Address to Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum


Speech, E&OE, proof only

25 February 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, former High Commissioners, former Ministers for Foreign Affairs, business representatives, one and all. I am absolutely delighted to have this opportunity to address the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum and I am even more delighted to meet up again with Foreign Minister Baird. In the relatively short time that I've come to know John Baird, I admire him greatly. He ferociously advocates Canada's national interests, he projects and protects their reputation and I think he is doing a sterling job as Foreign Minister. I have appreciated the opportunities to discuss with him the so many issues we have in common.

For ours is a strong bi-lateral relationship based on common values and shared experiences. Indeed there is a deep affection between the Australian people and the Canadians. I have to admit that when I watch an ice hockey game I am cheering for the Canadians. The women's ice hockey game against the US, I will tell you that was magnificent, and now with back-to-back gold medals, every time I hear the Canadian national anthem I stand to attention.

But it takes me back to many years ago, my older sister and her husband were living in Toronto for a number of years – he was doing his post-doctoral work at Toronto General Hospital – and two out of their three children were born in Toronto. They would send home to us a little tape of these Aussie kids singing "O Canada, the true North strong and free" and it used to bring a tear to my eye.

Coincidentally, my other sister at the same time was living in Vancouver on the West Coast and she was doing her medical internship at St Paul's Hospital in Vancouver. I remember she wrote me a letter telling me how every weekend the medical interns would go up to the mountains to a little old cabin and they would ski there and have a great time. She said "You know, we really ought to invest in a little ski lodge", and I remember reading the letter and thinking, "Why would anyone want to invest in a place called Whistler?" And of course, as has been my lot in life, I ignored my older sister's prescient real estate advice, and today, Whistler, because of the thousands of thousands of Aussies that go there every year, has the reputation of the best Aussie ski field in the world. So our connections are deep.

Even though our history is often seen through the prism of the Empire, the Commonwealth, we have always had a really strong economic focus. In fact, the first trade commissioner from Canada to come to Australia was in 1895 before we were even a nation. It took us a little while to reciprocate, it wasn't until 1930 that we sent a trade commissioner to Ottawa. In fact, it was a Western Australian – as they say you can tell a Western Australian but you can't tell them much. Lewis McGregor turned up in Ottawa with the task of concluding a Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Australia and he had a very special way of lobbying. As the story goes, every morning he would wait at the bottom of the stairs in the Parliament House for the Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to come down the stairs and he would buttonhole him about a Free Trade Agreement and it must have paid off, because by 1931 a Free Trade Agreement was signed between our two countries. Australian exporters got greater access to the Canadian market for our wool and butter and sugar, and Canadian exporters got access to the Australian market for motor chassis and lumber and paper.

So right from the outset we understood that our prosperity as nations would depend on open export orientated trading economies. And after the Second World War we were active global players for the International Trade Organisations, for GATT. In the 1980s we worked hard together to get greater agricultural liberalisation through the Cairns Group and now we are both members of the G20 and APEC and we are both active in pursuing the Trans Pacific Partnership. So trade and economic issues have been at the heart of our relationship.

In terms of our contemporary bi-lateral relationship, there is an enduring legacy of the friendship that grew up between Prime Minister Harper and former Prime Minister John Howard and that was the establishment in 2007 of the Canada-Australian Public Policy Initiative. This is an initiative where we can have really frank discussions and exchange ideas on foreign policy, on domestic policy, like we can do with no other nation. I think that is a great testament to our two governments, that we can be so free and open in sharing our ideas and indeed copying one another – if it works in Canada it is likely to work in Australia and if it works in Australia then it might work in Canada. I think that is a wonderful initiative.

The business to business links are obviously considerable, and I pay tribute to the number of business representatives here this evening – Canadians doing business in Australia, Australians doing business in Canada. We share common strengths, our economies are competitive, our strengths of course in mining and resources and agriculture but we also understand the challenges that our sectors face. Our resource sector, for example, we know what it is like to mine and operate in remote locations. We understand the difficulties of labour mobility and skills shortages, we understand the challenges of water management, a whole raft of issues that business people in our respective countries encounter and we share experiences.

At a people to people level, there are about 4000 Canadian students enrolled in Australians universities and Canada is a top destination for young Australians wanting to undertake student exchange, whether they are scholarships or mobility grants. Our universities are in partnerships and have high level of exchanges. The University of Sydney has a joint PhD program with Ecole Polytechnic in Montreal and Charles Stuart University also has a standalone campus in Burlington, Ontario. So our universities, our research sectors, have deep and enduring links.

