Alfred Deakin Institute Oration

  • Speech, check against delivery
Federation Square, Melbourne


Good evening.

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.

I pay my respects to Elders past and present.

And I acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here today.

Thank you to Vice Chancellor Professor Iain Martin and ADI Director Professor Mansouri for your warm welcome and for hosting me here tonight.

I’m honoured to deliver the 2023 Alfred Deakin Institute Oration.

I’m here to talk about Australia’s engagement with the region through our international development program.

It’s a great discussion to have given the Institute’s focus on equitable sustainable change and tackling global challenges.

But first, it’s worth reflecting on this coming weekend.

We are all being asked to vote to recognise First Nations Australians in our constitution.

And given Alfred Deakin’s role in Federation and our country’s modern history, I would like to spend some time on this.

Deakin was born in 1856, in Fitzroy – not far from here.

His parents were among the thousands of British people who migrated to the other side of the world in the 1850s.

Deakin came of age in an Australia that wasn’t yet the country we know today, but a collection of colonies.

After studying law, Deakin found work as a journalist for The Age, writing mostly about politics.

And at the age of 23, he was elected to Victoria’s Parliament, to represent West Bourke.

He was a driving force behind Federation.

In 1901, he became Australia’s first Attorney-General and then our second Prime Minister.

He was an exceptional orator, deeply interested in the human condition.

He believed passionately in a federated, democratic Australia.

But there are significant parts of Deakin’s history which are at odds with how we see Australia and the world now.

In Deakin’s time and in his thinking, Australia’s place in the world was based on exclusion, and on the idea of a ‘British race’.

Excluding so-called “undesirable” migrants through the Immigration Restriction Act, and deporting Pacific Island workers through the Pacific Island Labourers Act, were efforts, he believed, that would maintain a unified and strong Australia.

Never mind that many of the indentured Pacific Island workers, at that time, had been kidnapped or tricked into coming to Australia.

In 1901, Deakin said that in a century’s time, it was likely that, quote:

“Australia will be a white continent with not a black or even dark skin among its inhabitants.”

And, I quote:

“The yellow, the brown, and the copper-coloured are to be forbidden to land anywhere.”

I wonder what Deakin would think of 21st century Australia, if he could walk through the streets of Melbourne.

Of a multicultural Australia, where half the population are born overseas, or have a parent born overseas.

Of an Australia which embraces its place in the Indo-Pacific region; that sees itself as part of the Pacific family.

Of an Australia which celebrates the fact that it is home to the world’s oldest continuing culture.

And an Australia that is just four days out from a referendum which seeks to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.

As Victorian Chief Secretary, Deakin sponsored the Aboriginal Protection Amendment Act.

It empowered the state to remove so-called ‘half-castes’ from their communities – which would make them “useful members of society,” as Deakin told Parliament.

That Act broke up families and communities.

It tore children away from their families.

It destroyed links to culture and country.

A few years later, Deakin would be in the thick of debates to determine what a federated Australia would look like.

At the heart of this was what the Constitution would include.

But, as historian Russell McGregor says, Aboriginal people “barely registered in their planning for the new nation.” 

Why bring all of this up?

It’s not to pass smug judgement from the 21st century.

It’s so we can reflect on the past, and how it has shaped the present.

We haven’t always gotten it right.

And sometimes we’ve gotten it very wrong.

But we can learn, and do better.

In that light, the Uluru Statement from the Heart seems a humble request.

This is our national opportunity to show, indeed, that we can learn and that we can do better.

I know a lot of people at Deakin University have been grappling with Deakin’s history and legacy.

Working through what it means for us in the present.

Professor Mark Rose was Deakin University’s first Aboriginal student in 1978.

Today, he is the University’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Innovation.

Under Mark’s guidance, and with the full support and leadership of Professor Iain Martin, the University community has been working through this process.

This has included close engagement with the descendants of Alfred Deakin.

