Australian Institute of International Affairs
Monday, 13th November 2023
Canberra, ACT


[Thanks/greetings omitted]


Let’s face it, the world has rarely been a stable place. If it were a stable place, we would still be cave dwellers and hunter-gatherers.


Today we are in a time of a growing number of regional wars, and continue to face the threat of even greater conflict.


We are in a time of destructive weather events of predicted increasing frequency, scale and impact.


And we are in a time of technology disrupting not only how we communicate but rivaling and potentially even influencing how we think or act.


It is easy against these challenges to hit the panic button but, amidst the multitude of human induced crises we face, we should equally have faith in our human capacity and capability.


Hans Rosling’s thought-provoking book Factfulness gives proof to the facts that across the world ever increasing numbers of people continue to live longer, healthier and richer lives.


It may not feel like it when we are confronted by images of human suffering and distress from far too many corners of the world, but the trend lines on the core measures of human existence remain overwhelmingly positive.


As leaders our challenge is one of passing on a better future to the next generation.


Unquestionably, that should remain our goal as it has been for leaders before us.

But first, amidst a growing number of simultaneous threats, we need to work on strategies that preserve the gains we’ve made.


To preserve these gains may require us all to return to first principles.


What are the good parts of human development that have enabled us to go from cave dwellers to consumers, from hunters to carers, and from gatherers to innovators?


And we need to be willing to defend, uphold and advance these principles that have enabled that evolution.


Despite its current ineffectiveness as an entity, we can find sound principles to fall back on in the United Nations Charter, which:

  • acknowledges “the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
  • urges the promotion of “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
  • and strives to “live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”


As divided as the world may be feeling, we should stand firm in pursuit of these principles.


Since they were written in 1945, the countries that have led the modern gains in human advancement, while most closely adhering to these principles, overwhelmingly share two systemic traits – liberal democracy and market economy.


These are the systems of governing and organising ourselves that saw nations get healthier – and more prosperous – faster. Fortunately for Australia, we are both a liberal democracy and a market economy.


Adopting at least some elements of these systems has been a prerequisite for faster growth and prosperity. Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform of China is an example, achieving stronger economic growth and development while pointing towards greater market liberalisation, but slowing when more inward looking.


But both liberal democracy and market economy are under threat, in some part from within and in large part from the growing global disorder of autocrats and dictators.


Aspects of liberal democracies and market economies may also be threatened by how we act in preservation of one, or other, of these systems. The big questions lead to inevitable trade-offs.


To what extent can we successfully defend the sovereignty and role of liberal democracies in a world of open, trading, market economies?


Or, to what extent will we maintain comparative advantages in innovation if we restrict the openness of market economies in the name of defending liberal democracies?


Do we decouple or derisk? Do we onshore or diversify supply chains? Do we respond to growing militarisation with sadly, growing militarisation?


How do we make diplomacy work to prevent conflict, to uphold the ideals of the UN charter and to enable all nations to cooperate in addressing global challenges such as climate change or AI?


There are many questions nations like ours – and their governments – must answer.


In recent months the roll call of the world’s hotspots has been long … Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas may dominate our news, but issues between Azerbaijan and Armenia have added yet more to the world’s numbers of displaced persons, tensions have risen again in Serbia-Kosovo, and coups have further destabilised northern Africa.


Closer to home, conflict has escalated in Myanmar, adding further to already dire humanitarian conditions for so many.


And in a reminder of the great strategic contest of our time, China has repeatedly – in recent months – sought to flex its muscle against the Philippines in the South China Sea, acting in direct violation of international rulings.


Concerningly, the increasing cooperation and interconnectedness of those driving destabilisation around the world points to greater risks than even the heightened commentary of recent years envisaged.


From an Australian standpoint, there are three key roles we can and should play in response to the global disruption we face.


First, we must make a meaningful contribution to the deterrence of conflict, by building and hastening Australia’s defence investment and cooperation.


Second, we must be an honest and principled interlocutor in our international engagement, especially with the major powers.


And third, we must advance diverse partnerships wherever they advance the cause of peace, stability and prosperity.


On deterrence, Australia is talking the talk and has sketched out the architecture but we run the risk of not walking the walk fast enough.


The previous Coalition Government showed great prescience when, prior to the 2013 election, it promised to restore defence spending from a woeful 1.56 per cent of GDP to at least 2 per cent.


