Richard Woolcott. A modern Australia for the 21st century.

Apr 18, 2016

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said it is a great and exciting time for Australia.  Indeed, it is a time of great opportunity for the Australian Government elected later this year to take bold action which will transform Australia into an updated, modern member of the Asian and South West Pacific Region.


After World War II the United States wanted to implement ideals and practices it believed should be applied throughout the world.  The spread of democracy was the overarching goal.  Now, however, the United States, exhausted by unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now faces the rise of States with greater economic growth rates and rapidly expanding middle classes, such as China, India and Indonesia in our own region, and a more assertive Russia which regards itself as both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, as well as countries such as Brazil and Mexico in South America.

From 1948 to 2000 will probably be seen as a brief period of history when global order was based on American idealism and traditional concepts of the balance of power.

America wanted to expand a co-operative international order of countries following common rules which included liberal economic systems, respect for national sovereignty, and the general adoption of democratic systems of governance.
Western “rules” of world order are no longer  accepted by other major countries as the basis of world order.  United States leaders, with the possible exception of Donald Trump who ,for the wrong reasons, seems reluctant to accommodate the major changes in power now underway.

The goal for leaders in our region – Asia and the South West Pacific – must be to build a regional community which will reflect the world ahead.


On the basis of more than 60 years of experience, including Special Envoy roles for both Coalition and ALP Prime Ministers, I would strongly recommend that the incoming Government after our General Election demonstrates the agility and forward-looking approach to respond to change.

Such changes will be resisted by yesterday’s political leaders including, in particular, Abbott, Andrews and others on the far right of the Coalition and even some ALP politicians, including Stephen Conroy, the Shadow Minister for Defence.  To maintain policies rooted in the past, will undermine our ability to determine what Australia’s real national interests are.

What needs to be done?  The first priority in updating Australian Trade and Security Policy is to focus on the Asia and South West Pacific Region.  In what is now generally called the Asian Century we should focus on our own region.

The former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, Sabam Siagian, and now Editor in Chief of the Jakarta Post, wrote last year when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister “Australia is still stuck in the 20th Century mode.  It is a monarchy, with a Head of State in London and its security arrangements are largely Cold War relics … Australia is out of sync with the emerging geopolitical environment of Asia today”.

Australia needs a fundamental change of our national psyche focussed more on Asia and the South West Pacific than on our well established, traditional links with the US, UK, Canada, NZ, and Europe.  Australia should have much more regular and sustained discussions with our neighbouring counties, including New Zealand.

Secondly, the Government should look discretely towards the evolution of an Asia Pacific community.  Meanwhile ,we should use existing organisations that do meet at Head of Government level, such as the G20, APEC (although it does not include India), the East Asian Summit (which now includes both the US and Russia), the UN Leaders Week in New York, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (although they are a relic of British Colonialism ,some Asian leaders attend and discuss regional issues ).

Thirdly, the above policy will require an updated and more balanced Australian approach to the relationship between the United States and China.  There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China, based on mainly Japanese policies, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The present debate on China seems mainly to assume that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against what is perceived as a rising Chinese hegemony.

This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Hawke, Keating, the late Malcolm Fraser and most of our former Ambassadors to China as well as a number of academics.  While China can be expected to resist American hegemony in the Asian region, it does accept a continuing and constructive US role in Asia.

Fourthly, Australia should not take sides on China/Japan or Vietnamese, Malaysian and Philippine disputes within ASEAN, on rival territorial claims, as the U S has done. Australia’s focus should be on unimpeded passage to China through waters in the South China sea.

Fifthly ,and Importantly in readjusting the main focus of Australian policies, we should withdraw our forces from Iraq and Syria.  Our presence in the Middle East will not contribute meaningfully to defeating ISIS or to securing stable, democratic, corruption free governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our involvement was in support of the American alliance, although US policies appear to be failing.  The reality is that our participation is peripheral and symbolic.

We should move out of this very complex, changing kaleidoscope of warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurd religious factions  and involved countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran , Yemen, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. We should not pretend to ourselves that we can really influence an outcome, which may be years away. The considerable financial savings could be much better used in shaping our next budget, including on defence (submarines),health and education.

Sixthly, we should remove our remaining troops in Afghanistan. While there were reasons for joining the US led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, 14 years later, with 40 Australians killed, over $550 billion spent and more than 13,000 Afghan civilians dead, objectives once deemed to be indispensable, such as national building and effective counter insurgency, have been downgraded or abandoned because there are no longer adequate resources, time or a publicly supported US will to achieve them.

Seventhly, we should avoid, in our references to the ISIS, suggesting that it is a State. It is not a State. It has no air force or navy and even the territory it controls in Iraq and in Syria is relatively limited.  There is a tendency to regard all terrorist activities as being conducted by ISIS. In fact, Al Qaida, the Kurds and other groups ( e g Boku Haram in West Africa ) have been  responsible for a number of recent terrorist activities.The ISIS probably welcomes this insofar as it is Western intervention in the Middle East which it believes leads to an increase in terrorism ,rather than a lessening of it.

Eighthly, a very important policy priority for Australia is to give a greater priority to Indonesia.  In the long term no bilateral relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia.  The stability, unity and economic growth, of a peaceful, predominantly moderate Muslim (81 %) nation of 250 million people, stretching across our North, a distance from Broome to Christchurch in New Zealand, is vital to Australia.  The empathy towards Australia evident in the 1980’s and early 1990’s needs to be rebuilt ,especially with the relatively new Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Ninth, the elected Australian Government should place the Republic back on the front burner.  An Australian Republic will increase Australia’s international standing as a more independent nation.  Continuing foreign perceptions of Australia as a Constitutional Monarchy whose Head of State is the Queen on England ( quaintly called here the Queen of Australia )and who’s flag is dominated by the Union Jack are anachronisms in the 21st Century.  The establishment of the Republic of Australia will be like Federation – a defining moment in the history of our country.  This is not simply a symbolic issue.  It lies at the core of our national and international identity.

Tenth, and in the same context, we should call our High Commissioners Ambassadors and our High Commissions Embassies, which is what they really are.

To conclude, Australian attitudes must reject and suppress religious intolerance, bigotry, latent racism, insularity and self-satisfaction. The Australian Government, to be elected later this year, should seize the opportunity to embrace the changes outlined above – major, and as difficult politically as they will be. If it does, Australia will be a more secure, prosperous and outward-looking modern nation, genuinely more welcomed in our region of the world, and internationally.

If we do not make these bold policy changes, we may find Australia left behind and wallowing in a bog of lost opportunities.

Richard Woolcott was Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and the Philippines, and High Commissioner to Malaysia, Ghana and Singapore. He was Australian Ambassador to the UN and President of the UN Security Council. He was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992.

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