SPEECH: Address to the National Press Club of Australia, Wednesday, 10 February 2016








I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal People, traditional owners of the land where we meet today, and to pay my respects to their elders past and present.


  • Bill Shorten and other parliamentary colleagues, past and present,

  • Members of the diplomatic corps,

  • Dick Woolcott and current and former members of the foreign service,

On my first day in this job, in the press gallery’s tradition of respectful enquiry, I was asked what could have possibly led me to choose the Shadow Foreign Affairs portfolio.

I have been back to look at that answer—to see how I feel about it, two and half years on.

In October 2013, I said my choice was partly inspired by my love of history.

I don’t think you’ll be shocked to hear that I’ve never been a fan of the ‘great man’ theory of history.

The story of the world written as a tribute to an immortal few, deserving to command, taking their citizens by the scruff of the neck and driving them on to glory.

The history that interests me is the more complex story.

The ebb and flow of events, the spark and slow burn of resurgence and decline.

The shifts in power and influence that see nations rise and fall.

Reading about this is one thing, living through it is another.

In this job, loving history helps you know when you are witnessing it firsthand.

And right now, the economic and social transformation we are seeing in our region is remarkable.

And the challenges we face are significant—from terrorism, poverty and inequality, health crises to climate change.

The decisions we make in this decade, and the actions we take as a global community, are writing the history of our era, and defining the future for generations to come.

I want to serve as Foreign Minister in a Shorten Labor Government because I believe there is more, much more, that Australian ideas and values can offer the world.

I believe we can take a broader view.

Australia can be a better international citizen, a more active player in our region and a more creative, more confident presence on the world stage.

We should choose this path of energy and activism, knowing that it serves our national interest.

We see ourselves as a good international citizen and we measure our actions against that.

Above all, the national security and prosperity we are so grateful for can only come from greater international security and prosperity.

There is no more important duty of a government than to keep its people safe and ensure their prosperity.

Ensuring safety at home, by helping secure peace abroad.

Enhancing prosperity in Australia, by extending opportunity in the wider world.

It sounds basic, and in a portfolio that attracts more theories, ‘isms’ and doctrines than many others, simplicity is not always seen as a virtue.

Nor can you spend a life in the Labor movement without encountering a few foreign policy purists along the way.

Idealism will always inform Labor’s ongoing goal of building a better world.

But in foreign affairs, as in economic and social policy, we learned long ago that there is nothing to fear or to lose from pragmatism in the name of progress.

There is no value in pitting the perfect against the good, standing in the way of advances because they are incremental.

As former Congressman Barney Frank recently put it:

‘The opposite of pragmatism is not idealism.’ The opposite of pragmatism is ‘wishful thinking.’

The wishful thinking that whispers Australia is a small country, far away, removed from the problems of the world.  That we don’t need to engage.

And the wishful thinking that, amidst rapid change and the shock of the new, urges a retreat into the comfort of the familiar.

Be it terrorism, war, poverty or climate change, Australia cannot afford to imagine ourselves immune from global threats to security and prosperity.

We cannot rely exclusively on ‘great and powerful friends’ in a world that has fundamentally changed.

We cannot consider ourselves outside the standards and expectations of the rules-based order we exhort others to follow.

And we cannot afford to play spoiler or isolationist in the global response to these threats.

Climate change is already impacting on the island homes of our friends in the Pacific. As Bill, Richard Marles and I saw firsthand on our recent trip to PNG, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, climate change isn’t a ‘political’ argument or an ‘economic’ dilemma. It is an existential threat – a matter of survival for our neighbours.

As the largest per capita emitter of carbon pollution in the OECD, we also have a regional responsibility to our friends in the Pacific.

Yet we went to Paris as a country that has gone backwards on climate change, both domestically and internationally, placing short-term domestic concerns ahead of our long-term national interest and our international reputation.

In this very building a generation ago, Paul Keating urged us to seek security in Asia, not from Asia.

We return to that core principle, the best guarantee of a secure and prosperous Australia is a region and a world of greater security and prosperity.

