I am delighted to deliver the third Sir John Downer Oration and acknowledge the first two Orations by then Prime Minister John Howard in 2012 and then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014. As Mike indicated Sir John began his storied career as a brilliant scholar - a lawyer who became a barrister in 1868 at age 24 and a Queens Counsel in 1878 at the age of 34.
In the same year, he was elected to the House of Assembly as the Member for Barossa – a position he held until 1901.
A highly regarded Attorney-General in the John Bray Government and Leader of the Opposition for much of the 1890s, Sir John held the high office of the Premier of South Australia twice - from June 1885 until June 1887 and again from October 1892 until June 1893. He was elected a Senator for South Australia in 1901 and held that position until resigning from federal political life in 1903 and resuming state political life. However, his legacy has lived on through his son Alick, his grandson Alexander and hopefully his great-granddaughter!
Altogether Sir John was a member of state and federal parliaments for 37 years of his life and remained undefeated through eleven elections at both levels of government. I have to say, those were the days.
Sir John was one of the earlier supporters for the right of women to vote – and suffered much criticism and indeed heckling during his time in public life for defending that position. So it’s appropriate that the Oration takes place within the University of Adelaide which was the first Australian tertiary institution to admit women to undergraduate degree studies.
Sir John played a leading role at the Conventions in the years prior to the founding of our Federation in 1901. A champion of preserving the role of the states in any future Commonwealth, he served on the Drafting Committees at the 1897-1898 Convention and emerged as a most powerful advocate for entrenching a proper role for the High Court in the Constitution.
Sir John’s remarks made during the 1898 Convention on the future judiciary of the Commonwealth are still quoted by students and academics of jurisprudence to this day:
“With them rests the obligation of finding out principles which are in the minds of this Convention in framing this Bill and applying them to cases which had never occurred before, and which are very little thought of by any of us.”
As his biographer John Bannon concluded in examining the work of Sir John, he can:
“…claim a longevity in the cause of the Australian federation which was unmatched by any other member.”
We gather for this Oration 102 years after his death to remember Sir John as a remarkable leader with a powerful vision for our Commonwealth.
Much of Sir John’s distinguished career was spent debating how the Australian national government ought to be organised, the privileges and limitations placed on state and federal executive power, and more broadly how Australians ought to be governed.
The task of balancing the competing interests of the states must have been formidable.
Forgive me as a Western Australian acutely aware that my state currently receives 34 cents on every dollar of GST raised, I can’t help but wonder how Sir John would have managed the equitable distribution of the GST among states and territories.
As an elected Member of Parliament and therefore a custodian of the Australian Constitution, I am mindful that executive power must be acquired legitimately and wielded as wisely, responsibly and sparingly as possible.
Sir John and his contemporaries took on the serious responsibility of crafting a Constitution that would serve as the bedrock of a Commonwealth that would work to the benefit of its citizens. The Constitution set out the various responsibilities of the Commonwealth Government and the States, and provides a framework within which each level of government was to operate. Importantly, it allocated equal numbers of Senators to each State, regardless of their relative populations. This feature reflecting the composition of the US Senate was designed to protect the interests of the less populous States.
In many respects, the Constitution and subsequent work of Parliaments and the High Court have established a set of rules for Commonwealth-State and State-State interactions. Later this year, I will release the Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper – the first since 2003 when Foreign Alexander Downer released Advancing the National Interest. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper will seek to establish a framework that will guide Australia’s international engagement in a less certain and more contested world over the next decade. It will give the Government and Australians guidance with respect to how we maximise and exercise power and influence and for what purpose, and how we seek to protect and enhance the interests and values of Australians through our engagement abroad.
When it comes to the judicious use of executive power and national resources, a principled foreign policy is not so different from domestic contexts. Sir John had a profound interest in the proper purpose of executive government and the objectives of deploying national power and resources. Our upcoming White Paper will explain the rationale for our international engagement and the utilisation of our national capabilities overseas. The White Paper is an opportunity for the government and for Australians to reflect on the foundations of our security and our wellbeing in an uncertain region and world.
It’s to our credit as a nation that Australia has set yet another world record – we are entering our 27th year of continuous economic growth, unmatched by any other advanced economy. We’ve weathered the Asian financial crisis, we got through the dot com boom and bust of 2000, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, we survived the vagaries of the international commodities cycle. There’s a generation of Australians who have not known a recession and are focused on the pursuit of even greater prosperity. In the serene surroundings of this beautiful campus, it is easy to take for granted the conditions under which peace and prosperity become possible.
