Celebrating 20 Keynote Address

The Hon John Howard OM AC, Former Prime Minister of Australia

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SYDNEY, 30 August 2017

Thank you very much, Stephen, for those very generous remarks. Mr Doug Ferguson, Australia's distinguished Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, Senator Penny Wong, Chris Bowen, the Shadow Treasurer, and very particularly our three honorees tonight, Richard Wolcott, Hugh Morgan, and Warwick Smith.

Can I join everybody else in congratulating the Asia Society on twenty years of building the links between Australia and the Asia region, as well as building links on a bilateral basis between Australia and the many and varied countries of the Asian region. Can I thank Blackmores on your behalf for sponsoring tonight. It's a pretty terrific company, Blackmores. It's been very successful. It understands the opportunities in the Asian region. I think the energy that Marcus and many others have brought to their activities is evident by the way they embrace such causes as the Asia Society.

Our links with Asia are really two-fold. There's an understanding that we belong together to a region, and that that region and its members have a lot in common. But there's also an understanding that the bilateral relationships between Australia and the different countries of the Asian area are not only varied but they are also quite fundamental to the way in which we conduct our foreign policy. I think of the many things we've been reminded of in the last few years on the foreign policy scene. Particularly by such events as the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, is that we still live in a world of the nation- state. Although multilateral organisations are important, and they do very valuable work, relations between nations are still more important than many commentators give them credit for.

In this context, and certainly against the backdrop of the cloud called North Korea, there is no more important bilateral relationship in the world that is more important than that between the United States and the People's Republic of China. So much will hang on that, and so much hangs on that for us in Australia. One of the things that we must understand is that we should always negotiate our relations with the Asian region against the backdrop of our longstanding and priceless association with the United States of America. As we look at North Korea, and as we worry about it - and we should worry about it, because you have the ambitions of an evil man, whose political balance one must have real concerns about, pursuing nuclear ambitions. The two nations that have the capacity more than any others - and I think of those two China even more so than the United States - to bring about a change of attitude on the part of North Korea is something we should keep very much in mind.

Tonight is an occasion for celebration. But it's also an occasion for stocktaking: at what has been achieved, at the successes and the failures of Australia's engagement with the Asian region over the past twenty years. Tonight is also an occasion to give thanks to the courage of people in the past who've made a contribution to that association. In my mind, nobody can go past the extraordinary courage that was displayed by John McEwen as the trade minister in the Menzies government in the 1950s, when along with the current Prime Minister of Japan's grandfather, Kishi, who was then Prime Minister of Japan, there was negotiated the Japan-Australia Commerce Agreement. That was the real trailblazer of Australia's economic engagement with the region. It wasn't easy. The negotiation of that agreement was bitterly criticised by Australian manufacturers, and also by sections, not all, but sections of the RSL. Because it was only 12 years after the end of WWII. That government of Robert Menzies included such people as the father of Australia's longest serving Foreign Minister Alec Downer, father of Alexander Downer, who had been a POW during that conflict which had only ended 12 years before.

That was an act of very great courage, and interestingly enough it was signed in 1957. 1957 was also, coincidentally, the year that the Treaty of Rome was signed, which founded the European Common Market. And of course, as Britain retreated from Imperial preference and went into Europe, only of course to reverse that decision decades later - and good on them for doing so in my view - I know that wasn't the view of the Australian government at the time. When Britain did that, the fact that we had signed that agreement with Japan meant that we had a glide path into a deeper association with Japan and it became in many ways the iron lung of Australia's exports into the 70s. But it wasn't easy. It was opposed by the manufacturers and other interests and also incidentally was voted against in Parliament by the Labor Party in opposition. So it wasn't easy, it wasn't a bipartisan embrace at that time.

But as we look at the last 20 years a few things emerge very plainly. It has been the relationship between Australia and the Asian region that has been a remarkable economic success story. It has also been a success story on the people to people front. Twenty years ago the most commonly spoken foreign language in Australia was most certainly Italian or Greek. Now it is Chinese. Now that simple fact records an extraordinary expansion in the people to people links between the region. We see it all around us and it's something we should be very proud of. The successful integration of Asian migrant communities into the Australian broader community has been remarkable.

Of course, as we reflect on the economic events of the last ten years, we have to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution that our export trade with North Asia, particularly but not only with China, made to Australia being able to sail through relatively smoothly the global financial crisis. You might also forgive me for just gently mentioning another thing that helped us sail through and that was the superb fiscal condition in which a former government left Australia in 2008. But no more commercials. The economic story is something that goes deeper that that. It's also something that is part of the transformation through globalisation of much of the world. In the last twenty years hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, many of them out of absolute poverty. This is the success story of greater trade in the region, the success story of globalisation and of competitive capitalism. We have in many ways been partners of the countries of Asia in that process.

It's something we should reflect on. Of course, we should also reflect on, as Mr Chapman did, the contribution that Australia was economically strong enough to make in the wake of the Asian financial downturn in 1997-98 to the economies of Indonesia and Thailand and others. We were able to do that because we were seen as friends and partners in Asia. We were able to do it because we were economically powerful enough to do it. One of the things that has happened in the past twenty years between Australia and Asia is that we have been an active partner and participant in so many of the momentous events of the region.

