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'Building bridges not walls - the case for an open Australia': address to the National Press Club, Canberra

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On Australia Day every year, in ceremonies around the nation, thousands of people

become Australian citizens.

They pledge their respect for Australia’s democratic values, freedoms and laws.

We, in turn, welcome them as fellow citizens of one of the world’s most diverse,

tolerant and open societies - a society where one in every four people was born


Australians look to the world beyond our shores.

Every year, millions of us travel overseas to work, study, holiday and visit family and


Our economy is open.

Imports and exports account for 40 per cent of economic activity, and millions of jobs

rely on trade with the rest of the world.

The benefits of Australia’s openness are all around us every day.

In fact our openness is so fundamental to our prosperity and our very identity as a

nation that we take it for granted.

Yet it was not always so.

For most of the 20th century we maintained the racially-discriminatory White

Australia migration policy and high tariff barriers, which raised the cost of living for

working people and led to the stagnation of our industries.

Despite the distance we have travelled since then, there are some today who want to

return to those failed policies of the past.

There are political parties advocating bans on immigrants based on their religion.

There are demands for the imposition of protectionist barriers on our economy.

There are calls to cut assistance to the world’s poorest people.

And a mentality that wants Australia to pull back from international engagement

through the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.

Those who advocate these policies want Australia to regress to being a closed

society, sealed off from the rest of the world.

Their agenda is one of economic autarky, political intolerance, and international


It is an agenda which would see Australia compromising its values as an open,

liberal, tolerant democracy.

It is also an agenda which, in truth, can never be delivered.

The world’s nations, our economies, our ideas, our security are connected

regardless of the divisions that some seek to construct.

Such an approach, like Canute and the tide, cannot succeed.

But much damage can be done in attempts to effect it.

The advocates of a closed Australia are on the march - on the airwaves, on social

media, and in the Parliament.

Their slogans may comfort a few, but are answers for none.

And great harm flows from the peddling of intolerance that is their stock in trade.

It is in this political context that I want to speak to you today about the importance of

preserving Australia’s identity as an open, outward-looking, optimistic country.

I want to make the case that an open Australia is critical for our security, for our

prosperity, for the fairness of our society, and for our values as Australians.


This is not a new debate.

The merits of open versus closed societies have been ventilated many times over

the years.

One of the most important of these analyses is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and

its Enemies.

Popper wrote his defence of freedom and democracy in the early 1940s while he

was teaching in New Zealand, a long way from his native Austria and the

ascendancy of European fascism.

He traces the distinction between open and closed societies through the history of

ideas back to Ancient Greece and the rise and fall of Athenian democracy.

In this account, closed societies are characterised by hierarchy, class, custom and


They repress individual freedom in the name of the group or the tribe, and its ruling

institutions and authorities.

They are closed both to external influences and to internal freedoms.

By contrast, open societies are characterised by democratic values and individual


They pursue social, political and scientific progress, encourage debate and the

contest of ideas, and values of equality, cooperation and tolerance.

In the classical world, the open versus closed dichotomy was epitomised by the

contrast between cosmopolitan, democratic Athens and oligarchic, traditional Sparta.

When Popper was writing, the contrast was between liberal democracies and

totalitarian regimes.

Today, the new enemies of the open society include fanatical terrorists who seek to

impose a distorted view of Islam and foment a clash of civilisations.

Terrorist attacks in western countries are designed to create fear and curtail our

freedoms - they are a direct attack on the open nature of our societies.

But it should never be forgotten that the most numerous victims of radical Islamist

terrorists are the many thousands of Muslims targeted in attacks in developing

countries around the world.

Open societies also face new challenges from the forces of political populism,

cultural nativism, international isolationism and economic protectionism - forces

which are on the rise in many advanced economies.

And while they do not pose the same threat to open societies as terrorism, they do

represent an attempt to wind back the values and the benefits of openness.

They reflect pressures arising from sluggish economic growth, the impact of

globalisation, the most profound refugee crisis since the Second World War, and

shifts in the global balance of power.