In seeking this goal Labor looks to the three longstanding pillars of our foreign policy:

  • Our alliance with the United States

  • Our relationships in the Indo-Pacific region

  • And our multilateral engagement with the world

In the Labor Party, we are proud of our history as the architects and authors of Australia’s alliance with the United States.

We value the leadership the United States has offered in our region and around the world. This is why Stephen Smith, while foreign minister, worked to have the United States included in the East Asia Summit, expanding US engagement in our region.

But we have never sought for Australia the tinny badge of ‘deputy sheriff’.

We believe that we are a more valuable ally if we have the maturity and confidence to speak frankly and act independently within the alliance.

Australia will disagree with the United States on occasion.

We should have disagreed in 2003.

The decision to invade and occupy Iraq was a terrible mistake.

The cost in lives, money and the reputational damage to America and other members of the Coalition of the Willing was not matched in gains for Iraq, for the United States, or the world.

Labor opposed the decision to join in the invasion of Iraq.

I spoke against it, I marched against it.

When George W Bush visited our Parliament in 2003, I presented Condoleezza Rice with a letter, signed by 41 MPs, explaining why Labor opposed the invasion of Iraq without United Nations approval.

When presented with the same set of circumstances, I would do so again.

None of this diminished Labor’s commitment to the alliance.

And as two nations with shared histories, mutual interests and common values, as believers in, and defenders of, open economies, free societies and individual liberties, there is so much Australia and the United States can achieve together.

Which is why the US-Australia alliance will always be an important element of Labor’s foreign policy.

In our region, we believe in building institutions and enmeshing ourselves in the Indo-Pacific.

Our economic connections are important, but we believe our connections should be much deeper than the merely transactional.

This was the dominant theme of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper: a whole of government approach, building the people-to-people links that are far stronger and more enduring than anything conjured by summitry.

In an act of pettiness all too typical of this Government, the White Paper has been written out of departmental history; an act of electronic book burning.

This is to the detriment of us all.

In our region in particular, Labor recognises the responsibility we have to promote peace, reduce poverty and tackle inequality among our neighbours.

Being a constructive and considerate member of the Indo-Pacific community is not just the right thing to do.

It is also one of the most sure-fire ways of enhancing Australia’s own long-term safety and prosperity.

When we help our neighbours to succeed, we share in the reward.

The stunning economic growth of countries like Japan, Korea and China has underpinned our own prosperity.

A quarter of a century ago, Malaysia and Thailand were among the largest recipients of Australian aid.

Today, Malaysia is Australia’s eighth largest trading partner, Thailand is ninth.

But it’s not just about trade—strong institutions and good governance in our neighbourhood benefit us too.

Just one example: the strength of the health system in Papua New Guinea is critical to the strength of ours.

If we assist with TB prevention and treatment in PNG, we reduce the very real threat of drug-resistant TB to our citizens in Far North Queensland.

In the 1980s, the US and EU controlled more than 60% of the world economy in nominal terms.

In 2014 that was 46%, and the trend is only heading one way.

The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving to our region.

And with that economic heft comes political and strategic influence.

Measured by purchasing power, India has grown from the ninth largest economy in 1990 to the third largest today.

And as the world’s largest democracy, India is seeking a strategic voice on par with its economic weight.

That’s why Labor in government shifted our focus from the Asia Pacific to the Indo Pacific and deepened our engagement with India.

On the same economic measure, Indonesia has climbed from fourteenth to sixth.

Indonesia too is seeking a greater say in global decision-making.

China’s growth is not the whole story of the rise of Asia, but it is nonetheless a remarkable story.

500 million people lifted out of poverty.

An economic transformation unparalleled in human history.

And Labor is proud of the part we have shared in the China story.

We are proud that Gough Whitlam reached out to China when people said it was folly.

Proud that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating fostered inclusive cooperation in our region, through APEC, when their critics mocked it as vanity and an elitist obsession.

And proud of the work Julia Gillard did to establish regular and formal leader-level meetings between China and Australia—a foreign policy achievement which will only be enlarged by time.

Our history with China means a Labor government would have acted differently on the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. This was a way to positively work with China to reduce the infrastructure deficit in our region.

