For a foreign minister who has been in the job for just over a year, and who is known for her cautious approach to diplomacy, they were bold words.
Democracy and human rights have been in retreat across most of south-east Asia in recent years (with Malaysia a possible exception).
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has served more than three decades in the top job, last year won all 125 seats in Parliament after banning opposition parties and jailing opponents. In Thailand and the Philippines, democracy is being eroded by anti-democratic leaders. Vietnam and Myanmar jail advocates of democratic reform. Brunei has flagged the introduction of sharia as law. And Indonesia is considering laws that would ban sex out of wedlock.
At the same time, Australia’s handling of high-profile consular cases such as that of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi and jailed Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been questioned in some quarters. Three Australian citizens – Middle East politics specialist Kylie Moore-Gilbert and travel bloggers Mark Firkin and Jolie King – have been detained by Iran.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives in Washington, where he will be warmly received by US President Donald Trump for an official state visit, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age spoke to three former foreign ministers – Gareth Evans, Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop – about Australia’s place, our ability to exert diplomatic influence in our region, and the challenges that lie ahead.
The conversations were framed around one central question: Is Australia’s approach to foreign policy working, or are we punching below our weight?
Evans and Rudd, former Labor ministers, both suggest that a more ambitious approach to foreign policy is needed – one that is more self-confident, emphasises human rights and brings an end to Australia punching below its weight.
Evans, who was once nominated for a Nobel peace prize for his role in the Cambodian peace process, says Australia has lost its “spirit of adventure” and “energetic activism” in diplomacy, and that a stronger emphasis on human rights is now absent.
“The idea of quiet diplomacy has concealed a catalogue of horrors of omission over the years. Too often it has been an excuse for not making our voice heard when it should have been,” he says.
He applauds Morrison for making a recent diplomatic visit to Vietnam, for example, but suggests that “my sense is that the human rights representations were underdone”.
“The notion that there is something distinctively Western about the right not to be detained, or freedom of speech, [freedom of] association, a free media, that there is something distinctly Western about having a say in how you are governed, is just not plausible.
“To me, there are only universal human values, universal rights.
“We have been excessively cautious in our unwillingness to seriously call out or respond punitively to major human rights abuses in Cambodia, Myanmar and elsewhere in our region.”
Evans won’t be drawn on the handling of individual cases such as those of Araibi or Yang, arguing he doesn’t have enough detail about how the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has handled the specific cases.
“The real area where Australia can make a distinct difference is the pursuit of middle-power diplomacy,” he says.
Rudd, who came to the office of prime minister bursting with ideas about Australian foreign policy and secured us a place in the G20, describes Australia as “the complacent country”.
He describes an “endemic incapacity to understand the gravity of what’s unfolding on our shores in terms of new security challenges and climate change challenges”.
For Rudd, there are three key challenges facing Australia that the country is not addressing adequately in international forums: climate change policy, risks to the global financial system, and the binary contest under way between China and the US.
“The organising principle I advanced was creative middle-power diplomacy – which means you recognise you’re not a great power, but you have access to the counsels of the world.
“The current government’s attitude to our place in the region and the world is driven by one organising principle, which is the extension of domestic politics by other means.”
Rudd says the idea that we punch above our weight is a “hackneyed phrase that has become part of the self-affirming psychology of our wider national inertia”.
The current government’s approach to China has become a contest about “who in the Liberal Party can be more hairy-chested, regardless of ensuring a well-balanced relationship”. Rudd argues that “we [Labor] never resiled from human rights diplomacy as the current government has”.
“I was repeatedly criticised for making statements – but if you remain silent you ultimately compromise who we are as Australians.”
Bishop, our most recent former foreign minister, unsurprisingly chooses her words most carefully.
“Australia’s diplomatic heft is judged on our ability to provide solutions or guidance to the challenges of our times. We do need to be more confident in our ability to provide the insights that can influence the decisions of other nations to our advantage, as that is one of our strengths,” she says.
On human rights advocacy, she says, the key is consistency about national principles with nations big and small.
And asked about her – and successive Liberal governments’ – increasingly assertive stance towards China, she argues that it is important to be “very frank and robust with Chinese officials during private meetings, so that there can be no ambiguity about how Australia sees its interests”.
“During my time as foreign minister, China became progressively more assertive in pursuing what it regards as its national interests and I was responding to that increased level of assertiveness.”
So does Australia have the balance right?
Australia has become a one-trick pony. Regional governments know they can wait Australians out.
Human Rights Watch spokesperson Phil Robertson
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, an American based in Thailand for most of the past 20 years, says Australia doesn’t speak up nearly often enough about human rights issues.
“Only in few, rare instances such as eventually in Thailand with Hakeem al-Araibi or the death penalty case of [Andrew] Chan and [Myuran] Sukumaran in Indonesia does Australia actually speak up. Australia has become a one-trick pony. Regional governments know they can wait Australians out,” he says.
He cites the case of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, the reluctance to criticise Vietnam or Cambodia publicly for human rights abuses, and the ongoing engagement with Myanmar’s military regime through training exercises as evidence that we shy away from confrontation.
“There is an allergy within DFAT, there is something wrong within the political culture of DFAT – they are somehow being taught or trained that you must never say anything publicly against another state,” he says.
The ‘institutional’ counterpoint to how Australia conducts its diplomacy is put by the hugely respected former boss of DFAT, Dennis Richardson, who also led Defence and ASIO and served as Australia’s ambassador to Washington.
Australia has the planet’s sixth-largest land mass, a population larger than 140 of the 193 or so UN member states, an economy that is the 12th to 15th-largest in the world (depending on exchange rates) and the 13th or 14th-largest defence budget in the world.
“Put that together and ask yourself do we measure up to that?” Richardson asks.
“I think we occasionally underestimate ourselves and occasionally we can lack ambition – however, again, look at the scoreboard, it ain’t too bad.”
Contradicting Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, Richardson argues that successive Australian governments have argued the case publicly for human rights.
We do speak up. We are not silent on human rights and nor should we be.
Former DFAT secretary Dennis Richardson
“We do speak up. We are not silent on human rights and nor should we be. But there is a difference between being silent and allowing it to be the driving force in foreign policy.
“When it comes to your own citizens being arrested and jailed in another country you have to weigh up whether you want the right outcomes or whether you want to look good publicly but not get the right outcome,” he says.
Richardson runs through a checklist of key moments – the Cambodian peace process, the Asian financial crisis, the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto, East Timorese independence, the response to the 2004 tsunami and intervention in the Solomon Islands through to the present day – where Australia has made its weight felt.
“When you objectively go through the record, on all the big issues Australia has stepped up and played a leading role.”
The idea that Australia was once more critical and more vocal on human rights issues is, he says, a “figment of nostalgia”.
On the great-power contest between Beijing and Washington, he says: “If you look at our fundamental interests in the South Pacific and south-east Asia, given we are all neighbours, if you focus on getting the basics right … you will automatically address a range of other issues.
“If you start with China, you won’t get very far with some countries.”
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.