Mark said the process has been frank and respectful.

I understand that the University community isn’t interested in changing the university’s name.

But what you are pursuing is truth-telling—to acknowledge the past.

To learn and to do better.

This means listening to your First Nations students, faculty and community and responding.

It means embedding respect and understanding into Deakin’s faculties.

Making sure First Nations students can get a great education.

And I know that for Mark and the Deakin community, this journey is not yet over.

There remains much work to do.

I see strong parallels between that process, what we seek to do here in Australia through the referendum, and what we seek to do overseas through our international development program.

It all comes down to listening with respect and humility to people and communities, to understand their priorities and their aspirations.

And then working out how we can draw on all the tools available to us to get better outcomes.

In the region, we know that Australia’s international development program is something our partners greatly value.

The Australian Government’s development program now provides nearly $5 billion a year in assistance to lower income countries.

We support their economic development and combat poverty and disadvantage amongst their populations.

It’s had positive impacts for people and communities.

But we also know it hasn’t always hit the mark.

One of this government’s major priorities on taking office was to produce a new international development policy – we released it in August this year.

To shape that policy, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spoke to more than 300 people across Australia and the region.

They read more than 200 written submissions.

And they were informed by an advisory group of experts from a range of sectors, and across the political spectrum.

Our development policy sets the direction, intent and ambition of our development program for the long term.

Embedded in it are the principles of:

  • Respectful listening.
  • Acting on partner priorities, and
  • Working in genuine partnership with governments and communities across our region.

Australia and countries across the Indo-Pacific have a shared vision for the region we want to live in.

A peaceful, safe and prosperous region, where sovereignty is respected and our agreed rules and norms are upheld.

Where no country, large or small, dominates.

Where we live sustainably, in harmony with our climate and environment.

Where we shape our own destinies.

What we do today, and how we meet our shared challenges, will have a real and lasting impact on Australia and all of us in this region.

Because we are a part of this region.

That is geographical fact.

And beyond simple geography, Australia is now home to people who have roots in almost every country around the world.

And we are enormously strengthened by that diversity.

Our region and our world is complex and interconnected which brings so much opportunity and benefit.

But our challenges are equally complex and interconnected:

Climate change.

Economic development.

Human rights.

Intensifying strategic competition.

And so today, the Government is investing in all the elements of Australia’s national power to contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, because peace and stability are fundamental building blocks for economic, social and human development and welfare.

Of course, defence remains an essential component of our security.

That is why Australia entered into the AUKUS agreement, and why we are investing, transparently, in our defence capability.

But that’s just one part of the equation.

In fact, the Defence Strategic Review, commissioned by the Government earlier this year, recommended resourcing and positioning the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to lead a whole-of-government statecraft effort in the region. 

As part of this, we are putting our development policy at the heart of statecraft – because the Albanese Government recognises that our future is tied to the success of the region.

With 22 of our nearest neighbours being developing countries, we must understand their development aspirations and challenges if we are to understand the region.

For a Department like DFAT, it means that our diplomatic, economic and trade teams all need to become deeply familiar with development dynamics.

It means we need to understand development if we are to be better negotiators and collaborators.

And it means our whole system needs to better understand development if we are to be an effective partner.

This approach can’t just apply to DFAT alone.

We are beginning work now to better understand, measure and assess how all parts of the Australian Government are working with the region.

My colleagues in the Albanese Government understand just how important this is.

Our international development policy has been supported by Cabinet.

And I am the first Minister for International Development and the Pacific to be appointed to the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

All of this ensures that development policy is at the heart of our approach to statecraft.

It is not the poor cousin of orthodox diplomacy, or trade policy or defence policy.

It is an essential element of advancing Australia’s interests, shaping how our nation is perceived internationally and, most importantly, lifting people out of extreme poverty and contributing to peace and stability. 

By helping lift people out of poverty, Australia’s international development policy advances our strategic interests in shaping a region that is stable and secure.