They have been manifested in developments such as the Brexit vote, support for

anti-immigration parties in Europe, and the nature of this year’s US presidential


Australia escaped the worst ravages of the global financial crisis thanks to strong

economic institutions, decisive action by the Rudd Government to provide economic

stimulus and our trade relationships with China and other Asian economies.

We are also fortunate to be geographically insulated from conflicts that trouble many

other parts of the world.

But there are still understandable anxieties amongst our people about globalisation,

economic change and terrorism.

Unfortunately there are many in our political system seeking to exploit these


So we need to better explain the benefits of openness to our people.

We need to develop policies to ensure those benefits are shared fairly.

And we need to demonstrate that security comes from international cooperation and

engagement, not from withdrawal from the world.


An open Australia will be more secure than a closed Australia.

For many, this statement is counter-intuitive. Walls may seem safer than bridges.

Perhaps Paul Keating articulated this principle best when he said that Australia

needs to seek its security in Asia rather than from Asia.

No matter how fortified the castle’s walls, its security hinges on its relationships with

its neighbours and the extent of its alliances.

Australia’s national interest is best served by engaging with the world.

We need strong relationships with other countries to maintain security and to ensure

cooperation on global challenges.

As a middle power, Australia has a direct interest in an open, rules-based

international order in which countries work together to resolve tensions and to tackle

global problems.

When countries close themselves off, turn inward and disengage from the world, the

risks of misunderstanding, tension, rivalry and conflict rise.

Security challenges are best met by working with other countries rather than in


Australia’s alliance with the United States is one of the central pillars of our foreign

and defence policies.

So is our network of relationships with the countries of our region.

And our participation in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions which

underpin the international rules-based order also contributes to our domestic


Efforts by our law enforcement and security agencies to meet the threat of terrorist

attacks are bolstered by international cooperation, including sharing intelligence


And terrorism is just one of a raft of challenges which straddle international borders

and which therefore require international cooperation - challenges like health

pandemics, natural disasters, climate change and environmental degradation, cyber

security, people smuggling, organised crime and international tax avoidance.

Those who advocate a closed Australia would hamper our ability to tackle challenges

like these, which require countries to work together, across international borders.


An open Australia will be more prosperous than a closed Australia.

By trading with the rest of the world, Australia lifts its rate of economic growth and

improves its competitiveness and efficiency.

By trading with the rest of the world, Australia creates jobs - and jobs that rely on

trade are typically better-paid, more productive and more secure jobs.

And by trading with the rest of the world, Australia delivers lower prices and greater

choice for its consumers.

The benefits of an open Australian economy extend beyond trade to other forms of

international economic engagement - collaboration with international partners on

R&D; international purchasing and licensing of intellectual property; and scope for

our firms to invest and establish operations in overseas markets.

An open Australian economy also has access to global financial markets as a source

of investment capital.

Tapping into foreign investment allows us to use the savings of other countries to

finance investment in our own country.

This, in turn, allows us to enjoy higher living standards now and into the future, by

financing investment which will lead to higher growth.

So turning our backs on the global economy would lead to slower growth, a less

productive economy, less sustainable industries and jobs, lower investment, higher

prices and less choice for consumers.

It would not only ignore the economic case, it would also ignore the moral case for


It’s a moral case grounded in the fact that economic growth, trade and globalisation

have improved the living standards of the world’s poorest people - in the last two

decades more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

But those of us who advocate open economies must not ignore the impacts of

international competition on industries and communities.

While trade has delivered significant economic benefits, not all trade agreements are

equal - Australia needs to negotiate high-quality trade agreements which deliver

genuine benefits to our economy, our businesses and our people.

For while it is true that trade liberalisation benefits the economy as a whole, making

everybody better off in the medium term, it is also true that some people will be

worse off, especially in the short-term.

We need to respond to these impacts - not by seeking to close Australia off, but by

sharing the benefits fairly and helping people through the transitions.