Critically, we delivered on this promise, notwithstanding other spending pressures and the cost of Covid.


Without this, Australia would not have been a credible partner for AUKUS, nor would the architectural sketches of our future defence posture be considered viable.


But since the election, defence spending has gone backwards not forwards. The Defence Strategic Review may be strong in strategy, but a subsequent quagmire of further reviews is delivering delay rather than hard capability.


We do need to accept the reality that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is already the world’s largest armed force and continues to advance its capabilities, including in nuclear weapons.


Australia must demonstrate that we can efficiently and effectively deliver on capability including planned surface ships, while increasing their lethality where warranted. We must equally make the planned guided weapons enterprise a reality, enhancing our long-range capabilities.


Equally, we should be looking for the United States to open up defence trade between our nations as comprehensively and quickly as possible. The pillars of AUKUS, as a means for deterrence of conflict, can best be achieved by enabling the seamless but secure flow of intellectual property, skilled people and hardware between and within our countries.


These initiatives go not only to enhancing the defence capability of our militaries, but also lifting our defence industrial capability such that we may more effectively respond to future uncertainties.


In our role as an honest and principled interlocutor, this requires Australia to demonstrate consistency in our principles and the courage of our convictions.


While continued stabilisation of relations with China is very welcome, we should not easily forget China’s attempts at economic coercion against Australia.


It is to the enduring credit of Australian industry and business that we withstood, with minimal economic impact, the barrage of trade sanctions applied both directly and indirectly against us.


That these sanctions are eventually being removed without acquiescence to the infamous list of 14 demands is a fact noted by many around the world.


However, the removal by China of their sanctions against us is not a cause for gratitude, as adherence to the agreed terms of the China Australia Free Trade Agreement is the bare minimum we should expect of one another.


Similarly, we cannot tolerate the indefinite or arbitrary detention of Australian citizens. As with Cheng Lei we should expect transparency and justice for Dr Yang Hengjun, including his return home to Australia. The placing of bounties by Hong Kong on the heads of Australians is similarly unacceptable.


We should also expect adherence to other international rules that underpin stability and trade in our region, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We should speak strongly against breaches of rights to freedom of navigation and overflight, which risk miscalculation and escalation that is against all our interests.


The continuing scale of PRC military operations near Taiwan presents similar risks and warrant similar calls for their cessation.


Equally, the strengthening of relations between China and Russia throughout Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated a wilful disregard for the very principle of sovereignty, which China so often asks others to respect.


China’s ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia has bloomed as the rogue states of Iran and North Korea have simultaneously increased their military support for Russia speaks to the gravity of the security challenge we face but must avert.


Averting the worst threats requires as much strength and unity as is possible. In this, Ukraine is a test.


If the US is to stand as the “beacon of liberty” described by new House Speaker Mike Johnson, then the US must continue defending liberty in Ukraine.


We need the US to be the leader of the free world, not just the biggest in the free world, but we must also – all – be willing to do our fair share of the heavy lifting too. Australia has maintained welcome support for Ukraine, but the extent of that support is seriously compromised by the Albanese Government’s unwillingness to replenish ADF commitments to Ukraine.


The defence of sovereignty and security extends to supporting Israel’s right to self defence, against the October 7 attacks and future threat posed by Hamas.


This war will and is testing resolve. Our leaders should not seek to create any moral equivalence between the deliberate targeting of civilians by a terrorist organisation and the self defence undertaken by a sovereign state.


While we should expect international law to be respected and all grieve for innocent lives lost, we must remain resolute that the outcome desired is one where Hamas unconditionally surrenders or has been overwhelmingly disabled.


Only following the removal of Hamas from Gaza can the world look to the next steps of deeper stabilisation, rebuild and negotiations to lead to a longer term peaceful coexistence for Israelis and Palestinians alike.



As partners across the democratic world with a commitment to market economies we must engage cooperatively to strengthen those economies, especially where they are threatened by market distorting actions or intellectual property theft.

A US and EU that undercut each other – and their free market allies – through excessive subsidies, or fail to seize opportunities to deepen free trade between our market economies, does nothing to make the sum of us stronger.


In contrast, if US and EU negotiations can secure a practical and principled approach in sectors such as steel and aluminium, which achieves concomitant economic security, national security and climate change objectives, it could present a new model true to shared principles and interests.


How to maximise both economic security and national security will increasingly require integrated policies and strategies.