In terms of foreign policy, we so often see the world through the same prism and more often than not we have a similar world view and where we disagree, we do it with grace. It is interesting how common our views are, given that we operate in different orbits. Essentially, after the Second World War, Canada went to NATO, Australia went to the Asia-Pacific. If you look at trade statistics, Canada focusses south and east, Australia focusses north and west, so our neighbourhoods are different, yet we share such similar views.

It is interesting, John and I had lunch yesterday, and we were talking about our commitment to a fundamental policy of "economic diplomacy" – this is the cornerstone of the new Government's approach to foreign policy. To put it simply, just as traditional diplomacy aimed for peace, so economic policy aims for prosperity. So we jointly support global growth, trade liberalisation, job opportunities, infrastructure development, all of the issues that will make our economies grow and prosper.

On 7 September last year, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott famously stated that Australia was "under new management" and was "open for business". He has pursued an economic agenda that involves paying down government debt, living within our means, bringing the budget back into surplus, smaller government, lower taxes, he's pursuing a very ambitious free trade agenda. And if this sounds familiar to the Canadians in the room, it should, because that is the economic agenda of the Harper Government, and we are singing off the same song sheet in economic terms.

There is one difference, and you will excuse me for raising it, I took a question in Question Time today, unexpectedly from my own side about Australian-Canadian relations. I talked about the similarities in our approach to economic growth and job opportunities. But the vast difference is that the Canadian Government rejected the concept of a carbon tax and as the Canadian Government has said, they know that a carbon tax – a price on carbon – would put up the cost of living, the cost of electricity, the cost of gas, the cost of groceries. As we heard from Prime Minister Harper's parliamentary secretary, Canada has been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emission since 2006 and create an environment that has seen a net increase of a million jobs without imposing a carbon tax on Canadian families.

Well, we are burdened with a carbon tax, and as I reminded my parliamentary colleagues sitting opposite us today – the Labor Government's climate change adviser Ross Garnaut said in a report that the government received, that a carbon tax would cause regions to be vulnerable to large scale losses of livelihoods, that's another way of saying there will be large scale job losses – that is the carbon tax at work. The Abbott Government is determined to repeal the carbon tax and repeal the mining tax, for we have to be internationally competitive in the mining and resources sector. So we are getting rid of unnecessary taxes.

We are also committed to getting faster environmental approvals – a one-stop shop for environmental approvals. We have approved about $400 billion worth of projects since we came to office – how many of them come off the drawing board into reality is another question – but we are trying to get the red tape and regulation out of the way. In fact, we have entire days that will be Repeal Days – where we do nothing but repeal unnecessary legislation. Previous governments used to boast about how much legislation they can pass in a year, we want to boast about how many we can repeal.

In relation to our two way investment connection, this is a really good story, the two way direct investment is about $70 billion. In the case of Canada, about $32 billion or more is invested in infrastructure. I know that Canadian firms are involved in the $1.3 billion Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre here, they are also involved in road infrastructure in New South Wales, if you have driven on the road anywhere around Sydney or New South Wales, it has probably been funded by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund. If you are looking at the Barangaroo development at Sydney Harbour, that has been funded by pension funds out of Canada. So it is a really good news story, and Australians likewise are investing in manufacturing, in infrastructure, in the mining and resources sector. I believe under the TPP, if we can get a comprehensive high quality deal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, we will see even greater opportunities – including for our uranium producers who are of course very keen to see a change in foreign investment rules for uranium companies.

So ours is a strong relationship. Our diplomatic ties go way back to 1940 when the Menzies Government decided just after the outbreak of World War II that we needed to have friendships outside our diplomatic ties with London. So in 1940, Robert Menzies sent off ambassadors to Washington, Chungking, Tokyo and Ottawa, because we knew that these were the friendships, these were the connections, these were the networks that we needed for Australia to survive and prosper.

We shouldn't take this relationship for granted. I am acutely aware of the fact that there has not been a Foreign Minister's visit to Canada since 2006, since Alexander Downer. I intend to rectify that this year. As my predecessor in both my seat of Curtin and a former Foreign Minister Sir Paul Hasluck once said, "There is a certain Canadian-Australian sense of community." I think today that means we are really good mates and trust one another and long may that be the case.

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