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Stanley Wilkinson Oration - “Of Dentistry and Diplomacy”

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

Introduction and acknowledgements

Thank you Peter [Lewis, President of the Australian Society of Orthodontists], it's a pleasure to be here.

Let me begin by acknowledging the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present.

I also recognise the many international guests who have flown long distances to be here in Sydney today.

I believe this is the first time a Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has given the Stanley Wilkinson Oration, which honours Stanley Wilkinson's initiative in helping to establish the Australian Society of Orthodontists.

At first blush, it might seem incongruous for a diplomat to be asked to offer some thoughts to the 26th Australian Orthodontic Congress.

What would a diplomat, after all, know about the set of "hard, bony, enamel-coated structures found in the jaws of most vertebrates", known as teeth?

A cynic might argue that the most use a diplomat generally has for his or her teeth is to have something to lie through.

That said, in preparing for this lecture, I read back through some of the contributions of some of my illustrious predecessors, and it became clear to me that this is not an oration for which one's chief qualification is dentistry, or even an advanced degree in orthodontics.

Michael Kirby, for example, the 1984 Stanley Wilkinson Orator, wasn't even a dentist, let alone an orthodontist, but a High Court judge.

Likewise Sir Gustav Nossal, the 1972 Stanley Wilkinson Orator – although with a long, distinguished career in medical science and immunology behind him, the 2000 Australian of the Year at least gets a bit closer to this esteemed medical speciality than the most famous modern-day dissenter in High Court history.

Sir Zelman Cowen, the former Governor-General, who gave the 1998 Oration - also neither dentist nor orthodontist.

Hence my own lack of hesitation in accepting the Society's invitation to speak to you tonight.

Stanley Wilkinson

In giving an oration named for someone who has left a mark on a profession or the nation, it is traditional to offer some thoughts about the person we honour.

In this case, given the long history of the Stanley Wilkinson Oration, the length of time since his life, and the fact that my profession is so different to the work to which he dedicated his life, it is difficult for me to add much that is new.

Justice Kirby faced the same challenge in 1984, and thirty-four years on, I find it hard to improve upon the way he tackled it.

Justice Kirby honoured Stanley Wilkinson by seeing the affinity between their two disparate careers: both were professional reformers.

I could do little better than to note that in such a rapidly-evolving, fast-paced world, the challenge of professional reform is one faced by Australia's diplomats, in 2018, just as it is faced by so many professions around the world.

It's a challenge I work with daily, so let me simply associate myself with the thoughts of Justice Kirby (something that would have happened more than once, of course, while he was on the High Court bench!).

In reflecting on where we are in time, and Stanley Wilkinson's life, I'd also like to note that a century ago this week, he would have been on a transport vessel on his way back to Australia, having completed his service in a dental unit in World War One.

Just before Christmas 1917, his wife Ruth became very ill.

Lieutenant Wilkinson, as he then was, sought permission to return home to care for her and their children. This was granted – dental work probably not being the Australian Infantry Force's highest priority in early 1918.

He went on, as is well known here, to play a prominent role in the foundation of the orthodontic profession in Australia.

The professions in Australia in 2018

With that introduction, let me turn now to my substantive topic for tonight.

In his address three decades ago, Justice Kirby spent some time on the question of the status of the professions in Australia in 1984.

He spoke about a "perceived decline and fall in the status of and respect for the professional", in contrast to the status enjoyed by professionals like Stanley Wilkinson in his own lifetime.

"We can all cast our mind back to the suburban doctor, the local solicitor, and the white-coated dentist," said Justice Kirby.

"They were the real heroes of suburban Australia when we grew up."

Today, sadly, I think it's fair to say that in many ways, the status of the professions has only declined further.

In the highly-dynamic, technology-driven, globalised society of 2018, the values that we see promoted around us are not, sadly, always the virtues of traditional professionalism.

