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Downer Attacks The Myth Of ‘Little’ Australia

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, has attacked the ALP for promoting the idea that Australia is simply a middle power.

Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign AffairsAddressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Downer said: “My view is that we are not just a ‘middle power’, as my predecessor, Gareth Evans, often asserted. In fact we are a strong Commonwealth with around the 12th largest economy in the world, and one of the most successful, peaceful and well-governed democracies in history.”

Downer said the notion of a “little Australia” had been the “prevailing paradigm” throughout the previous governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

He said: “We are not a middling nation, but a considerable power, the sixth largest in total land mass.”

Text of speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, to the National Press Club.

Ladies and gentlemen.

As we approach the end of the end of the year, the obligation is always there to look back and see how we’ve gone.

The last year has been one of my most demanding as Foreign Minister.

It has also been one of the most satisfying.

And it has been satisfying because, consistent with the Government’s practical, outcomes-oriented approach, we have been able to achieve some great things for Australia on the foreign policy front.

I will return to that theme a little later.

But before I do, I wanted to talk today about why concentrating on outcomes is not mere pragmatism;

why it is fundamentally underpinned by our attributes and values as a nation. . .

. . . by our willingness to meet our global responsibilities to promote security and prosperity. . . .

. . . and by our demonstrated steadfastness as an ally, a friend to freedom, and the diversity and breadth of our international relationships.

National Self-Understandings

My view is that we are not just a “middle power”, as my predecessor, Gareth Evans, often asserted.

In fact we are a strong Commonwealth with around the 12th largest economy in the world, and one of the most successful, peaceful and well-governed democracies in history.

We are not a middling nation, but a considerable power, the sixth largest in total land mass.

That notion of a “little Australia” had been the prevailing paradigm throughout the previous Government and remains strong among its remnants.

Kim Beazley routinely articulated Labor’s position as its Federal leader in 1998.

He told the national Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the need for innovation “to compensate for what we lack in competitive clout by being a small nation.”

I repeat “a small nation”.

Where does Simon Crean stand on this fundamental question?

It’s difficult to know.

Neither as Labor’s Deputy Leader nor as Leader in his own right, has he distanced himself from the Beazley Line, so to speak.

Nor has he rebuked Kevin Rudd, his spokesman on Foreign Affairs, when he described Australia as “a small nation”.

Senator Bob Brown, Leader of the Greens, also says “we’re a small nation”.

I have good news for him and for the Labor Party, although I doubt it will come as much of a surprise to the rest of the country.

Even on the basis of population, Australia is around the top 25 per cent.

But social cohesiveness, strong institutions, and confidence in what we stand for as a nation count for much more.

The tendency to regard Australia as a second-class state infects baby-boomer members of the commentariat, although thankfully most Australians of the same cohort and most people under 35 remain uninfected by the virus.

At its most extreme the ‘little Australia’ phenomenon leads to weird kinds of self-disgust.

Take, for example, Phillip Adams, the doyen of the liberal Left commentators.

He cannot conceal his disdain for his fellow Australians as ‘mean-spirited and gutless’ and ‘a little people who dishonour a great land.’

Don Watson, Paul Keating’s former speech writer still lives in Australia, but says he feels like ‘an exile at home. . . I am not uncomfortable with the US alliance, but surely there are other Australians who feel like me that there is something unhealthy and demeaning about the relationship as it now exists.’

At least this is a more temperate version than his description of Australia as ‘bent over the barrel and . . . willing to bend further as occasion demanded.’

Equally unstoppable and invincibly ignorant have been the usual suspects in the clerical elite.

The Anglican Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley, announced to his Synod, on the slenderest evidence, that ‘Australia’s policy on asylum seekers had affected its reputation around the world.’

Another archbishop believes the Howard Government ‘is destroying our international reputation, brutalising the Australian people’s attitudes and making us a less compassionate people.’

Who can explain this moral equivalent of the cultural cringe, except perhaps as an aberration of the elites in the dwindling days of their influence?

