30
March 2021

From Foreign Affairs to the House of Representatives - A Reflection

Address to the Sydney Institute, 30 March 2021. Watch the full speech here.

There are times when I despair about the state of public debate in modern-day society.

A growing inability to discuss differing view points in a calm and considered manner.

The frequent attribution of bad faith, corruption and other ill-motives to one's political or ideological opponents.

The triumph of emotion and intensity over the merits of a particular idea.

The unseemly scramble to seize the moral high ground, and assume the unimpeachable status of a martyr, in order to obliterate and discredit competing ideas or viewpoints.

A general coarsening of public debate, driven in part by the high degree of personal denigration that proliferates on social media platforms.

I do not believe we are well-served as a public or as a country by these trends.

It was Abraham Lincoln, at his first inaugural address, who coined the phrase the "better angels of our nature".

It was an appeal, in the face of growing separatist sentiment which would soon break out with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, to cool secessionist passion.

It was a counsel in favour of unity and friendship, and against precipitate action and needless partisanship.

"Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection", Lincoln warned.

Lincoln's entreaty failed. The United States shortly thereafter erupted into Civil War.

But his appeal to the "better angels of our nature" is one I believe worth remembering and reflecting upon today.

Too often the format and frequency of contemporary political debate brings out the "worse angels of our nature".

That's why I think opportunities like this provided by the Sydney Institute -- to address an audience at length, to develop an argument, to delve more deeply into topics, to do so without being shut down - are so precious.

So I wanted to once again thanks Gerard and Anne, and the audience, for having me here tonight. It sure beats spending a lost hour debating on Twitter!

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Tonight I'm speaking about my journey from Foreign Affairs to the House of Representatives .... from diplomat to politician ... and some of what I have learned along the way.

Like many who call Australia home, my story starts on the other side of the world. My father was born to an Indian family in Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies, the youngest of nine children. His family was part of the wave of migration from British India to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations, after the abolition of slavery.

My paternal grandfather was a pandit, a Hindu priest. Despite the social status this gave them amongst the Indian diaspora there, his family was of very modest background and means. They saved hard in order to send my father to university in London. He arrived just after the war had ended, becoming the first in his family to receive a formal education. He graduated and started practising law at Lincoln's Inn.

It was there, at Lincoln's Inn, that he met my mother, an Australian girl from Sydney. Like many of her era, she had sailed to London in the early 1960s looking for an adventure. They fell in love, married and started a family together, moving around somewhat. My elder twin sisters were born in Trinidad and Tobago. I was born in Canada. We moved back to Australia in the late 1970s, settling in Sydney, to be near my mother's family.

My mother lost her life at a young age -- the age in fact that I am today -- to breast cancer. I was twelve years old at the time, and, my sisters having by that stage left home, it fell largely to my father, and to my mother's extended family, to raise me. As is not uncommon with these sorts of tragedies, I was prompted to grow up quite quickly and become self-reliant from a young age.

Encouraged by my dad to follow in his footsteps, I applied for and was offered a place at the University of Cambridge during my final year of school in Sydney, where I started off studying science but then changed to law.

At the end of my degree I faced my own sliding doors moment: I was tempted to stay in the UK and build a career in London, as many of my friends were doing.

But something pulled me back to Australia. It was a vague sense of patriotism -- that I was Australian first and foremost, and so I had a duty to contribute here -- and of optimism -- that Australia was still a nation in formation, with its best years ahead of it -- that drew me back.

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I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade -- or DFAT, as it's called -- as a graduate in 1999.

At the time I did not have a clear sense of what a career in the public service looked like, or what diplomacy entailed. But I had an interest in the world beyond our shores and Australia's place in it, and a desire to contribute in some way to that project, and figured that DFAT was a good place to start.

My first assignment was with the Australian Defence Force in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, where we had a peacekeeping force, before moving to our High Commission in Port Moresby. Over three years I helped work on resolving the Bougainville conflict, and forging a durable peace to the most bloody conflict that the Pacific had seen since the Second World War. That peace and that political settlement still hold today, a remarkable achievement for Australian diplomacy.

