Keynote speech at the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Business Leaders event

  • Speech, check against delivery

JULIE BISHOP: I am absolutely delighted to be here this afternoon and great to see Michael O'Brien my state colleague and to address this gathering of business leaders with the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

When we were discussing my appearance here today it was suggested that I might wish to talk about leadership and given that we have a state election coming up, and then a federal election thereafter, I thought that perhaps I could touch on leadership insofar as it affects foreign affairs.

Indeed, as Mike mentioned I am in my 20th year as a federal parliamentarian and in that time I have observed up-close a number of leaders across the political spectrum and indeed business leaders from across Australia. In my five years as Foreign Minister I have met some extraordinary world leaders both in government and in business.

While I won't delve into the particular characteristics or personalities or the charisma - or lack of charisma - of a number of leaders, I can make some observations about the qualities that I think have stood out for both political and business leaders. They are people with a deep sense of history, able to reflect on the past, learn from the past, but nevertheless have the courage to break free from the restraints that are no longer relevant, and be prepared and have the ability to disrupt the status-quo.

They are people who look beyond the immediate, beyond the day-to-day tactics and can embrace a longer term vision for the future, people who are able to pick and engage trends particularly trends that will outlast their leadership, and thereby positioning their company or their country for the future.

I thought about those qualities when I decided that Australia needed a Foreign Policy White Paper to guide our international engagement and our international activities for the next decade and beyond. Not just until the next Newspoll or the next election but let's look forward ten years and see how Australia should respond to the challenges and embrace the opportunities.

We can't predict the future but we can put in place a framework in which Australia should, and can, operate. After all, we are living in some of the most challenging times imaginable, a time of great uncertainty and dynamism, almost volatility.

The great powers of the world are competing. For the first time in our history the United States, China, Japan and India are all economically strong and are all in our region.

Globalisation means that what happens on one side of the planet can impact on the other almost simultaneously.

Technological advances are disrupting the way we live and work, and engage. The scale and the pace of that disruption is unknown in human history.

We are seeing a challenge to the international rules based order, that network of alliances and treaties, and conventions and norms underpinned by international institutions and international law that has been in place and has been evolving since the end of the Second World War.

We are seeing challenges to nation sovereignty by other states and by non-state actors, global terrorism, extremists.

We are also seeing the movement of people, the mass movement of people and capital and ideas in unprecedented ways.

It would be easy for Australia to succumb to the fatalism of it all and inertial and do nothing but let history take its course, but that would be wrong. That would not be the choice Australia should make. We should be creative and determined and active in helping to shape our future.

The Foreign Policy White Paper which we released last November sets out a framework reflecting our priorities and our interests underpinned by our values as a nation.

We already have a global reputation for being an open liberal democracy. Indeed, we are one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. We are committed to freedoms and the rule of law and democratic institutions.

We are an open export oriented market economy. We are reliable and trusted trading partner. We need to continue to grow our economy and to maintain our standard of living through trade and commerce around the world.

We are a country of 24 million people. We are 53rd in the world when it comes to population but we've got the 13th largest economy in the world and that's because we sell our goods and services around the world - and I welcome all the diplomats here from the countries they represent because they know, as we know, that you don't get rich selling to yourself. You have got to trade, open, liberalised trade and investment.

The White Paper identifies five pillars that will guide our foreign policy and our international engagement for the next decade and beyond. These five areas reflect where we hope there will be bipartisan support. You will note that I say for the next decade and beyond, that could well see changes of government, I hope not but it may well. So it is designed to engage all sides of the political spectrum.

The first pillar is ensuring that our region, the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific, we term it the 'Indo-Pacific' because Australia is bound by the Indian ocean to the West, Asia to the north, Pacific to the east, to make sure that the Indo-Pacific is strong, stable and secure and prosperous.

Secondly, our focus must be to ensure that our businesses are able to compete internationally and drive economic growth in this country.

