20th anniversary dinner Menzies Research Centre

  • Speech

It is a pleasure to be here this evening amongst friends and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Menzies Research Centre. This is an institution that has – in only two short decades – made a very important contribution to the public policy debate in this country.

We also use this opportunity tonight to pay tribute to Sir Robert Menzies, born 120 years ago in country Victoria. His contribution to public life changed the course of modern Australia. More than seven decades have now passed since he set out his vision for post-war Australia in a series of radio broadcasts.

My parents married shortly after the Second World War and they were apple and cherry growers in the Adelaide Hills. They were Menzies' Forgotten People. My Dad returned from the war, joining the thousands and thousands of Australians who had fought for freedom, and he and others in 1949 saw in Menzies the best defence for freedoms in a time of peace.

My parents shared that Menzies belief that real freedom involved the right to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to be independent, to be industrious, to acquire skill and to seek reward. My parents, as with so many of their generation, believed in the satisfaction that hard work and individual enterprise bestowed on an individual. As a family on the land they neither sought assistance from the government, nor were they given any, as the ravages of nature and disruptions in trade took their toll. They accepted the risks that came from living off the land, but they also gratefully accepted the rewards. These were the values that were instilled in me.

As Liberals, we are united in a shared commitment to the values and beliefs articulated by Menzies. We believe that as a government grows bigger, the ability of individuals to determine their own destiny gets smaller.

Delivering the First Baillieu Lecture in 1964, Sir Robert noted: "What governments can and should do, when encountering some new problems or developing state of affairs, is not to say "the Government will run this", but first of all to seek the private enterprise answer, to help the individual to help himself". This is a task that still confronts Government today. We must avoid overregulation, avoid 'government knows best' solutions and convince Australians that they ultimately, not the government, are the best custodians of their futures. That the private sector, not government should be the backbone of the economy, that individuals and their families should be at the heart of society, not the government.

This is where the Menzies Research Centre plays such an important role. Its reputation as a hub for policy debate and development enables it to bring together a range of voices from across the political divide. In a market place of competing ideas, it is only through open and frank discussion that good public policy can emerge.

Formed in 1994, the Menzies Research Centre is the intellectual and philosophical keeper of the Menzies' vision. Think tanks, like town squares in previous times, are places for people to come together to discuss the important issues that affect our lives.

Good public policy requires a focus on the long-term, as well as an appreciation of the impact a policy decision in one area may have on other areas of our national life. It means carefully and methodically explaining why action is needed; bringing people along while embarking on often difficult change.

Like Menzies in his radio broadcasts, or John Howard during the gun control debate, it also means demonstrating the strength of your convictions. Explaining how individual policies fit into a broader narrative that is accepted by the public is essential. It is a measure of the good public policy of the Menzies-era that many of his government's initiatives are continued to this day, such as federal funding for private schools or federal funding of universities.

As Prime Minister, Menzies understood the importance of an economically revived Japan as both a bulwark against communism and a potential trading partner of Australia. The decision to enter into a comprehensive trade partnership with Japan in 1957, despite the strong opposition of then Labor leader Dr Evatt, reflected Menzies' commitment to Australia's long-term interests over short-term political expediency.

The Menzies Government laid the foundation for a relationship that would be built upon by successive governments. The recent conclusion of an Economic Partnership Agreement - a Free Trade Agreement - with Japan has raised this important bilateral relationship to a new level. And in an historic nicety Prime Minister Kishi signed the agreement in 1957 and it will be his grandson Prime Minister Abe who will bring the economic relationship full circle when he visits Australia in July.

Similarly, Menzies' success in building new ties with the United States continues to serve as the bedrock of Australia's national security policy. For it was Menzies who first sent an Australian Head of Mission to Washington in 1940, just a few months after the outbreak of war in Europe. Indeed, such was Menzies vision of what was to come that in 1940 he despatched ambassadors to Washington, Tokyo, Ottawa and Chongquing - the first time we had foreign diplomats anywhere outside London. But it was Menzies who began formal diplomatic ties with the United States with RG Casey being Our Man pin Washington and in 1951 it was the Menzies Government that signed the ANZUS Alliance – to this day our only, our indispensable security treaty.

Later this year, Minister for Defence David Johnston and I will welcome the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, for our joint ministerial discussions including on the new security frontiers of space and cyber.

