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'New images: an Australian perspective': address to the Menzies Centre, London, 24 July 1997

The very mission of the Menzies Centre immediately presents me as a speaker with a difficult task. The odd thing about the contemporary Anglo/Australian relationship is that two countries so immensely close historically - in the nature of their political institutions, in the essence of the legal systems and in investment and trade - conduct around each other a stately waltz which instead emphasises discontinuities and divergences in outlook and direction.

It has suited neither of us to stress proximity. The reality of the closeness can be discerned as a subterranean current, the broader logic of which is never teased out. Janet Holmes a Court effortlessly alternates between roles as Australia's leading businesswoman and Britain's premier theatre owner. Malcolm Mcintosh slides out of the Australian bureaucracy into heading up British defence procurement and then back again, with the knighthood but not the title, into heading up Australia's premier scientific organisation. CRA world headquarters is quietly drawn back to London but with the dual listing, Australians see the new Rio Tinto vehicle as possessing an Australian business personality (and personnel) albeit a controversial one.

We haven't seemed to enmesh at the points where our political objectives intersect either. Britain's concerns have been transatlantic and European since the 1960s. The Anglo-Australian relationship was a problem in those projects - an issue to be dealt with - not a help.

Similarly, as Australia sought its own personality in its region of greatest significance, the UK connection has been seen at best of marginal value - and at worst a problem - in a region highly sensitive to colonial surrogates.

It is interesting to note that even so profoundly conservative a Prime Minister as John Howard felt compelled to say of the Hong Kong legislative council swearing-in controversy that it was a long time since an Australian Prime Minister took directions from London or Washington when we diverged on an issue of substance.

So we find that the relationship has become one of those rare formations in international politics where the personal connections at the popular level and in the two nations' leadership are profoundly clearer than any similarities in the direction of their foreign policies.

There are, however, opportunities emerging which give us a chance to breathe a bit of life into the old connections and reestablish value in a relationship which will never go away.

The opportunity arises from a paradox. We are each interested in modulating the presentation of elements of our history which are impediments to immediate and long-term national goals.

Australia and Britain both keenly feel the imperative of engaging the world's fastest- - growing region in the Asia-Pacific. But to do so, we need to re-invent ourselves.

Britain has, to some extent at least, found it essential to counter residual colonial memories in Asia in order to engage with former colonies on a new footing more sympathetic to Asian countries' strong and legitimate desire to rule their own affairs. Britain's new Labour Government is even more emphatically committed to a new British image in the burgeoning growth area of the world economy in which Australia is building its future.

The Australia-UK new images programme in which this Centre has had so much involvement has itself been an excellent example of this reappraisal of old friends in the light of new developments. There have been a great many events - I'm told one every two days in Australia for the duration of the programme - which have spanned politics, business and cultural activities. I would like in particular to congratulate Neal Blewett and his counterpart in Australia, Sir Roger Carrick, for their efforts in making the programme a success so far. I know the well-worn jokes of the past have been rehearsed here as well as in Australia, but they are funny as much now for their inaccuracies as for what is true about them.

But Australia, as well as Britain, feels a need to free itself of any residual image problems associated with its past roles in the region.

For Australia, a significant part of this has had little to do with relations with Britain, but for that matter a lot more to do with constructing a fair and decent society. It was not until the late 1960s that Australia finally knocked over the two most egregious examples of racial discrimination remaining in Australian society.

The first of these was the abolition of the White Australia Policy, beginning tentatively and administratively in 1966 and finally in a strong, full-throated, rhetorical disavowal by Gough Whitlam in 1972.

The second was the 1967 referendum to extend voting rights to Australia's indigenous peoples, the thirtieth anniversary of which we have celebrated this year, but still with the painful recognition that there remains much to do.

These essentially domestic decisions had profound meaning for Australian foreign policy and for Australia's future engagement with Asia, because they finally removed the strut of racial exclusion in the constitution of Australian nationality and subjecthood.

