National Security College Conference: One and free: interests, values and national identity

  • Speech

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the Canberra region and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I extend those respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with us here today.

Foreign Minister Wong has said: "foreign policy must be an accurate and authentic reflection of our values and interests – of who we are and what we want."

Noel Pearson once wrote that it's impossible to tell the full story of Australia without telling three stories:

"the ancient indigenous heritage which is its foundation, the British institutions built upon it, and the adorning gift of multicultural migration".

Pearson call these stories the three 'epic strands' in the 'grand narrative' that made us one as Australians.

This Australian story, our national identity, is also our government's starting point for our foreign policy.

The three stories that make us one as Australians inform our national values and interests and the strategic priorities that flow from them. 

We live in dynamic and challenging times for the Indo-Pacific.

Climate change, economic disruption, shifting demographics and geostrategic competition all have the potential to reshape the way our region operates in fundamental ways.

In these times of change, Australia's strategic interests lie in an Indo-Pacific region that is peaceful, prosperous and secure.

A region that operates according to agreed rules, norms and international law, where sovereignty is respected and where individual countries are free to choose their own paths and make their own choices.

Australia's interests lie in a strategic equilibrium that preserves this individual agency for countries in our region.

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

These are our interests but there are competing narratives for how our region should operate.

Strategic competition is currently operating across multiple dimensions in the Indo-Pacific – across economic, diplomatic, strategic and military domains.

The outcome of this competition will define the way our region, and the broader world, works.

Our view is that all countries have a role to play in shaping our region and contributing to a regional balance that preserves the ability for all nations, large and small, to make their own choices.

The Albanese government isn't content to be a mere spectator to the dynamics shaping our region.

We seek to influence them.

So, we're investing in the sources of our own national power and we're deploying all the tools of Australian statecraft to this end – diplomatic, defence, economic, and development.

In the diplomatic sphere, we seek to shape our region by working bilaterally with alliance partners, multilaterally through groupings like the Quad and through regional organisations, particularly ASEAN.

Working with others – bilaterally, multilaterally, regionally – requires us to be influential beyond our borders.

In this context, there are strong connections between our sovereignty, our citizens and our state.

Between our identity and our international influence.

The epic story of Australia that Noel Pearson describes isn't just our starting point for thinking about the kind of world that we want to live in; it's also a source of influence for us in the challenge of working with others to build it.

Australia's 65,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, the oldest continuous culture in the world, is the foundation of our First Nations Foreign Policy.

That work is being led by Justin Mohamed, our inaugural Ambassador for First Nations people.

Centring First Nations perspectives and practices in our engagement with the world gives us a powerful platform for sharing and learning from First Nations experiences, while also building common ground between Australia and the 90 nations in the world with indigenous peoples, especially across the Blue Pacific.

Modern Australia's multicultural identity is another powerful source of insight and influence for our engagement with the world.

Today, half of Australians are either born overseas, or have a parent born overseas.

The means that anyone, in any corner of the world, can look to Australia and see something of themselves reflected.

It also means that we can look within our own nation and find a point of connection, a point of understanding with anyone from anywhere in the world.

This is particularly true of our own region, where our demography links us just as strongly to the Indo-Pacific as our geography.

Our identity is now a powerful source of insight and influence.

I often think of how far we've come in this respect.

In his book 'Stranded Nation', historian David Walker tells the story of the Australian government's Asian Visitor program.

In the 1950s, the government brought journalists and influential figures in the region to Australia in an effort to positively influence regional perceptions of our country.

Consider how difficult that would have been at the time.

Of the nation's 176 diplomatic officers, David records that there were just six Chinese language speakers, six Japanese speakers, three Malay speakers and two Bahasa speakers.

There were solitary Urdu and Bengali speakers and no speakers of Thai, Burmese, Korean or Tamil at all.

Levels of Asian literacy in the general community were even lower.

In this context, the firsthand accounts of these Asian Visitor programs are amusing.

But they're also deeply revealing of the prevailing level of Australian ignorance of our region in that time. 

