US Mission in Australia Award for Leadership Excellence

  • Remarks, E&OE
10 November 2020

Your Excellency, thank you so much for your hospitality and for the honour that you do me this evening with this event. Your Excellency the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Nineta Barbulescu, wonderful to have you here. To the many distinguished guests who join us this evening, to the many friends, the many members of the teams with which I have worked over a long time, particularly to our students, thank you for joining us.

It is a real pleasure to be here this evening, at the home of American democracy in Australia, at such an important time for the United States, and to reinforce the strong recognition in Australia of the US system of democracy and the pillars on which it has stood for over 200 years.

Ambassador, on those days in life – or anyone’s life – when we think we are busy, and working hard, I think a scan of the much esteemed life of Eleanor Roosevelt is a very good leveller.

I have decided, on reading again of her remarkable contribution to public life in the United States and internationally, that there are probably still a few firsts to be attributed to Mrs Roosevelt in a 21st century context.

From her engagement as a leader in the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League and in the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, she was likely an early and invaluable mentor to many women seeking a path in political and public life, before that term was ever in vogue.

As an advocate and driver of focus on the rights and needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged, personally a World War II American Red Cross and Navy Hospital volunteer, she was a leader in social policy long before social policy was a thing.

As the writer of a daily syndicated column, “My Day”, for 27 years, I also think she was the early equivalent of a very committed 21st century blogger.

Serving twice as US representative to their delegation at the UN General Assembly, she was probably almost in danger of becoming a career diplomat, but I venture to suggest that “plain ordinary Mrs Roosevelt” as she sought to be known when she became First Lady, would certainly have shaken up the diplomatic world of the 40s and the 60s over her two terms. The United Nations is without doubt a better place for her leadership, her role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and so, frankly, is the world.

I am in awe of her life, her contribution and her legacy. To be invited to receive this medal, the US Mission in Australia Award for Leadership Excellence, commemorating the then 75th anniversary of her visit to Australia in 1943, is a great honour.

The award recognises, as AB said, Australian women who have made significant achievements in advancing the US-Australia Alliance. Well, let me say that an Alliance, like any relationship, requires the efforts of both parties.

And it was, as Bibi told us and as AB reminded us, in the very infancy of our two countries’ formal ties in 1943, that Eleanor Roosevelt came to Australia. We talk a lot about people-to-people ties in the language of diplomacy, but this was a truly astounding demonstration of the power of that phrase.

Here was Mrs Roosevelt, as First Lady of the United States, travelling to the far side of the world on behalf of the Red Cross in the middle of a World War. Being an avid writer, she also chronicled her experiences for some of our major newspapers, writing about visits to camps and hospitals, her meetings with Australian and American troops, and even her first experiences with Australia’s wildlife.

That she even tamed Admiral Halsey is indeed a great demonstration.

A visit like that, from one of the United States’ then most beloved figures, made it clear that despite the youth of the diplomatic relationship, our two countries would enjoy getting to know each other.

And now, just short of 80 years since we formed diplomatic relations, it is clear to me that the Alliance is in the strongest position. Australia and the US do indeed like each other very much. We have much in common, many shared values and many agreed perspectives on the world.

And we also complement each another – very different countries in many ways, who don’t always agree of course, but in the sense of working together, and as I said, of complementing and supporting each other in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly, engaging on the key issues of our day and our time in a constructive and strong manner. In my time as Australia’s Minister for Defence, and now Australia’s Foreign Minister, this has been a focus of much of our work together and it continues to grow.

COVID-19 hasn’t made it easy to travel this year. Yet my friend and counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and I have found occasion to meet face-to-face three times in 2020, most recently last month in Tokyo.

When I visited Washington DC in March, it was becoming clear just how momentous this pandemic would be for the world’s health, economy and cohesion, and we knew that while we must prioritise managing the disruption of COVID-19, we must also not lose sight of the longer-term structural and strategic issues that will ultimately determine the course of the 21st century.

This is a time of uncertainty around the world, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. We are seeing rapid strategic change, marked by challenges to the rules-based order that the United States – with Australia’s strongest support – has played such a vital role in sustaining over decades.

This is the type of challenge for which our Alliance is suited, because it is based on enduring, shared values, which transcend parties or individuals in the White House or the Lodge.

We have absolute confidence this will continue under the Administration of President-elect Biden from January.

There has been a great deal of commentary about US politics lately. The fact is that 150 million people turned up to vote in a free and open election – a record figure, an extraordinary exercise in democracy. Democracy is alive, well and kicking in the United States and, speaking for myself, that is something to absolutely take note of, and to value.

I would ask you also to indulge me this evening momentarily, to allow me to note, that for all those women and girls who look at a career in politics or public life, to see the election of the first woman, and a woman from a diverse multi-racial background, elected as the Vice President of the United States, is breathtaking. It truly is.

I want to take this opportunity tonight, Ambassador Culvahouse, to thank you personally for the warm and productive relationship we have had during your time as Ambassador here in Canberra. It is an absolute pleasure to work with you. And your professionalism, commitment and courtesy are outstanding.

I said I am in awe of the contribution and legacy of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, and I am. Importantly as well, I particularly welcome the decision by the US Mission here to mark and honour that contribution. Too often, when the stories of our past were being written, women such as Eleanor Roosevelt have not made the pages of the history books.

In striking this medal, you have changed that for Eleanor Roosevelt here in Australia. Never underestimate the power of telling those stories for the women and girls around this assembly tonight and who come after her. They are both daunting and inspiring stories, and I am sure there is something for every woman and girl to take away from the life, well-lived, of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Once again, thank you for the honour of this award and let me thank all of you for the part you have played in making the United States and Australian relationship everything that it is today, and it will be, across the next 75 years.

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