Address to Asialink Leaders’ Forum

  • Speech, check against delivery
26 October 2020

Penny Burtt: Good afternoon everybody and good afternoon to the Honourable Alex Hawke, our Minister for International Development for the Pacific and Assistant Minister for Defence. Thank you so much, Minister, for joining us in the middle of a very busy Parliamentary day for our 2020 virtual summit. A huge thank you.

And I just need to say to everyone that this is a democracy. It is incredibly important. And there’s just been a division in the house, so if the Minister needs to leave us at any point, we completely understand.

So with that introduction, the Minister took up his current portfolio in 2019. He was first elected to Parliament in 2007 and he’s held numerous ministerial portfolios to date including as Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, Assistant Minister for Immigration and Assistant Minister for Home Affairs. So he brings a wealth of both Parliamentary experience as well as remarkable breadth in his portfolio responsibility for our engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

So with that, Minister, thank you again so much for joining us today. And could we invite you to share some thoughts with us on the challenges and opportunities that Australia is facing in the Indo-Pacific as we transition through COVID-19, the pandemic and beyond.

Thank you so much, Minister.

Alex Hawke: Thanks, Penny. And I do want to thank you as the CEO and Asialink for the opportunity today to give some remarks in your leadership program. Look, I will go a little bit faster than I might have normally done. We are in Parliament, as Penny points out, you know, that was a quorum, the constitution says we’ve got to maintain a quorum in the Parliament which is very important. But if a division gets called, I’ll have to run and come back.

Look, it’s great to see such an impressive group. I know there’s young leaders here emerging across the region including in the public and the private sectors. And obviously, these are good opportunities for us to engage on these critical topics certainly as Penny points out in the portfolios I have, there are a lot of relevant and difficult matters that involve a wide region affecting Australia and our place in the world, including through the Pacific portfolio that I have. But also the development side in the Indo-Pacific which of course is our intent to prioritise that region at the moment in this time in history.

Look, it is a time of great change, I think, as we all know, and certainly, this year has precipitated some big changes and accelerated some big trends. And obviously, our regional engagement, our regional understanding is going to be more important than ever as we are more intimately connected with the countries in our region and the leaders in our region, and whether that be in politics or business or just our people and cultural links, you can almost feel our neighbourhood becoming even more important in a more travel restricted world.

It's hard to think of a time more than 2020 when we're going to need effective and inspired leadership. And we've seen good examples of that around the world. And people in different sectors, different sectors rise to prominence, including the health sector. And we've all understood the importance and the primacy of health in our lives. But perhaps now that sector is also going through a renaissance of investment and energy and human energy and capital that we've probably never seen before, including on the question of developing a vaccine, which is the vital question of humanity more than any other question, perhaps in human history, supported by more people, more countries, more energy, more capital, more science, more research, more thought. We're seeing something quite unique in that a more human endeavour is concentrated on one question. And you've got to have good hope and good belief in that endeavour, in that human endeavour concentrated on the one task. And certainly, there are leading candidates for this vaccine already. And, you know, we're very hopeful about that.

The health pandemic has been very sad and very difficult for the world. And, we've seen this 100 years ago, but we're dealing with the consequences and the reality of it; still primarily focused on the health and social impacts of COVID and the development of a one in 100-year pandemic.

But of course, we've got the economic consequences and the change to our societal consequences, which we’re as leaders all alive to. And I think we're all thinking as fast as we can with each other to work on what this means for the already rapidly shifting geostrategic trends that we have seen accelerate in this technological era already.

When you think about some of the things, many of this we will not know until afterwards. But, we have weakening multilateral cooperation in the world today. The pessimistic view would say that that trend is going to be continued or accelerated.

However, you could argue quite strongly that, in fact, multilateral cooperation might indeed, have a rebound out of a period like this. And certainly tonight, for example, I have the international development contact ministers’ meeting, which is something that came out of the pandemic and, is a great initiative from my counterparts in the UK and Canada and international development ministers from many countries around the world who are now collaborating, working together on development questions and COVID questions in a way that we might not have done as a group or a collective at any time before.