The era since the Second World War has come to be known as the “Long Peace”, and that is largely due to the international rules-based order, the laws and the rules and the norms established over that time, championed and promoted and defended by the United States and its allies to a large extent. It is not possible to have one guiding document, such as our Constitution, to set out these rules given the issue of nation-state sovereignty. However there is a rich tapestry of international law to guide the behaviour of nations, particularly towards each other, to help resolve disputes peacefully. The international rules-based order is currently under stress and is being challenged by states and non-state actors. So the importance of preserving and maintaining the international rules based order is one of the fundamental principles that will shape the content of the White Paper. The rules based order is built on many of the liberal-democratic precepts that have underpin our domestic political life and economic success. Its basic principle is the rule of law where governments, firms and individuals enjoy rights and obligations regardless of wealth or power. So larger and smaller economies, stronger and weaker states, can co-exist constructively and peacefully if all nations abide by the laws and the rules and the norms. A country of over a billion people – such as China or India – is deemed to have the same rights and privileges as Tuvalu a population of just over 11,000 people or Australia with under 25 million.
Now I’m not naïve when it comes to the reality of the strategic or economic competition that exists, especially in our region. Competition is an accepted feature of international relations. However it must conducted fairly so as not to descend into conflict. Australia has been a key supporter of this order, from our early engagement with the United Nations, including as the first nation to hold the presidency of the Security Council.
A fortnight ago in New York, I delivered a statement to the United Nations General Assembly Annual Leaders Week where I championed reform of the United Nations to ensure it is still relevant, that it becomes more accountable, and responsive and efficient to undertake the important work for which it was created. If the United Nations did not exist today we would have to establish it.
Australia has supported many of the legal frameworks, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Criminal Court and more. So take the South China Sea. When the Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, under UNCLOS, released its decision favouring the Philippines in the contested South China Sea in July of 2016, Australia called on both China and the Philippines to treat this as final and binding on both parties. We were probably the most insistent and robust of any country in the world in upholding the authority of the Tribunal, and I’m well aware of how that was received in certain capitals to our North.
Even though Australia doesn’t take sides in the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines and others, we believe the Tribunal’s decision is authoritative. It articulates international law and the Law of the Sea in particular. As an island continent and a trading nation, freedom of navigation and overflight is utterly fundamental to our security.
We’ll work with likeminded countries to defend the rules based order and dissuade others seeking to undermine it. The most egregious undermining of international law and order at the present time is North Korea’s flagrant disregard of eight United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that it abandon its illegal weapons and ballistic missile programs. We’ve been vocal in our support of the actions of the United States in persuading the Security Council to adopt even harsher sanctions against North Korea in order to compel Pyongyang back to the negotiating table with the intention of ensuring it abandons its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. We have been amongst the most vocal in the world in urging the international community, and the Permanent Five members of the Security Council in particular which includes China and Russia, to fully impose tough sanctions and sanctions that will affect the elites as much as possible. If North Korea’s illegal programs are left unchecked, if North Korea achieves its aspirations, there will be significant implications. The authority of the UN Security Council will be diminished as well as the standing of the Permanent Five members. It will increase the prospects of international disorder. The United States will have no option but to increase its military presence in the region. South Korea and Japan will feel more threatened and vulnerable and will need to take deterrent action. And what of other aspiring nuclear states Iran, and how would Saudi Arabia respond?
Australia cannot stand apart from this regional threat to our security. We must play an active role in defending the authority of the United Nations Security Council and compelling Pyongyang back to negotiate a peaceful outcome.
We’ve imposed our own autonomous sanctions to complement the UN Security Council measures. Australia has done so out of principle and respect for international law and order as well as our own security. Similarly, Australia has called out Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the Crimea. Standing on principle and speaking truth to great powers can be challenging. We do so because the defence of international law and the rules based order provide the conditions for all countries to benefit and thrive.
Over the past 70 years this rules based order has allowed developing nations to grow. China’s economic rise has been one of the miracles of our times, with hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty. That occurred only after China gradually opened itself to the world and became a participant in the global order rather than opposing it or standing apart from it as occurred prior to its reforms in 1979. The economic success of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and others has been achieved during this era.
Other nations in our region are experiencing rapid growth; India and Myanmar are currently the fastest growing economies. Our relationship with our region is warmer and more comprehensive than ever. Meanwhile we maintain our close partnership with the United States, the nation that has done more than any other in terms of safeguarding international peace and security.