Third, we must ensure that the Australian people are safe and secure whether they are at home or abroad.

Fourth, we must ensure that we uphold and defend that international rules based order to which I refer.

Fifth, we must step up our engagement in the Pacific, north and south. This is our part of the world. This is our neighbourhood. We have a responsibility to be deeply engaged with the nations of the Pacific. Let me run through them in a little more detail.

First: the Indo-Pacific. This is the most dynamic region in the world. We have the United States and China and Japan and India, countries that are growing in economic and strategic weight and Australia is friends and partners with them all. We also recognise that there are growing economies, countries that will become even more important to us in the years ahead. In particular, I focus on the ten nations of South-East Asia, the ASEAN nations. These nations are dynamic. They have their challenges but they represent the growth and the dynamism of our part of the world - that is Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Brunei.

In March of this year we hosted the first ASEAN Australia Leaders' Summit in Sydney when all the leaders of the ten ASEAN countries met with Prime Minister Turnbull, they brought their Foreign Ministers, and we discussed ways that we could cooperate across a whole range of areas far more deeply, in trade and commerce of course, but also the people-people links, in counter-terrorism, in countering transnational crime. For their security is our security and vice-versa.

The second pillar is giving businesses the opportunity to compete internationally. Australia is entering its 27th consecutive year of uninterrupted economic growth. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a world record. No other country has ever achieved 27 consecutive years of growth, but it doesn't happen by accident. It happens because we have created the environment where our businesses are able to compete and that means boosting investment opportunities and profits and jobs. It means ensuring there is business confidence, that there is an increase in export earnings and that our tax system and our regulatory burden do not hold us back. We must be internationally competitive.

Just on the point of corporate tax, when the US is heading for 21 per cent, Britain heading for 17 per cent, Ireland at 12 per cent, a 30 per cent corporate tax just does not cut it. We have to lower our corporate tax rate to be anywhere near competitive.

On the question of jobs, obviously this is fundamental for any federal or state government. I am delighted that since we came to office in 2013 we have seen over a million new jobs created. That also is a record. There are more Australians in employment today than at any time in our history.

We have to continue with ongoing economic reform because we cannot take it for granted. That is why we have embraced a very ambitious free trade agenda to ensure that we can sell our goods and services not only to our existing markets but opening up new markets around the world.

The three major free trade agreements that we have negotiated and signed with China, Japan and Korea are transforming the way we export not only goods but also services. China is our largest two-way trading partner. Already we have a very mature relationship with the trade in minerals and energy and Australia is a world leader in the export of coal, iron-ore, alumina and LNG, also agricultural products, beef and wine and wheat and wool.

But it is in the services sector where there are so many opportunities that lie ahead and with those massive markets of China, Japan and Korea we are exquisitely positioned to continue to drive growth in the services sector.

We haven't rested there. We have concluded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP-11. Yes, we would have loved the US to have been in it but the President committed in the last election not to pursue it and he was true to his election promise. Nevertheless, the remaining members of the TPP have negotiated a high quality comprehensive free trade agreement that represents about 22-23 percent of Australia's overall trade.

We are also commencing negotiations with the European Union. That was announced last week. We are looking forward to concluding a free trade agreement with the EU. Once the UK has exited the EU we look forward to concluding a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom.

We are also looking at Latin America. We've concluded a free trade agreement with Peru, and now we are negotiating with the Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance comprises of Colombia, Chile, Mexica and Peru - again, a great new market opportunity for Australia.

We are also negotiating RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), that is, the 10 ASEAN countries plus six more including China and Australia. That will be an extraordinary outcome if we are able to deliver a high quality free trade agreement with RCEP.

We have also included Indonesia. We hope that our free trade agreement with Indonesia will conclude this year. Just think about it - Indonesia a country of some 245-250 million people just to our north and our trade with Indonesia is about $15 billion. New Zealand to the east, a country of 4.5 million, our trade is over $20 billion. You can see there are huge opportunities with Indonesia and likewise with India. We are in the process of negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership with India. I know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a free trade portal, which I know was announced this week, and that the Chamber has also held seminars on engaging with these free trade agreements.

