Skip to main content

News, speeches and media

National Press Club Address

News, speeches and media

Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Frances Adamson AC

Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal.

Yanggu ngalawiri dhunimanyin.

Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari. 

Nginggada Dindi wanggiralidjinyin.

Today we are all meeting together on this Ngunnawal Country.

We acknowledge and pay our respects to the Elders.

Thank you Laura.

Now acknowledgements have already been done, and this puts a diplomat in a quandary, because normally we would do them at length.

I won’t today, but I do want to say that DFAT has always been very loyal to its ministers, and DFAT’s ministers have always been very loyal to us.

So I am delighted today that we have past portfolio minister, Simon Birmingham, present Cabinet minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, Marise Payne, and Zed Seselja is here as well.

Past, present, and in our system of democracy, who knows – one day maybe future.

And when I said ‘future’, I didn’t get the response I needed for that.

Penny Wong is here as the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I am told actually it is the first time we have had the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Press Club. I think that says something about you.

To speak at the National Press Club in my final week as Secretary has a personal significance.

My late step-father, Stewart Cockburn, was a long-time South Australian journalist and Walkley Award winner.

As Robert Menzies’ Press Secretary in 1952, he controversially introduced recording and production of Prime Ministerial press conference transcripts.

My husband, Rod, was a regular here while First Secretary Press and Public Affairs at the British High Commission in the late 1990s.

My brother Stuart was once a writer in Japanese with the Sydney Bureau of Jiji Press.

And Sophie, our youngest daughter, is “Editor in Chief” if you can believe it, for Burgmann College ANU’s Daley News.

And so, to the working journalists, from a personal and a professional perspective, I have a high regard for what you do.

I appreciate there’s sometimes a sense of anticipation, perhaps born of hope rather than experience, that departing public servants might tip out a trove of hitherto protected information and opinion.

I hate to disappoint. That is not my style. 

I’ve always striven to uphold the values of an apolitical public service serving the government of the day from Prime Minister Hawke to Prime Minister Morrison.

That I’m leaving the APS does not for one second alter my commitment to the discretion required to maintain those principles.

Nevertheless, after five years as Secretary and 36 in foreign policy, there’s a broad canvas to paint on. 

I want to reflect on three issues.

Three constant threads that through my career have engaged and challenged and gripped me … given me good days and a few bad ones. 

Issues vital to the nation, as well as to shaping my career.

First, I will give you a practitioner’s perspective on Australian agency in a complex world.

As the Foreign Minister has said, “we have agency and influence to contribute to shaping our region through the decisions we make and the actions we take.”

With astute diplomacy and an inclusive, rules-grounded approach, Australia can shape our region to better suit our interests.

I will then offer some views about China. We need to remember that we have agency here too, especially when we work with others. 

Finally, recognising that major foreign policy challenges demand our most creative, capable and talented people, I will talk about something I – as DFAT’s first female Secretary – know is fundamental to our national strength – embracing diversity, and specifically, the power of women in leadership as a driver of performance.

A success story

Australia is, by almost any measure, a success story. 

Prosperous beyond the imaginings of previous generations.

Safe, secure, free, democratic and diverse.

A great place to be!

Even as the world is ravaged by a pandemic, Australians feel fortunate, and, if not immune, then largely protected from the worst health, economic and social impacts of COVID. 

We have difficulties and imperfections too.

But if we take any lesson from Australia’s success through the pandemic, it should be that we, like other nations, have some capacity to shape the world around us, particularly in partnership with countries with which we share values and perspectives.

We have agency. And we should use it wisely.

Australia’s agency - the value of diplomacy in the current moment

I won’t spend time describing the current situation. It’s true that good policy is founded on analysis … but the business of effective foreign policy is action, implementation, and influence to deliver results.

The values, systems, and standing of the developed world are being challenged.

The West’s advantage in economic, military and technological power is ebbing.

Unilateral advantage and zero-sum diplomacy militate against the task of managing the challenges of both strategic competition and economic interdependence.

The international order is being remade, and there are big agendas ahead for Australia.

How the world, and more specifically our near region, recovers from COVID-19.

How we and others respond to China’s growing power and ambitions.

How we deal with climate change, including via the dramatic energy transition underway.

How international rules, standards, and institutions evolve and on what basis.

What matters in the face of this is Australia’s ability to determine and exercise choice, and to exert influence built on strong domestic foundations: a vibrant economy and a cohesive, open, and confident society.

You would expect a DFAT Secretary to observe that diplomacy must be at the forefront. But how?