David writes about how host Australians "thought they would surprise and delight their visitors by serving something 'Asian'".

To the well-meaning Anglo-Australians of the 50s, Asian food meant curry.

Unfortunately, David writes,

"When (a visit host's) wife prepared a Malayan version of this dish for her visitors, no member of the (visiting) party was able to identify what it was."

Today we can look back and laugh in horror.

Thanks to decades of multicultural migration, Australia's culinary competence in the present day is a source of regional soft power.

Australian Masterchef is well known across the region, particularly in India and Australians of Malaysian, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Newari, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Fijian-Indian have been some of the show's highest profile contestants.

It might sound trivial, but I can tell you that it matters.

It's not a substitute for our efforts in other domains of statecraft, but it matters to these efforts.

It matters to the way people in the region see Australia and it matters to our ability to engage with them.

There's nothing better in my work as Assistant Foreign Minister than meeting people who feel connected to Australia in some way through our people – and moreover, feel an admiration for a society in which people from all backgrounds can thrive.

Put simply, the more people in our region know modern Australia, the more influential we can be with them.

But while all of us here live the thriving success of Australian multiculturalism, the story of modern Australia hasn't permeated throughout the region.

While our people-to-people connections have grown enormously in recent decades, there are still plenty of people in the region who have never lived in Australia or known an Australian.

Within these groups, outdated stereotypes of Australia and what it means to be Australian still persist.

That isn't surprising.

For so much of our history, we consciously told the world only one of the three stories of Australia.

So, too often in the region, successful Asian Australians are seen as exceptions to the Australian identity, rather than representatives of it – if they are known as Australians at all.

Preconceptions haven't caught up with the reality of modern Australia.

Breaking these stereotypes is hard and requires deliberate effort.

That's why we talk about 'projecting modern Australia' as being an objective of our foreign policy.

This requires actively elevating parts of the Australian story that haven't been told in the past as part of our engagement with the world.

The best way to do this is by showing rather than telling.

By ensuring that Australians who represent all three parts of our national story are embodied in our statecraft.

The Albanese Government has sought to do this through our political leaders' engagement with region, through our diplomatic representatives and in our public diplomacy.

While we still have work to do, the 47th Australian Parliament is the most diverse in our history.

Alongside more Indigenous representatives than ever before, the current Australian Parliament includes representatives with cultural heritages from Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.

It includes the first Australian Senator to be sworn in on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and the first Australian Senator to wear a hijab in the Senate.

The Albanese Government includes two Ministers of the Islamic faith and one Minister of Jewish faith.

This elected diversity is a powerful resource for showing modern Australia to the world and we utilise it with visitors to our country and in outbound engagement.

There is of course no greater embodiment of this power of representation to change preconceptions than our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong.

It's a powerful thing for an Australian Foreign Minister to be able to visit Malaysia, and record a message for social media in Bahasa Melayu, declaring that Southeast Asia is "a region I know well. It's a region I am from".

Of course, our day-to-day engagement with the world is done by the staff of our embassies and posts around the world – not political leaders.

So, ensuring that our diplomatic corps truly reflects the full story of modern Australia matters to Australian influence.

I've greatly benefited from the frank engagement I've been able to have with members of DFAT's CALD network on this challenge.

We've still got work to do on this front – but I've been able to see this in action, firsthand.

My friend Ridwaan Jadwat is one of the most powerful advocates for the way that diversity in our diplomatic corps can show the diversity of modern Australia.

His family left apartheid-era South Africa when he was 9 years old.

Ridwaan became the first Muslim-Australian migrant to serve as an Australian Ambassador when he was appointed as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Yemen in 2018.

He's now our Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates where I was pleased to be able to catch up with him last week.

Ridwaan has spoken about the power of his story.

"Inevitably when you become a head of mission, people overseas see you as the highest representative of Australia.

You represent 25 million people, you become a symbol of our country, and you become part of a bigger story about Australia.

Saudis and Bahrainis and Omanis still come up to me and say we had no idea an Australian Ambassador could look like you."

Ridwaan is a living embodiment of modern Australia that's far more powerful than any speech I could give as a Minister.

