75th Anniversary of Fulbright 2024

  • Speech

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we meet on, the Wurundjeri people.

I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

And other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders with us tonight.

I would like to acknowledge…

President of Fulbright Australia, Varuni Kulasekera.

President of the Fulbright Alumni Association Victoria, Professor of International Relations, and Fulbright Alumni, Aiden Warren.

United States Consul General in Melbourne, Kathleen Lively.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation, Vice President 
Fulbright Alumni, Professor Calum Drummond AO.

Dr Shruti Nirantar, 2022 Fulbright Scholar

And the many scholars and members here tonight.

It is a pleasure to be here to recognise the 75 years of collaboration between the United States and Australia through the Australia-America Fulbright Program.

75 years of educational excellence and cultural exchange that has not only invested in the work of thousands of scholars, but also deeply enriched the relationship between Australia and the United States.

It is extraordinary to reflect that the treaty between Australia and the United States to establish the Fulbright program in Australia was signed on 26 November 1949.

The first official treaty between our countries, nearly two years before the signing of ANZUS.

What a landmark in the relationship between Australia and the United States.

On an anniversary like this, it is important to recognise that without two influential individuals, and their unique and consequential relationship, this 75 year history would not be possible.

The first was Roberta Fulbright, a successful businesswoman with a notable 'sense of civic responsibility and duty'.

At age 49 and following her husband's unexpected death, Roberta had fought for control of their shared enterprises in a male-dominated sector.

This gave her a platform to become a renowned and passionate advocate, newspaper columnist and community leader.

The second individual was Roberta's son, J. William Fulbright – known as Bill – who almost one hundred years ago graduated from the University of Arkansas.

He later left for Oxford University where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, and then became president of the University of Arkansas at just 35 years of age.

It was the 1920s, and the international community was pondering its role in the prevention of war through intergovernmental cooperation.

Later, Bill became Senator Fulbright in 1944 and during World War Two, despite previously demonstrating little interest in entering politics.

Roberta encouraged him to run for office, and threatened to run if he didn't.

A compelling case.

It led to 30 years of service as a United States senator, and it led to all of us being here today, 75 years later.

Now I am not a Fulbright scholar myself, but I have a had the opportunity to study in the United States.

In 2002, I spent six months at Duke University while I completed my law degree.

It speaks to the cultural connection of our societies that at the time, despite becoming a competition lawyer, I was more impressed that the fictional Sam Seaborn from The West Wing was an alumnus of the school than I was about former ACCC Chairman Alan Fels getting his PHD there.

If I'm being honest, I probably spent more time in the law library scheming about how to get tickets to watch the Duke Blue Devils Basketball team play at Cameron Indoor arena than I did actually studying case law.

But my time living in the United States as a young student, and the life-long relationships I formed, profoundly shaped the way I thought about the country for years to come.

Particularly during those tumultuous months after September 11, 2001.

And over the past 75 years, thanks to the Australia-America Fulbright program, there are 5000 Australian and American Fulbright alumni who have had a similar experience not just of the academic enrichment, but also of the cross-cultural understanding of studying abroad.

Thousands of people who are part of a future that the young Senator Fulbright saw when he initiated a Bill to use funds from the sale of surplus war materials to fund an international education exchange.

It is an initiative that would propel many others into a greater kind of service.

An initiative that represented a broader shift in how the United States and its international partners were to approach foreign policy into the future.

But in order to fully appreciate Senator Fulbright's foresight and impacts of the program today, we must appreciate the world 75 years ago.

In January 1945, as World War Two drew towards its devastating conclusion, Senator Fulbright said:

"The making of peace is a continuing process that must go on from day to day: year to year so long as our civilisation shall last…

It is a daily task, a positive, creative participation in all the little details and decisions which together, shape the final structure."

The making of peace, to those who lived during this time, had an immediate and practical urgency.

Today, as conflict has returned to both Europe and the Middle East, the work of peace has become immediate and urgent again.

In our own region, the terrible suffering from conflicts in Europe and the Middle East remind us of the importance of conflict prevention – the maintenance of peace.  

This will always require, as Senator Fulbright said himself, the:

"Patient and persistent participation in the daily affairs of this troubled world…"

Senator Fulbright's goal was:

"to create something new in the world; a system in which binding rules of conduct are accepted by all nations by agreement rather than by force."

An international order and international institutions where differences could be resolved peacefully.

An order through which state sovereignty would be respected and upheld for all countries, no matter the size.

An order from which we've all benefitted from 75 years later.

That is why it is so worrying that this order and the institutions that underpin our prosperity and stability are now under challenge.

In our region, we face complex and consequential challenges – dramatic demographic shifts, economic disruption and climate change.

We also confront growing geo-strategic competition.

Competition over the way the region, and the broader world, works.

Australia is not content to be a mere spectator to these changes.

We want to see an Indo-Pacific that is peaceful, prosperous and secure.

A region governed by agreed rules, norms and international law.

