacekeeping operations in Africa, Europe, Central America, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

In the case of Cambodia, Australia played a significant role. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was instrumental in helping to bring peace to Cambodia after decades of civil war. 

He played an important role in the negotiations leading up to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, and the subsequent engagement of a UN peacekeeping force.

As a considerable and significant nation, and as a good international citizen, we continue the noble tradition of peacekeeping to this day.

More than 30,000 Australians have served around the world as peacekeepers. According to the Australian War Memorial, twelve Australians have died while serving with United Nations and non-United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Australia’s continued participation in peacekeeping missions outside our immediate region has helped to demonstrate our commitment to international peace, security and stability and to strengthen our credentials as a responsible member of the international community.

Security Council

The Security Council is at the heart of international responses to issues of peace and security.  Australia has served on the Council in the past and Australia should do so again.

A practical example of Security Council action in which Australia played a leading role relates to the independence of one of our nearest neighbours, Indonesia. 

As a member of the Security Council in 1947, we joined forces with a newly independent India to bring the conflict between the Indonesian Republic and the Netherlands before the United Nations Security Council.

Australia recognised the forces sweeping away colonialism after World War II.  We were bold enough to act to support the emerging Indonesian Republic. And we did this against the express wishes of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Indonesia then nominated Australia to represent its interests on the 1947 Committee of Good Offices established by the Security Council. Australia did that diligently and robustly.

Just as Australia has served on the UN Security Council in the forties, Australia still has a role to play today.

That is why we have decided to seek election to the United Nations Security Council for the 2013‑14 term. 

Australia played a leading role in drafting those articles of the UN Charter that deal with the Security Council’s work and its relationship to other central organs of the UN, such as the General Assembly. 

We have a record of long and active engagement with the Security Council and our wider contribution to the United Nations places us in good stead to serve again.

We are determined to help address serious global challenges including conflict prevention, terrorism and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

We firmly believe Australia has much to contribute to the Security Council.  We bring unique perspectives, creativity, energy and a practical problem-solving ethos.  We also bring a wealth of experience in peace-keeping, conflict prevention and peace-building.

It is therefore appropriate that we seek a seat at the table of the pre-eminent international body charged with confronting many of today’s challenges.

Other UN bodies

Our commitment to renewed engagement with the United Nations is not, of course, limited to the Security Council. 

The Government has worked to strengthen our cooperation with, and support for, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. 

I am pleased that High Commissioner Guterres has accepted our invitation for an official visit to Australia early next year.  I look forward to furthering our engagement and reinforce Australia's commitment to improving the lives of refugees.

We are improving cooperation with the UNHCR to ensure our increased humanitarian settlement program, one of the three largest in the world, is used to maximum effect in the international system of refugee protection.

We have also taken wide-ranging measures to reform Australia’s immigration detention system, reforms welcomed by the UNHCR as “a very positive step”.

As well, the Government increased funding for the UNHCR in the 2008-09 budget to $9.9 million and we will make additional contributions through AusAID’s International Refugee Fund and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Displaced Persons Program.

UN Reform

We recognise that some UN bodies need to improve their performance. 

But it is counterproductive and wrong simply to criticise the United Nations from the sidelines. 

There is no point just standing outside throwing rocks at the building.  Instead, we need to be engaged in working hard to build the UN’s capability, responsiveness and creativity from within. 

Australia’s focus in supporting UN reform is on improving the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of UN operations. 

In this context we welcome and support Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s structural reform efforts, including with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs. 

We also want reform to the Security Council, whose working methods need to improve and whose membership should expand to reflect the modern world.

Again I reaffirm Australia’s support for India and Japan for their bids to become permanent members of an expanded Security Council.

Multilateralism outside the UN

The Government’s commitment to reinvigorate Australia’s multilateral engagement extends beyond UN bodies.  We believe multilateral and plurilateral solutions are essential to many regional and thematic issues.