Now, our relationship with China as our largest trading partner, is very established. The United States is our largest source of foreign investment – of our other trading partners, the country that presents the major growth opportunities into the future is India.

By 2020 India will have some one fifth of the world's working population. By about 2030 it will have 850 million internet users and will probably, by 2035, be the world's third largest economy and five of its cities will have a GDP the size of a middle income nation. So, that is why we have embarked upon an India Economic Strategy which will be concluded shortly.

The former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese, who was our High Commissioner to India, has been leading this India economic strategy. It is also why last Budget we announced our fourth diplomatic post in India in Calcutta and this is part of my aim to roll our more diplomatic posts around the world because we need to be acting globally. Our interests are undoubtedly global while our priorities may well be regional.

Since 2013 we have opened 14 new diplomatic posts around the world. That is the single largest expansion of our diplomatic network in over forty years.

My third pillar is keeping Australians safe and that goes without saying because it's the primary responsibility of a federal government, but we have made record investments in security, in intelligence and partnerships with countries particularly in our region/ Countries that would not normally have been part of Australia's security and defence strategy that are now absolutely essential partnerships with the deepest of engagement.

We are currently debating – or about to debate in the Parliament – new laws on foreign interference and foreign donations which is all about keeping Australians safe and secure.

The fourth pillar is strengthening, promoting, adhering to, defending that international rules based order of which I spoke. Countries around the world have benefited from this order. It was put in place after the Second World War to create a world out of chaos and it has been successful in that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and there has been no third global conflict.

But it is under strain and it is being challenges by some states. Others are cherry picking what they will adhere to and what they won't.

When the international law is under challenge we must defend it. That is why when Malaysia Airlines MH17 was shot down over Ukraine Australia turned to the UN Security Council to argue for a unanimous resolution that would enable us to enter Ukraine to recover the bodies of the 38 Australians aboard that flight, amongst the 298 that were killed, and then commence an investigation to hold the perpetrators of that atrocity to account.

It is why we abide by the UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions against North Korea. The United Nations has imposed sector-wide sanctions against North Korea because of its ongoing defiance of numerous Security Council resolutions that ban its illegal ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Australia abides by those sanctions and helps to enforce them.

It is why when we couldn't resolve our maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste that we turned to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and submitted to a voluntary conciliation but the outcome of which we were prepared to abide by. We now have a treaty with Timor-Leste which delineates the boundary between us and this is at a time when there are boundary disputes that are not just years old they can be decades, even centuries old.

But Australia abides by the rules. It is why when we needed support for our preservation and maintenance of the Great Barrier Reef that we campaigned to get on the World Heritage Committee so that we could be part of the global effort to support the preservation of coral reefs globally.

It is why we signed up to the Paris Agreement and remain committed to the Paris Agreement. This is a global effort.

It is why we campaigned to get on the Human Rights Council. People can criticise the Human Rights Council, and I have myself, when some of the most egregious abusers of human rights are elected on to the Human Rights Council, so it makes you wonder. But you can either throw stones from outside or you can get on and try and change it and vote in accordance with your principles and your values and try to make a difference. Australia believes in this rules based order that determines how nations should behave and particularly towards each other.

The firth pillar is the Pacific. I feel very passionate about this. I came home last night from my 33rd trip to the Pacific. We are one of a number of partners in the Pacific but being a Pacific nation ourselves I believe we have a responsibility to support the stability and security and prosperity of the nations in that region.

When we first came to Government we inherited a rather tense relationship with Fiji that was born out of a military coup there in 2006 and sanctions were placed on Fiji. By the time we came into Government in 2013 the impact of sanctions was over and so I set about normalising our relationship with Fiji. Today, we have a thriving and flourishing relationship with one of the major economies in the Pacific.