Far from it – what global society seems to prefer, these days, is the brash, the upstart, the quick start-up with a great idea.

Going viral is reckoned to be a good thing, rather than a catastrophic health risk you want to stop.

Fresh thinking, innovation, a willingness to take risks – these, along with the cult of celebrity and the unbelievably fast changes we are seeing in technology every day, are the qualities that define our age.

The professions – or professionalism, if you like – is, in many ways, the antithesis of that.

Of course there are elements of innovation in all of our professions, diplomacy, dentistry, law, and so on.

If there weren't, we would quickly be superseded, and become redundant, or go out of business.

But implicit in the nature of the professions, throughout their history, is so much that flies in the face of that spirit of our age.

Professions rely on regulation, on training, on ethics, on codes, practices and experience passed down from one generation to the next.

They insist on fiduciary duties, or doctor-client confidentiality.

On public service codes of conduct, if one is a government official.

On a duty of care to the children in one's classroom, if one is a teacher.

On a lawyer's duty to one's client, as well as the court, and other, similar fidelities in other spheres of civic life.

Professions are driven by rules, rules that in some ways set them up as "citadels of conservatism", in Kirby's words, but rules also that protect the consumer, whether the consumer is someone receiving orthodontic treatment, legal advice, or a government receiving advice about how to proceed in a global diplomatic environment.

Even in today's glib age, the rules and regulations of professions protect us – protect the public, protect practitioners, protect the quality of our civic space.

Indeed, I should add, in foreign, trade and development policy, we see rules at large as vitally important.

Not just rules that govern our profession, but at the global level, rules – what we think of as the international legal system, along with norms of state behaviour and key institutions like the United Nations – are very important.

Rules constrain behaviour, uphold standards and – at the global level – help resolve disputes and keep the peace – all key objectives of the modern, professional diplomat.

So I think it's fair to say that the professions in Australia in 2018 are under pressure – pressure to modernise, to adapt to a constantly changing technological and economic global landscape, pressure to compete as a relevant career choice among all the glitz and glamour apparently offered young Australians today.

They are also under pressure to stay true to themselves, to insist on the practices and regulations that have served them well over many decades, and serve us still.

Let me say a little about dentistry and diplomacy in 2018 in a wider context, noting your conference theme is "Riding the Waves of Change".

Australia's professions perform an important role in our foreign policy.

Professionals like you play an active part in Australia's foreign policy outreach.

Professional organisations like Engineers Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand have members from countries across the region, and have Australian members in the Indo-Pacific.

Each day, they convey a real sense of the quality of our education, and our service professionals – a vital part of our public diplomacy.

They enhance Australia's soft power – that intangible national asset in which other countries see us and our society as attractive and worth imitating.

But I know that within the diplomatic profession in Australia, which, as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I have the honour to lead, we are deeply conscious of the great demands for change and relevance being placed upon us every day.

As the Government has set out very clearly in the November 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, the world is changing rapidly and dramatically, and Australia needs to keep up with it.

The White Paper makes it clear that ours is a contested world, one in which the defining characteristic is, in many ways, uncertainty.

The White Paper sets Australia's framework for looking at the region of the world with which we are most concerned as the Indo-Pacific, that vast maritime and terrestrial space stretching from the Indian Ocean across to the Pacific Coast of the United States.

A space that includes within it the giants of India and China, and smaller but also fast-growing economies of southern Asia and Southeast Asia, many of which are represented here today.

Indonesia stands out among them.

Like many countries in the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia has been, in recent decades, grouped in with other highly populous countries as part of the developing world.

But life there is changing so rapidly that its economy is forecast to leapfrog into the Top Ten economies in the world within the next two decades, with profound strategic implications for all countries in the region, including Australia.

Japan is emerging as a more significant strategic player and contributor to global peace and prosperity.

We look to South Korea, as it emerges, to take on the same sort of role.

At the same time, the relative power advantages of the United States and Europe are declining.