A region where sovereignty is respected and countries are free to choose their own course.

A region where no country dominates and no country is dominated.

Our view is that all nations must play a role in building a region that operates in this way.

We are committed to playing our part.

We'll use all the sources of our national power, all of the tools of our statecraft to shape this regional order.

Our alliance with the United States is a vital part of this work.

The strength of the alliance between Australia and the United States is in the many strands through which we are connected – defence, economic, multilateral, institutional, educational.

Our technology sharing agreement, AUKUS, will build on this.

Through AUKUS, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, are pursuing greater integration of our scientific, technological and industrial capabilities to promote reassurance and stability in our region.

It is driving an expansion in links between industry, education institutions and people for generations to come.

But amidst major national investments in defence capabilities, sovereign economic capabilities and development programmes it can sometimes be overlooked that one of the most important sources of national power is our people.

Fulbright himself knew this, highlighting in the speech I quoted from earlier that:

"Of paramount importance is the character and wisdom of those who represent us."

The following year, he would initiate the Bill to invest in the wisdom and capabilities of people, the same Bill that would establish the Fulbright Program.

Using the Academy as a tool of national power was a landmark idea.

When Fulbright initiated this Bill, it was still an elite exercise.

But today, academia and the Fulbright Program do a better job at drawing from and recognising excellence in all parts of our society.

I've often said, that in the Albanese government, our foreign policy begins with our national identity – it begins with who we are as a people.  

For Australia, it starts with recognising what that great indigenous leader, Noel Pearson calls the three stories that make us one as Australians:

"The ancient indigenous heritage which is its foundation…

The British institutions built upon it…

And the adorning gift of multicultural migration."

Our modern national identity is a powerful source of influence for Australia around the world.

For much of Australia's history, we hamstrung our national power by only telling one of these stories to the world.

To realise our full potential as a nation, and to apply the full power of our nation to the international challenges we face, we need to tell the full story of Australia.

We need to be honest about the mistakes of the past and to set a new course.

This I know is a journey that Fulbright Commissions around the world have been on too.  

As the UK Fulbright Commission has said, there are 'negative and painful aspects to Senator Fulbright's biography.'

Senator Fulbright was always clear about the need for personal introspection and improving human shortcomings in pursuit of a greater good…

But in 1964 he voted against the Civil Rights Act, and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act.

His positions on American civil rights throughout his political career have been, rightly, condemned.

As the UK Fulbright Commission puts it:

"(Senator Fulbright's) segregationist stance and his opposition to racial integration in public places, including in education, are clearly at odds with the ideals of the Fulbright Program and its legacy of hundreds of thousands of distinguished and diverse alumni, who are contributing to a more peaceful, equitable and just world."

It's difficult to reconcile Senator Fulbright's views on these issues with his ambition for a human-centred foreign policy.

But it's important that we confront them.

It's not just a moral imperative – it's a strategic imperative too.

For both Australia and the United States, our ability to recognise our mistakes and to set a new course is one of the great strengths of our open democratic system.

Denying our past mistakes denies our greatest strength as democratic nations, our ability to change and grow.

Our ability to do the work necessary become a greater nation tomorrow than we were yesterday.

To ensure that our actions live up to our ideals.

Telling the truth about our history cultivates trust and understanding with our regional and global partners.

Being able to admit that we are not perfect, that our national project is unfinished, will always build more credibility than the hypocrisy of denial.  

The Fulbright Program is a powerful instrument in this process of understanding and reflection.

Bundjalung Widubul-Wiabul woman, lawyer and researcher, Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts is the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People Commissioner for the Australian Capital Territory.

She's also a 2022 Fulbright scholar.

He research has focused on why Australia's child welfare system has disproportionately failed First Nations communities.

And demonstrating that improving how we relate to each other can result in better outcomes for First Nations children, young people and communities.

Ms Turnbull-Roberts was removed from her family at the age of ten, but is using her research and work to connect her personal history to our shared history as a nation.

To empower us to change course in the interests of a better future for young First Nations people, and for our nation.

Neither Australia nor the United States have unblemished histories.

Neither Australia nor the United States are perfect in the present moment.

But in the challenging international environment that we confront, our ability as democratic societies to openly reflect on our imperfections and learn from our mistakes is perhaps our greatest comparative advantage.

The Fulbright program doubles down on this source of national strength by allowing Australia and the United States to learn from each other.

Australia and the United States have seen enormous change in the 75 years since Australia's then External Affairs Minister Doc Evatt and Pete Jarman, the US Ambassador to Australia signed the treaty establishing the Fulbright program in Australia in 1949.

We've seen sweeping changes within our own societies and tectonic changes across our region.

But one thing that hasn't changed during this time is the relationship between our peoples.

We've continued to look towards each other and learn from each other.  

The Australia-US Fulbright program has played no small role in this, for the people in this room and for thousands of alumni across the country.

May it continue to do so for another 75 years.

Media enquiries

  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555