The challenge of nuclear proliferation is another issue which can only be addressed through effective multilateral action. 

Nuclear weapons still pose a threat to humanity almost 40 years after the NPT was signed.   There remains a need for real progress towards the NPT’s objectives.

That’s why Australia is establishing, with Japan, an International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to be co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Ms Yoriko Kawaguchi, a former Japanese Foreign Minister.

Our objective in establishing the Commission is to reinvigorate the global effort against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to seek a recommitment to the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.

The Commission will aim to shape a global consensus in the lead up to the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and beyond. 

In pursuing this, we are very encouraged by the reaction we have received to date from both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

Pursuing our interests through multilateral fora can be challenging given the diversity of membership and views. As a result it may not always deliver the results we want, when we want them.

The recent failure of WTO talks in Geneva to reach agreement on the Doha Round was a significant disappointment.

The Government recognises that the Round still has considerable potential to deliver much greater market access for Australian goods and to boost trade and alleviate poverty in developing countries.

The Australian Government is committed to getting the Doha Round back on track at the earliest possible opportunity.   The Round is too important to be allowed to fail and we are too close to an outcome to let the opportunity pass without further effort.

Australia will continue to work hard internationally to build support for re-engagement and conclusion of the Round.

Strengthening ties with regional groupings

Australia also needs to lift its gaze and engage with regions of the world which we have historically or from time to time neglected.

The Government is determined to bring a wider perspective to Australia’s relations with Africa. 

Australian minerals and petroleum resource companies discovered Africa last century and it is time that the Australian Government caught up.

We want to broaden and deepen our engagement with Africa to reflect our growing trade, commercial and investment links. 

More than 60% of the United Nations Security Council’s agenda is focussed on Africa.

We welcome the continuing efforts on the part of the African Union to join with the United Nations to help address conflicts in Africa. 

We will support the African Union as it mobilises its Member States to contribute to peacekeeping operations, and uses its good offices to mediate in times of conflict.

We are working hard to strengthen our relations with Latin America using both multilateral and bilateral connections. 

The Prime Minister, the Trade Minister and I will all visit Peru in November for the APEC Ministerial and Summit meetings.

We will use this occasion to engage more closely with key countries of that continent.

In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago will host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the Commonwealth itself an important multilateral institution linking Australia and the countries of Africa and the Caribbean.

Another regional grouping we are committed to strengthening ties with is the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

We have a very strong trade relationship with the grouping. Our merchandise exports were worth well over $6 billion last financial year. We have excellent education ties.

We look forward to concluding a high quality and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the GCC which will bolster further our bilateral trade and investment. 

I visited the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in June and spoke to regional leaders there and at the Afghan Donors Conference in Paris about how we can build on this sound basis in trade to broaden the relationship. 

The Gulf is, of course, an immensely important strategic region and it is appropriate that we expand our dialogue with the region to reflect this.

In the critical  South Asian region we will engage more deeply with regional Governments following the invitation we received this month to participate as an Observer to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).  

Australia will join China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, South Korea and the United States as an Observer to SAARC.

Current events

For a moment let me address my remarks to two current events in very different parts of the world, Pakistan and Georgia.

Pakistan is vital to global security.  The Australian Government hopes that, following Mr Musharraf's resignation, the Pakistan Government will purposefully tackle the country's security challenges, which have regional and international implications.

In particular, the Australian Government is concerned about militancy and extremism in Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan, which have a direct and deleterious effect on Afghanistan and the 1100 Australian troops serving there. 

These security challenges are immense and require a concerted international effort, in cooperation with Pakistan, to improve security and governance in these border regions. 

Australia, as a friend of Pakistan, stands ready to assist Pakistan in that task.     

Events in Georgia have highlighted the important role regional organisations can play in mediating where there is conflict. 

Australia has called on Russia and again expects it to honour its commitment to withdraw its troops immediately and meet fully the provisions of the ceasefire agreement.