The contemporary Australian political leadership must fully comprehend this issue for reasons which are all too evident to observers of Australian politics. Because the fact is that the racist agenda of one Member of Parliament, Pauline Hanson, and her assorted bag of extremist followers has far less resonance away from Australia's shores and within them, when it is met firmly by the opposing point of view issuing from the nation's political leadership.

This is one image problem which it is in Australia's power to keep under control.

I in no way want to put the next issue in the same basket. Another image issue Australia faces from time to time in Asia is our past role as a great power proxy.

This is of course mixed. A special friendship or relationship with continuing players such as the US and UK can cut ice with some nations in the region who value the continuing role of traditional powers.

Clearly, this has implications for relations with Britain, but ones which, for reasons of Australia's long-standing de facto political independence are now largely of symbolic nature. Still, symbols are important, and on this score, one issue stands out in the project of re-inventing Australia.

I am speaking, of course, of an Australian republic.

Australia is probably now approaching a finalisation of our constitutional arrangements which removes all ambiguity from what is anyway a strong independence.

Indeed, I can remember John Major's frustration with the issue's prominence. He was reportedly anxious for Australia to get it over and done with because nothing in Australia's constitutional arrangements was of the remotest importance to the UK. There were, however, issues in the relationship that were, and frankly Britain could do without the background noise.

To use John Major's phrase, the 'background noise' has been there for a while.

Republican rumblings date back to the very first European settlers in Australia, always with the example of Britain's American colonies before them, having declared their independence not 12 years before the founding of the New South Wales convict colony in 1788.

They also came from some unexpected quarters. Apparently, crypto-republicans abounded in the judiciary and at the highest levels of government: Hartley Williams - judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, Sir Charles Lilley - Chief Justice of Queensland, James Service - Premier of Victoria from 1883-86. Indeed, A.S. Bailes, a new MLA for Bendigo in December 1886 stated that he hoped the monarchy would end with Queen Victoria's death and was subsequently forced to apologise both to Parliament and to his constituents!

But it was Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 which saw the first republican organisations begin to flower in Australia. The timing seems perverse. Many historians blame Australia's investment boom at the time for establishing a connection between workers' discontent with their capitalist employers and Britain as the main source of capital into the colony. 1887 saw the establishment of the Australian Republican Union and the launch of the monthly Republican newspaper. Although both were short-lived, they proved to be the ancestors of our thriving contemporary republican movement.

Australian governance has always been strongly independent, indeed, it might have gone unnoticed in the domestic debate in Australia, were it not for my past as a schoolboy debater, that the very term 'Commonwealth of Australia' virtually implies a republican constitutional form.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word 'republic' as:

A State in which the government is carried on by the people or through their elected representatives, commonwealth;

The cross-referencing is impeccable, because if you look up 'commonwealth', you find the following:

Body politic, independent community, republic.

So whatever the republican debate is about, it is not about any fundamental change to our concept or style or philosophy of government. We are already an independent self-governing nation in which, as the dictionary says, government is carried on through the people's elected representatives and this gels with Australians' common view of themselves.

The extent to which Britain itself pre-empted much of the debate was little noted at the time of our last Government. The final formal washing of its hands by the British Government of responsibility for the constitutional connection with Australia took the form of the 1986 Australia Act. If ever there was a symbolic "over to you" gesture, that was it.

It took the Australian side several more years to seize the opportunity, as the Labor Government of Paul Keating did in 1993, and actually spruik for an Australian republic. What has been striking about the debate ever since it was first officially raised has been the familiarity the Australian people have demonstrated with its fundamentals. When it comes to specific issues such as the election of a President, opinions may diverge or be less informed, but perhaps more as a product of an unformed debate in terms of detailed institutional arrangements.

