'New Frontiers New Challenges’, AIIA National Conference

  • Speech, E&OE

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respect to 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 – Voice, Treaty, Truth.

It's a real pleasure to be invited here today ahead of the AIIA's national conference, your first national conference to be able to take place in person since the beginning of the pandemic.

I'm particularly happy to be here today because of the AIIA's emphasis on bringing together young leaders from around the region for this conference...

...and that's all of you here today for this masterclass.

It's appropriate given the theme of this year's AIIA conference, New Frontiers in Australian Foreign Policy.

The Foreign Policy of the Albanese Labor Government

The Albanese government has set out an ambitious foreign policy agenda that we're pursuing with new energy and resources.

We're seeking to support a prosperous, stable and secure southeast Asia defined by ASEAN centrality and a strategic equilibrium that ensures that all states are able to make their own choices free from coercion.   

We're making a uniquely Australian contribution as partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific - reliably turning up, showing respect, listening, and being transparent and open.

We are applying ourselves to the task of being an honest partner on the issues our Pacific family cares about – working together to respond to our shared challenges, including climate, COVID and economic development.

We are deepening our foundational alliance with the United States through new capability agreements like AUKUS.

We are supporting the rules based international order and restoring our influence in multilateral institutions, including by seeking a seat on the UN Security Council for 2029-2030.

We've said that we're not content to be mere observers in these international endeavours and that we are in a race for influence in pursuit of these foreign policy objectives.

We're seeking to bolster our international influence to this end by projecting modern Australia to the world, leveraging our multicultural identity and diaspora communities that connect us with every country in the world.

At the same time, we are adopting an First Nations foreign policy, which weaves in the voices and practices of the world's oldest continuing culture into the way we talk to the world, allowing us to better connect with our friends and neighbours, particularly in the Pacific.

It's a full agenda, and I've got no doubt you'll have plenty to analyse at this year's conference.

Pioneer Generations and the New Frontier

But for US history buffs like myself, the reference to ‘New Frontiers' in this year's AIIA conference theme evokes John F Kennedy's famous 1960 Democratic convention nomination acceptance speech.

In that speech, Kennedy introduced a motif that would characterise his Presidency when he told the delegates:

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats…

Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. ...”

Kennedy regularly spoke in terms of generational transitions, insisting that a new generation had come of age to confront these challenges, the generation that we would today refer to as baby boomers in countries like the United States and Australia.

In Kennedy's acceptance speech he called on this baby boom generation to be ‘pioneers' on this new frontier, asking

“Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men's minds? ...

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world waits to see what we shall do.”

While much of the domestic public discourse in developed countries today is now focused on the implications of an aging population and this Kennedy-era generation exiting the work force, internationally, another baby boom generation of pioneers is facing its own new frontiers.

The New Baby Boomers

New baby boom generations are beginning to come of age in parts of the world that are vital to Australia's long term international interests.

In the Pacific, half of the region's population is aged under 23.

In India, the median age is just over 28.

It's home to more than 300 million children under the age of 15.

Nearly one million Indians reach working age every month.

In Indonesia, the median age is just over 31.

Just over 40% of the population is aged under 24 – that's nearly 110 million people.

60% of the world's population aged between 15-35 currently live in ASEAN – that's 213 million people.

Africa is projected to represent a quarter of the world's population by 2050, and currently, 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 30.

In the Middle East, two-thirds of the population is younger than 30.

Once again, to paraphrase Kennedy, the world is waiting to see what the pioneers of this generation shall do.

My provocation to you in this masterclass session is that I think we should pay more attention to these youth cohorts in Australia's engagement with the world.

The institutions and instruments of international politics and statecraft around the world are often the domains of more established and more senior people.

You know the stereotype - grey beards competing with each other over the depth of their gravitas.

There's no doubt that traditional instruments of statecraft and their practitioners - economic, military, diplomatic - will remain fundamentally important in maximising Australia's international interest.

Unfortunately, the perspectives and experiences of young people are all too easily overlooked in these spheres.

Given this, I think we should think harder about the implications of these youth cohorts for Australia and the way we engage with the world.

