Fifth Tom Hughes Oration

  • Speech

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet here this evening, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I want to acknowledge most warmly Tom and Chrissie Hughes. Tom, it is a great pleasure, a great honour and indeed a great privilege to deliver this Oration that bears your name. It is amongst the most prestigious events of the political year – as demonstrated by the stellar cast of previous orators that Julian outlined. I hope that I can do it justice.

So thank you to my friend and colleague, the Member for Berowra, Julian Leeser, for the invitation, for your extremely generous introduction, as well as for your commitment to organising this oration in honour of a great Australian, a towering Liberal figure and a brilliant legal mind.

Now, I could go off script and I could remind Tom of some of the occasions on which we met during his periods of giving advice to previous Liberal governments for whom I have worked. Some of them occurred at two and three and four o'clock in the morning when the NSW State Parliament was sitting through the night to pass key pieces of legislation and we sought, and received, the best legal advice available.

Working for Premiers Fahey and Greiner in different roles, I remember clearly that there was never a question that Tom would come at whatever hour of the day or night to provide that advice to the leaders of our governments in this State.

You can't always say that when people are clocking on and off and perhaps even selecting their clients. But never with Tom Hughes. I learnt a great lesson from that period as a junior, dare I say baby, advisor to premiers and to leaders, and a lesson I've never forgotten about commitment, about loyalty, about intellectual rigour and about delivering. And so, Tom, it is as I said, an enormous privilege to be here this evening.

Julian is also right in another way. It is very difficult to start these remarks in any way but reflecting on the horror of the images we are seeing from Ukraine – of missiles and airstrikes raining down on cities and communities, of tanks rolling through streets, of civilians bloodied and battered by the Russian bombardment.

In my view, it's also impossible not to be moved by the grit being shown by Ukraine, including those civilians who have vowed to defend their country with everything they have – their country and their values – though clearly the hard reality of the challenge the Ukrainians face has to be acknowledged.

Russia's aggression is a defining moment for Europe and for the world as we see an authoritarian state trying to wind back the liberties that flourished after the Iron Curtain fell, and dismantle by force the democracy that its smaller neighbour has courageously established for itself. The Ukrainian people chose freedom and Putin's response is to choose war.

I think Tom Hughes is qualified like few others, as Julian pointed out, to grasp the historical significance of this very moment, thanks to the extraordinary longevity of his service to this nation, in the military, in politics and in law.

I've reflected on Tom's history and story. I'm the child of a World War Two veteran myself – not one who was awarded the Légion d'honneur but one who fought for this nation too.

Tom was born into a world that was recovering from a World War and a global pandemic that had swept in on its heels, growing up through the Great Depression and going on to serve with great distinction in the Royal Australian Air Force, joining at just the age of 18 and posted to the RAAF's 10th Squadron at Plymouth in Britain, piloting Short Sunderland flying boat patrol bombers; at the age of 20, taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, flying over the English Channel, defending Allied forces from German U-boats. And as I said, for this service, France awarded him the Legion of Honour, its highest decoration.

Called to the New South Wales bar in 1949, he was still working full-time in the 2000s – and I know how hard before that. And as an Attorney-General of the Commonwealth – a great and prestigious and important Cabinet role in our nation – he was principled and measured, and took the risks that are necessary to get things done in politics.

It is thanks to people like Tom Hughes that the Allies prevailed in the Second World War and that a new international order was born – one that founded the basic structures and institutions that endure today.

It is also thanks to people like Tom that the underlying principles of this international order such as the rule of law, support for democracy and freedom, the preservation of national sovereignty, have been so fundamental in the ensuing years.

Today, 75 years on, we are once again seeing a strategic environment that is deteriorating, placing those structures and institutions under greater pressure than, most would say, at any time since they were created.

This period we are now in shows every sign of becoming more dangerous, less stable and less prosperous.

I will outline tonight what this Coalition Government has been doing, consistently and carefully and patiently and steadily, to strengthen Australia's resilience and maximise our influence in shaping our region and our world, so that future generations of Australians don't have to choose between conflict or capitulation.