My time in PNG gave me a deep affection for that country and its people, an understanding of the vastness of the development challenges that face it and other nations in the Pacific, and an appreciation for the unique role and responsibilities Australia has in this part of the world.

After my time in Papua New Guinea, I worked for Alexander Downer as a policy adviser during the Howard government, one of the longest lasting and most productive partnerships of Australian foreign policy.

This gave me an insight into foreign policy decision-making at the coalface, and an appreciation for the workload that Ministers take on. Alexander was simultaneously the Foreign Minister; a senior Cabinet Minister; a local member for the seat of Mayo, with constituent responsibilities; a senior leader within the Party, especially the South Australian Division; and then of course a father and a husband.

After this I spent three-plus years in Washington DC at the Australian Embassy, for the final period of the Bush Administration and the first several months of the Obama Administration, helping to work on and encourage the initial US 'pivot to Asia'.

A sound grasp of the US political system and how it works is indispensable to understanding global politics and strategy -- Washington is the Rome of our day -- and so I was fortunate to have this experience.

After returning from Washington I helped lead the international division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet during Julia Gillard's time as Prime Minister, a leader I worked closely with and whom I still regard fondly.

It was from here and by a Labor government that I was appointed Australia's Ambassador to Israel. My four years in that role left me with a high degree of admiration and respect for the state of Israel, the Jewish people and all they have achieved under tremendously trying circumstances.

It also gave me a deep affection for the Australian Jewish community, and I think lead to the belief that I am myself Jewish. I'm not, in fact, but am always happy to be described as a friend of the Jewish people, and a mensch from time to time.

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It's undoubtedly true that for Members of Parliament, the perspectives we bring to the Parliament and our life experiences beforehand shape the attitudes we take and the issues we adopt when in Parliament.

I see this all the time with my colleagues, each of whom brings a unique insight and set of personal and professional experiences to bear on any given issue.

When it works well, it is a real strength of the place.

But Parliament still falls short in this regard: as an institution, it does not adequately reflect or embody Australia as a nation.

When we talk about diversity, this should really be the focus. The Parliament does a decent job of reflecting Australia's diversity in terms of geography and ideology.

But it falls short when it comes to areas like ethnicity and country of origin, religion and belief, professional and educational background, disability and sexual orientation. And of course gender.

There are still way too many careerists in Parliament, people for whom politics has been their only vocation.

The internal structures and workings of both the major political parties do not lend themselves readily to a wider recruitment pipeline, with insiders usually privileged over outsiders.

My own experience, as someone without a long party pedigree or service making the leap into elected office, is very much the exception rather than the norm.

My own party is currently engaged in a much-needed debate about how we recruit more women to our ranks.

We undoubtedly need to do better here. But we also need to do better on other metrics of diversity, and make sure we are harnessing all of Australia's strengths by recruiting new political talent from across our nation.

This will not only lead to better policy, but better politics.

People need to see something of themselves in their elected representatives. The party that can do a better job of reflecting the public in its composition will be in stronger position electorally.

The UK Conservative Party is a study in this.

In the space of barely a decade they have gone from a party that was predominantly old, white, male and drawn from a few narrow breeding grounds to one that is positively cosmopolitan, recruiting many more women and many more from ethnic communities and diverse professional backgrounds.

As a result their electoral appeal now stretches well beyond their traditional constituencies.

My own Coalition Class of 2019 is a good example of this. With the same number of women as men elected, we have also drawn from diverse professional backgrounds -- from veterans to childhood psychologists, social workers to vice-chancellors -- and have the first Australians of Chinese background and of Indian background elected to the House of Representatives.

As a Party we need to make sure this broad composition is replicated in future intakes as this is how we ultimately change the composition of our own party room in the Parliament.