How youth cohorts in places like the Pacific, southeast Asia, the subcontinent, the middle east and Africa play out matters to Australia.

On the upside, if these societies can generate sufficient employment opportunities to meet demand, these youth cohorts could create a demographic dividend of the kind seen in East Asia in recent decades, where a sustained improvement in the ratio of the working age people relative to children and the elderly powered national economic growth and lifted standards of living.

Such a demographic dividend could significantly increase the economic power and strategic weight of nations and entire regions.     

Alternatively, if employment opportunities are not able to keep pace with demand, the prospect of mass youth unemployment and the individual frustrations and thwarted ambitions that accompanies it has the potential to threaten societal and political stability, fuelling conflict, terrorism and people movements.

This kind of instability has the potential to spill over across international borders with implications for nations across the regions and around the world.     

Beyond the economic impacts, these youth cohorts have a significant potential to shape societies consistent with their emerging cultural norms and political values.

These youth cohorts have the potential to exert significant influence on their countries' national governments.

Understanding the cultural norms and political values of these youth cohorts matters to our understanding of how these nations and regions will evolve over future years.

Clearly, generalisations about the political views of individuals within generations, let alone within generations across countries are fraught. 

But we can say that young people have already led consequential political movements around the world on climate change, gun violence, gender and sexual discrimination and economic inequality.

We can also say that the need for urgent and serious action on climate change in particular is close to a universal value amongst young people across the world.

Young people today are more concerned about climate change than any other generation.

They've grown up with the devastating impacts of climate change: fires, floods, extreme temperatures. 

A 2021 study from UNICEF found overwhelming majority support for strong action on climate change across young people in 21 different developing and developed countries.

A strong national record on taking climate change seriously is the price of admission for being taken seriously by this generation around the world.  

Opportunities for Australia

So what are the specific implications of the growing significance of these youth cohorts for Australia's engagement with the world?

The economic and social implications of these youth cohorts present challenges and opportunities for an Australia that seeks to maximise its influence with these nations.

At the most fundamental level, young people in these countries need education and jobs.

Australia can offer both.

Australia's world-class education system will remain a powerful lever of national influence if we get it right.

But the nature of these youth cohorts will require our educational institutions to adapt if we are to fully realise this opportunity.

The scale of demand from these countries will require new models of educational delivery.

The old model of tertiary students travelling to Australia to live here while studying will not be able to scale to meet the size of the potential demand.

Australian higher education institutions will need to expand their education offerings through the establishment of in country and third country facilities leveraging Australian expertise and quality control will need to be expanded.

Crucially, to help meet the scale of the employment demands in these countries, we will also need a new focus on international delivery of vocational education.

Similarly, Australia's migration system offers significant opportunities.

Our skilled migration, working holiday and temporary labour migration schemes could help generate employment opportunities and lifelong good will towards Australia.

The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme in particularly is a crucial source of employment opportunities for young people in the Pacific, generating substantial remittance flows and lifelong cultural bonds. 

Done right, education and migration could be enormous generators of good will for Australia in these regions, helping nations realise their demographic dividend and them to Australia through countless people to people connections.

We have, of course, seen generations of dividends from connections like this in the form of the original Colombo Plan Scholars who went on to become senior figures in institutions across our region.

Every Australian diplomat serving overseas has a rolodex of in country contacts with connections like this to Australia.

I've seen the benefits of these people-to-people connections every day while seeking to maximise Australia's influence overseas as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I've seen it when I've encountered the producer of a morning television show in Singapore or a national regulator of a major industry in Indonesia – both of whom studied in Australia.

I've seen it most practically when I was able to get outstanding flat whites at cafes in Lima and Santiago run by locals who had previously either studied in Australia or spent time here on a working holiday visa.

We should be actively seeking to cultivate these incoming people to people connections in these nations and regions with burgeoning youth cohorts.

At the same time, we should be seeking to further expand the outgoing people to people connections of young Australians with their peers in these nations.

If these youth cohorts are an opportunity for Australia, the perspectives and experiences of our young Australians are our key for unlocking them.