Of course, projecting modern Australian beyond our shores isn't just a matter for politicians and diplomats.

Australian diplomats are constantly finding creative ways to tell the Australian story to our region.

Like when Australian diplomats screened Bluey in Vietnamese, to thousands of fans, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

But the most powerful exemplars of modern Australia are those Australians from diverse backgrounds who have achieved international recognition in their fields.

Extraordinary Australians like James Wan, 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.

The success of these great Australians change perceptions of our country in the region.

You only need to watch the videos of Australians accepting awards at K-pop Awards ceremonies with unexpectedly thick Australian accents to see Korean K-pop fans' pre-conceptions of Australia changing in real time.

Australia's diplomats routinely work to put a spotlight on their success as Australians

It was no small thing when Australia's Ambassador to the Philippines, HK Yu secured Filipino-Australian actor/singer/mega celebrity Anne Curtis as the host of our Manila Embassy's Australia Day event.

Showing, rather than telling the guests what it means to be Australian today.

I don't hide my pride in the nation that we have become.

But across the three stories of modern Australia, we face challenges that threaten to undermine our influence. 

We must address the continuing stain on our nation that is the gap between outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the broader Australian community.

We must ensure that the diversity of our community is truly reflected in the institutions of power in our society, particularly in leadership roles in these institutions.

We must ensure that foreign interference does not undermine the ability of members of Australia's diaspore communities to participate fully in our democracy as equal Australian citizens.

Finally, we need to preserve our social cohesion, our unity as Australians, between and within these three stories.

It's no secret that the conflict in Gaza is posing a greater challenge to this cohesion than we've seen in decades.

As a diverse, pluralistic nation Australians hold a range of complex and conflicting views on the conflict in Gaza.

As the Foreign Minister has said, "what unites us is respect for each other and our right to live in peace."

Given the appalling human suffering we've seen since Hamas' terrorist attacks on October 7, it's no surprise that many of these views are deeply felt and strongly held.

Unfortunately, the politics of division reward those who seek to highlight differences between our citizens, rather than what we have in common as Australians.

And social media algorithms reward conflict and extreme rhetoric over efforts to build understanding and cohesion.

These dynamics are corrosive for our social cohesion.

Australians are currently deeply concerned for the harmony of their schools, their workplaces, the communities in which they live.

Community leaders and Australian citizens have an obligation to model how to navigate genuinely held and deeply felt differences of views in our community in a way that preserves individual respect and community cohesion.

Politicians, however, play an outsized role in ensuring conflict abroad does not turn into divisions at home.

As the Foreign Minister said in her address to the Gala Dinner last night, "there are too many politicians in Australia who are manipulating legitimate and heartfelt community concern for their own ends."

So I call on politicians from all sides to do everything they can to maintain our social cohesion.

Together, we need to encourage Australians to engage with each other with empathy, not contempt, to be curious about different perspectives, not judgemental.

To do more listening and less shouting.

Australians take great pride in the success of our multicultural society.

In this moment, we all need to work together to preserve it.

When describing the three stories that make us one as Australians, Noel Pearson described the Australian story as 'one of the great epic stories of this planet'.

As with any epic, it hasn't always been plain sailing.

We weren't perfect at Federation and we aren't perfect now.

As Pearson put it,

"Our history is replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory. We will not shy from its truth."

We've made terrible mistakes as a nation.

For too long, we suppressed and denied two of the three Australian stories.

And we still have so much work to do to realise our full potential as a nation and to truly bring together the three stories that make us one.

But our ability to change for the better is Australia's most powerful example to the world.

Our ability to recognise our mistakes and set a new course.

To be a greater country in the future than we were in the past.

This isn't just a job for politicians, it's a job for all of us as Australians.

And it matters for our success as a nation here in Australia, as well as for our influence beyond our shores.

We have a great story to tell the world, but it's an unfinished story, a living story.

The way it unfolds is the responsibility of each of us, as Australians.

To quote Pearson again, it's up to us to ensure that "Our storylines entwine further each generation."

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