And certainly, it's a productive group. And, the opportunities out of it we are examining. We've examined development needs in different parts of the world, we've examined different questions on how to deal with a pandemic. And we’re now examining gender and other issues tonight. So there is arguments for progress in multilateral cooperation out of what is a very difficult situation.

Obviously, leadership in all of this will make the difference, you know, and whether we're able to shape our way out of this or whether we're able to sort of, you know, counter the trends that we all know were there prior to the development.

And I think, Australia, I would argue very substantially, has once again demonstrated some leadership. And that even in the contact group I mentioned, the first meeting we had, I was able to point to our establishment of a humanitarian corridor through the Pacific Islands Forum, which was actually world leading at the time. And our counterparts internationally learnt a substantial amount from what Australia was doing within our region with our counterparts here in terms of addressing COVID, initially.

So we certainly can always be proud of the role that Australia plays and certainly the unique kind of leadership we do take for our own region. And certainly, in contacting many of those groups in this period, the United States, others have deferred to our leadership and our ability to respond in our interest.

I look at the fact that in the pandemic, for example, we were asked to early make a call about retaining our personnel and our support for people within, you know, countries that had closed their borders and were remote and very cut off. And Australia, of course, made the difficult decision to keep people in place. Many had to pull out of many countries, many partners, many parts of the international community, many NGOs. And look we understand all that; people had to make decisions based on the best information and we’re not critical of it. But Australia made the difficult decision to keep our people in place and support them. And I think, again, that demonstrates some of the leadership that Australia has always shown through our agencies and the type of people that we are in a crisis. Not only did we have our own challenges and our own crises, but we did retain our leadership in terms of helping others. And certainly, it's been a hallmark of Australian policy over many, many years in the Indo-Pacific.

We think our health measures have been highly effective, obviously here and for our own economic recovery. We are focused on the economic recovery in our region as well as here and this has created, I think, a pretty what I would describe as a very positive tension. Usually, you'll find tension, for example, on issues like, foreign workers and domestic workers or the unemployment rate and people coming in. But the shortfalls in our sectors have meant that we are able to prioritise getting more Pacific workers here, for example, to support our industries, which is of great benefit, even more so in a pandemic to the GDP of small island states and in areas of the world. Which have it very difficult and certainly more difficult with closed borders. And it's actually starting to work in Australia with getting people in even during the pandemic with state and territory and federal cooperation. And we're able to continue that great economic success story, even in a very difficult climate. And at the same time, we're able to have that being a positive, I think in a broader audience, in a broader context, within Australia, people are happy that we're doing everything possible to recover here, that we've got good domestic settings to support our domestic jobs and economy, but also, that we are playing a role within the region to assist at the same time. And I know many of you will understand that these things go through different evolutions of acceptance in different parts of countries and different common thinking about these issues. But here, I would argue we've been able to do both. And that, again, to me demonstrates great leadership for Australia to be able to say we are doing everything we can for Australians, we're also helping out in our neighbourhood and people are responding overwhelmingly positively to both. And I think that's very significant.

We're used to a kind of an economic norm internationally. And this is a very challenging situation when you throw up whole new sets of questions for each individual society, but also us as a family of nations in the region. And again, we've stepped in to think ahead through our “Partnerships for Recovery”. We have flexibility in our current budgets, but also to add more to the budget, in our recent budget, we've added a new COVID fund for the region, a $300 million fund to take account for that. We've said additionally that we will do all the vaccinations for the Pacific and ensure that the quality of vaccine is the same vaccine that Australians will get and pay for that and partner with other likemindeds who will do the same for other countries. And we would be able to lead the way internationally on saying the vaccine should be made available and affordable to everybody at an affordable price and put up the leadership to say it will happen.

And it's also been an opportunity for our — whether it's DFAT, whether it's defence, whether it's other parts of the government who work in the whole of government approach we have in my portfolio and the office of the Pacific — to think about what will happen, for example, to questions like regional aviation in the Pacific; forward thinking plans to think about how we could support the return to a sustainable system of travel and return to an economic norm, if you want to put it that way, recognising it's going to be challenging for some time.

