Chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates and their families, ladies and gentlemen.
I remember this hall. It’s been a very long time but as law students we sat through our exams in Bonython Hall. I have one very vivid and enduring memory. It was a Tuesday afternoon, we were seated in here taking an exam – it was constitutional law. All was quiet except for the scratching of our pens and the rustling of paper.
Suddenly the doors burst open and a young man ran into the hall shouting “Whitlam’s been sacked!” It was the 11th of November 1975, and as the news seeped through our collective brains that Australia’s then Prime Minister had been dismissed from office by the Governor-General, we looked at each other and whispered “nobody told us about this in constitutional law lectures.”
The examiner sought to quieten the crowd, and he said to us, “You’re all going to be lawyers, hopefully. You must be prepared to expect the unexpected.”
I thought about that afterwards, and have thought about it since. We can’t predict our future. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we can be better prepared to face the future.
In my role as Foreign Minister of Australia I am responsible for the Government’s engagement with other countries, and for the policies that underpin that engagement, to maximise the prosperity and security of Australia and our citizens. We are living in increasingly volatile and unstable times. We cannot predict the future. At best we can see a faint contour of the world as it may be in 10 or indeed 20 years, but that’s why we need to be better prepared.
I have established a process to develop a Foreign Policy White Paper. This will be a framework, a strategy, to guide our thinking and our responses for the future. We will assess and determine what are our national interests and priorities, under the framework of our national values and principles. While we can’t predict the future, at least we will be able to work within that framework to respond to events or seek to shape or influence our region, and our globe.
Let me say this to the graduates. I think I can draw a parallel between my White Paper exercise and your attainment of a degree from this university. For this degree provides you with that framework through which your values and priorities and interests are reflected. You don’t know what lies ahead, but you have your degree from this university that will guide you, assist you, help you shape the future.
The world in which you will forge your careers will be more connected than ever before. An event on one side of the world could impact instantaneously anywhere else in the world. Technological advances will disrupt every element of the way you live, work and interact. Your job, your career is likely to require a high degree of digital literacy. You will need to be adaptable and nimble and agile and able to quickly respond to rapid change. You, unlike other generations, are likely to have a career that has international implications. That means that Australia’s foreign policy settings will be more relevant to you than perhaps the previous generation.
Australia is renowned as an open, liberal democracy. We are committed to freedoms for our people, to democratic institutions, to the rule of law. We are an open, export-oriented market economy. We have the ability to raise our standard of living by selling our goods and services around the world.
Think of this – we’re only 24 million people, 56th largest in population in the world – yet we’re the 13th largest economy. You don’t get rich by selling to yourself.
Australia has benefited from globalisation, from open trade, from the free exchange of ideas, from the movement of capital and people to our shores, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of the relative peace and prosperity that it brings.
But these fundamentals are under challenge. We know that there are rising economic nationalist and protectionist sentiments backed by populist campaigns that threaten our prosperity.
There are forms of extremism and terrorism that threaten our freedoms. There are nations imposing their will and violating the sovereignty of other nations that threaten our security. There are rising powers challenging the existing powers that threaten our stability. This is manifesting on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, in humanitarian crises in Somalia and Sudan; the mass movement of people all around the world looking for a better life and a better place to live.
In these challenging times that lie ahead, Australia must stand up for its values and defend our way of life and what our nation stands for. Our voice must be heard around the world and in our region.
Our region is the Indo-Pacific. We’re an island continent bound by the great Indian Ocean, Asia to the north, and the Pacific Ocean. This will be one of the most dynamic regions in the world for decades to come. This is where opportunities lie.
Just think of this – the global middle class today is about 3 billion people – 35 per cent are in North America and Europe, 45 per cent in Asia. In just 10 years’ time, the global middle class, the consumer class, will be 5.4 billion people, 20 per cent in North America and Europe 65 per cent in Asia. Think of the opportunities. There will be huge demands for high quality goods and services, and Australia and Australians are positioned to provide that.
This is where the New Colombo Plan becomes even more relevant. For we need to have a far deeper understanding of our region and our place in the world. My thinking behind the New Colombo Plan came from the original Colombo Plan. Many of you will recall that the Menzies Government in the 1950s introduced a student scheme that brought young people from war torn Southeast Asia and beyond to Australia to study in our universities and gain qualifications from our higher education institutions and then go back to help develop and rebuild their countries. In the meantime, they made friends with the Aussies that they’d lived with and studied with, and these networks have lasted a lifetime. We have a generation of ambassadors throughout Southeast Asia – people who studied in our universities, the Colombo Plan Scholars.
My thinking was also influenced by two personal experiences. First was travelling overseas with my sister Patricia when were university students here, at the University of Adelaide. I was struck by the changes in culture, outlook and perspectives and I wanted to know more about Australia’s place in the world and our engagement in our region.
The second experience was having the privilege to study overseas, living and studying with students from all over the world at Harvard Business School.
So I decided it was time that we made Australians more Asia literate, more conscious, more deeply aware of our place in Asia.
So the New Colombo Plan – the old one in reverse. We will provide opportunities for undergraduates from Australia’s universities to complete part of their degree by living and studying and undertaking work experience and internships at universities in our region. Since 2014 until the end of this year, almost 18,000 undergraduates from across our universities will undertake this living, studying and working experience in one of 40 countries in our region. Of course it’s a great educational opportunity for them but for Australia, it’s an investment in our future. When they come home with new perspectives and insights and ideas and skills – hopefully a second language – they will contribute to the building of our nation. They will also, as the generation before did, build connections and networks and relationships that will last a lifetime, and will underpin Australia’s enduring engagement in our region.
To the graduates, this is your world. You have a quality degree from a quality university. You have your framework. The opportunities are there for you to embrace. Be bold; be adventurous; back your instincts; learn from your mistakes; be humble in victory, gracious in defeat, and the world awaits you. I wish you every success in your future careers.
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