It also advances our economic interests in a region that can share the benefits of growth and prosperity.

But development policy does more than advance our interests.

It also affirms the values that are inherent in Australia foreign policy.

Values like support for democracy and equality; human rights and social inclusion; and the international rules-based order.

This is why I see development policy as lying at the heart of Australian statecraft.

It furthers our self-interested, core foreign policy priorities at the same time as it gives expression to our altruistic, idealistic goals of shaping a better world.

Given our high aspirations for Australian development policy, this Government understands that in a region like ours we can’t just continue to do things as we always have.

The way we are going to do this is laid out in the new international development policy.

An effective international development policy is a powerful tool for change.

As we reshape how we deliver on our development policy, we are focused on doing this in five key ways:

  • it is based on the priorities of our partners
  • it is about relationships, not transactions
  • we are transparent
  • we use every opportunity to drive local employment, procurement and skills development, and
  • we make a high-quality offering.

And this approach, in itself, is a critical differentiation when it comes to thinking about our international development program as a tool of statecraft.

These principles give our neighbours choices.

They underpin the idea of true partnership.

Every investment with our neighbours builds prosperity and stability.

It builds a stronger and more cohesive region, and deters against conflict and instability.

Ultimately, it’s an investment in the future of our region, and ourselves, over the next five or fifty years.

Our development policy is driven by those underlying principles of listening to countries and communities respectfully, and then working with our partners to deliver that.

Every dollar in our development budget will reflect what our partners in the region have said matters most to them.

At the very top of the list is the climate.

Climate change is an existential threat to the countries of the Pacific, and we are seeing its impacts in real time.

They’re only going to get worse.

More frequent and more intense disasters will destroy people’s homes, communities and livelihoods, and damage infrastructure, connectivity, and agricultural land.

Clean water will be harder to get.

Food will be harder to grow.

Rising sea levels will displace entire communities who have lived for generations in the same place.

Those impacts aren’t restricted to one country.

Here at home, the Albanese Government has put in place ambitious carbon emission reduction targets toward net zero by 2050.

We’re working to become a renewable energy superpower.

And climate change – in particular, adaptation and resilience-building – is a central focus of our development policy.

We have set climate change funding targets for the first time ever.

From next financial year, at least half of all major new development investments will have a climate change objective.

We will grow that to 80 per cent within five years.

We’ve also committed to major new climate initiatives in the region – like our climate resilient infrastructure partnerships with the Pacific and Indonesia.

We will be re-joining the Green Climate Fund, recognising its value as the most prominent global climate finance fund.

But we will also be putting our shoulders to the wheel to ensure the GCF – and other multilateral funds – actually deliver for the Pacific.

And just a fortnight ago, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced at the UN Climate Ambition Summit that we will strengthen our previous commitment of $2 billion in climate finance from 2020-25.

We are on track to deliver $3 billion towards the global climate finance goal, through our previously announced ODA commitments.

Importantly, our climate investments – and all of Australia’s development work – should be locally-led.

That goes back to our commitment to listening, engaging, and working directly with our partners on their priorities.

And it goes to our commitment to supporting civil society and local leadership, including through a new Civil Society Partnerships Fund.

We unapologetically believe that human rights are fundamental for sustainable economic, environmental and social development.

Another key priority of our development policy is equality – equality for women and girls and equality for people with disabilities.

These issues cut across all our development work.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said:

“Gender equality is not a ‘nice' objective, to be deferred or deprioritised against ‘serious' matters of health or economic prosperity.

It is a prerequisite for those other objectives to be achieved.”

As transparent partners, we are open and upfront with our neighbours that these issues—climate change, gender equality and disability equity—are our priorities in this space, just as they are here at home.

Gender equality and reduced inequalities, including for persons with disabilities, are two of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs.

Every UN Member State agreed to these commitments to a better world.

We’ve made progress on the SDGs.