I am inclined to regard it as a reflex action and to think that they simply can’t help themselves.

But Australia’s Foreign and Trade policy is more surely based on a grasp of our traditional roots in Western Civilisation, our distinctiveness as a people and considerations of the interplay of national interests and our global responsibilities.

The Politics of National Identity

National identity develops organically.

Although for the bourgeois Left it has degenerated into a party- political game which they have played shamelessly hard ball.

National identity should always inform Foreign Policy and not, as some of our critics assume, be informed by it.

Our sense of shared identity ought not be driven by chauvinism, defensiveness or partisan social engineering.

Rather it should derive from justified pride and confidence about our achievements as a nation and a people and a ramified understanding of a complex past.

Among other things, we can take pride in the fact that our country has been able to grasp the economic opportunities of globalisation by being open, innovative and competitive. . .

. . . we are proud of the valiant and highly professional contributions which our soldiers, sailors, our airmen and women have made to the war against terror and the war in Iraq.

. . . and we are proud of the role that the military, police, aid workers and diplomats have played in restoring normalcy and security to Solomon Islands in three short months.

Tolerance and perseverance are fundamental to our spirit.

And we are a stable, liberal democracy, with sound national institutions and an indefatigable commitment to the political and economic freedom that underpins that society.

Not only will we refuse to apologise for our values and beliefs.

We will actively help those in our region and beyond it who aspire to the freedoms we enjoy;

Through, for example, our on-going nation-building efforts in East Timor. . .

. . . or our work to help Iraqis re-build their country, free of tyranny and oppression. . .

. . . or through our engagement in dialogue on, and advocacy of, human rights.

We also remain an outward-looking country, conscious of the responsibilities which go with our role in the international community, to contribute to global security, prosperity and development.

In a time of uncertainty, that commitment will continue to be underlined:

. . . .by our efforts to build effective cooperation with our neighbours to counter-terrorism . . .

. . . by our work to prevent the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the illicit trade in WMD materials and know-how. . .

. . . and by our assistance to neighbouring countries to strengthen their governance and enhance their institutions so that they too can enjoy the opportunities that a globalised world affords.

Finally, Australia has a well-deserved reputation for being a steadfast friend to many – both nations and oppressed minorities – particularly in uncertain and dangerous times.

It’s an extension of our distinctive understanding of what mateship can mean.

And we certainly do not allow terrorists and extremists to dictate who our friends and allies should be.

We also recognise that, like friendship itself, our relationships across the globe are not mutually exclusive.

We can, on the one hand, continue to strengthen our relations with the United States, including the effort to put our economic relationship on a par with our political and strategic relationship. . .

. . . while at the same time actively build on the long tradition of Australia’s political, military and economic engagement with Asia. . .

. . . and work to ensure that Australia’s voice is heard in Europe on those issues that matter most to us, particularly with respect to trade.

Engagement in Asia

This latter point deserves clearer focus.

It underlines a key characteristic of Australian foreign policy.

And that is, that we proceed from the understanding that our interests are not defined solely by geography.

It is a case I have often made and which is encapsulated in the Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, released earlier this year.

But it’s also a statement of the obvious.

We have a long-standing and vitally important relationship with the United States.

We have deep and diverse political, strategic and economic connections with Asia.

And we trade wherever we find markets for our goods and services, from South America to the Middle East.

Our critics, of course, interpret this as some ‘turning away from Asia.’

It’s the old Keating canard, politically self-serving and transparently false, as President Hu’s visit and its triumphant outcomes demonstrate.

Our engagement with Asia today is plainly stronger than it ever was, although the dismal brigade, of course, refuse to recognise that fact.

For example, a former diplomat, Alison Broinowski, maintains that we are a culturally cringing, subservient ally of an imperious United States, which makes all of us targets wherever we are.

She also claims that our regional relationships have diminished in the Howard era.

‘Pulling off two presidential visits in a week has enabled Howard to claim another triumph. The truth however is that a gap yawns between the assuring self-image Australians are being offered and the way we are perceived in the region.’