It is for this reason that the Labor Party has come to the view that it is time to put the question of whether Australia should have an Australian as head of state - or as it is put more catchily - a resident for President - directly to the Australian people in the form of an indicative plebiscite. Armed with this decision, which on current polling would be in the positive, we could then proceed to assemble options for the detailed institutional arrangements to be put to a later referendum.

While the fate of the Government's proposed Constitutional Convention remains up in the air, we feel it is worth resurrecting this approach as a possibility, and we have moved to do so in the domestic debate.

In any case, and to return to my original point, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of finalising these arrangements now is the simple fact that our contemporary international relations - and I include in this particularly Australia's relationship with the UK - are rapidly overtaking issues like this. Our accelerating agenda in the Asia-Pacific can only be complicated by any perceived residue of old political relationships of proxy and patronage, and it should not have to drag outdated constitutional arrangements along behind it too much further down the road.

This brings me to some thoughts on how and where the Australia-UK relationship can be leveraged in the Asia-Pacific.

The first is a series of opportunities to breathe some new life into old institutions.

Chief among these from my perspective as a former Defence Minister is the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

There could be no better example of what can be achieved, when we take advantage of our history but refuse to be limited by it, than the present state of the FPDA: It was established in 1971 as a vehicle by which Britain could discharge, and in large measure transfer to Australia and New Zealand, her liabilities for the defence of Malaysia and Singapore after the decision to withdraw the bulk of British forces east of Suez.

When I became Defence Minister in 1984, FPDA was in danger of running out of steam. It was starting to show signs of becoming an anachronism. But we found in Malaysia and Singapore a faith in its continued value, and a willingness to enliven it, which has enabled the five partners not just to keep it going, but to see it develop.

It lives today as an up-to-date and forward-looking partnership; the only functioning, operationally-focussed, multilateral defence arrangement in a region which is starting to come to grips with the benefits and challenges of multilateral security groupings. Its contemporary relevance was demonstrated in April this year when FPDA Defence Ministers reaffirmed its operational mission, and by Exercise Flying Fish, which was the largest ever FPDA exercise.

Britain made a major contribution to Flying Fish, including a carrier, a destroyer, two frigates, a submarine, twelve Tornado aircraft, and a number of AEWC, tanker and maritime patrol aircraft. This demonstration of Britain's commitment is very welcome in Australia. I think it is also very sensible on your part. Substantial British contributions to FPDA provide you with a stake in the security of South-East Asia, and in the stability of the whole region, which serves your interests well.

For whatever the transitory political divergences such as the recent one over the swearing-in of the Hong Kong provisional legislature, the commonalities in Australian and British interests in the Asia-Pacific remain strong. Put succinctly, they are:

. Support for human rights and the evolution of democratic systems of government

. Ensuring stability and a peaceful trading order, and

. Using pressure to open up markets in the region to improve access for our exports

These commonalities require not just the injection of new life into old arrangements, but also the establishment of, or participation in, new fora for discussing regional affairs.

We have, for example, a direct interest in some of Europe's engagements with the region where they impact immediately upon our position. The most obvious of these is the Asia-Europe Summit, or ASEM, at which Australia is seeking to be admitted to the dialogue on the Asian side. We very much appreciate UK support in this endeavour.

But another area of clear intersection for our interests is the orderly incorporation of China as the emerging power into the global economic and political order. It is also an area where Australia and the UK bring some complementary diplomatic assets to the table:

. Britain is a fellow permanent member on the UN Security Council and a dialogue partner in bilateral military-to-military and politico-military talks with China.

. Australia has an expanding bilateral agenda with China, but is particularly involved in the engagement of China in multilateral dialogue within the ASEAN Regional Forum.

I note with interest that Britain is now seeking membership of the ARF independent of the European seat. This expresses a mounting interest in a regional dialogue of which Australia is very supportive.

It also recognises the ARF itself as an encouraging sign of the region's inclination and ability to manage a developing security environment. Most importantly, the ARF is an evolving indigenous security body with distinctively Asian characteristics in terms of its consensus-based decision making and its scrupulous respect for individual members' sovereignty.