Australia welcomes the work the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, has done to bring Russia and Georgia to a ceasefire agreement. 

A Good International Citizen

A key aspect of the Government’s recommitment to multilateralism is our strong wish to see Australia speak and act on the world stage as a good international citizen.

As a good international citizen we are determined to make better use of our considerable prosperity to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Guided by our commitment to the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, we have pledged to increase our Overseas Development Assistance from 0.3 to 0.5 per cent of gross national income (GNI) by 2015. 

This reverses a trend which for most of the last decade saw Australia’s commitment to Overseas Development Assistance going backwards. 

We are also focused on providing humanitarian assistance in emergency situations and protracted crises.  Again, we cooperate with multilateral partners in this, including UN agencies, The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and international NGOs.

Australia provides timely responses as needed in the face of humanitarian crises, whether it be through financial means, personnel or goods.

Protection of human rights

Another area essential to good international citizenship is the protection of human rights. 

We have been active both domestically and internationally to reclaim a reputation as a leader in the international protection of human rights.

The Prime Minister’s Apology to Indigenous Australians in February was a defining moment in Australia’s history and was recognised as a symbolic and momentous step forward by the international community.

The Government has sent a clear message to the world that Australia is serious about both symbolic and practical steps towards reconciliation, and committed to addressing Indigenous disadvantage.

The Apology was warmly greeted within the United Nations, including by the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour.

In this 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Government is also taking practical steps to strengthen Australia’s engagement with the international human rights system.

The Government will extend a standing invitation to United Nations human rights experts to visit Australia.

In July, Australia became the 30th country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We will soon commence consultations on whether Australia should also become a party to the Optional Protocol to the Disabilities Convention.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Australia’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Again, the Government has commenced the process towards becoming a party to the Convention’s Optional Protocol.

Being a party to the Protocol will enable Australian women to bring complaints under CEDAW to the United Nations where domestic remedies have been exhausted.

The Government has also begun consultations with State and Territory counterparts on Australia becoming a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. 

The Optional Protocol establishes a system of United Nations visits to places of detention and requires states to establish a domestic mechanism to monitor detention.

Responsibility to Protect

An area closely related to our strengthened human rights commitment is the emerging doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” – or “R2P”.

The R2P principle was developed at the 2005 World Summit and has been reaffirmed in 2006 by the Security Council.  It holds that States are responsible for the protection of their own civilians from heinous mass crimes such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Further, it enunciates the international community’s responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations.

Australia supports the R2P principle and, in this critical early stage of its development, will support efforts to clarify the concept and consolidate its authority. 

Outreach and advocacy to advance and consolidate the World Summit consensus on R2P is a priority at this stage.  

Accordingly, the Government has affirmed Australia’s support for the New York-based Global Centre NGO that will work to move R2P from principle to practice.

The Government is also keen that Australia continue to support, develop and advocate the R2P principle. 

Australia is fortunate to have a range of institutions, individuals and NGOs who are very committed to the principle and who can contribute to its development.

I therefore announce tonight that the Government will establish a $2 million Responsibility to Protect Fund, to be administered by AusAID, which will underpin work in Australia on the concept. 

The fund will be available on a competitive basis to institutions, NGOs and individuals in Australia, for projects or research which will materially contribute to making R2P a reliable factor in international crisis handling.

R2P remains an emerging area of normative growth and the Government is determined that Australia remains committed to making the principle central to conflict prevention and resolution.


By reinvigorating Australia’s role in the multilateral system, Australia is acting in its long term national interest. 

Only by cooperating with other States in regional and multilateral frameworks can we address the pressing challenges that span borders and threaten us all.

Working within these systems can be difficult. Many of them were established at a time when the challenges we face today were simply not envisaged.

But the Government is prepared to help these systems rise to new challenges.  We believe this to be the only realistic option, and why Australia must be central to these efforts, reflecting the Government’s determination to place Australia on a new international footing, engaging with the world in a new era.

Thank you.