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ANU National Security College 10th Anniversary Lecture Series – Q&A session
RORY MEDCALF: Thank you very much, Secretary. Thank you, Frances. That was not only a really illuminating speech and it took a really big time horizon that I think is really useful for us. And I'm sure students in the room are taking notes. You chance your hand at the future, as well as the past and the present. And I think you spoke in, I think, in some very useful and broad terms about how we may see the present phase of Australian foreign and external policy more broadly with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight. I want to get a little more specific on that, if I may, and I want to sort of cover a few areas in this conversation. But I really would like to zoom in a little on the Australia-China relationship, which is in the headlines frequently. And of course, there's no question, there's no secret that this has been and is a very difficult year in that relationship. Looking from your vantage point that you've projected 10 years in the future, looking back at 2020, looking at the policy settings, the decisions, the way in which Australia is handling the – however you define it – the pressure, the leverage that China has been exerting on us, how would you see the decisions made this year in the benefit of that 10-year hindsight? What will be- what will you see as the big picture, the objectives of this year?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Okay, thanks, Rory. Look, I think- well, in 2030, inevitably, when we look back at 2020, it'll all be about COVID. And it won't just be about COVID happening by- you know, a decade hence, we'll have a much better idea, really, of what the impact was economically and, of course, economically leads to strategically. I think we shouldn't underestimate the impact that COVID has had on all countries globally. And of course, that includes China. It's sometimes difficult to know really in societies which are totally open - one normally has a pretty good idea in societies that are less open - it can sometimes be difficult to tell and it takes time to tell. And I think, you know, we see, because it's been such a shock, we see some contradictions even in China itself. I mean, the idea that China needs to become more self-sufficient. Now, self-sufficiency isn't- that's not unique to China. Actually, I think just about all countries have wondered about the degree to which they need to be self-sufficient. But on the one hand, wanting to be self-sufficient, but also more influential globally. I mean, that's a contradiction. How is that going to be worked out?
Look, when it comes to the detail of what we're dealing with now, I'm not so sure that that will loom large in 2030. But I think the principles- and the reason I sort of looked ahead and said if we're going to be in 2030 and we look back, what will we have wanted to have done. And of course, making our own decisions is a significant part of that. And I think there's frankly abundant evidence that that is what Australia does. In my 35 years as a diplomat, that's all I've ever seen, us making decisions in our own interest. But we've also made it clear that we want a region, we want to find a settling point. I think everyone's talking about where might a settling point be? When might we find a settling point, which, you know, is a region that is peaceful, secure, stable? Of course, where China is a major regional power, and over time, increasingly, obviously a global power as well. We want to be able to manage our differences. We, Australia, don't see that as being too much of a stretch. Actually, we think it can be done. It's a matter of talking to each other. It's a matter of dialogue. It's a matter of openness of communication.
Now, look, there is a fair degree of communication in both directions at the moment, but not in all the ways that we would like that to happen. So, I think- you know I've talked about the shaping of the region, the character of the region. I think one of the things that COVID has actually done is it's brought us all up short; what really matters, rather than just ploughing on, what really matters. And I think, you know, whether you look at the ASEAN-Australia summit, the sort of language that was used in the summits. Now, there's a platform for communication, what was on people's minds? What are they doing? But if you look at the strengthening of Australia's partnerships across the region, you know, with individual ASEANs, with six of them, I think we now either have a strategic partnership or a comprehensive strategic partnership, discussions in many laterals have established that everyone has their red lines, everyone has national interests that they want to be able to defend. And one of the points the Prime Minister has consistently made is what we want and what we think others want also is a region of sovereign, independent states resistant to coercion and open to cooperation. And it would be my hope over time that we will head in that direction. But I don't think it's guaranteed at all. And I think we've all got work to do even as we look towards a new US administration.