It’s not just about responding smartly to events or crises. It’s also about defining feasible objectives and shaping outcomes.

Diplomacy is and must remain our first response to a rapidly changing world.

It is the primary route to the Prime Minister’s objective of a regional balance that favours freedom.

Building coalitions, negotiating agreements, and winning candidacies.

Supporting health systems in our region.

Understanding and then shaping the thinking and policies of other governments in line with our interests and to the broader benefit of the international community.

Delivering market access and establishing fair and transparent rules for international trade, so that our companies can prosper.

Maximising the benefit of aligned interests with fellow democracies – as was so tangibly on display at the G7 Plus meeting – and working in clear eyed collaboration with countries with a different world view to our own. Particularly in Asia.

Even in a pandemic, diplomacy is about being there on the ground, learning, negotiating, listening, advocating. Doing so in person.

And ultimately, acting with clear purpose to advance Australia’s interests.

The expertise and resources needed for diplomacy are worthy of serious investment, because our job is to prevent the fracturing and instability that leads to vastly more expensive and more destructive tools of statecraft being required.  

As General Angus Campbell, and it’s wonderful to have CDF here with us today, said to me once, if DFAT is effective he can keep his expensive tools in the shed – a view shared by General Jim Mattis while US Secretary of Defence in relation to diplomacy more broadly.

It’s why President Biden pledged to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy”, and acknowledged that it requires discipline, a coherent policy-making process, and a team of experienced and empowered professionals.

In a world where everything that matters - good or bad - is so closely interconnected, the department that I’ve led integrates strategic, trade, development, and operational tools to advance Australia’s interests.

My colleagues are capable – some of the best negotiators in the world and many who are steeped in the politics, languages, and culture of our region.

The amalgamation of our foreign and trade departments in 1987, and the integration with AusAID in 2013, created a department of state with:

  • 113 posts in 85 countries
  • with around half of our staff based overseas
  • including our highly skilled and valued locally engaged colleagues, who give us an edge in understanding the subtle dynamics of the countries where we work.

We are the sharp eyes, the attuned ears, and the influential voice of Australia overseas.

There have been countless examples in my career where we have chosen principled action over passive fatalism.

Consider, for example, APEC, the East Asia Summit, G20, the Quad or RAMSI.

Australia has successfully advocated for leader level engagement, lifting the significance of these bodies which shape prosperity, stability and security in our region.

Our investment in the leadership of international organisations – for example the OECD and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation – enable us to contribute directly to the setting of rules, standards and norms.

Much of the agenda we pursue today was articulated in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, something former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, charged me with overseeing when I was appointed.

In fact, I recall the cameras were invited in to capture the moment I received my instructions. There was no pressure there.

Our approach to the Indo-Pacific, focused on strategic balance and a regional order based on rules, remains the lodestar for Australia’s policy.

Our alliance with the United States remains fundamental to the levels of security and stability we seek.

We have deepened cooperation with Japan, Indonesia, India, and other critical Indo-Pacific partners.

Our Pacific Step-up draws together our national interests with a focus on the three pillars of economic, people to people links, and security – all coordinated through the whole-of-government Office of the Pacific.

And it’s great to see my Deputy Secretary colleagues, and Ewen McDonald, Head of the Office of the Pacific, here with us today.

Whether it’s pandemic response, vaccines delivery, health security and recovery, infrastructure financing, economic integration, labour mobility, security cooperation or supporting Pacific Women to Lead, as the Minister for Women and Minister for Foreign Affairs has so strongly done … our agenda reaffirms our longstanding relationships with our Pacific Island family, all in direct support of our neighbours’ sovereignty, resilience, and shared priorities.

Yet by necessity, since 2017 the government’s policies have evolved in ways, and degrees of ambition, not envisaged when we drafted the White Paper.

Some of this was recognised in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

The risks we face have grown.

COVID-19 and a shift in attitudes to free trade and globalisation across the world have profound implications for an open economy like ours.

The ability of our neighbours to navigate – in the Prime Minister’s words – a ‘poorer, more dangerous and disorderly world’ will define the kind of region we live in.

Pivoting our development program to assist our region to limit the damage of COVID-19 – be it through delivering vaccines or providing economic support – has been vital.

To no small degree, influence in our region will be shaped by who contributes to regional recovery and on what basis.

Beyond the Government’s increased support for regional COVID-19 recovery, we need to consider carefully whether our development program and international lending match the needs in our region and the tough competition for influence now under way.