We face difficult years ahead, but in my view there is no outcome that is foregone or inevitable. Australia has agency and influence to shape our strategic environment for the better. We will do so with a strong voice, with sound principles and policies at home and abroad, and through practical measures with our partners to invigorate the relationships that provide stability and confidence.

At the Munich Security Conference just over a week ago – held in person for the first time in a couple of years because of the pandemic challenges – the overshadowing iss was of course Russia's actions, but also the broader challenge of authoritarian and disruptive regimes.

The international rules-based system, like the norms and institutions that enable a free and democratic society to endure, is as strong as our faith in it and our determination to preserve it.

It has always faced challenges. It has always required vigilant protection. But it's never been static or inflexible – and nor should it be. It should evolve, it must evolve as strategic and economic realities change, including with transformations in the global use of technology.

But in the period that we have now entered, it is increasingly being tested in ways that test our collective resolve and require a greater commitment than perhaps it has for generations.

The international rules-based order has at times been cast as a “diplomatic cliché”, but as I have said, recent events have brought into sharp focus its importance to open, liberal societies such as Australia.

The post-War period has been one of exceptional stability, enabling the greatest global economic expansion and the consequent lift in living standards in human history. But let's be clear: its continuation is not inevitable.

Authoritarian states are exhibiting aggression and they are also encouraging one another. There are reasons to believe that Russia and China working together on aligned interests may have its limitations – but we are not complacent about the risks that greater cooperation between them will have.

So we must not be complacent. And we must compete.

What major authoritarian states would want is for the current international system, which has sought to improve the lot of all nations and has largely succeeded in doing so for more than 75 years – they would want that to be disrupted, to be dismantled, to be reshaped to serve their own interests.

Their view in which more powerful states can coerce, can intimidate, can interfere in and, in this case, can invade smaller ones; in which might makes right and countries can create their own spheres of influence to improve their own security at the expense of others'.

That is enough for us to be deeply concerned and to work with our friends, our allies and our partners to collectively pressure those disruptive regimes, and to support and maintain a fair international system that protects the rights, the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all.

This preying by large countries upon smaller, less powerful ones has been precisely the kind of activity that international diplomacy has long worked to put behind us – and which we have seen in the period since 1945.

Each sovereign nation still has its own interests, its own domestic political fabric and its own limitations as to what it can, and is willing to, commit to international stability. And that is as it should be. The responsibility of a government to serve the needs of its own citizens still comes first.

However, when responsible nations are willing to stand against unilateralism and coercion, that has been important in curbing the worst excesses of rogue nations or those who would prey on their neighbours.

This doesn't mean that we have always been able to solve international problems easily. Often, mustering the collective will is an enormous diplomatic challenge that requires dedicated leadership.

And there are moments when the breaches of international rules and norms are so egregious that the responsibility to respond collectively is overwhelming. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is one such moment.

This is being recognised, which is why so many countries are responding and acting.

We have seen our partners and allies take strong steps:

  • whether that is the leadership of the United States, with the European Union, with Canada, with Japan and others in implementing tough sanctions
  • whether it is Germany moving on from the Nordstream 2 project and boosting defence spending;
  • or the agreement of many countries to exclude Russia from the international SWIFT payment system.

Australia is also doing our part by introducing strong, sequential sanctions, coordinated with others, to inflict a cost on those in Russia who bear responsibility or who hold the levers of power.

These are not decisions which are cost-free. There is sacrifice involved – just as there has been in Australia's response to China's coercion over the part two years. We recognise the impact, for example, that China's unjustified trade measures have had on some sectors in our economy, and the Government has worked and will continue to work closely with them to mitigate that impact.

But as a nation, we have stood firm. And consistency is key.

This has been the right decision – sometimes in the face of criticism from voices who have said we should make compromises to repair the relationship with China.

In the long term, an Indo-Pacific and a world that is stable, secure and rules-based, and in which sovereign nations can make their own decisions, trade freely and pursue their own goals without fear of coercion, is overwhelmingly in the interests of future generations of Australians. Indeed, as far as we're concerned, it is non-negotiable.