As I travel through the region and around the world I’m constantly reminded of the high regard in which Australia is held particularly in our region. In the capitals and with institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN, Australia has never been more influential. That we are, is due in no small part to the clarity and consistency of how we pursue our interests and promote our values. Our reputation that I seek to promote and protect is as an open liberal democracy committed to freedoms, the rule of law and democratic institutions. As an open export-oriented market economy committed to trade and investment around the world – that’s why we’re the 13th largest economy in the world.
Additionally, the government is placing paramount importance on ensuring our government and our domestic institutions remain free from undue foreign influences or coercion. This is to ensure those responsible for making decisions or carrying out duties on behalf of Australians can make decisions solely based on the best interests of our country.
Our White Paper will reflect Australia’s growing influence and will be ambitious in its outlook and its goals. We will develop our national strengths and capabilities, leverage our relationships with the great powers and key regional states, and take advantage of our expanding diplomatic presence to champion the rules based order and policies that will continue to underpin Australian, regional, and global security and prosperity. In addition, the White Paper will seek out practical ways to make a tangible contribution to expanding Australian capabilities in the national interest. But we can’t be complacent, nor can our allies and partners and friends.
In 1988, Paul Kennedy from Yale University released his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In a grand sweep of economic and military history from 1500 – 2000 Professor Kennedy examined the material causes of the rise and fall of great ruling families, nations and empires.
He began from the truism that wealth is generally needed to underpin military power and strategic influence and analysed the way nations and governments over-reach, for example territorial acquisition or participation in wars.
His analysis was masterful and thorough. The rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire, Ottoman Empire, Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and the British Empire – to name several – are examined in impressive detail. He convincingly argues that strategically and politically reaching beyond one’s economic grasp is the harbinger of decline. Yet, the qualifications contained in his analysis are as important as the main thesis itself.
The relative and absolute rise and decline of nations and national economies depend on the effectiveness of leaders and the flexibility and resilience of political organisations and national institutions. The professionalism and efficiency of one’s military is significant as is national morale.
As during the industrial revolution, adapting to technological change and shifting markets will determine the fate of economies and therefore nations. It’s obviously not an exact science because Professor Kennedy – along with almost every expert - failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union only three years after the release of his study; the economic revival of the United States economy and its global leadership in the technology revolution under way; and he didn’t quite pick the remarkable rise of China following land reforms in the 1980s and the opening up of its economy to the world when it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. But my point is that the economic and strategic destiny of every nation is dependent on decisions made by its leaders and its people.
For our part, there’s no sign that Australia is in danger of strategic overreach or imminent economic turmoil – quite the contrary. However, warnings about relative decline can apply to all nations. We cannot take growth in capability and strength for granted.
Just consider the disruption from the scale and pace of technological advances. We’re entering a fourth industrial revolution, or what many experts call the Second Machine Age. In this age the disruptive effects of advanced manufacturing technologies, robotics, automation, 3D printing and exponential improvements in artificial intelligence will make many traditional jobs and industries obsolete. Some predictions are that within a decade one third of jobs in existence now are at risk of being replaced by software, robots and smart machines. We’re told about 60 per cent of school children around the world will be working in jobs and industries that have not yet been created.
Disruptive change will impact almost every sector and every economy over time. During every identified Industrial Revolution, the national strengths and capabilities of countries shifted dramatically in relative terms depending on the ability of their government and their economies to respond – or not.
We are a nation of 25 million people in a region of growing military and economic weight. Australia’s interests lie in continuing to champion an open global economic and trading system, to adapt quickly to technological changes, to embrace innovation and take advantage of the opportunities unfolding in the region such as the massive rise of a middle class – a consumer class – in Asia that is eager to purchase quality goods and services. We must advocate – all of us - for the continually opening of our economy to fair competition to find new and enhance existing markets for our goods and services. We have to attract skilled workers from all over the world to enhance our productivity and build our capacity. We must maintain public confidence in the steady flow of foreign capital that enables us to build our economy. And we must work tirelessly to achieve regional stability.
If we do these things well, we will continue to advance national prosperity and accumulate the means and influence to advance our interests. This will allow us to become an even more effective champion of the rules based order.
Ladies and gentlemen.
Sir John Downer made it his life’s work to promote a principled constitutionalism for our Commonwealth. He advocated for a proper and pragmatic relationship between executive authority, law, institutions and public ethics and accountability.
Even allowing for the differences between the domestic and international environs, this strikes me as an apt description of the principled foreign policy I am advancing. I hope Sir John would approve.
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