Another policy issue that has withstood the test of time is the recognition of the role that development assistance plays in promoting Australia's national interest. It was Menzies' view that one of the great underlying problems was the gap in living standards between industrialised and emerging nations. Unless solved, he believed it would continue to produce tensions that threatened the newfound peace.

Raising living standards enhances stability and prosperity. It is in Australia's interests that these efforts focus on our immediate region. This year, 2014-15, we will invest around $5 billion on development assistance, ranking Australia within the top ten OECD countries. 92 per cent of this aid will be spent in our region, the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific - an increase on previous years.

At the National Press Club this month, I put forward a new paradigm for Australia's aid program. It is an approach that places private enterprise at the heart of what we are doing – from harnessing private capital to encouraging the emergence of a strong private sector in developing countries capable of creating jobs and lifting standards of living. Ultimately, it is economic growth not aid that lifts communities out of poverty - as China, Korea and the nations of South East Asia so vividly demonstrate.

As Menzies urged in his First Baillieu Lecture, we seek a private enterprise answer that helps individuals to help themselves. In our aid program we'll look for innovative solutions to many of development's seemingly intractable problems.

I am establishing a Development Innovation Hub within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – drawing on expertise internationally and nationally from the private sector, academic world and civil society organisations – to come up with transformational new ideas on delivering aid inspired. I have to admit inspired by the entrepreneurs class I saw at Stanford Business School a few years ago and reminiscent of Steve Jobs TeamMac at Apple in the 1980s. I see this Innovation Hub as a model for future public policy development that can be scaled up and replicated in other areas of government. I believe we can and should apply innovative concepts and practices in transforming all government services.

We will also introduce a rigorous system of performance benchmarks to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our aid program. All this will be done within the confines of what the country can responsibly afford given the current level of public debt and the fact that we have not seen a surplus since 2008.

This leads me to my final example of good public policy under the Menzies Government that has inspired me to implement a policy that is so very dear to my heart. The Colombo Plan, under Menzies, was brilliant in its concept and transformational in its implementation.

Speaking on the eve of his departure to a meeting of Commonwealth Nations in Colombo in 1950, External Affairs Minister Percy Spender stated:

"Geographically, Australia is next door to Asia and our destiny as a nation is irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia. This means that our future depends to an ever increasing degree upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the economic well being of Asian people, and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia. Whilst it remains true that peace is indivisible and that what takes place in any part of the world may affect us, our vital interests are closer to home. It is therefore in Asia and the Pacific that Australia should make its primary effort in the field of foreign relations."

This engagement found expression in education, with tens of thousands of students from the region coming to Australia to study under the original Colombo Plan. It built a legacy of friendships and understanding between Australia and our region that lasts to this day. Over time Colombo Plan alumni rose to positions of influence in their home country, for example Indonesian Vice President Dr Boediono. So this investment has proved invaluable.

In many instances, the gratitude felt towards Australia for this opportunity has been passed on the next generation. Recently I received an email from a businessman in Singapore whose father was one of the original Colombo Plan students. He said the Colombo Plan had given his father the platform he needed to help others. He studied medicine in Australia, he returned home, he built a hospital, he trained thousands of doctors in Singapore and this has impacted on hundreds-of-thousands of lives.

In Australia, the Colombo Plan also had the added benefit of dismantling out-dated stereotypes and prejudices. Writing in 1969, Percy Spender said of the plan, quote: "The flow of Asian students, trainees, observers to Australia for example, is bringing Australians and Asians into direct, personal, day-to-day contact. They are mingling at work, in private homes, in sport, in social gathering and in community activities of many kinds, and in so doing changing social attitudes"

The Colombo Plan shaped Australia's foreign and domestic policies for the better. It was with this legacy in mind that I approached the Menzies Research Centre whilst in opposition to begin the process of developing a new student exchange initiative, an initiative whose time had come. Like the Colombo Plan before it, this would be a public policy initiative as well as an education one.

Whereas Menzies brought the region's best and brightest students to Australia, we would send our undergraduates out into the Indo-Pacific to learn from our neighbours and friends in the region. The insights and the skills and the perspectives and the language skills that students will develop will strengthen Australia's engagement with the region and the way our institutions and businesses operate way into the future.

I want it to be the norm rather than the exception for young Australian students to undertake a study experience in our region. Indeed I hope it become a 'rite of passage' for Australian undergraduates.

