Address to Australia Awards Leadership Conference

  • Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

Good morning, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to launch the Australia Awards Leadership conference here in our national capital - and what a vibrant, dynamic, talented group of people we have in this room! There was a real buzz as I walked in and then you went quiet but I understand you had quite an evening last night so maybe that explains it!

The Australian Government is very proud of our Australia Awards program for it provides an opportunity for us to reach out to developing countries to identify the best and brightest and to offer them an opportunity to study at an Australian university. Our hope is that you receive a first class education, a top quality education, but one that will give you the opportunity to go back to your country and influence social and economic reforms. And that's what leadership is all about, influencing, bringing people with you, changing the course of your family, your community, your country for the better.

The Australia Awards is a very special program within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but the jewel in the crown of this wonderful program is the Leadership Conference, for it is here that you get the opportunity to talk about leadership. What an intoxicating subject that is.

What makes a leader? What makes a great leader? Indeed, this topic has occupied writers, academics and commentators for as long as we can remember. In fact, bookstores can be filled with books about leadership and the qualities that makes a leader. You are among a very special group of alumni, or you will be alumni when you've completed your scholarship, and we're very proud of the fact you'll have this connection with Australia that we hope will be a deep connection, a positive connection and one that will last a lifetime.

I am very passionate about the concept of education exchange as a way of deepening and broadening and diversifying relationships between countries. That's why the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and I put such emphasis on education. It's a foreign policy as well as an education policy - bringing people to Australia to be educated here - building their capacity, building their capability is at the core of the Australia Awards scholarship program.

I also believe that we need to send young Australians into our region in particular so that they have the opportunity to learn from your countries, so they can live and study and work in countries in our region and come back to Australia with new perspectives and insights and ideas and not only add to the productivity and prosperity of our country but have those connections, those networks, those relationships that will hopefully last a lifetime.

I have introduced, since coming to Government what we call the New Colombo Plan which is part of our overall focus on education as a means of furthering multilateral, regional and bilateral relationships. The original Colombo Plan, that was set up in the 1950s, brought young people to Australia to study in our universities, much as the Australia Awards do today. Over 30 years about 40,000 people studied in Australian universities, gained a qualification and then went back to their homes and invariably became leaders in their communities, in business, in politics.

In fact, as I travel throughout the Asia-Pacific in particular, I'm struck by the number of times a Cabinet Minister, or Vice President, or a business leader will say – I'm a Colombo Plan scholar, what I know about Australia I learned from my time there and it was positive. Invariably, they tell me it was positive.

I was in Malaysia recently and we had a New Colombo Plan - and I'll come to what the New Colombo Plan is about, we had a New Colombo Plan event and a number of the original Colombo Plan scholars came. Their stories of living in Australia, and making friends and going to people's homes and meeting their families were still so very real and very vivid and that's what I hope you will experience while you are here.

The New Colombo Plan is the reverse. It's sending young Australians to universities in the region. We set up a pilot program this year with four locations – Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Japan so that we could trial it, see how it worked, because there are issues such as partnering universities, getting course accreditation and mutual recognition and student visas and also looking at work visas because part of the New Colombo Plan is for students to undertake an internship or work experience in a company, or business, or entity in the host country. And I have to say I couldn't be more delighted with the progress of the pilot scheme for the New Colombo Plan. By the end of the year 1300 Australian students, undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 28 will have undertaken an opportunity to study overseas in one of the four locations.

It's very flexible, we've had mobility grants - up to a month overseas, we've had longer one or two semester opportunities and now we've got 12 month scholarships that will be announced on the 25th of June. Interestingly, 40 per cent of the applicants for the mobility grants chose Indonesia as the place they wanted to go, so that's wonderful and it flies in the face of recent polls that suggest that there's a lot more that Australia and Indonesia need to do to get to know each other, for if you judge the response of our young people they know exactly where they want to spend their time studying!

From 2015 we will be rolling out the program across our region, the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific, and I've written to the Foreign Ministers and Education Ministers from a number of countries and we expect hopefully about 30 more countries will come on board. So this two-way exchange, the Australia Awards that bring you to Australia, the New Colombo Plan sending students into the region is utterly fundamental for the peace and prosperity, not only for Australia, but the peace and prosperity of your countries as well.

My realisation that this was a fundamental principal of foreign policy actually came when I was Education Minister back in 2006 and I was proudly hosting a conference of Education Ministers to showcase Australia's Higher Education Institutions to say – come to Australia, make sure your students come to Australian universities and get a first class education here. After a while, a number of the Education Ministers said - 'Australia offers us a great opportunity but why don't Australian students come to our country?' And I said – 'that's a very good question'.