Some of these issues will be for my colleagues and my successor to grapple with as they advise Government.

But they matter to all Australians and to our national discussion.

Reflections on China

No challenge better demonstrates the need for active, creative diplomacy than China. 

I’d like to speak a little about this country, which represents the single most influential variable in our external environment.

I have witnessed China’s growth and change from three different vantage points, from Hong Kong in the late 1980s, from our economic and trade office in Taipei in the early 2000s, and as Ambassador to Beijing from 2011 to 2015.

This experience has helped me understand how history, culture, politics – and most importantly – internal dynamics and real and perceived vulnerabilities influence the choices that China makes, and the way it sees the world.

I became Ambassador to China as the Hu Jintao period was coming to a close.

China had been experiencing a remarkable transformation, shedding some of the rigidities of its past and becoming better integrated into the international mainstream after joining the World Trade Organisation.  

Urbanisation, the promise of further economic reforms, the beginnings of a legal system protecting civil rights, a middle-class open to new ideas, new products and new experiences.

I was there for the elevation of Xi Jinping from Vice President to President in 2013, after becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in late 2012 at the 18th party congress, through to my return to Australia in late 2015. Arguably, it is in that period – and the time since then – that we have seen the most consequential change.

The clock has been wound back in terms of the priority accorded to ideology, quashing voices of civil society, and erecting new barriers to external connections and the free flow of information. 

China speaks of a “new type of international relations”, as if it is a fairer way, an improvement. But underneath it is the same old power politics, the raw assertion of national interests.

The implication being that China’s size and strength make its interests more ‘special’ than those of others, and that these must prevail.

Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset - perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.

It is too ready to suspect “containment” instead of judging issues on their individual merits.

And I always find it useful to remind myself when faced with strident official representations that the pressure exerted outwards on other countries must also be felt within, at an individual level, by those subject to that system.

Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination; more so if inadvertently mishandled. We need to understand what we are dealing with.

As you know, the number of Western journalists in China is shrinking. 

The insights of journalists covering China in the past – and there’s a long tradition of that, including Australians, right back to the Republican period – and today, have enriched our understanding. That understanding helped forge closer bilateral ties that served the interests of both sides.  

This is of course one of the saddest ironies: those media voices on the ground give us an appreciation of what China is about, in all its dynamism and complexity. Less access, less dialogue means less understanding.

This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.

It means, among other things, that China is undergoing a steep loss of influence in Australia and many other countries. 

The latest Lowy Poll, out today, confirms as much, revealing that Australians’ trust in China has fallen to record lows.

What we tell the Chinese Government is that we are not interested in promoting containment or regime change. 

We want to understand and respond carefully – for shared advantage.  Not to feed its insecurity or proceed down a spiral of miscalculation.

Nor do we see the world through a simplistic lens of zero-sum competition.

What we are interested in, and will continue to strive for, is a peaceful, secure region underpinned by a commitment to the rules that have served all of us – China included. An order that will deliver more stability and welfare to its members, as it has done to date.

To adapt a phrase from the head of Australia’s national security college at ANU, Rory Medcalf, our Indo-Pacific agenda is about incorporating a more powerful China into a regional order where the rights of others are respected, and counter-balancing that power when those rights are not.

This will be a long-term national challenge, probably for decades to come.

We have a robust policy framework governing our approaches to China, which rightly, we constantly test. 

It is partly defensive, yes, because China’s actions require it. 

But it is also proactive and open to a possible model of beneficial co-existence that guards against conflict and protects Australian sovereignty while recognising China will inevitably have a larger say in the way our world works. 

China might hope for a fundamental policy re-think by Australia, as indicated by the pressures to which we’ve been subjected, but such hopes would be in denial of the very real impact of China’s behaviour on Australia and, importantly, the broad bipartisanship of our most fundamental policy settings.

So we approach China with confidence, realism, and an open mind. 

National resilience and internal cohesion are important when dealing with China… but that doesn’t mean we should demand uniformity of viewpoint.

Debate about our approach is a strength, not a weakness. Indeed, in an era when political and social freedoms are being rolled back in many parts of the world, a healthy open debate is one of the hallmarks of a liberal system.

And the best policy always comes from contestability. This is as true of the China challenge as it is of economic or social policy.

In any event, the scale of the complexity we face, whether in managing our relationship with China, or in positioning Australia to prosper in a more unstable world, demands that we have our most dynamic, creative and talented people on the case.

This means actively cultivating diverse and inclusive teams.

