Asialink Business Lunch Address

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.

And I reaffirm the Australian Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

A commitment we took a big step towards fulfilling this week, as we passed legislation enabling a referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.


I’m told the traditional gift for a ten-year anniversary is aluminium, which symbolises resilience.

And while I couldn’t find anything made of aluminium in the Parliament House gift shop to mark the occasion, I did want to pay tribute to the resilience of Asialink Business.

Given pandemic-related border closures, economic shocks and significant geostrategic shifts affecting our region, it has been a challenging few years for building our Asia capabilities and connections.

Yet – with most of our top trade partners, tourism and student sources in the Asian region - there’s never been a more important time to do just that.

I was impressed to see that even in the middle of a global pandemic – and among other achievements - Asialink Business was able to launch not one but two fellowships for First Nations Australians; establish the ‘Connecting with Asia’ program for tourism operators; and launch a Virtual Hub connecting leaders in the Asia region.

Impressive outcomes that demonstrate the organisation’s ability to adapt - even to closed borders.

So, on this ten-year anniversary, I commend Asialink business for its resilience and tenacity.

But to truly appreciate the achievements of this vital organisation, it’s necessary to go back to the very beginning.

To shape the trajectory of a nation, what matters is not so much initiatives – but institutions.

Which is why Labor governments have always made it a priority to invest in institutions that will position Australia well for the future.

Seeking to do just that, in 1988 then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke commissioned eminent economist Ross Garnaut to produce a report on Australia’s engagement with Northeast Asia.

The resulting report would be a turning point in the way Australia perceived its place in the world.

In the report, published in 1989, Mr Garnaut said that:

“For the first seven decades of the Federation a fearful, defensive Australia built walls to protect itself against the challenge of the outside world, and found that it had protected itself against the recognition and utilisation of opportunity.”

In introducing the report to parliament, Prime Minister Hawke made clear that under his leadership, this would change.

“Today, the long-term direction in which we have to travel is clear to all: we have to internationalise.”

So alongside economic reforms, the Hawke Government also invested in Asia capability.

It established the Asian Studies Council in 1986 and the Languages Institute of Australia in 1989.

It funded a growth in student places, research funding, teacher exchanges and scholarships focused on Asian languages and cultures.

And, in 1989, as a joint initiative of the government’s Commission for the Future and the Myer Foundation, Asialink was established.

Early Chairman Carillo Gantner AO said Asialink’s goal at the time was “to help Australians understand our own region; understand that we were part of the region and that the engagement in both directions was very important”.

And – given the economic imperative of a fast-developing region - nowhere was that mission more important that the business world.

Asialink began corporate programs in 1991, and corporate training in 1997.

When its signature Asialink Leaders Program was launched in 1996, eight of the ten participants were from the business community.

Asialink’s efforts were increasingly appreciated by business leaders for its ability to educate corporate Australia on the opportunities and realities of the region.

The focus broadened from the original northern Asia focus, as economic opportunities expanded in Southeast and South Asia.

ASEAN was at the centre of our Southeast Asian engagement, and the first Asialink Commission on Australia-ASEAN engagement was held in 2011.

That same year, the Gillard government commissioned a landmark white paper – ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, launched in October 2012.

Speaking at its launch event, Prime Minister Gillard explained:

“Back in the 80s we had to liberalise a closed economy to compete with the old Asia. Today, we have to educate an open society to compete in a new Asia.”

Education was at the forefront of the Gillard Government’s Asia engagement strategy.

There was a clear recognition that, while Asia was integral to Australia’s economic prosperity, our businesses and industry needed deeper knowledge, connections and capabilities so that they could engage successfully with our region.

It was not surprising that the following June, following the recommendation of the Asialink Taskforce for an Asia Capable Workforce, the Gillard Government funded the establishment of Asialink Business.

Asialink Business has made itself indispensable in the years since.

It remains the only dedicated hub of practical Asia business expertise in Australia. It trains over 4,000 business, university and public service leaders annually.

While it’s impossible to quantify in dollar terms, it is clear that the work of this organisation has contributed greatly to Australia’s prosperity through the work you do helping businesses engage with Asia.

And now, at a time when we must maximise every tool in our diplomatic toolkit, Asialink is helping Australians exert the kind of influence that shapes our region in the way we’d like to see it develop – stable, prosperous, peaceful.

Today we’re celebrating ten years of fostering Asia capability in Australia.

Ten years of equipping Australian businesses and our workforce with the skills and knowledge we need to engage successfully with people, businesses, and governments across Asia.

Ten years of building relationships between Australia and our neighbours.

Over those ten years, Asialink Business has delivered over 1,500 training programs and events.

More than 100,000 people have participated in these training programs and events, or have downloaded Asialink Business products.

The Asialink Leaders Program has over 1,000 alumni, alumni who are deploying their new experience and skills in business, academia, the non-government sector and of course in government.

That’s why the Albanese Labor Government was pleased to commit $14.9 million in funding for Asialink Business as the National Centre for Asia Capability in our recent federal budget.

One of the reasons I know the power of Asialink’s programs is because I am an alumnus myself.

I participated in the Asialink Leaders program on a no regrets basis.

I thought that regardless of any future roles I might have in the parliament, Asia capability would be useful.

Well, as you can see - I have found myself in the foreign affairs portfolio.

In the course of my work in the last year, I’ve visited India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia, Singapore, and other important Asian partners.

The investments I have made in my own Asia capability, with the assistance of Asialink Business, have certainly been put to good use!

The Albanese Labor Government is working hard to lead by example when it comes to engagement with Asia.

Since taking office our Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been hard at work engaging with the region – as I’m sure you’ve seen.

To quote Foreign Minister Wong, we are in a race for influence.

And in this race for influence in our region we must use all elements of our national power.

Diplomatic. Economic. Defence. The arts. Personal and community links. And yes – Asia capability.

In a diverse region of more than 675 million people, we have to be intentional about how we engage.

We know our diplomatic effort must be accompanied by increased economic engagement.

The Government’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, due for release this year and casting a vision out to 2040, is central to that.

Because we want to shape a region that advances our interests. An open and inclusive region, based on agreed rules, where countries of all sizes can shape their own destiny.

We want to create opportunity together - to build the trust that comes with knowing that their success is our success.

Asialink Business has, for ten years now, recognised the advantages of creating connections of trust; of enhancing our links with our own region.

You have supported the development of Asia capability, and encouraged all Australians to learn about and engage with, Asia.

When introducing that 1989 Garnaut report – Australia’s engagement with northeast Asia - Hawke noted that success was not inevitable.

It would require, he said, “leadership; vision and guts.”

These are qualities Asialink Business has in spades.

So I’m confident that the next ten years – and the ten after that, and the ten after that – will be years that take both the organisation, and Australia’s Asia capability, from strength to strength.

You have achieved so much, and I know you are only just getting started.

I look forward to seeing the contributions Asialink Business will make in the coming years.

Congratulations on this milestone tenth anniversary.

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