So, I initiated a survey across the universities in Australia to find out what young Australian students thought about studying overseas, if they thought about it at all and if they weren't thinking about it, why weren't they thinking about it? Well I got the results of the survey back and then we lost the election! So I had to wait another six years before we got back into Government and I was the Foreign Minister, so it's now a Foreign Minister's program.

I have to say I was drawing on my own experience. I studied law, I trained as a lawyer and practised law for many years. Then I started to get restless, thinking there was something else I should be doing in life and I moved from being a commercial litigation lawyer to becoming the managing partner at my law firm - and that's a leadership role and a half. Have you ever tried managing 25 male legal partners? I think that's where the phrase 'herding cats' came from!

I was restless about what I wanted to do, I felt sure there was something else in life I wanted to achieve. And people told me you're meant to have three careers in your life. These days people have 103 careers, but you're meant to have three careers in your life, so there I was, in my first career, thinking there must be something else and through an extraordinary set of circumstances, I'm afraid we don't have time to go into the details, but through an extraordinary set of circumstances in October of 1995 I found myself in Myanmar, in Burma. It was just a couple of months since Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest, the first time round, and I had read a lot about her.

I knew the story of how she came back from England, she got caught up in the demonstrations of 1998, how in 1989 when she was out campaigning, leading the National League for Democracy, she was campaigning in the Irrawaddy region, and that story that's been told so often, how she was confronted with a group of soldiers who'd been ordered to fire, to prevent her going into town, and she kept walking down the road even though their rifles were cocked. She walked straight through a group of soldiers who'd been ordered to fire and I thought – what a courageous woman. If I could have an ounce of the courage that she showed at that time then nothing would ever stop me. So when I had an opportunity to meet Aung San Suu Kyi I grabbed it, I spent about an hour with her, in her home back in 1995, one of the most compelling hours I've ever spent. I talk a lot but believe me I didn't say a word during this meeting with her. She was so inspiring and so composed and so beautiful and so committed to freedom and democracy for the people of Burma.

My life has never been the same and I came back to Australia and I spoke about Aung San Suu Kyi at every opportunity. I was a lawyer and I spoke about it at legal conferences, I'd be asked to speak at school speech nights and I talked about the courage and the inspiration that Aung Sang Suu Kyi had presented.

The restlessness continued, so the following year I took a sabbatical and went to Harvard Business School. My only regret is I hadn't done overseas study earlier because a whole new world opened up to me. While I was away, it was about four months overseas, while I was at the Business School that comprised in my class about 180 people from all over the world, we took a subject called Government, Business and the International Economy - and I loved it. I couldn't wait to get the classes every day. Government, Business and the International Economy, you see how I'm ending up in politics, can't you?

One day we had a special lecture by George Cabot Lodge, his father Henry Cabot Lodge was the Republican Senator that ran against John F Kennedy in the Massachusetts Senate race back in the 1950s so he had politics in his blood. At one point during the lecture he said, 'you're all up and coming heavyweights, you're all climbing your way up the corporate ladder, you're all going to be business leaders. Have you ever really thought that you should first be giving back to your country?' The old, 'ask not what your country can do for you, what can you do for your country?'. It was at that moment, I thought – that's what I'm going to do, I'm going into Federal politics and all things I've done in my life, all the strands came together at that moment. The clarity was blinding. My parents turned up at my graduation and I said 'I'm going into Federal politics'. My father said 'what?', no he didn't quite say that, he said something else but I won't repeat it.

I came back to Australia and set out to become a Federal politician because I then realised that I'd actually been brought up to believe that entering public office, directing your energies, or whatever abilities you had, or your efforts to the betterment of your community, or your state or your country, was one of the finest contributions you can make. And I also believe that individual effort, that individuals can make a difference to the life of their times. So I went into Federal politics and now I've realised a long held dream to be Australia's Foreign Minister.

I see myself as the relationship manager for Australia and my job is to ensure that Australia's relationships with other countries are as strong and as robust as they can be. I'm in the business of making friends and that's what I do on behalf of Australia.

To be here today to see this group of talented, brilliant people, from so many different countries, I think 47 different countries are represented here, fills me with great pride, that Australia can be part of your lives, that Australia can be a positive aspect of your journey in life. So it gives me great pleasure to launch the Australia Awards leadership conference today.

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