La Trobe Asia: Australia’s Asia Identity

  • Speech, check against delivery

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.

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

And like all members of the Albanese Government, I reaffirm my commitment to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full: voice, treaty and truth.

Thank you to Latrobe Asia for organising this timely event on Australia’s role and national identity in Asia.

I must admit that when I saw this topic and the format for this event - three speakers and an academic moderator at a university - it brought a wry smile to my face.

As someone who takes national identity seriously and followed these debates closely for a long time, tonight’s event reminded me of John Howard’s insistence in 2003 that his government had

“ended that long, seemingly perpetual symposium on our self-identity. We no longer navel-gaze about what an Australian is.”

Howard went so far in that speech as to declare that he “knew what an Australian has always been and always will be.”

The idea that Australian identity was carved in stone by Sir Henry Parkes at the time of Federation and was passed down to us unchanging through the generations is obviously ridiculous to modern Australian ears.

The national identity of Federation-era Australia included many characteristics that we recognise an embrace today: our Westminster institutions, our egalitarian outlook, our connection with country, a sense of humour.

But it also explicitly excluded fundamental parts of our modern national identity, in particular the 65,000 years of continuous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that preceded it and the enormous role that non-white migrants would play in enriching our national story.

Thankfully, Australians no longer navel-gaze about the place of Indigenous Australians and migrants in our national identity.

But that navel-gazing ended not because our national identity was cast in amber by a single Prime Minister, but instead because of the ability of our nation, built on an open society, to change and to grow.

In fact, in response to Howard’s election in 1996, Australia’s first post-war ambassador to China, Stephen FitzGerald, asked the deliberately provocative question “Is Australia an Asian Country?” in a 1997 book by the same title.

His book argued that in the wake of the White Australia policy, with a new national vision from our leaders, Australia could become a unique nation that benefited from the institutional strengths of a Westminster heritage, but with an “‘Asian dimension’ that gave us an independent identity, and that linked our people to the region through political, ethnic, cultural and family ties.”

A quarter of a century later, this vision has been realised in many respects.

Modern Australia’s multicultural national identity isn’t a symposium topic anymore, it’s a given.

Today, it’s generally accepted that you can’t tell the story of modern Australia without telling three stories.

Modern Australia is, in the words of Noel Pearson, ‘three stories that make us one’ – our Indigenous heritage, the Westminster institutions that followed, and the multicultural migration, particularly from our own region, that flourished in recent decades.  

Under the Albanese government, our foreign policy begins with this identity, it begins with who we are.  

We say that this authentic national identity is a source of strength for Australian foreign policy.

Australia is currently in a period of extraordinary change, when our external circumstances are more complex and consequential than ever before.

As our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has put it, Australia needs to harness all elements of our national power to advance our interests, when the implications of unchecked strategic competition in our region are grave.

Our modern national identity is a crucial source of our national power, which more than anything else, comes from our people.

As a thriving multicultural society of 300 different ethnic heritages, where 50% of Australians were either born overseas or have a parent born overseas, we say that our diversity connects us with every corner of the world.

That anyone can look to Australia and see themselves reflected, and we can look within ourselves and find a commonality, a shared interest with someone in every corner of the world.

This connection through diversity is particularly intense with our own region.

There are over a million people who were born in Southeast Asia living in Australia. The number is similar for those born in South Asia, and 850,000 people born in North Asia.

These numbers do not include those with ancestry from these regions – just places of birth.

There are nearly 1.4 million people who identify as having Chinese ancestry. Over 780,000 people with Indian ancestry.

1.2 million people say they speak a South Asian language at home, and another 1.2 million an East or North Asian language. Over 827,000 say they speak a Southeast Asian language at home.

Hinduism is Australia's fastest growing religion.

Mandarin the is most spoken language in Australian homes other than English.

This is the reality of our modern national identity that we experience every day in Australia.

But we can’t take it for granted that the reality of modern Australia is seen by the rest of the world.

For most of our history, the world has only heard one of the stories of Australia.

As a result, too often, outdated stereotypes of Australia as a monocultural, colonial outpost prevail in the minds of international partners.

We’re in a soft power deficit.

