Skip to main content

Australia-Britain Society and Royal Commonwealth Society Annual Dinner

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Good evening everyone.

It is a pleasure to celebrate with you the 91st birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia and Head of the Commonwealth.

I have enjoyed working with your sister organisation, the Britain-Australia Society during two postings in London, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to become better acquainted with my home side, so to speak.

I served first in the 1990s and then again as Deputy Head of Mission from 2005 to 2009.

I know, therefore, in the way you all do too, that the relationship between Australia and Britain is as deep and strong as any bilateral relationship can be. And I know that we can't take it for granted and that it needs constant renewal through the forging of new relationships and friendships between people.

So the work you do matters a great deal.

Initiatives such as your plain speaking competitions, and the scholarships to facilitate young Aussies and Brits sail together on Tall Ships, extend the spirit of friendship through the generations.

I'd also like to recognise the work of the Royal Commonwealth Society, of which I have counted myself a member in years past.

The Commonwealth isn't a universal organisation, but it is an aspirational one – states on nearly every continent want to be part of it, because it still holds relevance today.


  • the Commonwealth Secretariat's new Countering Violent Extremism unit, co-funded by Australia and the United Kingdom, and
  • the Commonwealth Climate Change Finance Access Hub, which aims to help developing countries access support for climate action, enhancing international efforts to mobilise climate finance.

This is an organisation with a lot to say about the world we live in today.

Introduction – volatility and rapid change

When I first contemplated – several weeks ago – what I would say tonight, I had a different topic in mind.

Prime Minister May had taken the first steps towards Brexit – towards disengagement from the European Union – and I was thinking a lot about the challenges a post-EU Britain would face in the years ahead.

I'm still thinking a lot about those issues and I expect you are too.

Frankly, questions about the future of globalisation, of the big changes we're seeing in the global order in the 21st Century, are some of the biggest unknowns for all of us.

  • What will be the place of the United States, the pre-eminent global leader over the past few decades?
  • What future role will our region's nascent global power, China, take for itself?
  • To what extent will the global community be able to work together - at a time when working together is getting harder rather than easier - on issues of common concern, issues that go far beyond questions of national interest:
  • climate change,
  • global terrorism,
  • boosting economic growth through openness and reform,
  • development,
  • and a host of others, including the shape and function of global institutional architecture?

But the electoral events of the past week prompted me to think again about what I wanted to say to you tonight.

It would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on questions of domestic politics – even for a country I know and love as much as Britain – though I am sure the election result last week has gripped your attention as much as any issue and has already been the topic of much private conversation tonight.

So I thought I'd turn to a rather messier topic than global affairs: democracy.

Democracy: a system of governance in recession?

Britain has, after all, had a fair degree of influence over what we know today as modern electoral democracy – giving us the model of the Westminster system of representative democracy, of an independent judiciary, and so much more.

It's often said that the United States has been a unique global superpower in that – since at least 1945, but arguably since Woodrow Wilson – it has seen its own national interest in building and supporting a rules-based international order.

But Britain, too, has played a major role in giving us the world order we have today, given its history as an exporter of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

We can see that clearly in the Commonwealth itself.

Australia was fortunate to receive a rich democratic inheritance from Britain, an inheritance we've built on and developed further.

And globally, we have an international order founded, for the most part, on what one might think of as democratic principles:

  • a large body of international law founded on core principles of human rights, under which states are for the most part equal parties,
  • a norm that accepts that the best way to conduct affairs globally is by negotiation and consensus, not by force.

But, globally, in the last few years, we have seen a period of widespread electoral volatility.

In the United States, we were all witness to the rise of a new force in presidential politics last year, a phenomenon amazing enough to have brushed past both of the ruling dynasties of American democracy, the Clintons and the Bushes.

President Trump's election came as a shock to many people – for some, it still seems an almost daily surprise!

Likewise, the Brexit referendum was a major political and strategic shock, in Britain, in the EU, and around the world, reversing direction on a decades-long trend towards greater European integration.

And in a whole host of elections around the world, new parties and political voices are finding fresh energy in gaining access to political power – the recent French presidential election being the first not to have had a representative of either of the major parties in the run-off round.

Some commentators have talked about a "democratic recession" around the world; others have talked about democracy in retreat.1

Global challenges

I personally think that sort of analysis is a bit overdone.

Without question, the prolonged global economic weakness that we have lived with since the Global Financial Crisis has sapped confidence – confidence in globalisation, in traditional governing parties, in international structures and existing models.

Many economies have been troubled by persistent or higher than usual unemployment.

Economic growth has been restrained.

Those economic challenges have contributed to the rise we've seen in protectionist ideas, to a new lack of trust in the benefits of globalisation, and to growing nationalism in many political systems.

As well, the strategic and political international landscape is changing.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has shaken us free of any complacency we might have had in the years since the end of the Cold War that a liberal world order was the last idea standing.