Australia is a nation based on the rule of law – an open, outward-facing nation, an exporting nation, a nation that believes that sensible multilateralism and international cooperation can serve the interests and lift the prospects of all who participate. We have as much, if not more, invested in this system than virtually any other international actor. The maintenance and success of this system is paramount for Australia – it has served us well, underpinning generations of prosperity.

So to maximise our contribution to this continuing success, we are working with others. We are expanding our networks of relationships with countries that share our vision for a stable region underpinned by principles such as openness, the principles of national sovereignty, the protection of that sovereignty, and the observance of rules and fair play in trade and international security.

We know that some authoritarian nations are knowingly taking advantage of the vulnerability of others during the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic has not only added a layer of complexity but in many cases it's exacerbated the challenges our own Indo-Pacific region is facing: whether it is the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, attempts to undermine international law and freedoms in the South China Sea or Myanmar's military regime perpetrating violence against its own people.

Strengthening our friendships across the region and the world helps create and provide a counterweight to what are disruptive trends. Networks of nations make good stabilisers. They give confidence to other countries by working together to build regional resilience.

They are a clear demonstration that there is a preponderance of countries who are motivated by regional solidarity to support others and thereby the Indo-Pacific neighbourhood as a whole. The enthusiasm for these cooperative groupings is one good reason for optimism.

We are doing this through the Quad – the foreign ministers of which met in Melbourne only three weeks ago. In the middle of pandemic recovery, in the context of imminent invasion of Ukraine, the Quad foreign ministers came to Australia, the core of the Indo-Pacific meeting for an in-person meeting.

We do it through our participation in G7+, the elevation of our partnership with ASEAN to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – its first ever. Our work with our Pacific family including through the Pacific Islands Forum, the deepening and strengthening our ties with India to historic levels – and Julian mentioned the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – and our investment in our Indian Ocean partnerships often remind our friends that if you are Australian, you literally have a foot in each ocean in the Indo-Pacific.

There is the AUKUS agreement, through which we are sharing national security and technology capabilities with our oldest allies and partners, the United Kingdom and the United States. This arrangement will make Australia a more capable partner to all in the region and therefore better able to fulfill our longstanding goal of an Indo-Pacific that is stable, and open and and resilient.

In some ways Coalition Government has been ahead of the strategic trends, with a firm understanding that our future security and prosperity lie, first and foremost, in that open and stable Indo-Pacific. We have made tough decisions to bolster our resilience and importantly to defend our values.

Through our decisions, we have demonstrated that we fully grasp the long-term strategic challenges, which has often meant balancing multiple priorities.

From the mid-2010s, the Coalition Government grasped the looming strategic challenges we would face amid rising strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and began developing policy to ensure we protected ourselves, born out, frankly, of a hard-headed realism that we should be part of the strategic competition, not allow it to roll over us.

That sort of work led to a number of initiatives:

  • the laws that we passed in June 2018 to counter foreign interference and to strengthen our defences against espionage;
  • a world-leading decision in August of 2018 to exclude vendors from our 5G network who posed national security risks;
  • a strengthened foreign investment regime in 2020;
  • laws that I introduced in December of 2020 to ensure consistency in our foreign policy;
  • a sanctions regime introduced last December targeting those who perpetrate serious human rights abuses, corruption and malicious cyber activity;
  • and in November and February, two separate tranches of reforms to make critical infrastructure more secure, including from rising cybersecurity threats – a challenge we are reminded of each and every day right now.

Each of these measures is about protecting our sovereignty. They are not aimed at any one country. Indeed, the challenges against which we seek to protect ourselves have come from multiple sources.

Certainly, China has over this period become increasingly assertive. Aspects of its international conduct undermine the regional and global order that we support, and they are actively designed to put pressure on the rules and norms of behaviour.

But it is not China alone – as Russia's reckless, unprovoked and unjustified attack on its small, democratic neighbour demonstrates.