Whether we do this by decree, or by quota, or by some other means is not especially material. But I think it is incumbent upon each of us as sitting MPs to be fostering and supporting the next generation of political leaders within our party, and making sure that future intakes of Coalition members of Parliament are equally or more diverse than the 2019 intake.

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For me, my own perspectives and priorities in the Parliament reflect my career and background.

Two decades spent representing Australia overseas taught me two important lessons.

First, that Australia is a remarkably successful nation.

We are secure and prosperous. We are united and harmonious. We have some of the highest living standards in the world; some of the most generous and supportive social services; the highest degrees of personal freedom; and the most social and income mobility, with a comfortable middle class existence open to all.

And we are prepared to share all this quite generously, taking in hundreds of thousands of new arrivals each year and granting them the right to call Australia home.

Second, that nations are precious and fragile things.

There is nothing pre-ordained about the path they take. Through poor decisions or a failure of leadership they can readily run off the rails, indulge in mindless factionalism, or become captured by a leadership class whose interests do not align with those of the nation.

Too often progressives, in their desire to out-fashion one another, take our national success for granted. They take to trashing our national institutions and achievements as a way of demonstrating their own modern outlook.

This way lies complacency. It is hard to preserve what you do not value.

But at times conservatives, who rush to defend Australia and its institutions from unwarranted assault, fail to recognise our shortcomings or the need to modernise institutions and norms to reflect evolving national attitudes and composition.

This way lies stasis and stagnation.

I am firmly of the view that if a nation is not going forwards, it is likely to be going backwards.

And I wanted to talk about three specific policy areas today where I believe Australia should be pushing forwards, orienting ourselves towards the future, to become stronger and more secure as a nation.

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As the bushfires raged last summer, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology was hard at work.

On a daily and hourly basis, the Bureau depends heavily on earth observations from foreign satellites to track and predict weather, assimilating data streams from around 30 satellites to do so.

Satellite data helps reduce the BOM's forecasting error by around 70%. Without such satellite data, they would be hard pushed to provide forecasts with any sort of accuracy out beyond one day.

As the bushfires were raging, the BOM was sucking up satellite data at a high rate, to pinpoint the location of fires and identify smoke plumes in near real time, providing actionable intelligence to our emergency services, and assisting in firefighting efforts and evacuation planning,

But here is the catch. Australia does not own or operate a single earth observation satellite. We are entirely reliant on data streams from foreign satellites.

To generate real-time intelligence and observation of the bushfires, we had to get help from Japan and Korea. Both countries provided us additional rapid-update data from their geostationary satellites, increasing the frequency of scanning and giving us a higher resolution of imagery.

Without this boost to capability, our firefighting efforts would have been considerably harder.

Think about that.

We are the sixth largest country in the world by landmass.

We have one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world: at 10 million square kilometres, a marine area that is larger still than our landmass of roughly 7 million square kilometres.

Under international aviation agreements, we have responsibility for providing weather forecasts for the airspace over 11% of the world's surface.

Australia is already prone to extreme weather events, as we are seeing with the current floods.

The frequency and severity of such events will only grow with an increase in global temperatures.

Meanwhile weather-related data volumes are expected to grow by an order of magnitude over the next decade, as next generation meteorological sensors are developed and deployed.

And our ability to rely on international cooperation and goodwill, to obtain data from foreign satellites, will surely be tested in an era of growing international discord and rivalry.

There is a strong case, solely on meteorological grounds, for Australia to have a sovereign capability in earth observation satellites.

Given our geography, our climate profile and exposure, the importance of our agricultural sector, and the changing geopolitical landscape, it makes sense.

But beyond this, there are other reasons why we should seek to increasingly develop a sovereign space capability, including a sovereign launch capability.

There are economic imperatives. The importance of space and space-based assets to the modern economy will grow, with a global space market predicted to be worth US $1 trillion by 2040.

With this comes highly-skilled and highly-paid jobs, exactly the sort of employment opportunities we need for Australians.