As Minister for Education in the Howard Government, I was concerned with the persistently small number of Australian students who chose to undertake overseas studies and particularly in the region. Correcting this circumstance meant addressing the factors that discouraged students from taking this step. And it seemed students just couldn't see how studying overseas, and particularly in Asia, would benefit their long-time ambitions. But from my own experience of studying overseas, I knew it could not only be a life changing experience for the individual but it would also reap enormous benefits for the nation.

I spoke to Menzies Research Centre chairman Tom Harley and we agreed that under the banner of the Menzies Research Centre, we would hold a policy roundtable at Parliament House in March of 2013. This brought together university representatives, community groups, students and business leaders and Ambassadors from missions in our region. We opened up discussion to expert opinion, inviting feedback and criticism as a way of improving the policy process.

This Menzies Research Centre roundtable created a picture of a government-in-waiting. The then executive director, Don Markwell had a distinguished reputation within the university sector and this was crucial in building support for the New Colombo Plan. As a leading education writer for The Australian pointed out, Don "presided over the round table [at Parliament House] with a collegial tone, and it's possible that participants, especially those from higher education, will be more comfortable talking policy with his centre than with a political party."

For my part, there is no doubt. The efforts of Don Markwell and Rachael Thompson, backed by the Menzies Research Centre board, in managing the policy roundtable and overseeing a high-level Steering Committee chaired by Kevin McCann of Macquarie Bank, reflected their commitment to achieving the strategic goals of the Centre. After months of consultation and policy work we were able to articulate a detailed election policy on a New Colombo Plan and in coming to Government I presented a policy blueprint to the Department of Foreign Affairs and said implement it and they did.

Last night, we saw the results of this work. Accompanied by the Governor General Peter Cosgrove as patron, I awarded the inaugural New Colombo Plan scholarships to 40 of Australia's brightest undergraduates to study in our pilot locations of Indonesia, Japan, Singapore or Hong Kong. This included the four New Colombo Plan Fellows in recognition of the highest ranked candidates for each destination.

These 40 students will undertake 12 months study in a range of academic areas including science, engineering, law, business management, education and social work. They are among the first wave of what the Government hopes will be an increasing flow of Australian students into the region. In total this year, 1300 students will have received New Colombo Plan grants to study in our region from 38 of our universities.

To help students understand how overseas exchange can assist them in achieving their career aspirations, we are working with business to deliver internship and mentorship opportunities in the host countries. In a superb example of soft power diplomacy Indonesia's Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa has offered placements to Australian students under the New Colombo Plan at the Indonesian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. You may not read much about that policy triumph in any newspaper but it's a fact! And Rebecca Wardell, the 2014 Singapore Fellow, will undertake an internship at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health focusing on infectious disease control.

Next year the New Colombo Plan will open up to other countries in our region including China and Korea. Already the New Colombo Plan policy has become a signature foreign policy of the Coalition Government and it reflects the direction and the input provided so early on by the Menzies Research Centre and steering committee.

In assisting with the development of the New Colombo Plan, the centre has more than achieved its purpose of making "a profound and positive contribution to policy development, especially through providing practical ideas which help to shape public policies with long-term impact and benefit to Australia"

And we have achieved what many thought impossible – an initiative that enjoys absolute bipartisan support and that it means it has a chance to go on in perpetuity. To think that an idea that emerged from the dark days of opposition is now discussed raised by Presidents and Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers throughout the region as a practical example of Australia's foreign policy at work demonstrates the influence that a well-developed public policy can have. For example just the other day Singapore President Tony Tan spoke so warmly of Singapore's enthusiasm in being one of the original partners with Australia in this endeavour.

I want to personally thank Tom Harley for grasping the initiative when I first spoke of the concept over a glass or two one night. And I want to acknowledge the efforts of all of the Executive Directors and the staff of the Menzies Research Centre from Michael L'Estrange now through to Nick Cater. We have been so well served by the staff, the board and the patrons of the Menzies Research Centre. I believe some 50 or so books, research papers, pamphlets have been provided to the community for public policy discussion in that time.

Those who engage in public policy hope to make a difference. Major progress is made when there is creative thinking, new ideas and innovative implementation. That is the challenge for the Menzies Research Centre - to be a driver and supporter of progress. I have every confidence in its continued success

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