Instead, division around the Coalition Cabinet table and botched public diplomacy led it to being seen as a great US-China power struggle, with Australia caught in the middle and China coming out on top.

And it now seems Australia will miss out on a position as one of the vice-presidents of the AIIB, due to our perceived reluctance and late sign-up. We should have gotten in early—we could have had more influence in setting the rules.

Our close economic and diplomatic relationship with China binds us, but it does not blind us.

On the question of relations between China and the United States, and between China and the rest of the region, we are clear sighted.

On the South China Sea, we are not disinterested observers.

We have a national interest in defending freedom of navigation—and in upholding the international system of laws and accepted behaviours.

One-third of the world’s shipping, and 60% of our own exports, transit through the South China Sea.

We’re talking about nearly US$5.3 trillion in total trade passing through the area each year.

It is in no-one’s national interest for heightened tensions to continue.

The most important message Australia can send is to urge all parties, to abide by both the terms and the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It’s in our interests to support the international system.

I would encourage all nations to become parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, including the United States.

The claimants in the South China Sea ought to reconcile their disputes in accordance with the rules-based international order.

Now that there is a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an impartial institution within that system, all claimants should respect the outcome.

It would be disingenuous to ignore that tensions in the South China Sea are dividing our greatest strategic partner and our largest trading partner.

Of course the South China Sea is not the only point of tension in the US-China relationship.

But that does not mean that cooperation is impossible.

After all, in November 2014, China and United States combined their energy and imagination to make an historic joint pledge to cut pollution.

The world’s two biggest polluters and its two largest economies rewrote the dynamics of the Beijing APEC and the Brisbane G20 with that agreement.

Just as, at the recent Paris climate conference, it was largely American and Chinese pragmatism, combined with exceptional French diplomacy, that got the global deal over the line.

Co-operation between the United States and China is as essential to tackling climate change as it is to securing peace in our region.

And the fact that they can work so closely on one issue ought to give us all hope for the others.

For all the good we can do as a player in our region, or in partnership with the United States, our membership of the United Nations carries special responsibilities and unique opportunities.

The United Nations has its flaws—and Labor is not oblivious to them.

But beyond the imperfections inherent in what Kevin Rudd called a ‘necessary democracy among states’, we should never forget or minimise the contribution the United Nations has made to the modern world.

Not just in helping to prevent global war—in the aftermath of two all-consuming conflicts inside thirty years.

But in the setting of agreed human rights standards: as both aspirations and goals for individuals and benchmarks to hold the international community to account.

Global action can and does work.

Small pox, which killed hundreds of millions in the 20th century alone, is gone.

We are on the cusp of eliminating polio.

Remarkably, an AIDS free generation is within our grasp.

We should also acknowledge the Millennium Development Goals.

While not universally successful, under the MDGs the rate of children dying before their fifth birthday has more than halved and maternal mortality has almost halved.

Over 6 million people were saved from dying from malaria, and about 37 million people were saved from dying from tuberculosis.

And the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals built on these successes and set an even more ambitious agenda for development.

The international system, with the UN at its core, has driven these successes.

Because of the United Nations, disarmament agreements and peace negotiations, sometimes driven by Australia, have made the world safer. We recognise the work Bob Carr did on the Arms Trade Treaty, Gareth Evans on the Canberra Commission.

We hope that further reform of the Security Council, including of the veto power of Permanent Members, would increase the effectiveness of the Council in responding to future conflicts.

Because of the United Nations, small states have an international voice.

And middle powers like Australia can demonstrate global leadership.

Shamefully, the Liberal Opposition ridiculed the Labor Government’s bid for a place on the UN Security Council and threatened to abandon it.

Hopefully, it is now an accepted piece of bipartisan wisdom that Australia can show leadership at a global level.

And that our interests are well served when Australia has a seat at the top table.

Few on the Australian political spectrum would dispute the centrality of our relationship with the United States, the importance of our region and the value of the multilateral system in the framing of our foreign policy.

Governments and oppositions may differ over emphasis and approach, but there would be broad agreement on the component parts.

To my mind, the biggest difference between the conservative and progressive worldview centres on the question of being a good international citizen. 

For Labor, being a good international citizen is much more than window-dressing or noblesse oblige.

