Sir James Plimsoll Lecture

Speech

Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

7 December 2017

Mr Rob Atkinson, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, and other members of the University faculty,

Ms Melissa Conley Tyler, National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs,

Ms Harriet Baillie and Mr Charles Brewer, Co-Directors of the Tasmania State Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present with us today.

It’s a pleasure to be invited here to Hobart to deliver the 2017 Sir James Plimsoll Lecture.

When former foreign minister, and current High Commissioner in London, Alexander Downer, gave the inaugural Plimsoll lecture a decade ago, he set a high bar for this event.

Speaking in 2007 he said he hoped this lecture series would “become recognised as a major event in the public discussion of Australian diplomacy.”

I think the success of this event speaks of an ambition achieved.

Look at the quality of the lectures that have been given since then, and the speakers who have come here to Hobart to offer their views about the world in honour of one of Australia’s finest diplomats.

A president, in Jose Ramos-Horta, a prime minister, in Kevin Rudd.

My predecessor, Peter Varghese, one of Australia’s finest strategic thinkers, and one of only two people other than Sir James Plimsoll – the third, for trivia buffs, was Sir Arthur Tange – to have served during their career as Australian High Commissioner in India and DFAT Secretary.

Michael Kirby – without question one of the finest legal minds this country has ever produced, a long-time Justice of the High Court of Australia and, since retiring from the Court, the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea.

And last year, Jeff Bleich, a distinguished former Ambassador of the United States to Australia.

So I begin by congratulating the University of Tasmania, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and my colleagues at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for all the hard work over a long time to make this such an important part of the Australian foreign policy calendar.

Sir James Plimsoll

James Plimsoll had a long diplomatic career, stretching from his entry into the Department of External Affairs after the Second World War across almost the entirety of the Cold War, through to the Reagan years.

His diplomatic skills – his mastery of craft – set him apart as a man of rare gifts.

If you read Jeremy Hearder’s excellent biography of Sir James – a book that explores every cranny of its subject’s life and career without pulling any punches or gilding any lilies – the picture that emerges is of a diplomat entirely immersed in a life-long vocation.

Sir James thrived on a personal exploration of every culture in which he served.

He developed deep, long-lasting, highly respectful relationships across every stratum of the society in which he was representing Australia.

He was an intellectual with a deep appreciation for culture, art and literature.

He was a diplomat who knew that to understand the culture in which he was working, to represent Australia’s national interest most effectively, he could not confine himself to a handful of key contacts.

Alongside exemplary professionalism, he understood the strategic complexities of the world and the way they affected Australia’s interests.

It is this combination of clear-eyed analysis and determined action in response that our foreign policy will continue to require in the decade ahead.

Plimsoll was not without fault, or weakness, at least.

As Jeremy’s book shows, management was not his strength.

While his professionalism was beyond reproach, Sir James Plimsoll preferred life in the field, a light, lean, driven team around him, to the strictures of life in Canberra.

His greatest achievements were not during his term as Secretary, but in serving Australia abroad – and, in later life, in serving Tasmania as Governor.

His service for the United Nations Commission for the Reunification of Korea – from 1948 to 1952 – was exemplary, years in which he exercised an influence for Australia well beyond the norm.

His term as Australia’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York – 1959-1963 – was the highlight of his career, a masterclass in multilateral engagement during the deeply challenging period of decolonisation.

And his period representing Australia in the United States – 1970-1974, the politically charged Nixon years – was a high point in Australia’s influence with respect to our major ally.

The changing strategic landscape

When I think about the world in which Sir James Plimsoll operated, I am conscious most of all of the extent to which it has changed.

In Plimsoll’s day, the world was divided sharply between two intense strategic rivals.

Not only that, it was a world of haves and have-nots. Much of our region was impoverished and China, in particular, was largely closed to the world. 

An intense strategic, cultural and ideological fault line between the United States and the Soviet Union, and an equally sharp economic fault line between North and South.

Decades on, we have diverse centres of economic, political, military and cultural power in the world.

Billions of people, now, all across the world, enjoy greater and greater levels of prosperity because of economic development, built on security, and rules and institutions that support open trade and investment.

As the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper makes clear, this process of globalisation has created today’s world – one of unprecedented interconnections and interdependence.

A world in which wealth and power have shifted profoundly, most notably in the economic development of first Japan, then other Asian countries and most recently, and perhaps most consequentially, in China and India.

This has meant now for decades, and will continue to mean, that Australia is part of the world’s most dynamic region with all of its attendant opportunities.

Though we also know – and must grapple with – the way in which the impact of globalisation, and technological advances, have dislocated economies (or parts of economies) and societies in the developed world.