The step up in diplomatic engagement by the Biden administration has been extremely welcome, especially within the Indo-Pacific.


I, for one, would prefer to see the US to join the Trans Pacific Partnership. But, recognising this is a forlorn hope, the alternative Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity must instead deliver real growth in actual, tangible US trade and investment with the region.



Another more consistently applied feature of liberal democracies has been a greater willingness to respect and to seek to uphold international law, including the defence of basic human rights.


Sanctions have increasingly played a role in these efforts, with the mix of broad economic sanctions targeting countries for their breaches of international law. More recently this has been coupled with the use of Magnitsky-style sanctions pinpointing penalties at those directly responsible for significant human-rights violations or significant corruption.


But questions remain over whether sanctions are applied uniformly enough, widely enough and effectively enforced enough to achieve maximum impact.


A clear example relates to ongoing concerns of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. Prior to the last election Senator Wong, in an address to the AIIA, called on the Morrison Government to:

“consider targeted sanctions on foreign companies, officials and other entities known to be directly profiting from Uyghur forced labour and other human rights abuses.”


At the halfway mark of their first term, no such action has been taken by the Albanese Government.


On the August anniversary of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report into the forced detention and treatment of Uyghurs, Human Rights Watch Australia highlighted the action of the EU, US, UK and Canada to apply sanctions and said:

“the Australian government should join other democracies in holding serious human rights abusers in China to account. By not doing this, what message is Australia sending?”


We can all draw conclusions about why Australia may not have acted, even though we in the Opposition have offered bipartisan support for actions as a result of the UN High Commissioner’s findings.


By not acting Australia weakens international efforts and the effectiveness of the efforts of others. As the Human Rights First Coalition put it in their global review of Magnitsky at Five Years:

“As powerful as it can be for one jurisdiction to impose Magnitsky sanctions against a human rights abuser or corrupt actor, the impact and legitimacy of those sanctions are multiplied as more jurisdictions join together to sanction the same persons.”


This is why there is merit in considering their proposal to better align sanctions and to find ways for jurisdictions to more quickly and frequently adopt the sanctions applied by like-minded nations.


As well as improving the efficacy of sanctions that are applied by multiplying the impact on perpetrators, such an approach could also give nations greater protection or confidence in applying those sanctions in the first place, especially against more sensitive or coercive nations.


Increasingly some countries are taking more active steps to seize assets of sanctioned individuals, force sales and donate proceeds to help those impacted by abuse. Far from being a safe haven for the investments of wrongdoers, this approach creates a real risk to the benefits often acquired through corruption or abuse.


Over coming weeks, I intend to consult about the potential terms of reference for a Senate inquiry that could, in a focused way, assess the merits of carefully multilateralising aspects of our sanctions regime and strengthening its enforcement or penalties. I look forward to the input of AIIA members in those consultations and any potential Senate inquiry.



Australia, by necessity, pursues a diverse network of partnerships in both type (economic, security, regionally based, values based) and in geography, albeit with a natural focus on our region.


The previous Coalition Government expanded this network. In the security realm we drove the Quad to a leaders level dialogue, established AUKUS and deepened partnerships, such as those with Japan.


Economically, the growth in our network of trade agreements is unrivalled, from north Asian nations, through RCEP and CPTPP, across to India and the UK. Breakthroughs such as our digital economy agreement with Singapore provide models for increased cooperation in the new economy too.

Regionally we ensured that Australia was the first country to sign a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN and built the Pacific Step-Up to deepen ties across Pacific Islands Forum member nations.


The Pacific Step-Up is yielding benefits, from the closer relations secured through a stronger diplomatic presence to a bigger role in critical infrastructure. The Labor government is appropriately building upon it, such as with the new Falepili Union with Tuvalu.


Our rallying call to all nations beyond the major strategic competitors must centre on the unifying interests of respect for sovereignty … a world where the strong don’t dominate smaller or mid-size nations or economies … not through military invasion, nor through economic coercion, nor through a rewriting of global rules to advantage one over another.


Whether you are a country that some may describe in terms such as the Global South, or a member nation of the OECD, these should be shared interests, which Australia can and should prosecute.


In a world of constant disruption, with its amazing successes but significant threats, we should meet the challenges head on, with both realism but also optimism. We must do so knowing that our human capabilities, along with our systems, including here in Australia, of liberal democracy and market economies, are resilient, adaptable and worth defending.