RORY MEDCALF: We may come back to that if we have time. Thank you. I think you did touch also on that theme. You know, that very key message about independent policy decisions, independent foreign and strategic policy decisions in this country. There is a view that we hear from time to time, and I'm sure you hear it, and perhaps one can define it partly as propaganda, but it's out there, that, of course, Australia doesn't make its own decisions. We're very much reduced to a part of a US-China dynamic and we're essentially a subset of the United States in that dynamic. I'm sure you and colleagues in Australian embassies have that view put to them from time to time. How do- interesting, how do you respond? How do you and your colleagues respond?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, look, I mean, I hear that view. I don't see it. And to be honest, as a practising diplomat, where I've been, you know, over the last three decades, I've not really encountered it either. I think it's a construct that some people use, but it's not something that tends to get in the way of what we do, because diplomats themselves are all about, as my many colleagues in the room know, it's about seeking to develop relationships, to build things actually, to build cooperation together. Yes, to exercise influence, but to do so openly and transparently. And that requires a degree of skill. I mean, you know, not every diplomat around the world can say that they're an expert in Australia and how we do things, but members of the Diplomatic Corps here can and that enables them to know how we think, how we think about our interests and to more effectively than otherwise, develop our mutual interests. And, of course, that's what Australian diplomats do themselves.
Look, in relation to the US, it's not surprising that countries with similar values will come to similar conclusions. That stands to reason. But the order in which we do it, the pace in which we do it, the actual decisions themselves are based on national interest and are based on thorough discussion and consideration of all elements of decisions through the sort of proper processes. So, it's not surprising the world is moving at a great pace; decisions need to be made. I do recall it must have been about three years ago, I actually came to ANU to launch a book published by someone who now works for DFAT, Shannon Tow, on an independent foreign policy. She'd done a lot of research into it. She drawn the same conclusion that I'd drawn as a practitioner. We act in our interests. Of course, we're an alliance partner of the United States. That means we have some shared interests. But when we act, it's in Australia's interests.
RORY MEDCALF: That's a useful shout out for some of the expertise that ANU generates as well and that connection with policy. So, you've talked about diplomats and what diplomats do, and of course, there's often a bit of mystique about that, much less so these days I think when we've seen the extraordinary consular effort, the effort to help Australians in difficult situations around the world and the way in which a lot of your staff, I know, have been very stretched and challenged by that experience because they themselves have been dealing with really a COVID world. I don't necessarily want to put the question to you about that - but you're welcome to address that, but it has been addressed in the past, but there are other sides to a diplomat's job. And I wonder in this environment where Australia is trying to achieve the long-term strategic effects, the shaping effect that you talk about in your remarks, that involves needing to obviously understand our region, understand the dynamics in the world, anticipate and understand how other countries are perceiving and responding to our policy positions. Can you shed some light on that side of the work that happens in your department?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Sure. And that's why- I think you've given a very good description of it actually. That's exactly what we do. I mean, we're not wherever we are to mark time. As the as the Prime Minister said, we're not bystanders. Australia is not bystanders, and our diplomats are not bystanders either. You're not there to record what's going on; you're there to understand deeply another country, another society, often by speaking another language, the quality of the contacts, the doors that either open to you if you're effective or remain closed if you are not. Those doors then lead, in my view and in our view, and the view of many of my colleagues, it's certainly the Government's expectation, they lead to outcomes. The reason you want to get through the door in the first place is to achieve an outcome, and that's, by definition, an outcome that brings benefit to the country you're working in unless you're in a multilateral post.
But of course, we have an ASEAN mission in Jakarta and that job, of course, the job of our ambassador there is to deepen and develop our relationships with ASEAN. ASEAN is absolutely central to the future of the region in a strategic sense and a strong, focused ASEAN. That's why I mentioned in my speech the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which was mentioned frequently actually at the East Asia Summit, not by absolutely everybody, but by most countries in the region, just as most countries in the region, because they understand the importance of disputes being settled in accordance with international law. So, we work obviously to encourage these things. You can't simply say international law is important. You've got to be willing to uphold it. You've got to be willing to call out breaches. You've got to be willing to help develop solutions, to actually engage in processes yourselves, to subject yourself to processes, as we did in the boundary conciliation process with Timor-Leste, but it's also about being ambitious for the relationship. And, you know, really, it's leaders who drive that ambition. It's prime ministers and presidents who recognise that the interests of their country are going to be best served by deepening a relationship – with Australia's case, India, with Indonesia, with Japan. Why do they do that? Why does the Prime Minister travel to Tokyo in the middle of a pandemic? Why does he do a virtual summit with India in the middle of a pandemic? Why? Why do diplomats do what they do to prepare? It's because our national interests are best advanced through that way. And in particular, at a time of great challenge in the region, there is a sense of solidarity, a sense of shared, I suppose, burden sharing, a sense of helping to create rules and norms that will serve us well in the future. And if you're just going to be a bystander, then it'll all just happen around you. Australia is not a bystander. We are an active participant. We want to shape a region in the interests of all countries in the Indo-Pacific, but particularly, of course, Australia.