It is a duty at the heart of Ben Chifley’s timeless definition of the Labor mission:

‘working for the betterment of mankind not only here, but anywhere we may give a helping hand’.

This sentiment resulted in Australian waterside workers banning Dutch vessels and ships taking munitions to the Dutch East Indies in 1947 during the Indonesian struggle for independence.

And the Australian labour movement boycotts against apartheid-era South Africa.

It was present in Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans’ work on the Cambodian peace process.

Every Labor generation has faced, and fulfilled, though sometimes imperfectly, its international responsibilities.

Being a good international citizen is also, unquestionably, in our national interest.

We live in a world of ‘problems without passports’.

Climate change, pandemics and terrorism won’t be combated by digging trenches or by throwing up nationalist barricades.

Solutions depend on working proactively within the international system, as we have done through the G20 and OECD, on combating multinational tax avoidance, as just one example.

All countries experience problems with their tax base. But poorer countries find it harder to raise the revenue they need, to invest, to raise their people out of poverty.

Through the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting work we have supported we strengthen our own tax base, but also help poorer nations gather the revenue they need to invest to raise the living standards of their people.

Gareth Evans has argued consistently that there are other, less tangible national interest arguments behind good international citizenship.

For one, it builds a nation’s international reputation, which, over time, works to our economic and strategic advantage.

It helps in Security Council elections, for example.

It helps in dispute settlement to be seen as an honest broker.

There is also the reciprocal benefit—if we act to support the rules-based international order, others are more likely to do the same.

If we stand in solidarity with others during a crisis, they are more likely to help us out when we need them.

This makes the Government’s shambolic response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa all the more difficult to understand.

Despite calls from the Australian Medical Association and the leaders of Australia’s humanitarian agencies, and on numerous occasions the United States, Britain and the United Nations, Australia initially refused to send capable and willing Australian medical professionals into the fight.

When it finally acted, the Government chose an approach that cost eight times more to treat each patient than it cost MSF.

Australia is strongest and safest when we act morally, in support of the international laws and norms that have brought so much benefit to our country.

This is why we must protect and enhance the multilateral rules-based international order, a system that has worked distinctly towards Australia’s peace and prosperity.

Consider the issue of whaling.

In 2010 the Labor Government commenced legal action against Japan in the International Court of Justice, seeking to bring an end to their whaling program in the Southern Ocean.

Because both Australia and Japan are paid-up and engaged members of the international system, we were able to settle this dispute peacefully, without damaging our close bilateral relations.

And we were able to secure a win for our environmental and ethical values, in our national interest.

Of course we are disappointed that Japan has resumed whaling and will ignore the ruling of the International Court of Justice.

Australia regularly calls on other countries to abide by international norms and to settle disputes in line with the rules-based system.

If we want to insist that other nations play by the rules, we also need to adhere to them. 

We have a good record in doing so, but not a flawless one. 

Timor-Leste suffered decades of war and starvation before gaining independence. Australia played a key role in securing that independence – a proud moment for many Australians.

The maritime boundary dispute has poisoned relations with our newest neighbour.

This must change, for their sake, and for ours.

A Shorten Labor government will redouble efforts to enter good-faith negotiations with Timor-Leste to settle the maritime boundaries between our two countries.

If we are not successful in negotiating a settlement with our neighbour we are prepared to submit ourselves to international adjudication or arbitration.

It is in the national interest of both Australia and Timor-Leste that we do so, but just as importantly it is in the interest of the system itself that we are willing to freely participate in it.

On 27 June 1945, the day after the Charter of the United Nations was signed in San Francisco, the New York Times said of Australia’s Foreign Minister:

“When Dr Evatt came here he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate ... He leaves, recognized as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world’s conscience…”

It is true—we are only one voice among many in the international community.

But from time to time that voice is called upon to advocate for our smaller neighbours and to stand up for principles we value.

We should not doubt our capacity, we should not question our station.

We should not minimise our contribution nor downplay our influence.

With energy and activism, our history is still ours to write.


With confidence and purpose, our future is still ours to shape.


A prosperous and secure Australia, in a secure and prosperous world.