Asialink lunch address, National Portrait Gallery

  • Speech, E&OE
Australia's identity and what it means in foreign policy


I start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.

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

Finally, like all members of the new Albanese government, I reaffirm my commitment to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – Voice, Treaty and Truth

Thank you also to Asialink Business CEO Leigh Howard for your generous introduction, and to Martine Letts, Robert Law, Peter Varghese, Pippa Dickson and the broader Asialink team for the impressive program you've put together.


I'm pleased to be here with you today to at this important national cultural institution to talk with you about Australia's identity and why it matters for our foreign policy.

As Minister Wong has underlined: 'Our foreign policy is an expression of our values, our interests and our identity. It starts with who we are.'

As our national capital, Canberra is freighted with symbols of our identity, particularly in the Parliamentary Triangle where your summit is taking place.

I understand that you had the chance to tour Parliament House as part of the Leader's Summit yesterday.

As an MP, I've run my fair share of tours in that building – particularly for schoolchildren from my electorate in Melbourne's West.

They come here for the same reasons that you have – to learn about our country and our institutions.

These tours are my favourite part of the job.

It's a chance to talk to the next generation about the big issues, about the way our democracy works, about what it means to be an elected representative, about who has power in our society, and about what it means to be Australian.

I walk these excited kids, full of the energy and intensity of a week away from home, past a wall filled with portraits of our current MPs and Senators.

I ask them to study those 200 odd head shots carefully and tell them that I'm going to test them about what they see.

Afterward I ask them what they noticed.

Now around two thirds of my constituents in Melbourne's West are born overseas, or who have a parent born overseas –the rate is even higher among younger generations.

So inevitably, they quickly talk about the lack of diversity they see on those walls.

The way they don't see faces like their own there.

The way they don't see the faces of their friends, their families, their communities, reflected in those portraits.

I use this as an opportunity to talk about the way that the people in our parliament, and the perspectives they represent, shape the effectiveness of our system of government.

Then I tell them that their generation, need to come and take the jobs the people in those portraits and make sure that our democratic institutions look more like the modern Australia they are seeking to represent.

Since the last election though, I've been starting to think that I might I need a new gimmick for my next tour.

Because as you've probably noticed, our 47th parliament is more diverse than it's ever been.

We have new parliamentarians with roots in Afghanistan, Laos, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the majority of the new members of the government come from either multicultural or indigenous backgrounds.

A record number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives now sit in parliament.

The Senate remains majority women, and the House of Representatives is slowly catching up – with a record 38 per cent of the lower house being women.

A majority of the Labor caucus is now women.

It's changed the vibe of the place already.

It makes me proud to be Australian.

And it makes me proud to represent Australia internationally.

We've still got work to do, but this progress matters.

It matters because our House of Representatives should, as Sally Sitou, the new Chinese-Laotian Australian member for Reid, said in her maiden speech, actually be representative of Australia.

And it matters that our institutions are becoming more representative of modern Australia because as the Foreign Minister has emphasised, our foreign policy is an extension of who we are.

Our sense of national identity and the identity that our national institutions and symbols project to the world matter to our foreign policy.

When I think of who we are, I think of Indigenous leader Noel Pearson's framing of our nation as three stories which together make us one as Australians:

  • The tens of thousands of years of continuous indigenous heritage;
  • The Westminster institutions that followed;
  • And most recently, the “adorning gift of multicultural migration”.

Yesterday, I touched briefly on this notion – of how the multiculturalism of modern Australia gives us a unique way of engaging with the world, creating touch points and commonalities with nearly every nation in the world.  

Today, I'd like to talk about each of these three narratives of our identity, and how together, they constitute a uniquely Australian story.

A story that helps us understand ourselves and our place in the world, and a story that we can tell the world.

First Nations heritage

In 1935, not far from where my electoral office in Footscray sits today, lived a man named William Cooper.

Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man.

A self-taught activist.

A community and political leader.

The founder of what we now know as NAIDOC week.

In the 1930s – at that point in his 70s – Cooper wrote a petition for King George.

Its central request was:

"Grant us power to propose a member of parliament in the person of our own blood, or white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race to represent us in the Federal Parliament."


More than 1,800 Indigenous people signed the petition, but King George never received it.

Prime Minister Joe Lyons never passed it on.

It took eighty years until the royal family finally received it.

In 2014, Cooper's grandson, Uncle Boydie Turner, presented a copy of the petition to the Governor-General at the time, Sir Peter Cosgrove.

And a few months later, the Governor-General finally passed the petition to the Queen.