International perceptions haven’t caught up with the diverse and thriving modern reality of our country.

Our identity, our Australian story is a national asset.

Noel Pearson is right when he says that our nation has an ‘epic’ story.

But it’s only an epic, it’s only a national asset, when we tell all of it.

To cut through the outdated stereotypes we need to proactively project modern Australian to the world.

In our foreign policy, the Albanese government is telling the world the whole story of Australia; the three stories that make us one.

We’re pursuing a First Nations Foreign Policy through the appointment of Australia’s inaugural First Nations Ambassador, Justin Mohamed.

Centring First Nations voices and practices in our engagement with the world, connecting us to many of the 90 countries that also have with first nations peoples and changing the way these countries see us in the process.

We’re also projecting Australia’s modern multicultural character to the world.

This requires the skills of story telling as much as the skills of diplomacy.  

Extraordinary Australians like James Wan, Margaret Zhang, Jason Day, Anne Curtis-Smith, Terrance Tao, Rose Park, Akira Isogawa, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo are internationally recognised stars both in their areas of expertise and in our region.

Their individual stories are at the heart of our modern Australian identity, but we’ve done far too little to project this part of our national story to the world for far too long.

Later this month, Sam Kerr - the best football player in the world - will represent Australia on Australian soil at a World Cup, but how many people outside Australia know that her father was born in Kolkata?

We need to get better at telling these stories, as Australian stories, to the world.

A big part of this is ensuring that the diversity of our community is represented in the institutions of power in our nation.

The 47th Parliament, with the most diverse incoming cohort of MPs in our history is a shining example of this.

It was a proud moment for Australia to see MPs of Vietnamese, Chinese-Malaysian, Chinese-Laotian, Afghan, Tamil, Sinhalese and Kenyan-Goan heritage enter our Parliament at the last election.

And their election has made a difference in how we are seen by the rest of the world.

It’s been striking to see Senator Fatima Payman, the first Australian Senator to regularly wear a hijab in the chamber at state dinners conversing with Muslim heads of state.

Or Zaneta Mascheranas MP, a Kalgoorlie mechanical engineer with Kenyan-Goan parents (is there any story more Australian than that) as the guest of honour at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas Youth Convention.

Or Sam Lim MP, whose first speech was not only an incredibly powerful Australian story, but was also delivered in four languages - English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay – an extraordinary speech that went viral on Malaysian twitter, being retweeted thousands of times – including by the Prime Minister – and was viewed more than 1.2m times.

Or, of course, Penny Wong, who has been in Parliament for a bit longer, but who is having an extraordinary impact as our Foreign Minister in the way we are seen by the rest of the world.

Just consider the impact of an Australian Foreign Minister being able to record a video in Malaysia, speaking Bahasa Melayu, saying that Southeast Asia is “a region I know well. It’s a region I am from”.

Truly a living embodiment of Australia’s place as a part of our region.

The Albanese government has a big agenda in our region.

We know the Indo-Pacific is being reshaped as we speak by demographic, economic, climatic and geo-strategic trends.

We aren’t content to be mere spectators to these trends; we want to shape them in Australia’s interests.

We want to support the development of a region that is peaceful, prosperous and secure, built on rules and norms – including importantly ASEAN centrality and international law.

A region of strategic equilibrium where no country dominates and no country is dominated.

A region where all nations can make decisions for themselves.

A region where Australia shares in the economic growth of the region through diversified trade markets.

Realising these objectives will demand more of Australian institutions and their leaders than any previous generation since the Second World War.

The Albanese Government knows that we need to harness every dimension of Australia’s national power to realise these objectives.

Starting with our people, our identity.

Our region is a place of incredible diversity, and modern Australia reflects that diversity and connects with it.

The thriving, multicultural reality of modern Australia equips us with tools of influence that we denied ourselves in the past.

Australian identity has changed a lot since Federation.

We’ve changed a lot since the era of John Howard.

We’re a far greater nation as a result.

The three stories that make us one as Australians is more than an abstract idea.

They are a vital national asset.

A tool of national influence when Australia needs all the influence that it can get.

The Albanese government won’t waste a bit of it.

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