Geopolitics is alive and well in Europe in the 21st Century.

China's emergence, too, seems certain to change the global landscape.

Its continued economic transformation for almost 40 years now has brought it to a position of prominence. Under President Xi China is more active strategically than for many decades.

The highest profile question, indeed cause for concern, has been China's construction activity in the South China Sea and its militarisation of disputed features, but its Belt and Road Initiative suggests a broader desire to refashion the global map with China at its centre.

As well, the global community faces a string of deep trans-national challenges: terrorism, which has struck Britain so cruelly in recent weeks, climate change, and large numbers of displaced people, with 65 million refugees worldwide.

When there is such a degree of economic and strategic uncertainty, it is unsurprising that voters will look in many different directions for possible solutions.

Democracy: trying to solve global problems

I would contend, though, that democracy isn't ailing – it's the system people are trying to use to heal the illnesses they see around them.

Former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in a recently released book on the topic of democracy2, tackles this question about the health of global democracy head on.

Professor Rice, now back at Stanford in her post-public service life, is a realist, a pragmatist, and an optimist about democracy, all at once:

"Freedom has not lost its appeal," she writes. "But the task of establishing and sustaining the democratic institutions that will protect it is arduous and long. Progress is rarely a one-way road. Ending authoritarian rule can happen quickly; establishing democratic institutions cannot."

For Rice, who worked in the White House of George Bush Senior when the Berlin Wall fell and Mikhail Gorbachev let the nations of Eastern Europe step away from the Soviet sphere, and who was later National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under George Bush Junior, democracy is "messy, imperfect, mistake-prone and fragile."

Institutions are centrally important, part of the broader national landscape that will determine whether democracy will struggle or thrive in a particular setting.

But Rice doesn't see that messiness, those imperfections, as a source of weakness, rather of strength.

"The paradox of democracy," she writes, "is that its stability is born of its openness to upheaval through elections, legislation and social action. Disruption is built into the fabric of democracy."

As we look around the world in 2017, I submit democracy is in better shape than many give it credit – and the surprising results we're seeing are simply the result of living in a world that is more complex, and more inter-connected, than ever before.

The Commonwealth: a community of democracies

The Commonwealth is a good example of how attractive democracy still is.

Beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, Commonwealth members are united though shared values of democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all.

The Commonwealth works for international peace and order, individual liberty, development, democracy and the end of racism amongst many other ideals.

In 1995, Commonwealth leaders created a Ministerial Action Group to deal with persistent or serious violations of the Commonwealth's shared democratic values.

Since its establishment, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group has suspended member states eight times.

With the exception of Zimbabwe, which opted to leave the Commonwealth, all suspended countries have been returned to full membership following the restoration of democracy.

Ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Summit (which will take place in London in the week of 16 April), The Gambia will become the fourth country to return to the Commonwealth after leaving it, following South Africa, Pakistan and Fiji.

  • The Commonwealth strengthens democracy around the world, including, over the past quarter of a century, by monitoring around 140 elections in nearly 40 countries.

Democracy and human rights

Like Britain and other Commonwealth countries around the world, Australia is a strong believer in democracy, and in human rights.

Principles we hold dear to our democratic tradition – like the liberty of the individual, our commitment to the rule of law and the importance of promoting and protecting human rights – deserve our support at the global level.

This year, Australia is a candidate for a seat on the United Nations' Human Rights Council, running for the 2018-20 term.

We're doing this for a number of reasons.

First, we are a country with a proud tradition of respect for human rights – we were among the first jurisdictions anywhere to offer full political rights to women, and have had protections against discrimination in place for decades now.

Second, we have not yet, since the Human Rights Council was formed in 2006, served on that body – and we want to make a significant contribution.

Third, the Human Rights Council has never had a member from the Pacific. We think it is time to remedy that.

Our campaign is based on five pillars:

  • Gender equality, a particular passion of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and a major priority in our international development program,
  • Good governance
  • Freedom of expression
  • The rights of indigenous peoples
  • And strong human rights institutions.

If elected, Australia's approach would be one of both principle and pragmatism.

We would work to build bridges to address human rights challenges around the world.

And we would work in the same constructive and collaborative style that marked our recent term on the Security Council.


Ladies and gentlemen, we live in uncertain and challenging times.

I think it's important that we don't see our best prospect for solving the big challenges of our day – consensual, inclusive, respectful approaches to public policy, both domestic and international – as being the problem.

Indeed, it is more important than ever that we support mechanisms in international affairs that promote dialogue on the ideals that matter to us – like democracy and human rights.

I hope you will all agree that the democracy that our two countries have helped establish as a global norm is imperfect, and sometimes confusing – but it offers the best hope for peaceful, prosperous solutions to the global challenges of our day.

1. Eg. Professor Michael McFaul, director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford

2. Rice, Condoleezza, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, May 2017

Last Updated: 16 June 2017
Back to top