It was a hugely symbolic moment. A nation building moment.

We can clearly hear the echo of William Cooper's struggle to be heard and his demand for a voice in First Nation's activism today.

The Uluru Statement of the Heart makes three consensus requests from Australia: voice, truth-telling, and makarrata – coming together after a struggle.

What a modest request in the face of everything they have endured.

First Nations people have had their lands dispossessed, their families massacred and their children taken away from them.

White Australians engaged in a process of dispossession, systemic murder, and racist paternalism.

My great-great-great-grandfather was one of these Australians.

Although he was a liberal of his day, my father and I have learned that John Watts, a member of the first Queensland Parliament, was also a champion of the Queensland native police.

The Queensland native police has been called “the most violent organisation in Australian history,” and was stood up to protect white settlers and their property.

In practice, this meant the slaughter of Indigenous people.

My ancestor endorsed its work in a Parliamentary inquiry into the Native Police in the most abhorrent terms.

Indeed, he told the Queensland Parliament that the Native Police were necessary because quote “the natives must be taught to feel the mastery of the whites” through the power of the “carbine”.

But he didn't document his support of the Queensland native police in his memoirs that he wrote for his descendants.

Perhaps he was ashamed, and thought that by omitting his support from his writing, his role in the violent suppression of Indigenous Australians would be forgotten in history.

Today, I keep a picture of him in my Parliamentary office to be able to tell that story. To tell the truth about my own family's history in this nation.

His story is only one in a long legacy of injustice that continues today.

A legacy of injustice that the Uluru Statement from the heart seeks to address.

In the face of all this, the Uluru Statement of the Heart is a humble – and a humbling – ask.

Prime Minister Albanese has described it as:

“A hand outstretched, a moving show of faith in Australian decency and Australian fairness from people who have been given every reason to forsake their hope in both.”

A Voice to Parliament.


Coming together after a struggle.

What a gracious gift to our nation.

What an opportunity for nation building.

British institutions

The second part of the story of Australia is the one that's been most frequently told by those in power over the past 100 years.

British settlement has given us strong institutions and a longstanding tradition of liberal democracy.

I take my role as a Parliamentarian seriously within these institutions.

There is so much in this legacy to be proud of, to treasure and to protect.

But parts of this legacy are no longer relevant to modern Australia.

We are no longer a British colony stranded in Asia – we're our own nation, with our own destiny.

So while we should embrace and invest in the institutions of our representative democracy, we shouldn't cling to traditions and symbols of the past that no longer represent us.

For example – you might know that all Australians can request ‘nationhood material' from their local members of parliament.

What does that mean?

Well, approved nationhood material includes the Australian National Flag, the Australian Aboriginal Flag, and the Torres Strait Islander Flag.

If you still have a CD player, you might feel compelled to request a CD recording of the Australian national anthem.


But if you had the wall space and felt so inclined, you can also request a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen.

You can ask for the formal portrait or a more casual snap.

There are no royal corgis in the photo though, unfortunately.

I'm a proud Australian and I take our national identity seriously, but I feel very comfortable saying that mailing out portraits of the Queen is easily the dumbest part of my job.

I don't think its reflective of our modern Australian identity.

So, a few years ago, I took to adding a few bonus items in my mailout to any constituent who requested a royal portrait.

  • An alternative portrait – one of both our first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard and former Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy, a different kind of royalty in Melbourne's West.
  • I also throw in some Australian Republic Movement paraphernalia.

It's easy to laugh, or to dismiss all this as a bit of inconsequential inanity.

But our national symbols matter.

They shape the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world, and they shape the way the world thinks about us.

You haven't cringed until you've been at an event where a foreign dignitary follows the official protocol and offers a toast to the Queen of Australia.

It's not just because it's embarrassing to our national pride – though there is a reason the Barmy Army sings “God Save Your Queen” to antagonise Australian fans at the cricket.

It's most cringeworthy because each time someone performs one of these outdated formalities, you can imagine the series of conversations by the international participants leading up to the toast.

At best you can imagine them wondering why the Australians still persist with this outdated constitutional arrangement.

At worst you can imagine these formalities reinforcing outdated stereotypes of Australia as an Anglo-colonial outpost adrift in the region.

Invariably, these toasts are followed by awkward shuffling in the room while the Australians and their international contemporaries wonder which group is more embarrassed by the process.

Modern Australia is bigger, better and prouder than this kind of forelock tugging – we deserve national symbols and institutions that reflect this, that evolve with us, and that project an accurate view of the country that we have become to the world.

Multicultural migration

This is where the third of the three stories of Australia comes in, the recent give of our “gift of multicultural migration”.