In 2018, it would be far-fetched to suggest the United States and Europe will not be major parts of the global society and global economy for many years to come.

Yet their relative advantage is declining, as Indo-Pacific nations rise to prominence.

For Australia, our most important strategic goals are neatly summed up in the White Paper.

Firstly, it is in our interest to promote an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, in which the rights of all states are respected.

Secondly, we want to deliver more opportunities for our businesses globally, and we want to stand against the rising tide of protectionism that promises so much, but offers so little.

Thirdly, we want to ensure Australians remain safe, secure and free in the face of threats like global terrorism.

Fourthly, we want to promote and protect international rules that support stability and prosperity and enable cooperation to tackle global challenges, like climate change.

And fifthly, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we are committed to stepping up our support for a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste – a part of the world so important to Australia's own security and stability.

In advancing these goals in uncertain times, the Government has a number of national strengths and assets, including its public service.

These days, many government departments – and many state governments – have significant international dimensions.

The days are long gone when just one or two external departments of state were the main international face of government in Australia.

My Department – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – remains the most externally-focused, for obvious reason, but increasingly we are working with a range of different private and public actors in our diplomatic work.

For me, reforming my Department so that our capabilities match the requirements the global environment puts upon Australia's diplomats is a particular priority.

Part of that is ensuring our human capital moves with the time – that we have the best pool of talent on which to draw for people who can work in Australia's national interest overseas.

Speaking the day after International Women's Day, I'm pleased to report that our efforts to address and remove the persistent gender barriers that still lie within our organisation are being rewarded.

While I am the first female DFAT Secretary and Julie Bishop is Australia's first female Foreign Minister – we have struggled, historically, to ensure full and equal participation of women at all levels in the Department.

That is changing – a change I've worked to accelerate through the Department's Women in Leadership program.

Another part of the reform effort is technology – making sure that we are nimble and flexible enough to take advantage of novel systems that help us with our work, even as we remain resolutely focused on the need for security.

Through our reDESIGN program, we are developing regional service hubs to make our operations at our overseas posts more cost effective and efficient.

As technology changes, novel security risks emerge.

Cyber-security and state-driven surveillance activities, for example, were not significant issues in 1984, despite George Orwell's earlier predictions about what life in that time might look like.

Today, though, they are novel issues that pre-occupy many decision-makers here and abroad – part of the evolving landscape in which we work.

The professions of the future: projections out to 2030

What the White Paper foresees, though, is not inherently negative.

Far from it: the White Paper speaks about opportunity, and the importance of being positive as we adapt and evolve to change.

It says a lot, I think, about the future for Australia's professions.

Consider this:

  • By 2030, China's economy is expected to be the largest in the world
  • In 2016 US dollars, China's GDP in 2030 will be around US$26 trillion – twice its size in real terms today
  • The US economy will have grown, too, but only from US$19 trillion to US$23.5 trillion
  • Countries like Japan and China are ageing rapidly – Japan's population will decline in the decades ahead, and its demand for high-quality services like health and aged care will rise rapidly
  • China's population is growing, but its demographics are also working against it – by 2030, its working population will have actually shrunk by 4 per cent as a proportion of the total
  • The Indo-Pacific middle class will be unprecedented in size, and will dwarf that of developed countries – in 2030, the Asian middle class will be as big as the global middle class is today
  • Urban populations across the region will skyrocket – China will add more than 300 million city dwellers, India more than 200 million, and so on
  • According to the Asian Development Bank, Asia's infrastructure investment needs between 2016 and 2030 will be more than US$26 trillion – in power, telecommunications, transport, water and sanitation

The implications of these developments for Australia's economy – and for Australia's professions – are simply profound.

We are known world-wide for a number of industries: bulk commodities like energy and minerals, agriculture and so on.

These industries will all remain important for Australia – just think about how much they've contributed already to the transformation taking place across the Indo-Pacific, in terms of energy and commodity inputs.