RORY MEDCALF: So, you've mentioned COVID. How much harder has the COVID-19 environment made that kind of work, that kind of day-to-day diplomacy and understanding and responding and shaping to our region?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, on the one hand, and in a very functional way, of course, it's made it harder. Communicating is harder. But on the other hand, we have kept all 112 of our overseas missions operational during this period. So, we've had people on the ground. They may have been in quarantine, they may have been ill themselves, but they have been communicating. And if you're an ambassador, that means you're communicating at very senior levels normally with the government that you're accredited to and the country that you're accredited to do. So, because we've been there, because we've been good partners, and- you know, got to be a certain level of modesty about this, but we get very- we've had very positive feedback during this period from our partners in the South Pacific. Many of whom have completely closed off their countries, many of whom have relied on us to help them with PPE, to help them with building the capability that they need. They've all got health systems, but they've needed our capability when it comes to epidemiology, when it comes to dealing with COVID.
So, we've actually- and we've established humanitarian corridors. We've done a whole range of really practical things. Whether you call it a COVID pivot, whether you call it partnerships for recovery, we've been there. We've been fast. We've been responsive. We've been working hand in hand. And we've been doing that across South East Asia as well, and that's- it was very heartening that ASEAN has agreed that from next year, we'll have an annual ASEAN-Australia summit. It's why the Government, even in a fiscal environment such as the one that we're in, has agreed to half a billion dollars' worth of funding for vaccines across the South Pacific and South East Asia. It's a very substantial funding is allowed for economic recovery in the Pacific, for funding that will help support development in the Mekong region, that will go towards infrastructure, that will enable us to deepen our defence cooperation. They're all very practical things, and hugely appreciated. I mean, a $1.5 billion loan for Indonesia, you know, working across the region about what they need and how we can respond. And I think so- although it's difficult at the beginning in practical terms, in reality, I think we've made enormous progress on a whole range of things that matter. A lot of it's been quiet and unsung. We've done an enormous amount of policy development for government. And on the ground, the doors are opening, the outcomes are being produced, the strategic effect is being further developed.
RORY MEDCALF: Thank you. I know that several- or probably many in the room, will have their own questions, which I'll turn to in a moment, I want to ask you one last question, before I go, to the wider audience, and that is to pivot a little bit to talking about you, rather than Australia's national interest, if I may. Because one of the things we like to do in these conversations is to look, I guess, at one's career, and at the way in which you've achieved a, kind of, a staying power in your career, your advice to the next generation. Whether it's about work-life balance, which I know in a role like yours is pretty special, I guess. Whether it's about that longer perspective. So, are there any- is there anything you can share, I guess, as advice to people pursuing careers in this space?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Look, it is a bit of a pivot to think about that. But, there are a couple of things I'd say that that might serve as useful pieces of advice. I can think of three occasions this year- I mean, they were they were brief moments rather than, you know, hours versus days where I felt I've hit the buffers. I felt, I've got no more to give, and yet the demands are so great. And what do you do then? Well, you've got to have a voice inside your head, you've got to be a bit, sort of, objective. I'm speaking to the students here about how you're actually performing, how you feeling? What are the signs to you that the stress is just getting too much? And at that point, you just have to step back a little bit and you have to make sure you're getting the sleep you need and getting the exercise that you need and having the walks on Redhill or doing the virtual pilate sessions or whatever it might mean. And I don't miss those, they're on- I'm not sure that my ministers know it, but they're on Monday nights and I'm always there virtually, and if I just happen not to answer the phone for an hour well that's-
RORY MEDCALF: [Talks over] State secret everybody.
FRANCES ADAMSON: - that's what I'm doing. So, you've got to recognise your own mental health, your own physical limitations, and you've got to be very quick to then just step back, build that resilience and keep going. And look, I can do it quickly. It may- I may not have started out that way, but I can now do it pretty quickly.