As we are all aware, there are any number of potential points of dispute between China and members of the ARF. While exploration of this issue remains tentative for the moment, the Chinese have shown themselves receptive to dialogue on these issues. In terms of future directions, l note with interest the recent agreement between China and Russia aimed at settling their differences along a massive and highly conflict-prone land border.

I would like to use this development to illustrate a point of mounting importance to Australia and Britain's international diplomacy.

ASEM, which I mentioned earlier, is important among other things because, it draws our attention to the significant interconnections between our two regions. The economic dimension of these is obvious, but the strategic dimension is also important. In recent years we have tended to narrow our focus increasingly to regional strategic issues, after the dominance of the global balance during the Cold War.

But this should not blind us to the direct strategic connections between our two regions. Just as you have interests in Asia, we have strategic interests in Europe. This is true even in the narrower geo-strategic sense. Europe and Asia are, after all, still parts of the same great landmass, with Russia connecting them strategically.

It is largely forgotten that the Cold War global balance of power was occasionally frustrated in its neat bipolarity. The balance was often, at least potentially, a "three- sided play" between the Western Alliance, the Soviet Union, and China. China's power was regularly latent in the equation, but one need only regard the Nixon administration's courting of China to see the potential to explode the bipolar strait- jacket.

In Europe, you have inherited NATO - probably the greatest alliance the world has ever known. Like someone inheriting a huge and beautiful old house, you feel compelled to adapt it to the new purposes demanded by a new age. But NATO's strength as an alliance - its unambiguous obligation to come to one another's aid with armed force, and the unified command structure which gives that commitment meaning - are awkward when you try to adapt NATO to the very different tasks of confidence building and political engagement across the old east-west divide which the new era requires. The price of adapting NATO to these tasks has been to sacrifice inclusiveness - especially in regard to Russia.

Despite a more avowedly multipolar mindset today, the wider ramifications of events like NATO expansion are too easily overlooked. Russian unhappiness and insecurities have been much in evidence throughout, but they have also found a diplomatically creative outlet in substantially improving relations with China. Russia and China today enjoy a relationship of cooperation unparalleled in recent history.

Indeed Russia has contributed both positively and negatively to China's strength. Negatively, the removal of the Soviet threat to China's northern borders has relieved China, at least for the time being, of an overwhelming strategic preoccupation. Positively, access to Russian military technology has increased China's military capabilities now, and, as it becomes integrated into China's domestic industry, even more in the future. Russia and China are now also giving one another diplomatic support, as their recent agreement on strategic cooperation showed.

A further effect flowing from the settlement along her northern borders has been to re-focus Chinese diplomatic and military resources towards their posture in the South China Sea and towards their north-east.

These effects impact on the distribution of power in Australia's area of immediate strategic interest to our north and north-west very significantly. This is an issue of marginal moment in Europe, but I know from discussion with the Japanese and others that it has not been lost on the nations of our immediate region.

What this brings home to me is that while politics may be regionalising in this post- Cold War world, we can never draw the corollary that regional balances of power are isolated from each other.

Thus far I have considered areas in our foreign and trade outlook in which the contemporary era shows a convergent agenda where in the past there had been more emphasis on divergence.

Still, divergence can be exaggerated. Australia and Britain have a thriving trade and investment relationship.

The two-way trade between our countries has reached $13 billion, and this represents a 16% increase over last year.

Investment is an even more interesting story: The latest figures show the UK just behind the United States as the largest external investor in Australia - $104 billion from the UK, $107 billion from the US. The British High Commission has calculated that up to 300,000 Australian jobs are sustained by British investment in Australia. Nor is this British investment one-way traffic. Australia is, astonishing for such a small country, the fourth largest external investor in the United Kingdom. 38% of Australian overseas investment goes to Britain - the largest single destination.