I, of course, remember very vividly the role Australia played in relation to East Timor. That was a very difficult issue because it brought us into conflict with our nearest neighbour, Indonesia. We're long enough in the friendship and old enough friends to acknowledge that sometimes that relationship is not easy. We are vastly different countries. There is no point pretending otherwise; in fact. We do better when we are able to acknowledge the reality. But we are able to do that because we were seen at that particular time as leading an intervention force that was not a white western intervention force, although Australia and New Zealand contributed mightily to it. It was a regional intervention force. And it was seen as something that was acting on behalf of the whole region to stabilize the situation in East Timor. And although that encountered difficulties in our relationship with Indonesia, that relationship recovered.

One of the things that I have made a point of doing when I have to address gatherings in the region in my role as an ex-prime minister is to remind people of the extraordinary journey in democracy that Indonesia has traveled since 1998. I dealt with five Indonesian Presidents. The last Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was the first directly elected Indonesian President in the history of that country. One of the more moving occasions I had as Prime Minister of this country that symbolised the new relationship between Australia and the nations of Asia was to attend his inauguration as President, not long after the 2004 election and to have the privilege, in a very informal gathering after his inauguration, of speaking on behalf of regional leaders in congratulating the President. Indonesia is now undeniably the third largest functioning democracy in the world. That's a great achievement we ought to be proud of. Not in any patronising or condescending sense but recognising the achievement of a country of the diversity and challenges of Indonesia to achieve that transition.

As we talk of democracies we ought to remind ourselves of the continuing story of that great nation of India which of course has hung on to the parliamentary Westminster system and democratic government, except for a brief period under Mrs Gandhi when there was martial law, has hung on since independence in 1947. And the strength of India's institutions was demonstrated to my mind last week when the Indian Supreme Court ruled that certain forms of divorce recognised in Islamic law but not by many Islamic countries, which grossly discriminated against women, was contrary to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of India. That decision probably struck a greater blow for women's rights in Asia than any decision or development that I have seen in recent years.

I think it's important when we examine relations between nations in Asia that we don't only look at relations in the context of regional activities, although they are enormously important. Of course, when we look at the situation in Asia, not everything has gone in the right direction. Although tonight is not the occasion to engage in a micro-analysis, democracy in some parts of Asia has gone backwards in the past few years. And we must be concerned about that. But having reflected on the past, and having talked about the present, what we must do tonight if we are to rededicate ourselves to the cause of Australia being an accepted and comfortable friend and partner in the Asian region, but recognising that the goal of our foreign policy should be Asia first (but not Asia only, because Australia is a citizen of the entire world), we should think about the future.

The greatest challenge we have in the present time in the economic sphere is that we are living in a very different economic paradigm. There's nobody in this room, I promise you, who has lived in a world of lower interest rates than at present. And if anyone can prove me wrong please put their hand up, I don't think you can. We are living in a world of not only very low-interest rates but in a world of flatlining real wages. We are living in a world where a vast amount of money printing by central banks has not had the desired economic consequences. We are living in a very challenging economic paradigm, and when you live in a challenging economic paradigm people and countries potentially retreat to their worst instincts. They start contemplating putting up barriers to trade and commerce.

When I look at the extraordinary economic achievements of the Asian region, of which Australia has been a part, and the liberation of so many people out of poverty which has been a feature of the past twenty years, I would hope one of the things we would hope to do, not only through the Asia Society but as people who see the future of this country as a continuation of what has been achieved over the past twenty years, we recommit ourselves to the cause of openness in trade, recommit ourselves to welcoming foreign investment provided that it follows the rules that are laid by our country. This country has always been a beneficiary of foreign investment. British investment, then American, then Japanese, and more recently Chinese. A cardinal rule of investment policy in Australia must always be that we welcome people who wish to invest in the future of Australia according to the laws of Australia. We must never give any impression to the contrary that we discriminate against investment. But very importantly, we have to recommit ourselves to the cause of open trade, of globalisation, of all the things that have brought about the manifest improvements and achievements of the last twenty years.

The world is in many respects, in a rather weird economic and political time. We find things hard to predict than a few years ago. The challenge is not to fall back on our worst instincts of protection, but to recommit to what has brought ourselves to where we are now. I'm not suggesting that the Asian region is some kind of model of complete economic and legal openness - it plainly isn't. There's a lack of transparency in many countries in the region. But fundamentally the last 20-30 years has been the story of the success of open trade, of welcoming competitive capitalism and foreign investment.. If I could leave you with one message above everything else tonight, it's that if we believe in the future of the region, that if we believe that the partnership between Australia and the region and Australia and the individual countries in the region has been so remarkable and so successful then it is time that some of these economic successes have been put under challenge, we should recommit ourselves to the cause of economic openness and particularly openness in trade not only between nations of our region, but our region and the world.

I conclude by again congratulating all those who have committed themselves to improving links with our neighbours in the region. I thank individual Australians who in their commercial endeavours and in their personal endeavours have deepened and broadened those links. It has plainly been to the great benefit of our country and to our friends and neighbours in the Asian region.


This address was given as part of Asia Society Australia's 20th-anniversary dinner, presented in Partnership with Blackmores.