As my four years in Australia draw towards a close, this is a good moment to reflect on the incredibly close relationship between our two countries.
This is based on three main pillars. First, the business relationship: the UK is the second largest investor in Australia, with investments around $500bn and Australia is an increasingly important investor in the UK. We’re significant trading partners. Second, the security relationship: the deep level of trust between the “five eyes” intelligence partners creates a unique partnership and is the bedrock of our foreign policy and security cooperation. And third, the people to people relationship which flows from the various waves of immigration, including the one million “Ten Pound Poms” who emigrated between WW2 and the 1970s. Even today, Brits are the third largest group of new arrivals each year.
As a consequence of the history and family ties I sometimes feel we inhabit the same intellectual space. Many people of similar political persuasions read the same publications and websites. PM Tony Abbott put it well when welcoming David Cameron at the Australian Parliament recently: “Britain is no longer the Mother country, but we’re still family”.
So it is always a good time to be the British High Commissioner here. But I think the last four years has been a particularly good time for a number of reasons.
Australia has been playing a particularly prominent role in many international fora. In my first year here, Australia held the Commonwealth presidency and hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, successfully negotiating a new Charter of Commonwealth values. This year Australia chaired the G20, and the Brisbane Summit was a big success. It agreed a growth plan that will increase global growth by an extra 2% by 2018, as well as having valuable discussions on trade, transparency and other issues. In the meantime, Australia has spent two years on the UN Security Council, taking a lead on subjects like Sanctions, Humanitarian Assistance in Syria, and the response to the shooting down of MH17.
The Australian economy has been doing really well relative to most other developed countries and has not experienced a recession for 23 years. It might not always have felt that way here, but the reality is you don’t appreciate how lucky you are. That makes Australia of significant interest to business around the globe.
The Post 9/11 decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought our two militaries closer together operationally than for decades. This has established an excellent base for future cooperation.
The current UK government has been keen to revitalise relationships with “old friends” like Australia, Canada and New Zealand. After 17 years without a British Foreign Secretary visiting Australia, William Hague came each year he was in office. His successor Phillip Hammond will be here in February for the next annual Defence and Foreign Ministers meeting, AUKMIN. We have seen a real step change in cooperation between FCO and DFAT: we are now sharing many of our reporting cables, and we’re looking for opportunities to share premises.
This political engagement has been reciprocated strongly by London-born, Oxford educated Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But actually, whichever party is in power on either side, British and Australian governments even of opposite hues have tended to get on extremely well, for example Tony Blair and John Howard. And the historic Anglo/Irish sectarianism which used to be a feature of politics here decades ago has now dissipated.
Australia is located in proximity to the fastest growing part of the world, Asia-Pacific, and your economy has benefited hugely from Asian growth. This has generated much interest for British business, making us even more relevant to each other
So, for many reasons, it has been a very good time to be British High Commissioner here. Quite apart from the fact that it also been a fascinating period in Australian politics!
Some people suggest that traditional ties with the UK have become weaker; painting a trajectory from Federation, the fall of Singapore and security dependence on the US, to the widening of the immigration base and the UK joining the EU.
Certainly it is true that as that great post war wave of Ten Pound Poms move into retirement, there will be fewer Australians who came here from the UK themselves. There will be more for whom it will be the remembered experience of parents and grandparents. But I would respectfully suggest that the huge cultural familiarity will remain. Not because it’s a quaint cultural diaspora heritage passed on through religious festivals and cuisine. (Though of course here in Melbourne, you’re pretty familiar with the bagpipes and haggis.) But because so much of mainstream Australian culture still has so many points of similarity with mainstream British culture. That’s not to take anything away from Australia’s national identity, which is certainly a proud, independent and distinctive one. But our cultures overlap in so many ways: legal and Parliamentary systems which find their roots in Magna Carta; a shared love of and fierce rivalry in the same sports; and a mutual fascination with each other’ s TV shows. I sometimes worry we get a slightly distorted sense of each other through these TV shows. Australians assume Brits spend all their time desperately buying property to “escape to the country” - a countryside which other shows tell them is full of villages where there is a murder every week, so complicated that they can only be solved by maverick eccentrics and elderly ladies. And many Brits feel as if they’ve been neighbours on Ramsay Street for the last thirty years.
I want to make the case today that the rise of Asia makes us more relevant rather than less relevant to each other. But a few caveats first on the “Asian century”. Of course it is true that much of global growth for the last couple of decades has come from Asia. But we mustn’t forget other significant emerging economies from other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Turkey. And a hundred years is a long time. Who knows, maybe by the time we get to the end of it we’ll find that some of it has been an African century.
Increasingly people here are talking about an Indo Pacific, rather than an Asia Pacific region. In terms of internal integration that is probably not yet a true “region”. But the description usefully captures the importance of linkages with key partners around the Indian Ocean. Obviously foremost among them is India, with the recent highly successful visit here by PM Modi marking a new stage in the bilateral relationship.
