SPEECH - Address to the Melbourne Forum, Wednesday 31 March 2015

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Foreign policy occupies an unusual space in our political life.

It’s rarely a front-of-mind issue for voters – compared to waiting times at hospital emergency departments, traffic congestion, or the quality of schools.

But the way our nation navigates the shifting tides of a changing world has a profound effect on the lives, and the quality of life, of all of us.

At an extreme, of course, it can mean the difference between peace and war.  But foreign policy is also about the every-day effort to keep Australia secure and prosperous, to protect our values and our way of life, and to influence the world we live in.

In a world more interconnected and interdependent than ever before, our international relations touch every aspect of Australians’ lives, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.  The big economic, environmental and security challenges are not national challenges, they are international. They are problems with no passports, as Kofi Annan called them; hoping to stop them at the border is futile.

Customs officers and coast guards will be no more effective than King Canute at holding back the rising tides of our warming oceans; Australia cannot continue to have a strong economy if the global economy is weak; multi drug resistant TB is just a short boat ride from our northern frontier.

Our business and industry connections around the world have brought immense benefits, especially by reducing the cost of many goods – but they’ve also raised new questions.

No government can regulate the conditions of food preparation in other countries, but as we have seen recently, those conditions can have a direct and even disastrous effect on Australians’ health here at home.

Nor can any country stipulate the conditions of work outside its borders – but with the cost of consumer goods falling, Australians want to know that the goods we’re buying are made by adults paid a decent wage, and that the planet isn’t being destroyed in their making.

We welcome freer trade, but we don’t want to give up plain packaging for tobacco, our purchasing arrangements for medicines, or our quarantine protections.

The way we relate to the world is critically important for our safety, our security, our way of life, and the values we hold dear. How, then, should we proceed?

There are a number of different schools of thought about international relations. There are the so-called ‘realists’, who argue that if you back pure self-interest you’ll never lose.  There are the ‘idealists’, who believe human beings are capable of kindness, co-operation, generosity and compassion even when it is not to their advantage – and that the world can be made a better place for us all.

There are the small “l” liberals, and you even find the occasional old Marxist, arguing that human history follows an inexorable upwards trajectory, generally grounded in economic development. In contrast, the post-structuralists’ view is that there is no inevitability to progress nor automatic success for any system or structure.

And then there’s real life, which teaches us that foreign policy can never be carried out in rigid obedience to any theory, and you can’t underestimate the importance of personalities and personal relationships.

We are best served, I believe, by an approach that understands that our Australian values and our national interests align more often than not, and that our values and interests are best expressed and pursued over the long term, not in a transactional or short term way.

Let me set out Labor’s approach:

Labor believes there is no inherent conflict between our national interests and the interests of the global community – especially when it comes to these problems without passports.  We believe, for example, that it is in our national interest to have a strong aid program.  When vaccination programs eliminate communicable diseases, we are all healthier; when nations become markets for our goods and suppliers of their own we’re all wealthier, and when education levels rise and skills expand, we all reap the benefits of innovation, invention and creativity.

We also believe, and Australia’s foreign policy experience under Labor proves, that Australia has a role to play in finding multilateral solutions to global challenges.

Australia played a key role in the founding of the United Nations,  We helped shape it into more than a club for the powerful nations of the world – rather, a forum for all countries and a focus for the development of international law and of humanitarian efforts.

Australia is a beneficiary of a rules based international order because we’re a relatively small country in population, with a large land mass to protect.

But we have also always seen ourselves as a contributor to this same system. We’re right to think we have something important to bring to the table.

That’s why Labor campaigned for Australia to have a spot on the UN Security Council. It is why Labor now supports the Government’s stated intention to seek another term for Australia on the Council – in contrast to the criticism we copped from the then opposition during our successful bid.

It is also why we saw the importance of the G20, rather than the G8, becoming the world’s most significant economic forum during the Global Financial Crisis. The greater the number of nations working together to tackle the big issues the better for all of us, including Australia.

And we believe that our national interest is best served when our foreign policy reflects our values – when we walk the talk, and we’re seen by other countries to do so.

Labor has always believed that the path to a secure and stable world requires the recognition and protection of human rights for all people. It was Doc Evatt’s position at the formation of the United Nations, and it is our position now.

Given that, we must also bear in mind that we cannot expect others to behave in ways we do not. If we believe in the importance of multilateral commitments to human rights, we cannot, as this government has done, respond to criticism of our own conduct with complaints about being ‘lectured’ by the UN. This is why, when I was Minister for Women at the beginning of our term in government, I signed Australia up to the optional protocol to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – because we cannot ask other countries to be accountable to internationally agreed human rights instruments while refusing to be accountable ourselves.

Above all, Labor believes that to chart Australia’s course in the world we must have a long-term vision. We must have a plan for our engagement with the changing world that extends beyond the news cycle – that extends decades into the future. And I have to say, this is in stark contrast to the transactional, short term approach of the current Government.

When Labor was in government, we commissioned the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper – recognising that in the decades ahead, the changes in our region will have a major impact on Australia.  One of the first things this Government did was to erase that White Paper – others have called it an electronic book-burning. This wouldn’t be so bad, but what long term strategy has the government replaced it with?

The reflexive, transactional approach of the Abbott Government to the question of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has been embarrassing.  Short-term, reflexive agreement with what we’re told was the USA’s position – compliance, rather than as it should be, alliance – has made Australia’s eventual participation seem grudging and half-hearted to our regional neighbours. It has undermined our ability to influence the direction of the Bank from the ground up.  It’s clearly a missed opportunity.

Short-term, domestic focus has also been on display with the Government’s unilateral announcements of immigration policy without consultation with our near neighbours. This has put particular strain on our relationship with Indonesia – a crucial relationship given that by 2050 Indonesia will have an economy twice the size of Australia’s.

With no long-term vision for the world as it might be and could become, this Government is limited to managing the foreign policy inbox rather than charting Australia’s course into the future.  This is, I strongly believe, antithetical to Australia’s national interest. The fact the Government cites the ‘New Colombo Plan’ as its signature foreign policy initiative speaks volumes.  While of course we support the Plan, and I’ve met many of the wonderful young people who have participated, Australia should be doing better than the resuscitation of Menzies-era student study program when it comes to the centrepiece of our engagement with the world. This is one program in what should be a multi-track policy of engagement with Asia.

Labor’s approach is, and always has been, different. We have always looked further than our borders and beyond the electoral cycle.

Our experience has proved that foreign policy which is long term, and is guided by our values, is not in conflict with – but is an investment in – Australia’s national interest.