There are defence imperatives. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update highlights Australia's dependency on access to space for the ADF's operational capabilities, a dependency that will only deepen in coming years with new technologies and platforms. The Force Structure plan makes clear the need for communications satellites and ground stations under sovereign control, and a sovereign space-based imagery capability.

And there are national resilience imperatives. Space and space-based assets are critical to the functioning of our modern economy and society, from transportation to financial markets, banking and utilities, and critical information infrastructure.

Antarctica, to which Australia lays claims, is an area of growing outside interest and activity, and potentially of strategic competition. Our current access to satellite imagery leaves significant gaps around Antarctica and its approaches.

In addition to a sovereign space capability, we have to be able to replace our capabilities, especially at a time of geopolitical tension and given our geographic isolation. This means we should also seek a sovereign launch capability.

We have made a good start on these challenges, with the establishment of the Australian Space Agency, a Space Strategy which aims to triple the size of the Australian space sector by 2030, and a growing number of commercial Australian space operations and space "start-ups", such as Gilmour Space Technologies.

But there is much more to do. Australia as a government invests less as a percentage of GDP on space than nearly every other G20 economy, behind even Indonesia and Argentina.

Given the growing importance of space and space-based assets to Australia’s economy, security and strategic future, space is an area that will demand a higher policy priority and more government investment in the years to come.

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It is this same set of circumstances -- a more uncertain and more contested strategic environment -- that is driving the most significant upgrade and modernisation of our defence forces in several generations.

We are spending some $270 billion in upgrading our capabilities over the next decade, acquiring new platforms and new weapons systems.

A key part of this capability upgrade is the acquisition of 12 Attack-class submarines.

The Program is estimated to cost $90 billion and will be the largest, and most complex, defence acquisition project in Australian history

This compares to the acquisition of 72 fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter, at a cost of some US$17 billion.

Our Attack class design is being built by Naval Group and is a variant on the Barracuda class, which will be the next French nuclear-powered attack submarine.

The main difference is that our submarines will be conventionally-powered, and the changes to the design are those necessary to give us the range needed for our strategic circumstances with only conventional power: basically, bigger fuel tanks.

I am a supporter of proceeding with our submarine program.

I do not believe we can afford -- given the delays caused by earlier failures to make decisions -- to risk unnecessarily delays to the project, and opening up a capability gap.

As it is, the first Attack class submarine will not enter into service for at least a decade, in the early 2030s. The last one is not expected to enter into service until 2053.

We will need to extend the life of the Collins class submarines to make sure we retain a submarine capability throughout.

I am enough of a pragmatist to recognise the path dependency in this process. We are where we are today because of decisions made a decade and more ago.

But I am enough of an idealist to want to consider this issue from first principles.

The stated requirements of our submarine force are that it be "regionally superior" and that, as part of our overall defence forces, it be able to deter actions against Australia's interests and respond with credible military force when required.

It is no secret that conventionally-powered submarines have significant limitations compared to nuclear submarines. They are slower to transit. They cannot sustain high speeds. They need to surface more often. Their range is more limited. They are less able to 'loiter' undetected.

This is simply the result of physics: the differing properties and characteristics of the two propulsion systems.

This means that, as opposed to nuclear submarines, conventional submarines are less effective at anti-submarine warfare, less effective at anti-surface warfare, and less effective in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles.

This is especially true for a geography such as ours, when our submarines are likely to be called on to serve a long way from their home port.

Defence strategic documents, such as the Integrated Investment Plan, assess that by 2035, around half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region.

It also notes that Australia has one of the largest maritime domains in the world and "we need the capacity to defend and further our interests from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans and from the areas to our north to the Southern Ocean".

The United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France all build and operate nuclear submarines. They are considered so superior that the US, the United Kingdom and France do not not operate conventional submarines.

India, Brazil and Korea are all considering or in the process of acquiring nuclear submarines.

It's clear to me that Australia should not be ruling this out in the future.

In all other elements of our defence forces, for the Army, Air Force and Navy, we do not shy away from embracing the best technology.

Indeed we know that our qualitative military edge, and ability to sustain a regionally superior military notwithstanding our relatively small standing defence force, depends on doing just this.