The pace and scale of these changes in the past two decades are having a profound political impact, particularly in Europe and the United States – as some countries turn towards a narrower, more protectionist, approach to international engagement. 

The risks of a world turning its back on openness and effective global cooperation are clearly outlined in the White Paper.

In response, the paper argues strongly that Australia must ensure our foreign and domestic policies continue to work together to ensure globalisation works for Australia.

To keep our economy growing, to stay linked to global markets for goods, services and capital and to guard our social cohesion.

This is at the heart of Australia’s approach to the world – to position ourselves for opportunity while working determinedly to mitigate the risks and volatility of our interconnected and fast-changing world.

We will need similar determination to secure our interests in an Indo-Pacific region changing in ways without precedent in our modern history.

Since Plimsoll’s time, the United States has been the dominant power in our region.

Today, China is challenging that position.

India and others are also growing in weight and influence.

Australia will have to be active with our partners to advance and protect our interests at this time of strategic transition.

The White Paper is emphatic on this point: our interests lie both in stability and in the character of the enduring peace we seek.

If you had to define the sort of region we want to live in, it’s one that is peaceful and stable, but also open, transparent and respectful.

What we want to avoid is states resorting to coercion.

As many of you will know, Sir James Plimsoll served in the United Nations at the time of the conflict in Korea – he would be alarmed, I am sure, to see the grave and growing threat today posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Australia will act resolutely in response to counter this threat, including by greater efforts to exert economic pressure.

We also face a range of evolving security threats, such as terrorism, cyber attacks and transnational crime, compounding the challenge posed by the strategic shifts in our region.

The Government is acutely conscious of the need to build Australia’s resilience in the face of new threats.

The White Paper examines several other trends that are changing our international environment, from shifts in demography to climate change and the challenges posed by fragile states.

It is not, I should say, a gloomy or pessimistic document.

The Paper is equally clear about the opportunities we have, driven by technological advances and our connections to dynamic economies. 

It provides a framework for the future, bringing together policy designed to take advantage of our opportunities with strategies to respond to risk.

It makes the point that powerful drivers of change are converging in a way that is re-shaping the international order and challenging Australian interests.

Or, as the Prime Minister states in his introduction to the White Paper:

These are the most exciting times, the times of greatest opportunity, but they are also times of uncertainty, of risk, indeed of danger.

Foreign Policy White Paper: opportunity, security and strength

The Government’s starting point is that we can face an uncertain future with ambition and confidence.

Australia has the strength to shape its own future.

Our outlook is global.

Our democracy is strong.

Our society is open, diverse and resilient.

Our economy has grown for 26 years.  

We live in the most economically dynamic region of the world.

We have strong partnerships in our region and beyond.

These are advantages in a period of uncertainty and change.

These are strong foundations for international success.

In particular, a strong, flexible and competitive economy will remain the foundation of our international influence, and help deliver prosperity and protect Australia from volatility and global shocks.

Australia’s first Foreign Policy White Paper in fourteen years affirms that we must look outward, and fully engage with the world, to secure our future prosperity.

It sets out an ambitious agenda to build national strength and resilience, maximise our influence in the region and globally, and guide our responses to often unpredictable events.

During our extensive consultation with Australians from all walks of life, between December 2016 and March 2017, including here in Tasmania, we found widespread support for a foreign policy grounded in the values of the Australian people.

Australia is open, democratic, respectful of the rights of others, committed to negotiated, fair and transparent outcomes.

I can assure you that we build our foreign policy on these values – the values of our community.

At a time of strategic rivalry and contestation over the rules and principles that guide relations between states, we will promote our values, in our region and globally.

As the Prime Minister said when launching the Foreign Policy White Paper,
“being true to ourselves is a hard-headed investment in a fairer, more stable and prosperous world”.

Achieving our objectives

At this critical time, the Government has set five clear priorities in the White Paper.

  • working to keep our Indo-Pacific region peaceful and prosperous at a time of change
  • maximising opportunities for Australian businesses by keeping markets open and trade and investment flowing
  • ensuring Australians remain safe, secure and free in the face of threats like terrorism
  • promoting a world with rules that support stability and prosperity and that also enable cooperation to tackle the many challenges that states cannot deal with alone
  • and, stepping up support for a more resilient Pacific, which is of fundamental importance to Australia. 

To start with that first objective, no long-term foreign policy goal is more important to Australia than working to keep our region peaceful and prosperous at a time of change.

In its pursuit, Australia will actively support a balance in the region favourable to our interests. 

We will strengthen our alliance with the United States and support the deep engagement of the United States in the economic and security affairs of the region.

This is an objective shared by many of our other partners.

The Government indeed judges that US interests will continue to anchor its engagement in the region.