Her evidence is thin, mostly derived from Australia-bashing journalists in English language Asian newspapers, and otherwise anecdotal.

Like many critics she fails to see, or perhaps cannot bear to recognise, the far-reaching and effective counter-terrorism cooperation between Australia and our regional partners which has served to prevent terror attacks and disrupt terror networks and has also underlined our shared security interests.

Or they choose to ignore that in the last year we have concluded two genuinely liberalising Free Trade Agreements with Singapore and Thailand, and have begun a joint study on a third with China.

Or they are blind to the fact that our long-standing resources partnerships with North Asia have continued to expand – especially with last year’s major LNG contract win in China, our first significant LNG contract with South Korea and our booming iron ore exports.

On the cultural level, there are also more Asian students in Australia today than ever before.

The fact is, if they but cared to look, what they would see today are dynamic relationships between Australia and the other countries of the region.

Indeed if the sneerers looked hard enough they would see that we are not the only ones that do not define our interests exclusively in regional terms.

Singapore, for example, already has an FTA with the United States and Thailand is following suit.

In the last year we have seen Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand strengthen their strategic relationship with the United States, the latter two acquiring major non-NATO ally status.

China also recognises that a constructive relationship and economic engagement with the United States, and indeed the EU, are critical to its efforts to consolidate its economy and international influence.

Iraq and its Aftermath

Ultimately it is not those people who profess to be ashamed of their country to whom we answer in the conduct of our foreign policy.

It is the Australian people.

We understand that very well, and it is what drives us to deliver substantial foreign policy outcomes.

As I mentioned at the outset, from the perspective of outcomes achieved, the last year has been very satisfying.

I am particularly proud of the active role Australia has played and is continuing to play in Iraq.

Together with our coalition partners, we brought Saddam Hussein’s regime to account for ignoring the demands of the international community that Iraq verifiably terminate its WMD programs – demands spelt out in some 17 UN Security Council resolutions.

As the Iraq Survey Group’s still unfinished assessment of Iraq’s WMD program has already shown, Saddam’s ambition for these weapons had not diminished.

Some of you may not have read – or reported—much on these matters.

It has already detailed dozens of WMD-related activities and significant amounts of material – including an organism applicable to Biological Weapons – concealed from UNMOVIC inspectors.

The Kay Report has revealed testimony from regime scientists and officials that Saddam Hussein was firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities and evidence that Iraq was also committed to developing proscribed missiles and other WMD-capable delivery systems never declared to, or discovered by, the UN.

Had UNMOVIC made these findings a year ago there would have been far less debate in the Security Council last March on the appropriate course of action.

Indeed, the Kay report shows that removing Saddam was the only way the international community could be assured that he would no longer threaten the international community or his people with WMD.

Saddam provided open support for terrorists such as Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Palestinian Liberation Front, Abu Nidal and others, and accepted the presence of al-Qa’ida operatives in Iraq.

If these facts, so relentlessly ridiculed by the commentariat when canvassed by our allies at the beginning of the war, had been given due credit, even Labor’s Left and the Greens would surely have recognised what national interest dictated.

Or would they?

Together with our coalition partners we have removed a regime which had represented a threat to international non-proliferation norms, to the security of its neighbours and to the lives of its own people.

We didn’t do it because we thought what followed the regime’s downfall might be easy.

Nation-building rarely is, especially when you are dealing with the corrosive legacy of Saddam’s 25 years of oppressive rule.

Rooting out those who indiscriminately kill Iraqis, coalition forces and international aid workers will remain a priority.

Terrorists will not prevail in their evil campaigns to restore Ba’athist tyranny.

But gone already is the all-pervasive influence of the Ba’ath party.

Today there are some 150 new political parties.

Gone is Iraq’s Orwellian Ministry of Information.

Today there are some 170 newspapers; and satellite dishes are sold on street corners.

A prompt, credible and sustainable hand-over of power to the Iraqi people remains the coalition’s objective.