Part of supporting the open economy is assisting with economic change through

policies which invest in people’s futures rather than treating displaced workers as

frictional costs.

Maintaining support for an open Australian economy requires investing in education

and skills.

It requires structural adjustment assistance for industries and regions affected by

economic change and training and active labour market programs for workers.

And it requires a progressive safety net of minimum wages, social welfare and

universal healthcare - all policies which are central to the Labor agenda, but which

the Liberals have attacked and undermined.

At a time when some regions are suffering from high unemployment and when

working people are experiencing slow wages growth, we need to respond to

concerns about the impacts of globalisation, not by erecting protectionist barriers but

by ensuring our policies promote inclusive growth and opportunity for the future.


An open Australia will be a fairer, more tolerant and just society.

Open societies encourage social mobility.

They promote individual freedoms and equality of their citizens before the law.

And they respect the rights of minorities, recognising that a society’s true values are

on display in how it treats those who are different or disadvantaged.

Contemporary Australia’s diversity - which in large part reflects our successful post-War immigration program - is a source of social, cultural and economic strength.

It brings fresh perspectives, fosters creativity and drives innovation - all keys to our

future prosperity.

In addition to cultural enrichment, migration also delivers economic benefits.

It boosts demand, and brings in new sources of savings and capital along with new

skills, technologies and ideas.

Migrants bring knowledge and contacts in international markets, which strengthen

our trade relations and broaden our business horizons.

A more diverse workforce gives Australia a competitive advantage in the global


And, at a time when an ageing population is creating fiscal pressures, immigration

can provide a demographic safety valve.

The Productivity Commission has estimated that maintaining migration at our

historical rates will increase Australia’s per capita GDP by 7 per cent by 2060

compared to a scenario of zero net migration.

That’s an extra $7,000 for every Australian man, woman and child in current dollars

compared to zero net migration - which is the policy of One Nation.

In 1996, Pauline Hanson claimed, falsely, that Australia was being swamped by


Now she claims, falsely, that Australia is in danger of being swamped by Muslims.

One Nation wants to shut down migration to Australia based on racial and religious


It wants to turn back history, to restore Australia to some imagined earlier state as a

uniform, homogenous, static society.

This is not just a narrow-minded and impoverished vision for the future.

It is also based on a myth about Australia’s past.

The myth of a uniformly Anglo-Saxon Australia airbrushes out of our history the

Afghan camel drivers, the Chinese working the gold fields, the Japanese pearl divers

and the hundreds of thousands of Irish migrants who came here during the 19th


It blots out the Pacific Islanders brought here to work the cane-fields.

And it ignores the Holocaust survivors and refugees who made a new life in Australia

after the Second World War.

Let alone the centuries of shared history, trade and cultural links between Indigenous

Australians and the Macassan traders of the Indonesian archipelago.

Paul Keating argued, back in 1996, that Pauline Hanson’s regressive politics

perpetrates a myth and a lie: “The myth of the monoculture. The lie that we can

retreat to it.”

The vast majority of Australians are not racist, xenophobic or intolerant.

However, fear of change, fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, is an

understandable human instinct, especially when it is fanned by xenophobes pushing

a political agenda.

Yet prejudice rarely survives personal connection.

World Bank researchers have shown that people who know a refugee are

significantly more likely to say that their country has a responsibility to help


By contrast, people who do not know a refugee are more likely to say they are

worried about migrants taking jobs, changing the host country’s culture or posing

security threats.

This highlights the importance of integration programs and the need to foster

dialogue, and cross-cultural and interfaith relationships.

But what is needed most is leadership.

Political, business and community leaders who will speak up.

Who will remind us that migration has built this nation.

Who will demonstrate the optimism and dynamism of our diversity.

And who will stand up for those communities who are today’s targets.


During the first episode of Hansonism, when it was Asians we were being swamped

by, my western-educated father called me from Malaysia.

He asked if I needed to migrate back to the country of my birth because we were no

longer welcome in Australia.

