Australia and the world in the time of COVID-19

  • Speech
National Security College, Australian National University

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Let me also begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

Thank you very much Brian. Thank you Rory and everyone here from the University and the National Security College. Let me also warmly acknowledge the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, who is here with us tonight. We have not seen each other in person physically very often in many months, and it’s great to have you here Frances, thank you, and also the students and other guests who are here this evening.

Brian is right. The National Security College does an excellent job of helping to develop the careers of up-and-coming officials in the national security and foreign affairs fields. And I can’t think of a better audience here, literally, for the topic that I’m speaking about tonight, and of course, those who are here virtually.

To all of you who are watching online, thank you for tuning in. As I’ll be discussing tonight, I, along with most of you I suspect, have been doing much of my communications through digital means in recent months. If there is a silver lining in foreign affairs to the Covid challenges, it might be that online communication has begun to fulfil its potential as a tool of modern diplomacy.

But first, to some history. Health diplomacy began in 1851 with the first International Sanitary Conference in Paris, which was convened to harmonise European quarantine standards for cholera, and thereby facilitate smoother trade. It was not an outstanding success. Not all delegates agreed that cholera was contagious, with some arguing that it was rather due to atmospheric climatic and soil conditions. One delegate even declared that the best defences against cholera were courage, resignation, spiritual calmness and faith. Quarantine, these doctors and diplomats argued, was, therefore, pointless. After six months of debate, 15 of the 23 delegates voted that cholera should indeed be subject to quarantine regulations. However, this majority accomplished nothing because just one of the states, Sardinia, went on to ratify the convention.

We've come a long way in health diplomacy. In particular, the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people between 1918 and 1920, galvanised much greater international cooperation on health, culminating in the creation in 1948 of the World Health Organization. When the next pandemic arrived in 1957, the world was much better prepared. There was a global surveillance system in place and a network of laboratories that could track the spread of the disease and share research, even if the developments were nascent by today's standards.

However, since 1918, the world's population has more than quadrupled, become more densely concentrated in very big cities, and become overwhelmingly more interconnected, including through prolific air travel. And all of this has had literally dramatic consequences for the spread of communicable diseases. Just as we learnt so much from the Spanish flu, we need to learn today from COVID-19, to improve our systems for this much more complex world.

COVID-19 is a shared crisis – a reminder that many problems are best solved or, indeed, can only be solved through cooperation. At the heart of successful international cooperation is the concept that each country shares, rather than yields, a portion of its sovereign decision-making. And in return, each gets something from it that is greater than their contribution.

Australia has real strengths to bring to the international table: our values, such as fairness, equality and openness, but also our well-earned reputation for a practical approach to solving problems. We get things done by proposing principled solutions, and then implementing them collaboratively. In this spirit, we have continued our strong record of constructive, multilateral engagement by seeking an independent review of COVID-19, advocating that this is in the best interests of all nations. We have a strong mandate for such a review after the World Health Assembly passed an historic resolution calling for an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation into the lessons learnt from the global response to improve prevention and preparedness and, also, an investigation to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the root of introduction to the human population. A record 145 countries acted as co-sponsors for the resolution. It was truly a global moment of consensus.

Of course, COVID-19 has been a tragic experience for many people and continues to be so for many more. And our thoughts are with the families and the loved ones of hundreds of thousands of people who have died, and with millions who have lost jobs and livelihoods. Yet, there is much amongst it all that is positive in the world's response to the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, people have complied with tough but necessary social distancing and isolation requirements, putting public safety first, based on the advice of health authorities. And Australians, as Professor Schmidt referred to, particularly, have led the way here.

Governments, whether centre-left or centre-right, have looked beyond ideology overwhelmingly to find solutions for their people. Again, Australia does stand as an example of a pragmatic and practical approach that has saved lives and helped to protect livelihoods. We have also seen admirable instances of the international community coming together to share information and resources to assist in the repatriation of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of citizens, and to work together to save lives and to rebuild economies. I can actually speak from direct experience about the value of cooperation and communication at this time of crisis. I am meeting in virtual mode almost every day with other foreign ministers and leaders from across the globe, sharing ideas, approaches and strategies. Last week, we held our ninth call of the Canada-led Ministerial Coordination Group on COVID-19 with Indonesia, Morocco, Peru, Singapore and South Korea. I have had discussions with Five Eyes counterparts, South-East Asian counterparts, Pacific counterparts. I’ve been involved in multiple meetings of female foreign ministers and ministers for women. In all of these conversations, colleagues are genuinely interested in sharing the experiences of the challenge that has been thrown at us all.

Our discussions are not theoretical or philosophical. They’re very real. They're grounded in finding ways to cooperate to support our citizens during unprecedented times.