Even as the coalition uncovers the bleak horror of 263 mass graves, yielding 300,000 of Saddam’s victims, Iraqis optimistically are taking control of their destinies.

Two hundred and fifty five municipal councils are functioning. Chambers of commerce, business, school and professional organizations are electing their leaders all over the country.

And the Iraqi Governing Council and ministries are undertaking responsibility for running the country.

Who would now stand up and say they wished this regime had not been overthrown?

Iraq is not, of course, the end of efforts to promote non-proliferation.

In our active role in the Proliferation Security Initiative, we have, with our partners, re-focussed and re-energised efforts to stop the spread of WMD materials and technical expertise.

The second meeting of the PSI was held in Australia and the first naval counter-proliferation exercise held under its auspices took place here this year.

The initiative sends a clear message that the world will not tolerate the illicit trade in these dangerous capabilities.

This is especially critical today against the background of efforts by terrorist groups to acquire these weapons.

Australians don’t need to be told what this could mean.

Our recent commemoration of the tragic events that took place in Bali a year ago is reminder enough of the terrible, indiscriminate savagery of these extremists.

I am proud of our continuing effort to help our regional neighbours defeat terrorism in South-East Asia.

Our eight bilateral counter-terrorism MoUs have facilitated cooperation between Australian law enforcement officials and their counterparts in the region.

Our capacity-building programs are helping to improve the ability of regional law enforcement and security agencies to track, disrupt and arrest terrorist.

This year we agreed with the Indonesian Government jointly to host a regional summit in Bali next year to help us find even more effective ways to combat terror in the region.

Most gratifying of all is that these efforts are delivering results. Our co-operation with Indonesia has helped produced 29 convictions in the Bali bombing trial. . .

. . . across the region 200 suspected members of Jema’ah Islamiyya have been detained. . .

. . . and today a key terrorist, Al-Ghozi, is no longer at large.

While we still have a long way to go in the global fight against terror, civilization is making progress.

Over 3000 Al-Qaida suspects have been detained and nearly $200 million in terrorist assets have been frozen.

Significantly for Australia and our region, Hambali, a key link between Al-Qaeda and JI is now in US custody.

The last year has not only seen Australia help its neighbours fight terror; we have also worked with them to build a better future for their countries.

Most recently, the Government has committed itself to helping the people and government of Papua New Guinea realise their national goals.

We are currently discussing with the PNG Government enhanced forms of co-operation, in particular, in the areas of economic management, public sector and law reform, the administration of justice and policing.

Of course, if anything typifies the extent to which we have been prepared to support and work with our regional partners over the last year, it is the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

In co-operation with our Pacific neighbours, and at the invitation of the Solomons’ Government, the mission has in three short months achieved some remarkable things.

For the first time in three years the people of the Solomons are able to live their lives free of thuggery and violence.

For the first time in three years the Solomon Islands’ Government is able to operate and deliver services to its people, free of intimidation.

And for the first time in three years the Solomons’ Government has been able to present a credible and coherent budget to the Parliament – and one what’s more, that is likely to be implemented.

Of course the mission is not over.

Much remains to be done.

But it is gratifying to be able to say at such an early stage that we are well on the way to helping the people of the Solomons build a more stable and more prosperous future.

If there is one event this year that I wanted to end on today, it is the visits to Australia last month of Presidents Bush and Hu.

Not so much because these reflect some achievements of Australian diplomacy, but because of what these visits say about Australia as a country.

They were, of course, landmarks in our efforts to strengthen our relationships with these two countries critical to Australia’s future.

And they show that Australia can sustain diverse relationships and remind the world that our relations with Asia and the United States are not mutually exclusive.

More fundamentally, they demonstrate that Australia is right to be secure about its place in the world. . .

. . . that we should be unapologetic about our values and our beliefs. . .

. . . and that we have reason to be proud of our achievements and our attributes as a nation.

The Presidents of China and the United States can certainly see that – even if some of our critics can’t.

Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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