The New Colombo Plan, as one example, supports young Australians to study abroad, to engage in the world past our borders, developing skills, experiences and people-to-people relationships.

As the proportion of young people in these countries grows, so too is their Parliamentary representation.

El Salvador, Indonesia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Nigeria are just a handful of the of the countries who have established a caucus or network of young parliamentarians within their Parliaments.

With the proportion of Generation Y MPs in Australia's Parliament nearly doubling at the last election, connecting our national Parliament's 30 Gen Y MPs with their peers in countries like Indonesia represents a new opportunity for engagement and influence.

Pleasingly, Indonesia's youth caucus was established by Indonesia's member of parliament Puteri Anetta Komarudin – who I've had the pleasure to meet with on a number of occasions - received her bachelor's degree from the University of Melbourne

Track 2 Dialogues between young people in our countries also play a useful role.

Young leaders have a habit of becoming older leaders.

I can speak with experience on this point.

In the past I've been an enthusiastic participant in track two youth dialogues like the Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth, the Australia-India Youth Dialogue, the Australia-China Youth Dialogue and the Asia Society's Asia21 network.

The friendships and insights I gained from these experiences have helped me throughout my political career, and not least in my current role in foreign affairs.   

Implications for Public Diplomacy

Finally, the growing influence of youth cohorts in these nations has profound implications for our approach to public diplomacy.

To be influential with these cohorts we need to rethink tools of engagement.

Young people are more digitally connected than any other generation.

Indonesia now has TikTok's second largest user base. 

Internet users in the Philippines spend the most amount of amount of time on social media across the Indo Pacific, at 4 hours and 15 minutes a day.

And there are half a billion active social media users in India.

Australia is home to a hugely diverse global population, with one in two of us born overseas or having a parent who was – and the patterns of migration mean that some of our younger populations are incredibly diverse.

We have the potential to be disproportionately influential on the social media platforms that connect young people in these countries.

But we need to adapt the way we execute our public diplomacy with these audiences.

Once, diplomats communicated by cables – named after the physical international submarine communications cable the information travelled along. 

Now, in order to be influential - to reach the young people in the regions we care about - we need to communicate our foreign policy in totally new ways.

I was struck recently by the changes in the way we engage with the world when my mate Sam Lim gave his first speech in Parliament.

Sam's speech was deeply moving, and really painted Australia in all its modern diversity – showing how a third-generation Malaysian-Chinese man could become a member of the Australian Parliament only 20 years after migrating here.

So as projecting modern Australia is a new priority of our foreign policy, I tweeted out a grab of Sam giving his thank yous in English, Mandarin and Malay (he also spoke Hokkein in the speech!).

Within 24 hours I was having a conversation with thousands of Malaysians through this tweet, including Malaysia's Prime Minister.

The video had been retweeted thousands of times and had been viewed 1.2m times

Through social media, I could project modern, diverse Australia – and our representative 47th Parliament - to global audiences.

So increasingly, digital engagement and literacy is crucial to how we engage with Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.

Bringing younger Australians – born digital natives – into our foreign policy is increasingly important in how we reach out to and engage with our region, and the world around us.

Because we all know younger Australians are on the front line of digital engagement, and we need all the fresh, new thinking we can access.

With that in mind, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently conducting a capability review, looking forward over the ten years, aiming to make sure Australia has all the right skills and people we need to support us in our international engagement.

Rethinking our approach to strategic communications, and how we project our messages to bourgeoning younger generations, is an important challenge for us in this review.


Thank you all for the commitment you've made personally to be here today.

You are part of a generation of people who are just as important to Australia's long-term success in solving the global problems we face as people of all of our generations.

It's great that you're taking part in the AIIA's National Conference this week, and fantastic to share perspectives across Australia and around the region.

This is an opportunity for you to input directly into the national conversation about foreign policy.

To put my money where my mouth is, I'm very happy right now to take your questions in my capacity as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Hopefully you'll give me some fresh perspectives that I can feed into Australia's ongoing development of foreign policy in pursuit of our nation's interests!

Thank you.

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