So, we're very happy and grateful to the people that have played a great role in all the agencies and all the parts of the government and our NGO partners, the people that have been leading in our region, because we can hold our head high internationally. At the same time, we've contributed to vaccine development and significant amounts to vaccine development. We've increased our amounts to multilateral cooperation, whether it be the WHO or other partners in vaccination as well, like GAVI. So, Australia again has stepped up on the international stage, as well as the domestic stage to really, really provide that example of high-quality multilateral cooperation being very effective, which is again, an antidote to the thesis that multilateral cooperation is on the decline or is not of as much value as it might have been in the past. So, it's the kind of place we are. It's a kind of role Australians want us to play. And I would argue it's gained wide acceptance within Australia, even in a difficult climate.

It’s definitely a feature. I know, for example, if I could say anecdotally within our policy considerations, we certainly have a kind of protective overlay of what will happen to Australia from people transiting here. But the fact we're able to work on a trans-Tasman bubble and a Pacific bubble, and the prime consideration, again, I point to Australia's concerns, is not so much would people bring COVID here, but what would happen if we were to take over to Pacific countries or other countries and start an outbreak? Again, it's emblematic of the approach that Australians and our officials and agencies take. We have obviously care and concern for Australia and its people, but we also have a primacy on how we impact and affect others. And it's certainly a good thing — a good part of how our officials work and how they think.

We certainly have a lot of strategic challenges. And I think you will know in the region and many people ask a lot of questions about this. I wouldn't mind just briefly addressing, obviously security and prosperity relies on the stability, and stability relies on a return to an international rules-based order, the supremacy of an international rules-based order, which also needs a stable economic and global climate. And certainly, we all understand the challenges to the rules-based order in the international climate at the moment from a pandemic, but also from accelerating trends. I would say the sovereignty and the stability of countries in our region, as the Prime Minister said at the beginning of the pandemic, has faced probably its biggest challenge that we've seen in our lifetimes and we’ll continue to face that for a little bit of time. Again, policy making, the work that we can all do as leaders in the region is to support that stability and sovereignty and ensure that we avoid as many of the impacts of these challenges as possible rather than deal with their consequences. And so far, I would argue our policy and the leadership that all of us are collectively displaying across the region is assisting in that process. And we are avoiding many consequences that we will probably thank ourselves for later. We won't be able to avoid all the consequences of change and the reshaping of this order, but the more that we can help countries avoid, I think the better. Otherwise, the predictions of the dire situations of increases in poverty, of the challenges that countries will go through, we really do need to stay focussed on these questions. Dealing with the aftermath will be much more difficult than attempting to soften as much as possible the path into those situations. So those hard-won gains in human development progress have got to be carefully nurtured, and I think we all have an interest in that, a communal interest in our region.

So, look, you will also agree, I think, that the vulnerability of countries has increased. And that's where again, Australian leadership, in my view, has been very important in saying we will provide you with a vaccine because we want to make sure it is the right vaccine, it is fully and properly tested. It isn't a cheap alternative or it isn't something that is risky in any way. It's the same vaccine that we will give our own population and it will be of the standard that you would expect. And again, we are stepping into the void to prevent any actors of any description attempting to take advantage of vulnerabilities in countries at this time and offer a vaccine that is substandard, or to offer an apparent vaccine that will not, of course, assist.

So, when you think about the Indo-Pacific, and I'll just say a few words about that, the pressures on the international rules and the norms and the institutions and the increase in territorial disputes, I think, again, stability and sovereignty has been the focus of our policy. And I think that will have huge dividends. We've seen economic coercion employed increasingly as a tool of statecraft. And Australia, again, has pointed out that we don't want to see countries take unsustainable debt for unsustainable projects. And we've been there to step up with our own- we've got our own infrastructure facility, financing facility and other policy measures like that to provide a counterbalance of approach. And people are saying, well, isn't your infrastructure facility like other offices of infrastructure? Well, our concessional financing facility, for example, in its first two projects, I would point to is an example of Australian leadership. Again, in this space where we have the regions in the southern hemisphere, largest solar renewable power plant in the Markham Valley in PNG, and that's a very important development. And the second project was, of course, support for the Tina River hydropower plant in Solomons. So, it's in line with our partner countries’ priorities. It takes account of their priorities, as in power generation and climate change and renewable energy. It also provides that concessional finance as a proper tool which will produce a return — a viable project that will produce a return for both countries and a dividend for all stratas of society, including ordinary people, and the ability to have access to cheaper and more reliable power. And we're doing so in a way that is very sustainable for the budgets of partner countries.

