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Downer: Australia’s Place In The World

This is the text of an Address by Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the NSW Division of the Liberal Party, in Sydney.

Downer outlined the government’s approach to foreign policy in its first nine months in office. He talked about Malaysia, multilateral and bilateral relations, trade and immigration.

Text of speech by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to the NSW Liberal Party.

Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign AffairsINTRODUCTION

Many thanks for the invitation to address you today.

I am delighted for the opportunity to speak about Australia’s “place in the world” and our foreign policy priorities.

This Government has a vision for Australia in the 21st century as a cooperative, economically competitive and secure nation, fully engaged with the East Asian region, while maintaining and developing links with countries beyond the region.

When we came into office almost nine months ago, we had a detailed policy, appropriately entitled A Confident Australia, which embodied this vision.

Our policy had as its core a commitment to advance Australia’s national interests in a focused, practical, realistic and above all, a principled manner.

We said unequivocally that closer engagement with Asia would be our highest foreign policy priority.

Our determination to translate our words into deeds was clear on the first day in office.

Within two hours of having been sworn in, the first foreign policy decision of the new Government was to send a special envoy to Malaysia to invite the Malaysian Prime Minister to make his first visit to Australia in over a decade.

This decision and its acceptance gave immediate notice that we were willing to take initiatives to develop relationships with key regional partners and were thoroughly committed to being an active player in the region and beyond.

Building on this initial contact, we have sought to strengthen Australia’s bilateral relations in a practical and focused way.

Today, I would like to set out for you the key foreign policy priorities of this Government and the steps the Government has already taken to fulfil the policy directions set in A Confident Australia.

I will do so by examining four aspects of Australia’s foreign policy:

  • Australia’s commitment to the region;
  • The enhancement of Australia’s security;
  • Australia’s broader global links; and
  • The Government’s approach to human rights and humanitarian issues.


The Asia Pacific region is our highest foreign policy priority for one very simple and enduring reason:

It is the vital sphere of our economic and strategic interests.

Australia’s export and investment profile reveals how important the region is to the continued prosperity of all Australians.

Almost two thirds of Australia’s exports are to APEC countries and a growing percentage of these are manufactured products and skilled services.

Over half of Australia’s total foreign direct investment goes to APEC countries.

The task then for the new Government, building on past achievements, has been to implement a regional policy which delivers tangible benefits for all Australians.

Our goal has been to achieve practical outcomes in dealing with the region – outcomes which help improve the prosperity of the country as a whole and the quality of life for ordinary Australians.

That is our job and I believe that the record shows that we have made a very solid start.


First, at the bilateral level, at the recent Australia-Indonesia Ministerial Forum in Jakarta, the Indonesian Minister of Production and Distribution, Mr Hartarto, and I announced the Australia-Indonesia Development Area – or AIDA.

AIDA represents a significant milestone in our bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

It offers the prospect of a distinctive Australian contribution to the development of Eastern Indonesia, development which will offer long term economic, and indeed broader benefits to both countries.

At another level, this initiative, originating as it did with the Indonesian Government, with the encouragement of the President of Indonesia, represents an endorsement of the Government’s commitment to the region.

We have built on the important initial meeting with Dr Mahathir by delivering a new Trade Agreement with Malaysia.

This Agreement will bring over time greater access for Australian producers and benefits to Australian consumers.

In August, on behalf of the Government, I signed an agreement with the Chinese Foreign Minister providing for the continuation of our Consulate General in Hong Kong beyond the transfer of sovereignty in July next year.

Above all else, an agreement such as this brings confidence and services to those Australians working in and travelling through Hong Kong.

One matter which was personally very satisfying was the Government’s ability to reach a sensitive agreement with Vietnam which paved the way for a pilgrimage to Long Tan.

This outcome was an important step forward in the relationship between the two countries.

Trade Liberalisation

The second way that the Government has given substance to its commitment to engage more closely with Asia is its pursuit of a trade liberalisation agenda, most particularly through the APEC process.

The Government has done this by placing a special emphasis on concrete initiatives in the Individual Action Plans presented by APEC governments at the APEC Ministerial and Leaders’ meetings just completed in the Philippines.

These Individual Action Plans are the first step in a 15-25 year process.

They are a reasonable start which build on APEC members’ Uruguay Round commitments.

They capture the considerable progress APEC members have already made in opening their markets.

APEC leaders also called on the World Trade Organisation to match and build on the ambition and achievements of regional trading arrangements like APEC.


The second key aspect of this Government’s foreign policy has been the steps it has taken to improve Australia’s security and the strategic environment in which we pursue our national interests.

Our objective has been to develop and sustain a regional security environment which:

  • discourages resort to force in international disputes;
  • prevents the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and
  • encourages cooperation to enhance the security of the region as
    a whole.


In South East Asia, the ratification by Indonesia of the Agreement on Maintaining Security since our election reinforced the new Government’s security links with Indonesia.

This agreement builds on our existing security agreement with Papua New Guinea, the Five Powers Defence Arrangements and the ANZUS Alliance.

The Government has also improved our existing regional links by developing strategic regional dialogues with countries in North East Asia, where major security challenges have the potential to impact on the region as a whole.

We held the inaugural political-military talks with South Korea in July.