COVID-19 has shown that our international order is as important as ever. There is need for reform in several areas, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief the major role of international institutions in addressing and coordinating a global response to a global problem across multiple lines of effort. What has been exposed is the magnitude of the consequences if we fail to ensure these institutions are fit-for-purpose, accountable to member states, and free from undue influence.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has drawn attention to the strengths and the weaknesses of the UN system. There's been intense scrutiny of the World Health Organization's response. Australia has, for many years, been an active and pragmatic voice in the WHO and on global health cooperation. Our early co-sponsorship of, and shared role in, negotiating the text of the EU-led resolution is consistent with that approach. And since the WHO meeting on 19 May, we have been working with partners and the WHO to build on the successful outcome of that meeting.

In the wake of this devastating health crisis, Australia wants to see a stronger WHO that is more independent and transparent. We cannot let the vital and practical work that the WHO does on the ground be overshadowed by questions about the approach of its headquarters in Geneva. Frankly, there is no other institution that can marshal collective efforts to improve health security across the globe.

Through our role on the WHO executive board, our proactive participation in a range of regional and global health fora, Australia will present tangible proposals and initiatives to ensure that the global health architecture emerges stronger from COVID-19. It matters to Australia. We've seen how global public health action or inaction can affect Australians at home and abroad so there's a strong incentive for Australia to show leadership on making the WHO as effective as possible.

The COVID-19 experience reflects a much wider issue. Our multilateral institutions are experiencing unprecedented strain from a new era of strategic competition. From shifts in global power, from technological disruption and complex security, health and economic challenges. In October last year, well before COVID-19 emerged, Prime Minister Morrison commissioned an audit by my department of Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions. The Prime Minister's speech at the Lowy Institute entitled, In Our Interests, was notable in framing how Australia would respond to a threat such as a pandemic brought to our shores from abroad. He said, and I quote: “Australia cannot be an indifferent bystander to these events that impact our livelihoods, our safety and our sovereignty. We must, as we have done previously, cultivate, marshal and bring our influence to bear to protect and promote our national interests.”

These principles have guided our response to this international crisis. The audit, completed by my department, took stock of where and why Australia is engaging, and how we can best target our efforts to support our interests. It affirmed that multilateral organisations, especially international standard-setting bodies, create rules that are vital to Australia's security, interests, values and prosperity. Those bodies regulate international cooperation in key sectors of our economy including civil aviation, maritime transport, intellectual property, telecommunications, agriculture. They promote universal values and play critical roles in responding to emerging global challenges, from the regulation of cyber security and maintaining a peaceful outer space, to outbreaks of Ebola and COVID-19.

The audit also recognised the pressure these bodies are under, and that at times, their performance has struggled to deliver on their agreed mandates. Notwithstanding the limitations identified by the audit, Australia's interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us. Isolationism would also cut us off from the world on which we are so dependant for our own security and prosperity in the world's most dynamic region, the Indo-Pacific. We must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to protect and promote our national interests, and to preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency.

Australia will continue to work to ensure global institutions are fit-for-purpose, relevant, contemporary, accountable to member states, free from undue influence, and have an appropriately strong focus on the Indo-Pacific. We will continue to support reform efforts in the United Nations and its agencies to improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness. This is foreign policy designed to use Australian influence and agency to shape a safer world, and to make us safer at home.

We will target our efforts to preserve three fundamental parts of the multilateral system:

  • the rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace, and curb excessive use of power, and enable international trade and investment
  • the international standards related to health and pandemics, to transport, telecommunications and other issues that underpin the global economy, and which will be vital to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery
  • and thirdly, the norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.

Moreover, we will work to ensure that the development of new rules and norms to address emerging challenges is consistent with enduring values and principles. This is particularly important in the case of critical technologies, including cyber and artificial intelligence, critical minerals and outer space. The Australian Government is committed to a coordinated, effective and ambitious pursuit of our priorities in the global system. We want to see talented Australians working in the international system, where they can contribute their expertise, their integrity, their pragmatism – attributes for which we are renowned, and which are needed now more than ever by the international community.

We want to deepen our cooperation with our like-minded and regional partners on shared goals, to shape better outcomes, especially for the Indo-Pacific. Effective multilateralism conducted through strong and transparent institutions serves Australia's interests. Multilateralism for the sake of it is rather pointless. Where meetings and forums fail to reflect our values or deliver outcomes that align with our interests at home, our challenge is to ensure the institutions and our active engagement within them delivers for Australia and Australians, and to do this, Australia must better target our role in the global system.

Australia's role in seeking an independent review of COVID-19 is a prime example of this active engagement in the international interest. Well-functioning global institutions lead to improved outcomes for the citizens of states that act cooperatively. One relevant example is the sharing of information. In a connected world, governments will be able to make better decisions for their people if they have clear, fast, reliable information across borders. And as we have learnt from COVID-19, almost every hour counts in the age of global hyper-connectivity. Our global institutions, including WHO in this context, must serve as unimpeachable repositories of information that governments can rely upon to take decisions to protect their citizens.

And they must serve as bulwarks against disinformation. Let's be clear, disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives.

Concerningly, we have seen disinformation pushed and promoted around the coronavirus pandemic and around some of the social pressures that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The European Commission issued a report last week that concluded foreign actors and countries – in particular Russia and China – had carried out targeted disinformation campaigns seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context. A day later, Twitter disclosed over 32,000 accounts as state-linked information operations, which the company attributed to Russia, to China and to Turkey.