So, again, it's not enough to criticise, I think, those actors, and we see plenty of actors in the world of try and put countries into debt without sustainable models or without a focus on the quality of the project or the return. It's not enough to criticise. It's also imperative that we of course, show and demonstrate leadership by offering, of course, a high-quality and better alternative. And certainly, we will partner with any actor in the world today that wants to offer a high-quality partnership in this space.

I think we've also seen the increasing in state-based cyber-attacks and political interference and disinformation. It’s something we've wrestled with in our own society. So, it's something we can relate to every country in the region and the world today, where we have met our own challenges and had to address those legislatively and in concurrence with the challenges we’ve faced. And so, we're able to help any partner countries with those challenges as well, probably from our own experience, but doing the best that we can when you think about that increasing in difficult activity of state-based cyber-attacks or other intrusions into societies. So once again, partnering with countries that want to help, help people genuinely protect their intellectual property, their cyber space, and help with the stability and sovereignty of peace.

So, in the time I’ve got left, I just want to say a little bit further about the Indo-Pacific and the differences. I mean, people have focussed a lot on Australian development policy, which covers a broad range of countries of different developing status, including from the Pacific Islands through South-East Asia. Different economies, different geography, different culture, different politics, and Australian development policy has to take into account all of those differences. Certainly, through our budget we’ve done that. We’ve had focus on the Pacific region, we have a record spend in the region. We also have our new facility. But in South-East Asia as well, we’ve been able to take account of the different stage of development and different stage of progress and take into account the needs of partner countries as well. The complexity there, of course, provides us with the opportunity to address different challenges of partner countries and partner governments, and certainly, we’ve been keen to understand those, and certainly address them as a different related sort of task to what we do in the Pacific region.

You have seen a focus on regional partnership from this government, and certainly we continue through our country and regional plans to focus on those regional partnerships where we’re able to do more for multiple partner countries at once, you know, and technological advancement does offer us the opportunity to do more for regional partnerships. It certainly allows us to help enhance regional security through investment technology, and regional resilience. So, you’ll certainly see an increased focus not just on bilateral country partnerships but regional partnerships. And at the same, we’ve been able to elevate those multilateral partnerships as well which for Australia, I think, have always been an important investment. I think you’ll see that as well.

The strong close partnerships that we have, and Australia does have a good reputation internationally, it does allow us to access more partners for the region. And, you know, in the international space you’ve had our Prime Minister advocating at very senior forums for the different challenges of the region. We’ve had our Foreign Minister doing the same. We’re participating in more multilateral forums and events at higher levels, and certainly through COVID, more new partnerships.

It does have a dividend in that we have more countries more interested in our region than ever before, not just for geostrategic reasons, but also for the advocacy that we've put forward about the importance of the region for stability and sovereignty and prosperity of the world. And we've been able to make a case and help deliver more interest and more participation from countries looking to partner, even from different parts of the world. More participation from Europe, certainly more participation from America, certainly more from Asia. And those trends I think will continue. And Australian advocacy has certainly done that. And even with traditional countries like India, where we've had a good relationship with Australia and the dialogues have been very strong between us, we're seeing more involvement from India in regional activity and regional forums, either at the defence level or the development level or the cooperation level. And that's welcome as well.

In March, I think you saw the prime ministers of Australia and Singapore signed treaties that enhance regional security, for example, with more Singapore personnel in Australia. And you've seen us elevate, for example, India, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. And we've done that with, you know, the first time with Papua New Guinea as well. These sorts of agreements, which, while bilateral, also have regional undertones. And each of those agreements have had specific or relevant items about regional cooperation under them, which is, I think, you know, another sign of what I'm talking about, that even in our progress in bilateral relationships and partnerships with key countries, India and PNG being notable examples, each of those had significant clauses which demonstrate regional leadership from both countries, and that's been welcomed.

