Australia and Asia in 2022: knowing who we are

Dec 31, 2022
PAUL KEATING 1993: Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating during his speech at Australia House in London which marked the building's 75th anniversary. 17 September 1993.

In the eighties, we took hold of the rudder and set about an essential economic transformation which left us able to hold our own in Asia. The key to our success then rested with ourselves. What was needed was cultural reform, reform of our outlook. Success at home depended on that change. Success in Asia depended on it too. It depended on establishing beyond doubt, that Asia is where our future lies; that we can and must go there; and that this course we are on is irreversible. 

What John Curtin said in 1942 was right for us in 1992: “On what we now do depends everything we may like to do.”

Is it right for us once more, in 2022?

An edited speech by the Prime Minister, the Honourable P J Keating ‘Australia and Asia: Knowing Who We Are’, 7 April 1992.

My criticism [tonight] is directed at those Australians – or, more accurately, that Australian attitude – which still cannot separate our interests, our history, or our future, from the interests of Britain.

It seems to me an attitude which still exercises at least a subliminal influence on our thinking – persuading us that someone or something will do it for us. …

I say that this attitude has long been, and remains, debilitating to our national culture, our economic future, and our destiny as a nation in Asia and the Pacific.

I spent the last decade attempting to make the necessary changes to the Australian economy – facing it toward the world and opening it up, to make us more competitive and give us a chance.

I know just how entrenched conservative Australian thinking can be – on both sides of politics.

We’re talking about cultural changes, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things. …

We’ve altered a lot of the practices and habits of mind which emanated from that way of thinking – at least as far as the economy goes. … But altering our political perspective, which includes regenerating our spirit, pulling us together as a nation, focussing our sense of ourselves – all these things, I believe, remain tasks for the nineties.

These things, I assure you, are not meant as a distraction as some people have suggested.

They are central.

They are central to our developing relationship with Asia and the Pacific. …

How far we still have to go before we can say that we do have the necessary independence of mind, the necessary appreciation that we have to make our own future, or, for that matter, the necessary mature esteem for our Head of State.

These things we need in the next decade if we are to take our place in the region and in the world. …

We cannot pretend to ourselves that we are insulated from change in the world.

In any event, the old traditions of Australia will remain with us.

We are not about disloyalty but its opposite. We are about nationhood, and the democracy which is at the centre of it.

That is something I think Australians must realise: that we don’t go to Asia cap in hand, any more than we go, like Menzies went to London, pleading family ties.

We go as we are. Not with the ghost of empire about us. Not as a vicar of Europe, or as a US deputy.

But unambivalently. Sure of who we are and what we stand for.

If we are to be taken seriously, believed, trusted, that is the only way to go.

Sometimes, perhaps it’s necessary to state the obvious: facing Asia we do nothing more or less than face reality – and that is what Asia does in facing us.

We might learn something from the geophysics of the situation. Geophysically speaking this continent is old Asia – there’s none older than this. It’s certainly not going to move, and after two hundred years it should be pretty plain that we’re not going to either.

In 1992, we shouldn’t think that we’re anything less than a rightful presence in the region.

It is sometimes argued that Australia’s democratic institutions and traditions of tolerance and open debate somehow disqualify us from forming successful relationships in Asia.

My starting point is that Australia’s democratic institutions and traditions are non-negotiable.

Many things have changed and will change in Australia – our ethnic composition and, with it, our culture; our economic and industrial practices; our world view – a great deal will change.

But traditions of democracy, fairness and personal liberty which we have fought wars to defend, will remain this country’s guiding principles. …

I cannot accept that this deeply rooted democracy is a disadvantage in dealing with Asia.

It is a region, after all, which contains stable democracies like Japan and India, and a number of societies whose economic advance has opened the way to political liberalisation. South Korea and Taiwan to name just two.

Given these developments in Asia, along with the democratic revolutions of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, I find it hard to accept that our going into the world will mean compromising our democracy.

I incline very strongly to the view that, on the contrary, Australia’s democracy is an advantage.

In other words, in the growing political liberalisation of Asia we’re not an aberration, but a natural fit.

We don’t need to be intrusive, but we have nothing to shrink from and plenty to give.

What is true politically is also true economically.

It is important for Australians to realise that this country’s economic weight is considerable. …

We have much of what the countries in the region need – resources, space, a skilled work force, education services. …

The success of multiculturalism in Australia, and increasing immigration from Asia, have stimulated our awareness of Asian societies and improved our standing in the region.

Recent changes in Asia are perhaps not so dramatic as they have been in Europe, but they are greater than is commonly understood.

During the 1980s, North-East and South-East Asia constituted the fastest growing region in the world, expanding at approximately twice the world average growth rate. Together these countries account for about 1.7 billion people.

That is change on a grand scale.

We do not yet know what the shape of Asia – geopolitically, or economically – will be.

But we do know that the key question for Australia is how to position ourselves to take maximum advantage of the changes. …

Considered overall, the risk of military confrontation between the great powers in Asia is now significantly reduced.

The economic dynamism of Asian countries also contributes to regional stability. So too do the related processes of economic interdependence. …

We have come a long way in the last decade: there is every chance of a quantum leap in the next.

We won’t make that leap in the way Bob Menzies might have tried to make it. Blood will not determine it.

To do it, we need to recognise that we have become a player in these affairs – and have a stake in them – not by accident, but by initiative.

The key to our success now rests with ourselves. In initiatives we have taken abroad. And in the ones we have taken at home.

Sometimes it seems to me that Australians have ceased to believe that we got here largely under our own steam.

In truth we did. In truth we’ve not done badly.

But we’ll do best when we’ve removed all signs of our being a branch office.

We’ll never get anywhere but into trouble if we drift – as we did in the fifties.

In the eighties, we took hold of the rudder and set about an essential economic transformation which leaves us able to hold our own in Asia in the nineties. …

As I said earlier, I have spent much of the past decade engaged in structural reform.

That has also meant something equally as difficult – perhaps more difficult. I mean cultural reform, the reform of our outlook.

Success at home depends on this change. Success in Asia depends on it too.

It depends on the individual and collective faith of Australians:

It depends on establishing beyond doubt –

– that Asia is where our future substantially lies;

– that we can and must go there;

– and that this course we are on is irreversible.

What John Curtin said in 1942 is right for us in 1992: “On what we now do depends everything we may like to do.”

Is it right for us once more, in 2022?

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