We have ongoing threats from rogue regimes such as the DPRK, which maintains its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programme in clear violation of UN resolutions and sanctions, and Iran with its well-documented activities.

It's fair to say that they strategic challenges that I have discussed have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly that has buffeted regional economies and societies. It's exposed underlying global fragilities.

COVID has truly tested us. The global pandemic has affected all countries and all people. It has stretched our societies and our resources. This Government's principled call for an inquiry into COVID's origins reflects our sensible and transparent approach to speaking with conviction on the global stage. I am disappointed that two years on, we are no closer to answers.

Our response has also been practical and grounded in meeting the challenges that this region continue s to face. Australia has made major investments in the health security and economic resilience of our many partners, through programmes such as our Partnerships for Recovery in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia.

Friends, it's both the right thing to do and in the best interests of Australians. We know that economic growth, better health and greater stability are good for all of us. Australians will be safer and more prosperous living in a region where all people can pursue their economic goals, free from security threats, free from health crises.

Most importantly and most immediately, we are ensuring COVID vaccines reach all corners of our region – importantly with no strings attached.

With our partners, we are also supporting infrastructure development that meets the genuine needs of our partners in our region, drives their economic growth and does not burden countries with debt they can't afford.

Those are examples of the practical support provided by the Quad and also our Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership with Japan and the United States.

They make our region more resilient. They build confidence for smaller countries that they can make their own strategic decisions.

There is no rulebook for this. There are no simple answers for navigating the period in which we now find ourselves. There are, however, in my view, some reliable principles we can draw on – and the three I have wanted to single out tonight are: consistency, strength and partnerships.

Partnerships I have already talked about. They are the glue that can hold our region together and multiply the strength of nations that share values such as freedom and sovereignty and democracy.

Consistency and strength mean drawing lines: making it clear to all that aggression, coercion and intimidation is not tolerated or accepted.

Consistency is vital in order to demonstrate clearly our core values and interests. It shows a country that will not yield on our fundamental positions even when pressed to do so by others.

Our consistent foreign policy conveys a willingness to have constructive relationships with China and with others, and to look for opportunities for cooperation. It also signals clearly that we will not compromise on our national interests or national security. Nor will we deviate from our support for an international order that is based on rules, and that promotes stability based on cooperation between sovereign, resilient states.

At the same time, we are bolstering sources of national strength – first and foremost, and importantly for this Government, from a strong national economy. With strength comes the ability to command influence and to deter aggression and coercion.

Our economy is diverse and flexible – and the goods and services we export are sought after around the world.

So our approach includes trade diversification: looking for new markets for our products and expanding our trade to support strength and resilience of our national economy. At the same time, we are working with partners to build more resilient supply chains, including through a Quad supply chain initiative and through industry initiatives on supply chains.

The past few years have provided ample lessons on the limits of a functioning globalised economy from which we can source what we need, when we want it, from countries that offer the best deals.

Of course, as Liberals we believe firmly in open economies and free trade, but it is clear that disturbances and fragilities in global supplies – whether generated by pandemics like COVID-19 or strategic tensions like Russia's invasion of Ukraine – pose risks.

We are also building our national security strength through the biggest regeneration of the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War, establishing 2 percent of GDP as a floor for our defence spending, and providing budget certainty to the Australian Defence Force.

There is no doubt that Australia is a country to be reckoned with. We are the world's 13th largest economy; the 13th largest spender on defence; a nation with a reputation as a country that gets things done; a practical interlocutor in world affairs and a contributor in a crisis; a close ally of the United States and a trusted partner to many.

This is the deliberate approach that this Government has taken – national strength, a commitment to working with others to keep our region secure and stable, a reliable supporter to those in our region and above all a vociferous defender of the rules-based order.

To return to where I began, I finish by saying Russia's unprovoked aggression must not set a new baseline for what is tolerated by the international community. This Government is determined that the international rules-based order is upheld so that we don't enter a new age in which might makes right and smaller, peaceful nations are dominated by larger, aggressive ones.

Australia will continue to champion these rules as we always have. Thank you very much.

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