Obviously, our alliance with the US continues to be a prime factor as well. And notwithstanding the distraction of an election, which every society — as a politician I can record expertly, every society which has an election, every state, you know, whether it's New Zealand, whether it's Queensland, whether it's the US, you know, there's obviously a period where elections dominate the thinking and the policy agenda. We’ll still be able to keep a pretty effective focus on most of those partners. We're in the fortunate position of not having an election nationally here during this period. And, you know, we have not missed that, to be able to keep as much attention from countries which do have the distractions of democracy, which are necessary to a well-functioning democracy.

I think the closeness of Australian leadership and contacts — and I think we've seen what I've talked about in action, the diplomatic- the closeness of the diplomatic contacts. And obviously, I don’t need to tell you about that, you’re obviously from a diplomatic background, and the people that have diplomatic backgrounds in the audience, you know,  the closeness of those relationships has meant that even on that individual level, we've been able to stay connected with partner countries in a way that maybe other partners have not been able to at this time, and our decision to stay involved has really led the way on that.

So, it's a big shout out really to the importance of leadership at every level, whether it's, you know, your government at policy level, at your agency level, but also right down to the high primacy that Australia has always put on deep and meaningful and substantial relationships over long periods, you know, with our diplomatic and other presences, whether it's NGO partners or others, to have a meaningful and high-quality relationship. So, I think we can, you know, obviously look at that as a success of Australian leadership.

So, I know today we have some limited times and I'm tempting the clock with these divisions that will be forthcoming. There's a lot I could say about new mechanisms as well. But I would just say diplomatically, again, whether it's ASEAN or the Quad, again, there is a kind of a flourishing of multilateral engagement at many levels, which has many reasons behind it, that is, I think, one effect we are seeing out of what has happened, and that is of great benefit to us and the region. Australia's certainly got a strong view about regional and multilateral cooperation for the benefit of these issues that I'm talking about.

You've seen our defence plan continue as well on the other side of my portfolio. Our 2020 strategic update has been welcomed. It's a huge investment in our defence and our technological advancement. The capability, the money for capabilities alone is enormous. But the entire defence investment is not just about the hardware. It's also about the commitment to regional security and of course, making sure we have the capacity to guarantee that the region in our direct region remains secure as well. So, we're able to do all of these things together and make sure they interrelate as well.

So, without too much more, I would just say we do retain a healthy focus on- and I hope that internet connection’s going okay but I’m getting a message saying it’s not. But the region’s priorities as well, we obviously deal very heavily with the Pacific Islands Forum and ASEAN and others. And there's a strong focus on other issues which drives government policy like on climate change. It hasn't disappeared during COVID, but luckily I think before COVID much of our policy was aligned to meet those expectations of partner countries, and certainly to drive the outcomes. I've mentioned our investments in infrastructure have been in renewable energy so far, and I think we'll have a climate lens applied to them. But we've also been able to keep spending on those priorities with partner countries on climate change as we move through a difficult area. And again, that's listening to our partners as we reshape development policy or, you know, repurpose money, which we've done on the defence side and the foreign affairs side, is again the most important part of our role in the region, is listening to those partner countries’ priorities.

Finally, I just add that, you know, we have our commitment to the engagement, the depth of engagement throughout our Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker programs. It is absolutely very important we spend a lot of time in this portfolio working on it. And I know at the moment every single partner country in the region has agreed to re-join, and I think that's going to become, on the horizon, something that is very important to the sustainability of so many of our partner countries. And we welcome that engagement.

So, whatever your role in leadership, I know we've got people in different backgrounds here from business, media, public sector, obviously private sector and NGOs and others — that model that Australia has built of leadership, strong engagement, deep relationships, you know, duty of care. It is something I find taken seriously in a culture that's permeated through all levels. And it's really come to the fore in this period because we're trusted, we're respected, and it enables us to get more jobs done. And so, you know, I do put us forward as a country, as a sort of a, you know, collective outfit as a pretty good example in the world today of a country doing its absolute best, you know, in a very difficult period to help all of our partners as we go, as well as protect our own interests. But, look, I wish you success for this program; I know you’re hearing from a lot of impressive speakers, I could talk a lot more today, but I probably won’t so I can get to some of your questions. And obviously, we’ve been very fortunate not to have a division, so thank you.