But seen from above, the Australian economy is not primarily driven by commodity exports.

74 per cent of our economy, actually, lies in services.

Many of those services are domestic in nature, but if we take into consideration the services that contribute to the production of our goods exports, services already make up nearly 50 per cent of our exports.

In the years and decades ahead, the services contribution to our economy and our trade with the world will continue to grow.

Australia's engineers, architects, doctors, dentists, lawyers, bankers – all sorts of professionals like yourselves are already international in the way they operate, either based overseas or working there regularly.

Driven by the burgeoning Asian middle class, that phenomenon will accelerate rapidly.

In that context, the Government is working hard to help establish positive frameworks and rules that will open opportunities wide for Australian professionals.

We do that through our trade negotiations.

To increase market access for Australian professionals overseas, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has established the Professional Services Mutual Recognition Unit, which assists Australian professional associations and regulators in negotiating the international recognition of Australian qualifications and licensing.

All modern Free Trade Agreements have major chapters on services.

In years gone past FTAs were primarily about improving market access and reducing tariffs faced by our exporters overseas, but these days a lot of effort goes into services and behind-the-border issues that make it easier for our people to operate in foreign markets, and improve the rules of the road across the region.

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) signed yesterday in Santiago for example, has principally been about setting high standards as the Indo-Pacific truly emerges as a major part of the global economy.

Newly-rich or newly-middle class citizens of Indo-Pacific countries are demanding health services of the same standard as Australians have come to enjoy, and other services besides.

Whether those services are delivered in Singapore, in Australia or elsewhere, Indo-Pacific citizens are increasingly willing to travel to purchase them. At the same time, Australian professionals are increasingly pursuing opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.

In that transformation, the high standards of Australian professionals will be a major asset.

Of course, countries like China are unrolling vast numbers of new education facilities and training courses.

But Australian professions and standards have a justifiably strong reputation in the region, and I believe this will continue to be a major growth area for Australian exports.

It will be in our interests to maintain our reputation for Australian professional standards, and I believe the future of Australian professions as job and career prospects for young Australians will be bright.

That said, we can take nothing for granted.

The long era in which Australia has been a developed country while much of our neighbourhood has been developing is slowly coming to an end.

We should not be complacent about our privileged position, and that includes the privileged position of the high regard in which our professions are held around the region.

Our margin of advantage in the professions will be challenged.

We need to be ready for that, and strive to keep our edge.

As well, we need to have a keen eye on partnerships today that will become even more valuable in the future as the region rises.

Technology will also be critical, as the White Paper makes clear.

As you all know from your work today, technology is continuing its advance into every aspect of our lives, and in the years ahead, it will unquestionably take on a greater role in professional life.

Tele-medicine has been around for years, or even decades, but its capability has risen dramatically, and professional services delivery will develop in ways which are difficult to predict.

It certainly will not be the case that professions can rely on face-to-face contact as the only or even in some cases the primary means of service delivery – that age is already falling fast behind us.


Ladies and gentlemen, since Stanley Wilkinson helped found your society in 1927, your profession has been through countless changes and reforms.

In 1984, Michael Kirby reported doubts about the future of the professions at large, and railed, somewhat, against the instinctive behaviour of professions and professionals to protect themselves.

His speech focused, to an extent, on the truth that once a monopoly is established, it is always loath to relinquish its hold.

In the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond, though, the globalisation of the world looks set to only intensify.

Since the 1980s, Australia and Australians have very much been unafraid of competition.

Competition – competition and opportunity – are coming to the Australian professions, to an extent almost unimaginable only a generation ago.

I don't think the biggest challenge the professions face in this country is the threat of monopoly, or even of relative loss of status, not any more.

The biggest challenge we face is how to remain relevant, how to reform, whether we are diplomats or dental specialists, so we can take advantage of all the opportunity the Indo-Pacific has to offer.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 14 March 2018
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