When it comes to work-life balance, I think- I struggled with that concept, even 20 years ago, I have to say. Just what did it mean- I think most people do. What- is it like that, or like that, or- what is the balance? And of course we can all strike our own, but I think these days the conversation is much more around, partly because it's been technologically enabled, if I can put it that way, how do you, sort of, integrate things so that you can perform your professional role, whatever that might be, and actually your personal life? Whether they're obligations in your personal life, and most of us have obligations of some kind, which we, sort of, willingly acquit to friends and to family and the others, but you need to be able to get all of that done, and I've had to get a lot more efficient at getting all that done, you know, including making my own lunches for the next week and, you know, that sort of stuff. But, look, you know, you do it. You just the only thing I can now do- for a while, we all thought it's possible to multitask, right? Well, it may be possible to multitask when you're below a certain age. I'm not sure what that is, but I know I've passed it. The only thing I multitask with is watching Insiders on the weekend while I'm doing a whole lot of chores. I watch it on iView afterwards and then I can- that's the only time in the week I do two things at once, but otherwise whatever I'm doing gets my full concentration, including time with family.
RORY MEDCALF: That's really useful. And I think, reassuring as well. Let's take a few questions from the floor, and I'm going to ruthlessly privilege students, so if any ANU student has a question, they'll probably get in first. And I might begin with, I think it's- is it Will? Yes. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thanks Rory, and thanks Secretary. My question's a simple one, but I don't think it has a necessarily simple answer. So, thinking about how Australia engages with the world, what's one thing that we're not doing that you wish we would, and what's one thing that we are doing that you wish we'd stop?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Gosh, you're right. The simple questions are the hardest. You can tell that I'm not getting these questions in advance, can't you?
RORY MEDCALF: I can load up more questions as you think through that one if you'd like?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, you know, look. I mean, of course, your question, sort of implies in a way that we're not very agile or nimble, that we're not sort of ducking and weaving or being- or making adjustments as we need to go, you know. And I think that maybe there was a time when we probably were inclined to say a bit too much. I think- I'd like to think we've got over that. Being a good partner often means listening, listening really intently, and doing what you do in genuine partnership. And I think, you know, it's no accident, really, that the word partnership is used so often these days because it's- in its most genuine sense, it's highly valued. And so I think I would- if there was one- if you asked me one thing to wish for? I would wish that all of our diplomats - and it's not just about diplomats, obviously, but when we're in situations where we're seeking to advance Australia's interests, that the very first thing on our minds is to listen, and often an instinct is to speak. So I think that would be one thing. The other thing, and I can say this because we've only- the funding's only just been decided, so therefore it's news. So, I'm going to refine your question, or redefine your question. I want us to be able to make absolutely maximum use of the additional funding that the government's given us over and above the $4 billion development assistance envelope, which of course, remains. But we've got in this special environment, we've got real opportunities when it comes to- particularly to vaccines and to economic recovery, to really make a difference there.
And, you know, the Prime Minister has put a lot of emphasis on implementation. He's established a new cabinet committee to really focus hard on implementation. And I'd like us to be the sort of pin up poster people when our implementation is looked at in two years' time.
RORY MEDCALF: Thank you. We'll take over this side a question. Ingrid, if you can- Ingrid, here please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Secretary Frances Adamson, and thank you, Professor Rory Medcalf.
RORY MEDCALF: Can you speak up a little?
QUESTION: Sure, definitely. Rory, in your book, you wrote that words create worlds. And Secretary Frances Adamson, you wrote that the objective for 2030 is for Australia to see a different character or a character that reflects the Australian spirit of the international order. In your words, how would you describe the Australian national spirit, the way we want to perceive ourselves and the way that we want to be perceived by others in the region? Thank you.
FRANCES ADAMSON: Well, the Australian national spirit is- I mean, a lot of books have been written about that. In terms of, though, the way- look, in a way, it's a little bit similar to what I was talking about and what I've just answered, which is, you know, I think Australians generally want- I mean, this is a stereotypical thing. I mean, all of the diplomats in the room would expect me to say this. You know, we like to think that we give everybody a fair go and we like to be given a fair go ourselves. And I think if there's one thing about us and about our region that absolutely translates across and has got not so much to do with the integration of foreign policy and domestic policy, or strategic policy and domestic policy. But if there was to be a single motto, it's probably a fair go for everyone, because that fits into the broader framework that I set and it's what we like to think about, how things work within Australia. It's certainly what we aspire to. I know we sometimes fall short and we probably do internationally as well too. But that's, I think, what I would say. Now, you brought Rory into this, so he should have an opportunity as well.