That’s why Tony Blinken, in his first major address as Secretary of State, described diversity in the national security and foreign service workforce as a national security priority. 

The First Female Secretary and Diversity

Diversity is something I’ve thought a lot about – and sought to lead on – as DFAT’s first female Secretary.

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs, as it was then, in 1985, in the first year in which there were more women than men in the department’s graduate intake.

This was also the year the Government appointed the first woman as head of a Commonwealth Department of state – Helen Williams AC, Secretary of the Department of Education – and with us today.

And it was one year after the passage of the landmark Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 … which obliged DFAT to change its recruitment practices.

Looking back, I joined the public service at an important moment of cultural change in Australia.

The women who joined with me in 1985, and I, understood others had come before us, making compromises and sacrifices to forge their way through the male dominated world of government.

But we were also a generation of young women who didn’t find the idea of female leadership in the public service to be unusual or revolutionary. It was something we expected and could realistically aspire to.

Over the 36 years of my public service career we have seen, slowly but steadily, more women rise through the ranks of DFAT and the APS workforce. Including me.

When I was appointed Secretary of DFAT I honestly didn’t think too much about being the department’s first female Secretary. I was well qualified for the job, and ready to get down to business.

But I quickly, from day one actually, came to appreciate the significance of being “the first” – the first female face in a long line of 39 solemn, black and white photos of my male predecessors (Foreign and Trade) on the fifth floor of DFAT’s Barton offices.

Because it’s not just legislation and policies that effect cultural change. It’s also about visible and engaged leadership; the concept of “how can I be what I can’t see?”. 

And on that very point, can I just say how wonderful it is to see my fellow female Secretaries – past and present, and maybe there are a few emerging in the room as well – who have provided such visible leadership.

One of my proudest achievements has been to oversee transformation of our senior leadership, including our diplomatic missions overseas, in terms of gender. In that latter endeavour, I have had the strong support of my Ministers: first Julie Bishop and now Marise Payne.

In 2016 when I started as Secretary, just over 31 per cent of our Senior Executive Service were women. Today the figure is just over 44 per cent.

Today, 42 of our career heads of mission and heads of posts – or 45 per cent – are women. That’s compared with only 23 per cent in 2016.

This trend has led, in turn, to other “first women” in my time as Secretary – many first women actually – but including recently Penny Williams, Jan Adams and Cathy Raper, our first female Ambassadors to Jakarta, Tokyo, and Seoul.

Julie-Ann Guivarra, the first Indigenous Australian woman to be appointed to BOTH a head of mission role, as our Ambassador to Spain, AND a Global Ambassadorial Role, as Ambassador for Gender Equality.

I focussed here on Women in Leadership, however, our strategy, leadership and programmes of work to enable diversity and inclusion in DFAT go well beyond that.

The first accountability of a leader is to create a safe and inclusive environment that allows people to come to work, perform at their best, and to have hope for the future. 

As DFAT’s inaugural overarching Diversity and Inclusion Champion, I’ve worked – with support from many passionate, capable colleagues – to drive organisational and cultural reforms that recognise diversity in leadership, and in our workforce, as central to our value proposition as an organisation. 

To be more representative of the Australia that we serve, we need to continue to lift our ability to recruit, develop and retain the rich diversity of our people and talent. 

Progress here begins and ends with leadership at all levels of our society and organisations.

I’m proud to say that the department that I am leaving is now the one I hoped I was joining in 1985.

Looking forward

Looking ahead, and a couple of things to conclude on.

The present crisis has provided extraordinary proof, I believe, of DFAT’s value within government.

DFAT’s contribution through this stressful period – including, and I really must emphasise this, as I do in every conversation I have about it, the success of our people at posts, operating under unprecedented pressures through lockdowns and vaccine rollouts, often without the support of family or loved ones – that contribution has been clear to the government, and to Australians.

COVID has also reinforced the value of Australia’s development program.

We’ve been able to help our neighbours in such a front-footed way because of the relationships and resources that were in place before the crisis.  

Our network of global trade arrangements and free trade agreements – built up over the last 25 years – is cementing the contribution of trade to our economic recovery.

And our support for regional recovery will pay for itself if we can start the business of reconnecting; getting economies back on track, and preventing resurgent poverty from eroding stability.

Our best option to weather the pressures we face as a nation is to demonstrate that we cannot be divided … that we stand firm together.

We should continue to work with others to shape the region – the world – we want to live in.

Because an outward-looking Australia, fully engaged with the world, is essential to our future security and prosperity.

Thank you.

Back to top