For our part, it is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models. As Prime Minister Morrison said in March of this year, some months ago now, there are some who believe liberal democracies and free societies cannot cope with these sorts of challenges. We will prove them wrong here in Australia.

We have gone on to do that.

I have also been very clear in rejecting as disinformation the warnings of the Chinese Government that tourists and students should reconsider coming here because of racism. I can say emphatically that Australia will welcome students and visitors from all over the world, regardless of race, of gender or nationality. Our law enforcement agencies can, will, do, respond to individual crimes, and we will continue to move beyond this pandemic true to our status as the world's most successful multicultural society. The Prime Minister and the Government have repeatedly called out racist behaviour. He has gone to considerable lengths to remind our nation that Chinese-Australians returning from China in the thousands in the early period of COVID-19 provided this country with one of the greatest defences against the spread of the virus, and he has thanked them for that commitment. And I reiterate those thanks.

The disinformation we have seen contributes to a climate of fear and division when, at a time like this, what we need is cooperation and understanding. At the weekend, Australia co-signed with 131 other countries and observers, a Latvian-led statement in the UN warning that COVID-19 had, and I quote, “created conditions that enabled the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence, to divide communities”. We committed in that statement to fighting the so-called “infodemic”. I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts of disinformation. We will do so through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal, democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad.

The principle of international cooperation also applies to assisting other countries through the COVID-19 crisis. In Australia's case, that means working with partners in the Indo-Pacific, providing support and development assistance to respond to the challenges of the pandemic, and importantly, the economic fallout we know is with us. In doing so, in these partnerships, we cement our friendships, we buttress our regional security by helping to maintain stability and prosperity in our own neighbourhood, and we maintain our reputation as a good partner, and a positive contributor in the world.

To that end, we're pivoting our partnerships in support of the health security, the economic recovery and the stability of our region. We have released our Partnerships for Recovery strategy, pivoting the development program to support the critical, medical and humanitarian leads of our Pacific family, of Timor-Leste and other partner countries in Southeast Asia. This will help to support the health responses of our neighbours to deliver essential medical and social services.

We have supported our Pacific partners by providing PPE and testing equipment and technical expertise, including through the WHO's Pacific office in Suva, to keep infection rates as low as possible. We are working with our partners in the Pacific Islands Forum to maintain a humanitarian and essential services pathway to enable the essential movement of personnel and critical supplies around the region. Australia has put in place travel exemptions for Pacific Island citizens travelling home from third countries. The pathway brings together protocols and quarantine measures to facilitate those movements of goods and essential workers and people across the region. I sincerely appreciate the support of the Tuvalu Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, and the PIF Secretary-General, Dame Meg Taylor, in making a joint statement on this on 1 June. And I look forward to meeting tomorrow with my Pacific ministerial counterparts on the action group for the Humanitarian Pathway, to continue its implementation.

As the distribution of wealth and power has shifted, Australia has been deepening our ties to nations who share our vision of a region and a globe that promotes peace and prosperity for all, under an international order built around rules. The unexpected body blow to international stability delivered by COVID-19 reaffirms this approach, strengthening our resolve to build a network of nations who hold these values and interests, and to do more in the building of international cooperation. We announced our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India this month in a virtual summit – not the first for Australia, but the first for Prime Minister Modi, and I bet that's not a first anyone else gets very often. The engagement of the world's most populous democracy and a rising economic giant will have real practical outcomes for Australia, improving cooperation on matters ranging from cyber, defence logistics, to innovation and education. This landmark agreement is built on and framed by our respective interests as democracies in the Indo-Pacific.

The COVID-19 crisis has given democracy a contemporary stage on which to demonstrate its strength. And Australia, with our openness, accountability, respect for individual human rights, has given to our people the confidence that we are all working together - even in the midst of this global crisis. Democracies are imperfect. But with the airing of disagreements, even with the acknowledgement of mistakes from time to time, they can be stronger for it because self-governed people ultimately have trust in a common mission. That's a principle to which Australia must and will continue to adhere.

Seeking a review, working with counterparts, engaging with a sound, multilateral process in the World Health Assembly has been a perfect demonstration of what Australia is about in 2020. Playing an active role, exerting our influence and using our capacity in alignment with our values, while being consistent, clear and transparent about our objectives.

There were those who said that by speaking out, by seeking a review, we made ourselves a target and brought upon ourselves an unnecessary cost for a cause that would have been championed anyway by others whose size and stature made them more suitable standard-bearers.

There are times to pursue quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. But there are also times to voice our concerns and persuade others of the need for a course of action. By all means, we can be small in our thinking, timid in purpose, and risk averse. Or alternatively, and in my view, vitally necessary, we can be confident. We can believe in Australia's role in the world and prioritise Australia's sovereignty, and Australians’ long-term interests, by making the difficult decisions and choices. That's what leading and governing must be about. To those who have said: well, this would have all happened anyway - let me say that nothing just happens anyway.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

Transcript: Q&A, Australian National University, National Security College

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