Talk of US retrenchment and withdrawal is, to put it mildly, premature and misreads the depth, strength and vitality of US economic engagement and its security alliances.

Australia’s policy is based not on sentiment here but reflects a clear choice about how best to pursue our security interests.

Our partnership with the United States encompasses engagement across the full suite of Australia’s international interests and works strongly to the benefit of both countries.

Equally, the White Paper is founded on a clear-eyed understanding that China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific will grow, and that its power is focussed regionally rather than spread globally like that of the United States.

Australia is therefore also committed to boosting our relationships with other Indo-Pacific partners, including the major democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and Korea in order to achieve a balance in the region favourable to our interests.

These are major bilateral partners in their own right and countries that will influence the shape of the regional order in the 21st century.

Southeast Asia will remain vital to our interests.

Boosting our relations with the countries of ASEAN is a major focus for the Government, as seen through the recent agreement to establish a new strategic partnership with Vietnam.

The Government is also clear about its ambitions in our engagement with China.

The White Paper underlines several important points about China:

  • it is clearly a major geopolitical player with the capacity to influence virtually all of our interests
  • It is by far our largest trading partner, and a major investor and a burgeoning centre for science, innovation and research
  • our cooperation spans many interests, often well beyond the economic sphere, including in areas such as law enforcement
  • our societies are increasingly connected, including through flows of migrants, students and visitors
  • so the Government recognises China’s importance to Australia and pursues active and positive engagement
  • we know however that closer engagement will sometimes lead to friction, because of the many differences between us
  • but we do not let those differences define our relationship
  •  as we seek to advance our interests in a contested region, a critical issue for Australia is the manner in which China uses its growing power.

We will promote models of economic integration in the Indo-Pacific that reduce the risks of strategic rivalry, including through what the White Paper calls a generational endeavour – a region-wide free trade area that includes all major economies.

Our aid program will help support stability and prosperity, including by helping our partners undertake economic reform.

Our defence, police and counter-terrorism engagement with our neighbours will help tackle regional security challenges.

This is an active agenda, and its implementation will require significant effort across government.

The White Paper makes the case that economic openness – at home and abroad – supports Australia’s prosperity, and helps make our country stronger and more influential.

The Government is emphatic about the importance to Australia of keeping markets open and trade and investment flowing. This is the second main objective for our foreign policy.

The Government’s domestic economic reforms and ambitious trade agenda will help deliver opportunities for businesses and more and higher paying jobs for Australians.

In Tasmania, you know well that access to major overseas markets, such as China, Japan and Korea, brings great opportunity.

In 2016, almost 40 per cent of Tasmania’s goods exports went to these three North Asian markets.

Tasmania’s exports have increased dramatically on the back of Free Trade Agreements with these countries – and President Xi’s visit here in 2014, which I know Premier Hodgman strongly supported – with minerals, beef, dairy, horticulture, abalone and wine leading the charge.

Richmond’s Nocton Vineyards, for instance, has benefitted from a large drop in the tariff China applies to wine from Australia.

General Manager Antony Woollams said he has reinvested the gains back into the Chinese market, and that ChAFTA has given him the opportunity to talk up Tasmania.

We know that open trade and investment policies give Australians more choices, better services and lower prices.

Similarly, being open to foreign investment improves the efficiency of our economy, including through the transfer of new ideas and technology.

Yesterday, Minister Ciobo explained the advantages of foreign direct investment in Australia, in his Statement to Parliament, “Foreign Investment in Australia 2017: From Strength to Strength”, which I recommend to you all.

As a capital importing country, we will continue to rely heavily on foreign investment.

Without it, as the White Paper makes clear, production, employment and incomes in Australia would all be lower.

We must be active in what the Prime Minister calls the global competition for customers, capital and talent.

As a small economy, Tasmania stands to benefit from the access to global markets that foreign direct investment can offer.

Ros Harvey, founder and managing director of Tasmanian agricultural startup, ‘The Yield’, believes that a significant investment in 2016 from one of Europe’s largest conglomerates, the Bosch Group, is a step in that direction.

The investment has already enabled The Yield to create 15 new highly skilled jobs.

Because of its importance to our interests, Australia will support an open global economy and stand strongly against protectionism.

We will open markets for Australian businesses through new free trade agreements based on transparent rules.

We will work with business to advance our commercial interests, including by dealing with non-tariff measures that hinder our exports.

We will make sure Australia’s unique brand is better recognised globally.  

Many business groups strongly advocated this in public consultations for the White Paper.

Minister Ciobo is pushing for a stronger national brand to help our companies prosper in competitive global markets.

The Commonwealth Government’s partnership with the states and territories will remain essential to advancing these important international economic interests.