Years later, as a Minister, when I visited Asia during and after the development and

publication of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, I was often asked

about the Government’s decision to do this work.

That Australia was considering and articulating its place in, and relationship with,

Asia was seen positively (and met on occasion with a degree of surprise).

These personal experiences remind us that our domestic politics do get refracted

into our region.

In recent months, the election of One Nation to the Senate has been reported widely

outside Australia.

The coverage does not cast Australia in a favourable light.

The views of One Nation and other hard right political forces resonate abroad - they

affect Australia’s reputation in the region.

Leaders from both major political parties have worked to build and strengthen

Australia’s relations in Asia.

Their work, over time, has enhanced our standing in the region.

So it damages us all when these voices undermine the positive reputation so many

Australians, in government, business, academia and cultural institutions, have

worked to build.

But it is not only through poor press that this discourse of a closed Australia affects

our international relations.

Foreign policy is axiomatically the protection and advancement of the national


The identification and elaboration of the national interest is a subject for another


However, in part, foreign policy also involves the expression of national identity.

An inward-looking, fearful Australia is not who we are, nor who we have been.

Australia has long been an outward-looking, confident and engaged international

citizen, advocating our values in international forums and taking our responsibilities


Australia was there at the formation of the United Nations in the aftermath of the

Second World War, helping to construct an international order based on peace,

security and cooperation rather than isolation, rivalry and conflict.

Australia was there when the world developed new concepts of human rights,

negotiating international treaties advancing the causes of equality, freedom and


Australia supported independence for the people of Indonesia in the 1940s and for

the people of Timor-Leste in the dark days of 1999.

Our citizens were there for campaigns to end apartheid and bring justice to South


Our defence force personnel have supported peace-keeping and nation-building in

places wracked by conflict, such as Bosnia, Bougainville, Rwanda, Somalia and


And we have played key roles in international initiatives to make the world a safer

place, ranging from nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament to the development of

the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Australians believe in extending a helping hand to those who are less well off - at

home and abroad.

As Ben Chifley put it: “We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we

aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere

we may give a helping hand.”

Australia provides humanitarian aid around the world, both in response to immediate

crises and to promote economic development to lift people out of poverty.

Even as the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have scaled back official

development assistance, hundreds of thousands of Australians have continued

reaching into their own pockets to donate to charities to help people around the


Australia has always been especially generous in helping our neighbours when

natural disasters strike.

And lending a helping hand turns out to be a two-way street.

When bushfires have ravaged Australian communities we have seen our local

firefighters joined by counterparts from half way around the world in helping to save

lives and property.

Australia’s foreign policy needs to be firmly grounded in our national interests - and

these interests are best advanced through engagement with the world.

Australia’s foreign policy also needs to reflect our values, our commitment to making

the world a better place - and an open Australia can advance these values abroad.


If we are to maintain an open Australia we cannot sit by while those who want to pull

down the shutters foment anxiety and fear.

History shows that regimes which seek to turn their countries into fortresses against

the outside world all too often end up turning them into prisons for their own people.

If we build barriers against the rest of the world, the next step is to start building

barriers between ourselves, to segment and divide and separate our people and our


Prejudice and fear can tear a community apart, but they can never build one - no

country in the world has ever become stronger and safer by targeting people

because of their ethnicity or religion.

To avoid this dismal scenario, we need to affirm our values of tolerance and diversity

and to maintain our commitment to economic reform and social fairness.

We need to advocate for the benefits of openness and explain the opportunities for

the future that will come from international engagement.

We need to ensure the benefits of globalisation and interconnectedness are shared


And we need to understand the consequences of turning our backs on the world:

• Diminished capacity to influence international affairs, pursue our national interests

and tackle global challenges.

• Higher living costs, lower investment, slower growth and less prosperity.

• And the risk of compromising our basic Australian characteristics of decency,

generosity and confidence in the future.

An open Australia will be a more prosperous, more secure and more united country.

A closed Australia will be a poorer, less secure and more divided place.

The choice is ours.