You will recall back in 2002 when Solomon Islands fell into almost a failed state, Australia intervened with the backing of a number of countries in the Pacific, including New Zealand, and the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands was put in place. That was, defence and police forces from across the Pacific, led by Australia. Now, RAMSI was an undoubted success. The training, the capacity building for the people of the Solomon Islands has been extraordinary. They now have one of the finest police forces in our part of the world, all trained by the Australian Federal Police. But it took us 14 years and $2 billion of taxpayers money. Surely we should have been acting earlier to prevent, to support, to ensure that there aren't failed states and that the Pacific can be resilient and robust and prosperous. That is why I am directing the majority of our aid program to the Pacific. This year that is $1.3 billion and I argue it is one of the best investments that this Government can make to ensure that the nations of the Pacific are able to have options in terms of their investment and the infrastructure and the development assistance that they need, and that Australia lives up to its responsibility.

I spoke about bipartisanship before and our trip to the north Pacific was bipartisan. I invited Senator Penny Wong and Senator Claire Moore to accompany me and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-wells, and that doesn't happen often in Australian politics. But I did it because I want the Pacific to get the message that they matter to us and whoever is in government is committed to supporting the Pacific and that they can plan their lives with the certainty that Australia will always be there in the good times and in the bad.

They are the five pillars of the Foreign Policy White Paper that we are putting into action now. But I am also concerned to ensure that our influence and our standing in the world continues beyond our Government, beyond ten years, way into the future.

That is why we are investing in a scheme called the New Colombo Plan which is directed at building the leaders of the future. We want young Australians today to have a greater appreciation of their place in the world and our place in the world, a greater understanding of Asia in terms of its politics and culture and economic outlook.

There was an original Colombo Plan back in 1950s through to about the 1980s when Australia offered places to students in our region to study in our universities and gain an Australian qualification. Over thirty years about 40,000 people gained an Australian qualification and today they are the leaders in business, politics, and communities in our region. The number of Cabinet Ministers in the Singapore Government for example, who have studied in Australia, is quite remarkable. It sets up relationships for life. They are our Ambassadors in our region. I decided it was about time we reversed that and we sent young Australian undergraduates from all of our universities to live, and study and work in countries in our region.

We started with a pilot program in 2014 with Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia. Some countries had to change their laws to enable Australian students to have work experience so we are deeply indebted to all of the countries in the New Colombo Plan for the effort that they have gone to to ensure that this is a success.

Our young students are from all of our universities and whatever their discipline and whatever their circumstances, we can tailor an opportunity for them. Some are short courses. Some are just practicums of a month. Some are semester-long courses. Others are 12 months or more. Since we began this program to the end of this year, 30,000 Australian undergraduates have been supported by the Australian Government to live and study, work in our region. 30,000 young people who have had a life changing experience, who have learnt new skills, hopefully language skills, who have lifted their eyes from their undergraduate years and have hopefully made connections and networks that will last a life time. I can't think of a better investment in our young people than giving our future leaders this opportunity to be more Asia-literate.

Let me give you an example of one. There are 30,000 to choose from but I've selected a New Colombo Plan scholar by the name of Rebecca Thorburn. She comes from Morwell in the Latrobe Valley and she got into engineering, one of the increasing number of women who are taking STEM subjects. She was studying at La Trobe University, she won a New Colombo Plan scholarship for 12 months to the National University of Singapore, one of the most prestigious universities in our region. She lived there, she studied there, so part of her engineering degree will now come from her time at the NUS. She got a job at the end of her studies with Arup the global firm in Singapore and had many opportunities to travel with Arup. She is now back in Australia having spent time in our region. What a great experience it has been for her but how wonderful it is for our businesses to have potential employees who have that background and that experience.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Australian Government will continue to lead in foreign policy, in our international engagement and ensure that this country remains prosperous, remains secure and one of the most liveable places on earth. We owe future generations no less.

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