Penny Burtt: Thank you very much. That was a fabulous set of insight from you, standing at the coalface of navigating our relationship with the region, cross over each dimension, policy, development and defence. And I love your message to this group of leaders, that Australia is a trusted and respected country leading in the region and taking our responsibilities incredibly seriously. It’s interesting that the COVID crisis has really, you know, at the same time of throwing all sorts of new challenges to us, has actually as you’ve said very strongly, provided opportunities for new partnerships and new types of collaboration and for us to show up differently. So, thank you very much, Minister.

Alex Hawke: Thanks, Penny.

Penny Burtt: I’m conscious of your time. Do you have time for one or two quick questions?

Alex Hawke: Yes, I do at the moment.

Penny Burtt: Great and then following the questions, we have one of our leaders who would like to offer a formal word of thanks.

Alex Hawke: Thank you. Thanks, Penny.

Penny Burtt: Okay. So, just moving to the questions and I think, actually, you answered many of those that were very top of mind for me going forward. If I could just helicopter out to sort of bigger, geo-strategic canvas for a minute and say — it would be interesting, we know that you are personally and professionally of course, incredibly passionate about the Pacific. How does the Australian government view the Pacific, in terms of our sort of geo-strategic security interests? And then, how do we sort of weigh our relationships with South-East Asian and ASEAN, against the Pacific going forward?

Alex Hawke: Yes. Look, I think they are two very important questions, they are a little bit different in construct. The second one I would just say, you know, we see the importance of the South-East Asian region and the Pacific as equal to Australia. We don’t say one is more important than the other; sometimes there’s a narrative about we’re doing more here or more there and it has sort of ebbed and flowed. But, from the Government’s perspective, both are equally important from a development perspective, both are equally important. As I’ve sort of highlighted though, a little bit different in terms of development issues and where societies are at. We have to handle them differently. But the partnerships are equally important and we have ASEAN coming up in November and I think you’ll see our Prime Minister will be at ASEAN. And there’ll be great, you know, discussions and commitment to ASEAN and what the leaders are doing there. I think you will see that forthcoming in November.

So again, it’s something I think sometimes is a little bit excessively talked about, rather than understood. And, you know, we don't see we're doing something in the Pacific that's at the expense of South-East Asia or South-East Asia is coming at the expense of the Pacific. To the government, it's equal and very important — these are our prime relationships for Australia. So, back to your original point. I think, you know, geo-strategically, the Pacific, we see them as our family. That's what our Prime Minister says and I think that is the correct approach from an Australian government through the Pacific step-up. And it's become a mantra, I think, that is, you know, understood, repeated and part of the culture and not just a form of words that we have verbalised. So, that's very important. When you have familial obligations to people, they're genuine, and that is what I would characterise all of our relationships as, genuine, and that is what the Australian psyche is best at. You know, genuine human relationships, just the kind of earthy, high quality people that the average Australian is. So, we see geo-strategically, I think we all understand the competition that has come to our region. I was in the parliament when Barack Obama came into the Australian Parliament and announced US policy was refocusing on the Asian region, I was sitting right there listening to him. And it was an important change. Every administration obviously since has followed that change. You know, we all understand the rise of China and where it is at. We understand the competition between two great powers in our region. But for us, the actors are more diverse than simply, you know, the US-China equation, although that occupies most of the world's attention, we have our best and long-term relationship since the war with Japan. You know, our previous opponent in World War 2, and that is renewed in a compact all the time in Pacific Partnerships and cooperation. We certainly have more interest, as I was saying from President Macron and the Prime Minister, have an excellent relationship. And if the pandemic had not have occurred, President Macron was coming to the Pacific, announced a public visit, and a great renewed interest from partners like France in the region in doing great work for Pacific countries. And certainly, as I pointed out, more Indian involvement, more involvement from more partner countries and that is how we view the region, that our job is to do the best advocacy we can for the entire Pacific family to get the best results from a global community that wants to do its best for different regions. And, you know, participating in the international development meetings, there is competitive pressures. The African Union has needs and needs access to these development dollars as much as the Pacific. And so, our job is to keep the tension alive and make sure our region gets the best outcome it can from development partners worldwide and that is what we're doing in the region. And I'd argue it's having success.

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