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The new Colombo Plan: address to the Menzies Research Centre, Canberra
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH
22 March 2013
TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR ADDRESS TO THE MENZIES RESEARCH CENTRE, NEW COLOMBO PLAN POLICY PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
I am really thrilled, Julie, to see how many people you have assembled to support this idea which is your idea and which the Coalition has enthusiastically embraced.
It is a remarkable roll call of the diplomatic corps of this capital led by the Ambassadors and High Commissioners of China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, PNG, Singapore and New Zealand and senior representatives from the other missions here - a really impressive roll call.
It’s terrific to see so many senior business leaders here, obviously Tony Shepherd the head of the Business Council, James Packer one of our most famous business people, David Peever of Rio, Andrew Forrest I believe is here or on his way - he has just arrived, very good - and of course so many senior representatives of the higher education sector. You are here because this is an idea whose time has come; or perhaps I should say come again.
It will be a different and better Colombo Plan in the future to that which we have had in the past. That which we had in the past was a one-way street. It was the young leaders of our region coming to Australia to benefit from our wisdom. This Colombo Plan will be a two-way street. It will be the young leaders of Australia going to our region to learn from your wisdom because we must advance together. We must learn from each other if this part of the world is to be the beacon of prosperity and over time freedom and liberalism that we would like it to be.
It is a remarkable story, the story of the Colombo Plan. As Julie has mentioned, some 40,000 future leaders came to this country in the years leading up to the mid ‘80s and many of the changes that we have seen in our region over the decades have been influenced by those who - returning from this country - help to lead theirs.
Asia today is much more prosperous, much more liberal, much more humane, much more market-oriented than it has ever been before and I believe that those Colombo Plan alumni have been a very important part of that improvement.
This country was changed very significantly for the better because of the presence here for an extended period of time of so many of the finest young people from around our region.
We are a far more cosmopolitan society then we were in the 1950s. We have a far more liberal and humane immigration policy then we did in the 1950s, notwithstanding recent efforts to crack down on something which should be at the very heart of our immigration programme.
So, we have been changed, our region has been changed and we want to renew that change for the better with this new Colombo Plan.
We have a regrettable tendency to underestimate just how progressive the Australia of the 1960s and 70s was. It was after all Bob Menzies who first described Asia not as the far east but the near north. Back in the 1960s some 40 per cent of Australian school leavers were studying a foreign language. I regret to say that the figure is more like 10 per cent and many of the great languages of Asia such as Bahasa have almost disappeared from our schools.
For all our talk of the Asian Century and for all our current talk of Asian engagement there has been much to blight our relationship with Asia just in the last few years. If we were as serious about Asia as we must be, we would never have banned uranium sales to India; we would never have banned the live cattle exports to Indonesia; we would not engage in megaphone diplomacy as we do so often over things like border protection.
So, there is much that can be improved, but rather than dwell on the strengths and weaknesses of particular governments, what must endure and what must strengthen is the relationship between the peoples of Australia and the peoples of our region.
It is to the credit of Indonesia that 17,000 young Indonesians are currently studying in this country. It is to the discredit of Australia that only some 200 Australians are currently studying in Indonesia.
I had the interesting experience just a couple of months ago of being in a room with the former Prime Minister Mr Howard, my own chief of staff, the Foreign Minister for Indonesia Marty Natalegawa and his three most senior foreign policy officials. Of the seven people in the room, six had been to university in Australia - lucky Australia. Lucky Australia to have such a soft power advantage in the councils of our region but this will not be the case in the future if we do not lift our game and it is, as I said, to the benefit of our region as well as to the benefit of this country that a much larger student exchange programme get underway as quickly as possible. It must be a large programme if it is to make a difference but it must also have an elite component if it is to engage the leadership of this country and the countries of our region.
I was lucky enough to study at Oxford and it may be too much to hope that the New Colombo Plan could be the Rhodes Scholarships of our region but perhaps it could emulate the Churchill Fellowships or the Fulbright Fellowships of our region. Perhaps in honour of the founder of the original Colombo Plan we could have Spender Fellows who are in our region and in this country as a result of the new Colombo Plan and as Julie said, there should be a strong business component because the future of our region depends upon strong businesses. We cannot have strong societies without strong economies and we cannot have strong economies without strong private businesses and companies need to have international linkages just as countries should have international linkages.
So, I think this is going to be a very important day: certainly in the development of Coalition policy, in the development of what I hope will be a signature initiative of any incoming Coalition government but quite possibly an important day in the life of our country. Quite possibly in 30 and 40 years’ time, people will look back to this meeting in this Parliament House and say yes, those people made a difference, yes countries were changed as a result of this meeting.
So much that happens in this building is fierce and partisan. So much that happens in this building is all about the large egos of the people who strut and fret their hour upon the stage but hopefully what we do today is about the “better angels of our nature,” it is about things that will make a lasting difference to our country and our world.
I want to thank Julie Bishop and all of my parliamentary colleagues who are here today. Alan Tudge, Kelly O’Dwyer, Ian MacDonald as well as those I’ve mentioned earlier. This is a very important process and we hope that at the end of today there will be a steering group that will refine and finalise the proposal that we will take to the people at the next election.
We will be a prudent, a frugal and a responsible government should we get the chance after the next election.
We will be a consultative and collegial government should we get the chance after the next election and you don’t start being consultative and collegial on the day after the election. You will only be consultative and collegial after the election if that’s what you’ve been before the election. Good policy has to be talked about and discussed and consulted over. It can’t just be dictated by the great gods in Canberra. We want to be partners with you, not simply dictators to you. That’s why we are going through this process.
I want to thank you again for being here. As I said, I think this can be a very significant day in the life of our nation but as Tom and Don and Julie have said, this is a working day, we’re not just going to talk at you, we are going to talk with you and together we will build a better country, a better region, a better world, with a brighter future.