Britain does not invest out of charity. Australia has established a strong reputation as a regional headquarters for major multinationals seeking a foothold in the Asia- Pacific. There are powerful reasons for this, not the least of which is Australia's rapidly developing Asian language skills: We now have more students of Japanese than any other country in the world outside Japan. By the year 2000, my home State of Western Australian intends that 60% of its school children in years 3 to 10 will be learning at least one Asian language, and the remainder a European language.

Australia is also reaping the benefits of an increasingly technologically sophisticated society. We now have more personal computers per head of population than any country in the world and our internet usage ranks second only to the United States. Despite our small population, the Australian information technology industry is the second largest in Asia -and eighth largest in the world- employing 82 000 people with a turnover of around $A18b. Australia's export performance has grown off the back of this. Our information technology and telecommunications export revenue went from $2.6b in 1994/95 to $3.6b in 1995/96. These exports have grown at a 28% compound annual growth rate since 1990.

But we should not just look at these statistics - impressive as they are. Reaccentuating close relations in other ways might bring forward elements of that domestic agenda where we do have opportunities to learn from one another.

Foremost among these are the opportunities for complementary social policy development afforded by two societies which present very similarly in social structure.

I want to mention just one example here: Both our societies are dealing with the consequences of technological and structural change impacting on the world of work, often to the detriment of job security. The paradox is that much of what the Australian Labor Government put in place to deal with this - in the way of labour market programs and training has been jettisoned in Australia, but picked up now in Britain. This is unsurprising as Tony Blair visited Australia in early 1995 and had extensive discussions with Cabinet and advisers on precisely this issue.

There were three important philosophical elements to Australian Labor's labour market programs. The first is that they were targeted at the most disadvantaged in the labour market, and in particular at long-term unemployed. The second was the guarantee of a job or training outcome for targeted groups. In Australia's case this was expressed in a guaranteed job offer for all those out of work for 18 months or more. The third element was the most important - a concept of reciprocal obligation. In other words, the Government fulfilled an obligation to the unemployed to do all in its power to give them an opportunity for a stake in the economic recovery following Australia's recession of the early 1990s. In return, the unemployed person had an obligation to accept responsibility in the form of a job or training offer.

The hallmarks of Tony Blair's recently announced youth jobs policy are the same as Australian Labor's: targeted assistance to under 25 year olds unemployed for 6 months or more, a guaranteed job or training outcome and the concept of reciprocal obligation.

It is curious that these ideas, now dismantled to the tune of $800m by a new Australian Government, are boosted by 5 billion pounds by the new British Labour Government.

Our Prime Minister fancies an echo of Tony Blair's approach in his own work-for-the- - dole program. Quite apart from the irony in an Australian Prime Minister seeing virtue in the UK where he couldn't in his political opponents and predecessor's programs, the philosophical basis of the two approaches is entirely different. Work for the dole offers targeting, but with only 10,000 places and $21 million there is no guaranteed offer for all the disadvantaged (on these figures, less than 5% of them) and the concept of mutual obligation is better classed as 'convergence':

In other words, Government does less but the unemployed must do just as much work for less training return and suffer the stigma perfectly illustrated by the demeaning title of work-for-the-dole.

I would like to add in closing that Australia (and the Australian Labor Party in particular) has much it can learn in a similar way from an energetic new Government in Britain. As but one example, both our societies have benefited from economic growth arising from structural change, but we have both recognised the socially atomising effects of change. There is now in Britain a welcome new stress on community and taking individual and family values a point further to stressing the importance of security in community responsibility.

At its most basic, this has increased the policy focus on tackling the causes and effects of crime. At its best, it has occasioned a re-assertion of communities' ability to manage their own affairs in education, health and a host of other areas. The Blair Government is now raising this issue of community to the highest levels of public policy concern in Britain. The Australian Government must do so too.

In this way, perhaps the deep bonds between our two societies, rendered subterranean by debates as to the value of such things as overt constitutional connections, can be set aside to the enduring benefit of both Australia and Britain.

Thank you.