RORY MEDCALF: It's not my presentation. We'll take your question and then I think we can take one more student. Maybe Tim as well. And then I think we might be out of time. So why don't we take the two together, please?
QUESTION: Hi, Oscar Dowling from the Noetic Group. I just wanted to pivot back to your career specifically. What's next for Secretary Adamson? I hear vice-regal rumours coming out of South Australia. I know you can't confirm those, but more broadly, could you elaborate on the legacy that you hope to leave in your department and in foreign policy more broadly?
RORY MEDCALF: And before you answer that, we'll take the other question, which gives you the perfect opportunity not to answer the entire question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Secretary Adamson. Tim Hobbs from the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit. And earlier, we ran this crisis simulation with many of the people in this room. Very thankful for all the support from Rory and the National Security College as well. And one of the things we tried to simulate was the impact of inequitable distribution of the vaccine, of the COVID vaccine. So, I was just wondering, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on what impact would an inequitable distribution of the COVID vaccine have on your ambition for Australia's future?
FRANCES ADAMSON: Okay, let me- I will answer that, your question, in a way. But when it comes to vaccines, I mean, this is the big issue of the moment. I really was- I mean, I've done the five summits over many late nights, five late nights – let's just be truthful about it – over the last couple of weeks. And vaccines is the big- I guess, what every leader wants to talk about. And everyone's talking about equitable distribution. That's what everyone wants. What does that mean in practise? Look, there's a lot of work, a lot of thought going into it. I mean, even as the vaccine makers are rushing to sort of get their results out and to ramp up production, and even is there a big debates- or not just debates, I mean, there are big challenges around distribution and all the rest of it. But how it's done and how it's rolled out. I think that's going to speak very loudly and clearly about what our priorities are as an international community. And it's going to have to be done on a community wide basis. I mean, the Covax AMC, of course, you know, the 20 per cent. Well which 20 per cent in developing countries? I mean, the most vulnerable, that makes a lot of sense to us. But it doesn't- that's not the way necessarily all societies are going to be able to do it. So, I think it's going to take time. There are going to be enormous logistical challenges. I think as leaders come together in the next cycle and as ministers do, including health ministers, it's going to be a much more about the how – not the overarching principle, but the how. And in that, as you can see, Australia has got tremendous expertise, health expertise domestically. We're applying that not just domestically, but regionally, and globally. There are Australians involved in the WHO. There's Jane Halton at CEPI and a range of others. So, it's probably a bit early, it's the right question. I can't give you the answer yet, but boy, is it a big sort of hot button issue at the moment.
I think it's way too early to start talking about legacies. So, let me just say- I mean, DFAT's whole role, and the Prime Minister spoke to the public service this morning. Obviously, it's about serving Australians, serving Australians at home. We've done that in a wide variety of ways, including PPE procurement and all the rest of it during this period. Serving Australians overseas, very obviously. You know, we've got to stand firm at times. We've got to be principled. I actually think, and I've made a thing of it over the last four and a bit years, we need to be representative of the diversity of Australia, and that means some things have had to change over time. I think we are more diverse. We want the very best talent wherever that comes from across Australia. But it's got to be, you know, diversity of thinking, cognitive diversity, as well as diversity of backgrounds and interests, and all of those sorts of things, because that's one of the big- with respect to all of my diplomatic colleagues, I can't think of any other country I'd rather represent overseas. Perhaps it's the same for them. We won't ask them. But for me, it's all got to be- it's going to be about serving Australia. And we've got to do that to the best of our ability. We've got to do it authentically. We've got to be able to deliver on our promises, implement what we do. And we've got to have an eye to strategy, the broader strategy, the broader challenge of shaping the region. We don't actually really know what it'll look like in 2030, but by the time 2030 comes around, I want to be able to look back and say we did our best and I had a part to play in that.
RORY MEDCALF: Look, we are at time unfortunately. I know there are a few other questions in the room, including from respected academic colleagues and perhaps our friends in the media as well. But we are at time. I want to personally thank you, Frances, for being- not only for the recruitment advertisement for the next generation of young Australian, or maybe not-so-young Australian diplomats, but also, I think for really being so frank about the challenges and the opportunities for Australia, and the work that you and the department do. So, with that, I might ask the audience to join me in thanking Secretary Frances Adamson.