Choosing Openness - Speech, Asialink Summit




I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people on whose lands we're meeting today.

Dhawura Nguna Dhawura Ngunnawal.

Yanggu Ngala-ma-nyin Dhuni-ma-nyin.

Ngunnawal-wari Dhawura-wari Dindi Wanggira-lidji-nyin.

I also acknowledge any Indigenous people who are joining us today.

I'm somebody who's passionate about engagement with Asia, a passion that goes back a long time. When I was a kid in primary school, we were each required to do a history project. Some people talked about the history of the Holden Commodore, another researched the background of their grandfather. I wrote about the 1965 killings of hundreds of thousands of communist sympathisers in Indonesia. To this day, I'm not quite sure what my grade six teacher made of the assignment, but it reflected the fact that ours was a household where Inside Indonesia and the Far East Economic Review were routinely sitting around, and Asia was part of our everyday lives.

As a young child I spent three years in Indonesia and a year in Malaysia. My mother has written a book on the handicrafts of Aceh. My father has written a book on business-government relations in logging contracts in Sarawak. Engagement with Asia is something that I've always regarded as fundamental to being Australian.

No-one’s story better illustrates that than that of Herb Feith. Herb was born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Vienna, and as a young man witnessed the Nazi rise. He and his parents came to Australia in 1939, part of that shamefully small cohort of Jewish refugees that Australia admitted before World War Two. Extraordinarily, after World War Two, Herb went door to door in Melbourne, collecting money to help people in Germany who were starving. Just think about that for a moment. A boy who had been raised in a Jewish home, knocking on doors in Melbourne to raise money for hungry Germans, just years after the Holocaust.

Herb was passionate about the Asian region, and very soon after he left university set about looking to work in Indonesia. He signed up to work at a regular Indonesian public servant’s wage, really excited by the new independence of Indonesia and the opportunity to help out. He wanted to create a volunteering program, believing that volunteering is symbolic of human equality. It's about meeting people where they are.

So in his early twenties, Herb Feith wrote to both Robert Menzies and Sukarno suggesting that such a program be established. Don Anderson – newly returned from seeing Herb at work in Indonesia – gave a speech in Canberra to an audience that included Robert Garran and Robert Menzies. Menzies is reputed to have muttered to Solicitor General Kenneth Bailey ‘How much will it cost?’. A figure was made up on the spot, and turned out later to be roughly accurate. In 1952, the Australian and Indonesian governments signed the agreement that formally created the scheme. Herb was then aged 22. And so the scheme was initiated, which has now seen more than 10,000 Australians travel to developing countries to volunteer.

Herb went on to research Indonesia. His PhD thesis was dedicated to his friend Djaelani, a Jakarta servant who lived in one of the city’s many slums. He went on to build up the Indonesia studies program at Monash. As a child, I got to know him when he stayed with us in Jakarta, and later when we visited him in Melbourne.

Like others of that post-war era – I’m thinking here of the remarkable Jamie Mackie – Herb saw that for Australia it was vital to be engaged with our region. But just at the same time, it was vital too that we changed our policies so as to recognise what we reflected to the region. So he campaigned against the White Australia Policy. Jamie Mackie's pamphlet, 'Control or Colour Bar?', was an important part of finally bringing down the White Australia policy because he realised that it's not just what we say in the region, it's what we do here at home that matters. You can think in the current context about what it says to the rest of the world that no Australian-born child can grow up to be our head of state.

Australia’s policies speak about who we are as a nation. I was proud when Labor was last in government to be part of a government that doubled foreign aid spending in dollar terms. We copped a bit of criticism because the pace of that increase through the Global Financial Crisis wasn't as rapid as some would have liked. But by the end, we doubled it and were heading towards 0.5 per cent.

As you know, under the current Coalition government, foreign aid as a share of national income has fallen to the lowest level since records began. That's got a direct impact in our region.

Climate change too. How we engage with climate change really matters for how countries in the Pacific see us. We'll often describe climate change as an existential issue for Australia. We're seeing yet more extreme weather events right now, and we know they're going to become more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change. But if you're in Tuvalu, Kiribati or the Marshall Islands, then climate change truly is existential and you pay very close attention to Australia's climate policies.

It matters too, whether Australia is able to engage diplomatically with China, or whether we have a government that decides that the China relationship can be weaponized for political gain. The reason you've seen senior intelligence chiefs speaking out about the Morrison Government's politicisation of national security is because they see the value in bipartisanship, and the risk of a political party that tries to identify differences where there are none.

The Asialink program plays a vital role. We know right now that Asian-Australians are underrepresented in many walks of life. The bamboo ceiling means that there are virtually no Asian-Australian judges, and that Asian-Australians are underrepresented in the public service. Many reports have described the lack of Asia literacy at a board level.

I'm somebody who believes that Australia is at our best when we choose openness.

Migrants, as the saying goes, aren't just another mouth to feed - they're also muscles to build and minds to inspire. Migrants are creators, as well as consumers.

In the area of trade, Australia has spent much of the period since Federation imposing trade barriers that were too high, and which cosseted our local firms behind a tariff wall. The tariff cuts that began under the Whitlam Government in 1973 delivered thousands of dollars into the pockets of the typical Australian household. But more importantly, they've made us a more dynamic and more successful economy. Just as with our athletes, hiding from international competition isn't going to help you beat the world's best.

Better Asia literacy builds us into a better country. It builds that Herb Feith legacy that saw the creation of the Australian volunteering program, where confident diplomacy builds trust, and in which Australia engages with our region, and with the world.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.