The talks with Korea were supplemented by an agreement reached in August to expand our bilateral security dialogue with China to cover regional security issues.

The Government recognises the importance of engaging China. China needs to be involved and integrated into the emerging regional security community. It will be an increasingly significant player in the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific region, and I am convinced of the benefits of working cooperatively with it.

The Government regards the United States’ involvement in the region as critical to security in the Asia Pacific.

Our alliance with the US enhances Australia’s ability to make a significant contribution to regional security.

The Government has updated the ANZUS Alliance and given it a specifically regional focus through the Joint Security Declaration between the two countries which was announced during the Australia-US Ministerial Talks in July.


The Government strongly supports the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which although in its infancy, is maturing as a useful mechanism for developing a sense of shared strategic interest in the region.

Region-wide security dialogues on sensitive issues such as the future of Burma have now been instituted.

Australia has sought to bolster these attempts at regional co-operation by taking important practical steps.

For example, reflecting the priority the Government attaches to improving security on the Korean Peninsula, in April we contributed $2 million to support KEDO – the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation.


As I made clear in my address to the UN General Assembly in September, Australia is also deeply committed to the maintenance of international peace and security through multilateral initiatives.

Australia’s initiative to salvage the CTBT allowed for a genuine step forward in the control of proliferation.

Australia also now plays a leading role in ridding the world of anti-personnel landmines.

The decision taken by the Government in April to suspend operational use of anti-personnel landmines by the Australian Defence Force and to support a global ban on the production, stockpiling, use and transfer of anti-personnel landmines was a clear indication of the Government’s determination to work for control of these weapons.

The Government also proposed during this year’s General Assembly the formation of an International Technical Working Group on landmine clearance.


The third key aspect of this Government’s foreign policy has been to enhance Australia’s broader global links.

The Government regards our links with other countries beyond the region as assets.

We have made it clear that Australia not only has substantial direct interests with European countries but can offer them a commercial base from which they can become increasingly active in the Asia Pacific region.

This message, made during my recent visit to Europe, was warmly received by European leaders.

The revitalisation of Australia’s relationship with France, following the end of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, and support for the CTBT, led France’s Prime Minister Juppe to comment that “we have a new basis for a new relationship between Australia and France”.

The Government has also established political-military talks with Germany and launched the “Partnership 2000 Action Plan”.

We have sought to update our relationship with the United Kingdom through funding a reciprocal “New Images” integrated promotion in 1997.

The Government recently held the inaugural meeting between Australia and the Rio Group countries of South America as a preparatory step to closer trade, aviation and communications links between the two continents.


Australian foreign policy is also vitally concerned with upholding internationally recognised standards of human rights and looking for practical ways to enhance individual dignity and freedom and promote democracy beyond our shores.

This is a vital part of Australia’s foreign policy and a long standing part of Australia’s rich history.

I am sure you will agree with me, however, that `humanity begins at home’.

In this context, I am aware that members of the party and other Australians of Asian origin have been concerned about the impact of the recent discussion of the immigration issue on our relations in the region.

I want to reiterate in the clearest possible terms this Government’s commitment to a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

In fact, when visiting Malaysia, in my first visit to the region since this issue became prominent in the media, I made this point abundantly clear.

I repeated the point during my recent visit to India, in Parliament, and in an article I wrote for the regional press.

I stated then and re-state again today that the Government completely rejects any notion that the immigration policy should have any reference to race.

I personally find and the Government finds any such notion to be repugnant.

Australians in general regard such sentiments as repugnant and we reject them in their entirety.

The fact is that Australia has a proud record for welcoming migrants from all around the world and we will not let that achievement be threatened in any way.

Moreover, the Liberal party has a proud history in its commitment to a non-discriminatory immigration programme.

In the mid-1960s it was the Liberal party, led by Prime Minister Harold Holt, who successfully ended the ‘White Australia’ policy.

You need no reminding that the Liberal party acted swiftly during the last election campaign to make its stance on this issue clear.

The same is true of this Government.

The Prime Minister has spoken 12 times on this issue since September.

I want to draw your attention to the Prime Minister’s comments to the Parliament on 29 October – “I find any demonstration of racial intolerance or racial discrimination as despicable and repugnant” – I repeat “despicable and repugnant”.

I endorse again today the Prime Minister’s statement to the Parliament on 8 October that Australia’s immigration policy is and will remain non-discriminatory.

This Government regards Australia’s record on immigration as a vital part in developing Australia’s international links – particularly within the region.


In conclusion, while it is only about nine months since we came to office, the Government has established clear priorities in its foreign policy and taken significant initial steps to implement them.

Although it is only the beginning, these are real achievements in the areas of regional engagement, security policy, global engagement and human rights which set the tone for the future.

The task ahead is not only to follow up on these directions but to shape Australia’s foreign policy in the long term.

The Government understands that the success of Australia’s foreign policy depends on our domestic economic performance.

To that end, the Government’s commitment to fiscal discipline, our determination to reform the labour market and the waterfront will have a direct impact on Australia’s international competitiveness and our long term prosperity.

The Government is also well aware of the need for Australia to consider how its national interests can be pursued in the long term.

The Government has commissioned a White Paper on Foreign and Trade policy which will be the first ever comprehensive vision statement on Australia’s foreign affairs and trade.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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