This partnership is also important to the Australian Government’s national security agenda, which is the third policy priority in the White Paper.  

The Government is committed to doing everything possible to keep Australians safe, and protect our freedoms and our way of life from security threats like terrorism and cyber attacks.

Technology – that great enabler of progress and prosperity – can also amplify threats to our security.

Building resilience to these threats is a strong theme of the White Paper and the Government’s approach to national security more broadly.

Our international cyber engagement strategy is one example of the craft of diplomacy being put to use in new fields.

The Government is making sure our decision-making and institutions remain free from foreign interference by introducing draft legislation targeting foreign interference and espionage.

Globally, we have entered a period in which we can no longer take for granted the economic and security benefits of a rules-based order.

Australia will act to support an international system that helps ensure all states can pursue their interests securely. This global agenda is our fourth foreign policy priority and one that underscores the Foreign Minister’s strong sense that we might be a regional power but we do have global interests.  

Australia will be more prosperous and secure in a global order based on agreed rules rather than one based solely on the exercise of power. 

We will work with others to uphold international law, help make new rules, support reform of international institutions and work with partners on issues like sustainable development, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and climate change.

In Tasmania, where you act as the premier gateway for science and operations in east Antarctica, you know well that the Antarctic Treaty not only protects the environment and facilitates scientific cooperation but also reduces the potential for strategic competition to Australia’s south.

It is an excellent example of the way in which international rules and institutions, and the global cooperation they enable, advance Australia’s interests.

The White Paper recognises that rules are often imperfect in the face of power.

We protect our security through our own defence capabilities and our alliance with the United States.

This point is crucial, however. The rules become more important to Australia as the distribution of power changes globally.

We need to pursue an agenda that strengthens these rules even as we support US leadership of the international system in tangible ways, including through our contributions to coalition operations in support of global and regional security.

The Government is clear that strong US engagement globally is critical to our interests.

It is important not only to our security, but to the effectiveness and the liberal character of the international order.

That means thinking clearly, and for the long-term, about how to engage and influence the United States.

Closer to home, we are delivering a step-change in our engagement with Pacific island countries.

Their security and stability is a fundamental Australian interest.

Our links in this region are enduring – what is new, is our agenda to engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition building on further, substantial investments in the region’s development.

We will promote greater economic cooperation and integration with Australia’s economy, including through a new Pacific labour scheme.

This means more growth and jobs for our partners and help for Australian businesses in industries with labour shortages.

We will do more with our Pacific partners to tackle security challenges, with a focus on maritime issues.

Putting our foreign policy into action

Ladies and gentlemen, Prime Minister Turnbull has said that Australia must be “sovereign, not reliant” – and I think that captures our approach to international engagement, our preparedness to roll up our sleeves, well.

Our record to date is strong, and there will be considerable continuity as we adapt current lines of work to the new international challenges.

One of the most powerful tools in our diplomatic toolkit is to attract influential people to Australia, to experience first-hand our national temperament – our insistence on fairness, our knack for order and organisation, our tolerance, creativity and work ethic.

Equally, we benefit when Australians make connections and friendships in countries across our region, through programs like the New Colombo Plan – one of Minister Bishop’s signature initiatives.

Under the Plan, 120 Australian scholars and over 13,000 mobility program students will gain experience in the Indo-Pacific in 2018.

This includes two scholars, and 116 mobility students, from the University of Tasmania.

The idea that we pursue a pragmatic and principled foreign policy would not be new to Sir James Plimsoll.

Our operating context is different now, but some of the aims of our diplomacy are timeless.

How to maximise our international influence.

How to get the most out of our bilateral partnerships and to think about how these relations work towards wider objectives, such as our current agenda in the Indo-Pacific.

Keeping the peace, helping our neighbours to develop and respond to crises, and being active contributors to regional and global institutions.

Many of the tasks of our foreign policy have long roots.

The Government believes that our interests are enduring but that the urgency and importance of our foreign policy has never been greater.

All eras have their challenges.

But much that we have relied on in the past is today in question or under strain.

Current trends are converging in ways that will challenge our interests.

We could choose to narrow our vision or to lower our ambition.

We know our foreign policy will be hard work in the years ahead.

The Government is aware of the risks but is determined to act.

The new White Paper sets a clear course, I think, for renewed ambition in our international engagement.

We have in particular a clear agenda articulated for the Indo-Pacific.

Security and prosperity do not just happen by themselves, as the Prime Minister reminds us.

Sir James understood this – he dedicated his life to serving his country and advancing its interests.

We are going to need the same skill, dedication and courage in the decade to come.

Thank you very much.

Last Updated: 8 December 2017