The current Australian government came in to office vowing to focus foreign policy and development aid funds more back onto its region “less Geneva, more Jakarta” as the slogan went. To some extent this has happened. But several real world events have reminded us that Australia, the world’s 12th largest economy, is inextricably linked with the wider world.
The shooting down of MH17 with tragic consequences for 38 Australian victims, brought Australia directly into the Russia/Ukraine standoff. We returned to cold war imagery on our TV screens, with a few Russian ships standing off the Australian coast during G20.
The rise of ISIL, has seen Australia engaging in the Middle East once again, in support of its security partners, principally the US. But ISIL is not just foreign policy but domestic too. Rising numbers of Australians have been travelling to the Middle East as Foreign Fighters to take part in terrorist activities. This generates much concern about what happens when they come home radicalised and with new military skills. In the UK, we’ve had this experience for some time with members of various diaspora travelling to Afghanistan. Now, as many as 500 British citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria as potential terrorists. So we have useful experience to share on promoting community cohesion, and countering the extremist narrative with mainstream moderate Muslim messages, particularly on social media. The British government introduced a new Counter Terrorism and Security Bill in Parliament last week. It included measures to stop potential terrorists from going overseas , to remove UK citizenship from dual nationals, and even to temporarily ban our own nationals from returning home. The challenge of extremism was a big item of discussion between David Cameron and Tony Abbott during the recent visit. Our intelligence agencies have excellent cooperation on counter terrorism.
The Ebola crisis has demonstrated that Pandemic diseases don’t stop at national borders nowadays. Australia may not have quite the same volume of connectivity to West Africa that we have in London, but the government has certainly recognised the risks and responded strongly to the challenge. Australia is committed to helping address the disease at source, working closely with the UK. You are going to run a 100-bed Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone where Britain has taken an international lead.
Let me turn to Asia.
The region has rising economic clout. It really matters to Australia, providing the major markets for your exports and a big source of your inward investment, particularly in the resources sector. The UK is seeing significant growth in Asia too, though it is not yet as big a focus as it is for you. For example only 3% of our exports currently go to China, compared to 33% of Australia’s. But as Asian markets mature, and their middle classes grow, they will consume more of the stuff we’re good at like services, and high-end luxury goods. For British companies Australia is not quite a hub for trading into Asia in the way that Hong Kong and Singapore are. But it is a very important proxy for the Asian growth story, which has led to a lot of UK investment here and the establishment of many new partnerships, for example the recent spate of alliances between legal services firms.
And of course, economic growth in Asia brings more political power. We’ve seen the emergence of new institutions which reflect that such as the East Asia Summit. And the G20 is more representative, and more Asian, than G8. Sometimes new institutions will become a challenge to the old order, for example several countries including Britain and Australia are currently debating whether to join the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Both of our countries welcome the rise of China, which has brought many benefits to the Chinese people and to the wider world. But some of China’s neighbours, especially smaller ones, are concerned about growing Chinese assertiveness in respect of maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China seas. This matters to all of us – we share an interest in maintaining open sea lanes; and in upholding the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes.
One impact of this has been a tendency to see an intensification of new friendships. Australia has been getting even closer to Japan, Korea and India. It may even be the case that the RAN will look to Japan for its next generation of submarines. That would be a remarkable step change in the quality of the defence relationship.
Australia clearly has an Asian vision and vocation. But what about the UK? People here keep telling me that Asia is Australia’s backyard and Britain is far away on the other side of the world. But actually, if you check, you’ll find that London is closer to Beijing than Sydney is. And Perth Scotland is closer to Delhi than Perth WA is. Our historical interests in the region have left some close current associations. The Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA) in Singapore and Malaysia (alongside Australia and NZ); our Gurkha garrison in Brunei; the City of London is part of the DNA of Hong Kong’s financial district. Many Asian students attend UK universities, just as they do Australian universities. Britain, as home to four of the world’s top ten universities, is a powerful competitor for overseas students.
So the British government attaches a high priority to expanding its links with Asia. We’ve opened new consulates in China, and a new embassy in Laos. And we’ve put more diplomats into the region – another 50 in China alone.
All of this means that, whilst to some extent individual Australian and British companies may be rivals for each other in the region, at the national level we have a bigger interest in cooperating with each other to address the opportunities and challenges of the rise of Asia. We all have an interest in security in the region, and in promoting concepts like open markets, the rule of law, transparency, and action on corruption, which will provide the conditions for economic growth. I think Britain and Australia can be very effective in working together to achieve these goals.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that, as the world faced by both countries continues to evolve, there are three important things about the relationship between UK and Australia. We matter to each other. We trust each other. And we like each other. Long may it continue.