But we know that in the last few years, some of that progress has stalled and even gone backwards, especially for women and girls.

They are disproportionately affected by conflict and crisis, as are people with disabilities.

So, we need to protect what we’ve achieved, because the SDGs are core to what Australia is doing – both in the region, and globally.

But that work shouldn’t just happen in government offices in Canberra – as vital as that is.

It needs to happen across this country and this region.

Through diaspora communities.

Through civil society and philanthropic organisations.

Through schools and universities like Deakin.

Through media and the arts.

Through sporting clubs and banks and unions and faith groups.

And to return to my opening comments tonight, we want to embed the perspectives of First Nations people throughout all our development efforts.

Drawing on their leadership and agency, developing and establishing real partnerships.

Because think of what we could do if we harness all the talent, empathy and drive of Australians across this country, and coordinate and share more effectively.

Our new international development policy squarely calls for a whole-of-nation effort in this space for the first time.

All of you here tonight have chosen to come to listen to this speech, presumably, because you are interested in how Australia sees its place in the world.

So you too are a critical part of what the Government means when we say that international development is at the heart of our statecraft.

You are part of that projection of Australian values, expertise and know-how into the region that will help us rise to the challenges we all face.

Supporting sustainable development across the region is a collective effort, and it is something that will benefit us all.

In the time I spend speaking to you this evening, more than 5,000 babies will be born around the world.

No doubt a few of them right here in Melbourne.

And hundreds more across Australia, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia.

What kind of world are we building for them?

What kind of future are they inheriting?

In my very first speech in Parliament a decade ago, I said I believed that empathy – putting oneself in the shoes of another – was a crucial quality.

What would my life be like if I had been born in a nation without a quality public education system, or without access to quality health care through Medicare?

Recognising that the accident of birth gave me a great advantage over other people, in our society and in other countries, has driven my passion for politics.

Those children born today will be seven in 2030, the date by which the world agreed to fully implement the SDGs.

Will they be free from hunger?

By 2050, they will be 27.

Will they have decent work?

It’s my sincere belief that Australia’s development program will help build a more peaceful, safe and prosperous region…

…where children born today will grow up knowing that they will be able to go to school, regardless of their gender or if they have a disability.

They will have food and clean water.

They will be free from fear and violence.

And they will be able to chase their aspirations.

Australia’s development program is about securing our country’s and our region’s future.

Because if our region is secure, we are secure.

If our region is prosperous, we prosper.

But our development program is also about who we are as a nation, as a people.

Alfred Deakin wanted this country to be a democracy of great people, doing great things.

I believe we are that country.

(Although maybe not in quite the way that Deakin envisaged.)

I believe that Australians should be proud of our development program, and proud of our country.

I certainly am.

Our development program helps lift people out of poverty.

It improves countries’ governance, and helps fight climate change.

It saves lives.

Our development program reflects our nation’s character, and our values of fairness and equality.

It reflects a country that is confident in the world.

That is a good neighbour and partner.

That knows we can always learn and do better.

And that is working to build an open, safe and prosperous region for everybody.

To conclude, I return to Alfred Deakin.

While I have no doubt that we would have a lot to say to each other if we were to ever meet, I offer a short extract from his journal which I find interesting.

In his musings on politics, in May 1905, Deakin wrote that he saw a future where great crises would drive the people of the world to come together.

I quote:

“Despite wars, nationalities, languages, we are part of a world State…we need individual men and women who think out our condition and future as citizens of the world. In that capacity we rise above realms and races to the standard of common humanity.”

In that, I think he was right.

But where Deakin’s musings were driven by thoughts of crisis and curiosity about how this might happen, I see purpose and opportunity.

Our international development program – built on respectful listening, true partnership and acting on partner priorities – is one of the best tools we have to work with the region around us. 

Meeting our common challenges, delivering our common aspirations and demonstrating our common humanity.

Thank you.

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