Australia in the early 21st century

Richard Woolcott

I feel honoured to be with you today to give the prestigious University of Newcastle Human Rights and Social Justice lecture. I know I am following a number of distinguished speakers and I hope to say something worthwhile and meaningful.

Given my background in advising governments on foreign, security and trade policy, the focus of my remarks will be mainly on the impact of 11 September 2001 on our Australian society.

I nearly declined the offer to speak to you today as I was afraid that having retired as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1992 and being in my late 70s, what I might have to say would appear irrelevant or outdated; the rambling thoughts of an elderly person out of touch with the post-11 September world.

But I welcome this opportunity. I do not feel out of touch and I care deeply about Australia and its future. So, I decided that, on the basis of having represented Australia for some forty years and still being actively involved in Asian affairs, as well as with our links with the United States, which I have visited on four occasions since 11 September 2001, that I can make some objective observations on the situation in which we find ourselves in the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

I do claim objectivity because, although I was in the past approached by both Liberal and Labor prime ministers to consider standing for election, I declined to do so. In fact I have never joined a political party. This would have involved an obligation to support a particular policy with which I may not have agreed.

I preferred to give frank advice. I have during my career worked closely, as an advisor, with seven prime ministers, four Liberals and three Labor. Although I had retired I also acted as a special envoy for both John Howard and Foreign Minister Downer after the 1996 election. I do not believe I am constrained by any form of ideology, either that of the so-called 'soft left', to which Mr Howard referred in his recent controversial speech at Quadrant's 50th anniversary dinner or the conservative right.