Some would argue that we lack the necessary expertise to sustain such a submarine.

But Australia does in fact have much nuclear scientific and engineering expertise, in ANSTO and its predecessor the AAEC, dating back over 70 years. ANSTO currently has some 1200 staff, including over 200 engineers with nuclear experience.

We have designed, procured, built and operated a series of world-class nuclear facilities, including three small reactors. Our current research reactor, OPAL, has very many common elements to a modern small nuclear reactor, such as that which could be used for either power production or naval propulsion.

And in any event, depending on the design used, the need for maintenance is very limited. The US and UK nuclear submarines, for instance, do not require refueling during the life of the vessel.

Some would argue that neither the UK, nor France, nor the United States, would share with us the necessary technology. I do not believe that proposition has seriously been tested.

The true obstacle I believe is Australia's neuralgia towards nuclear. We are one of only three G20 countries that does not derive some share of its energy from nuclear power. We are the only country in the world with a legislative prohibition against nuclear power.

But we are talking here about a small modular nuclear reactor which is only large enough to power a submarine, not dissimilar in scale to our nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights.

As I said, I'm enough of a pragmatist to accept where we are today, but I do believe this is an issue we need to revisit in the future, and certainly well before 2053 when our last Attack-class conventional sub is due to be delivered.

If Australia's regional strategic environment is becoming more contested ... and it is.

If Australia will need to be increasingly self-reliant when it comes to defeating and deterring attacks on our sovereignty ... and we will.

And if our submarines are to play a significant role in deterrence and response ... and they must.

Then we need to be open to the best technology available, one that will ensure our submarines remain regionally superior, and this necessarily means proper consideration of nuclear submarines for Australia.

Under Defence's 2016 Integrated Investment Program, a review of the submarine program is due to be conducted in the late 2020s, to see whether the configuration remains suitable or whether new specifications are needed.

That is the time when we should be prepared to revisit this issue, and assess openly whether conventional submarines, the last of which will remain in service until the 2080s, will be adequate to safeguard our interests in a much more contested maritime domain.

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Finally, allow me to touch on another issue.

Though it comes naturally to me to discuss and debate external threats to Australia, I am conscious that nations can just as often be weakened from within.

Though we are less high-minded and more modest in our language, I often think our national challenge when it comes to domestic and social policy is not that different to that of the United States of America

That is, to create a more perfect union.

And a glaring imperfection in our current union is our enduring failure to have reached a just, proper and equitable accommodation with our Indigenous Australians.

It remains unfinished national business. The absence of a proper settlement weakens us as a nation.

Our Indigenous heritage and character should be a source of national pride and strength, not a cause for shame and retribution at our shortcomings.

There are two elements to this, as I see it.

One is the practical but vital task of closing the gap, so that our indigenous Australians are sharing as fully in the life of the nation as other Australians.

But the other and equally important element is properly incorporating our indigenous heritage into our national character. This means ensuring our indigenous heritage is reflected properly in our national symbols of identity: our flag, our anthem, our language, and indeed our constitution.

These two elements necessarily go hand in hand. Both must be addressed and resolved if we are to move forward as a nation.

This enterprise is underway, with development of a new Closing the Gap framework, a new Joint Council on Closing the Gap, and the Indigenous Voice co-design process underway.But we must ensure addressing this issue remains at the top of our national agenda.

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I'm often asked if I have any regrets about leaving diplomatic life and moving into the political sphere.

Not in the slightest. Of course politics is a lot more rough-and-tumble.

I certainly get a lot more free character assessments and unsolicited performance appraisals than I ever did as an ambassador.

But to serve in the nation's Parliament and represent an electorate there, and to be able to contribute at the coalface to the great national challenges facing Australia, is a great privilege and honour.

And it's a great strength of our political system, to my mind, that our most significant national decisions are taken by elected representatives, not appointed experts, who are directly accountable to the people.

Thank you for your time and attention this evening.