Migration from Asia is, of course, not a new phenomenon.

One of the earliest known Chinese migrants arrived in Sydney in 1818, and Mak Sai Ying ended up opening a pub called The Lion – a pretty Aussie endeavour!

But this is another area where in the past, Australia hasn't always got it right.

We can't pretend the White Australia policy never existed.

Again, I look to my own family history and I have another great, great, great grand father who was a member of the Anti-Chinese Committees of the 19th century that lobbied for the imposition of the poll tax on Chinese arrivals during the gold rush which presaged the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act.

It's only in recent decades that the scale of this migration to Australia from the region began to transcend Australia's troubled Federation era relationship with race.

The changes brought about by the wave of migration initiated by the Howard government was the focus of my last book, The Golden Country, which came out of my own participation in the Asialink Leaders Program in 2017.

My contention was despite waves of Asian migration to Australia, we've never truly reckoned with what that means for our national identity.

While we had grown to become the most successful multicultural nation on earth at the community level, the institutions of power in our nation remained stubbornly monocultural.

This has been a squandered opportunity for Australia.

In her first address to Parliament earlier this month, Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, newly elected to the seat of Higgins, said:

“The triumph of modern Australia—a diverse multicultural nation—is worth celebrating every single day. Social capital is our true sovereign wealth fund, that, if managed well, will pay a dividend to us, its shareholders, forever.”

Dr Ananda-Rajah's parents came from Sri Lanka, lived in the UK and Zambia, and settled in Australia where their daughter became a clinician-researcher and physician in infectious diseases and now a Member of Parliament.

The new member for Reid, Sally Sitou's ama was a widowed single mother of eight who was a refugee twice over before settling in Australia where her Chinese-Laotian Australian daughter is now a member of Parliament.

Zaneta Mascarenhas, the new Member for Swan's parents are Goan-Indians from Kenya who migrated to Kalgoorlie before their daughter became a mining engineer and now Member of Parliament.

Fatima Payman's grandfather was a member of Parliament in Afghanistan.

Her father was forced to flee and seek asylum in Australia where he worked as a kitchen hand, a security guard and a taxi driver to provide for his family and to enable his daughter to become a Senator in his family's new nation.

Sam Lim, the new member for Tangey was born as the oldest of eight children in Malaysia where he worked as a police officer, dolphin trainer and businessman before moving to Australia where he became the 2020 WA police officer of the year and now a Member of Parliament.

These are just a few of the individual stories of the new members of our Federal Parliament.

But they are all part of the larger story of Australia's successful multicultural fabric.

A story that we are now slowly beginning to bring into the centre stage of our national institutions.


Noel Pearson said:

“Australians have an epic story.

It is one of the great epic stories of this planet.

We will recognise the scale of our story when we recognise each other.”

National identity isn't static.

It's something that every one of us builds every day.

It lives in the ideas, the values, the stories that we share in common with our fellow Australians.

In the imagined community of what it means to be Australian.

So, it's important that as Noel Pearson has put it, we recognise each other, that we see ourselves clearly and we recognise the magnificent journey that our nation has travelled to become the country we are today.

Because as Noel Pearson has said, you can't tell the story of Australia, without telling each of the three stories I've spoken to you about today.

Australia hasn't always gotten it right in our history.

We've made terrible mistakes at times.

But our greatest strength as a democratic nation has been our ability to recognise these mistakes and to change course.

To grow as a nation and to become even greater than our founding fathers could have even imagined.

I'm proud of the journey we've been on and I'm proud of the country that we are becoming.

Funnily enough, the next group of school children that I'll be taking through Parliament include my daughters' primary school class.

Even though I need to work on a new riff for the tour, I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm looking forward to showing her – a Eurasian Australian born of modern Australia – whose ancestors didn't want her identity to be a part of the nation they were building, how Australia's institutions and symbols of national identity are slowly catching up with the lived reality of our communities.

I'm looking forward to showing her how more people like her are helping to make our representative democracy more representative of our communities.

I'm looking forward to showing her how, Penny Wong, an Australian of Asian heritage, isn't just a member of Parliament, but now represents Australia on the world stage.

And I'm looking forward to showing her how the new government is working on accepting the gracious gift of the Uluru Statement of the Heart and on seeing a Voice to Parliament representing tens of thousands of years of continuous culture enshrined in our Constitution.

I'm proud to tell Australian school children about the way that modern Australia is bringing together the three stories that make us one.

And I'm proud to tell this story to the world in my role as Assistant Foreign Minister.

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