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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of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1992 and being in my late 70s, what I might have to say would appear irrelevant or outdated; the rambling thoughts of an elderly person out of touch with the post-11 September world.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.

'a profound conservative-populist transformation'

Observing the world from the upper reaches of the hill of life, which I have been climbing for nearly eight decades, I find myself saddened by the violence, intolerance and hatreds, which persist in much of the world today and some of which, sadly, are reflected in Australia.

I also had a near death experience in 1995. When one recovers from such an event one feels that, having been given a second chance at life, one should try to exert some influence, however small, which might contribute to making Australia a safer and better place for our children, of which I have three, and our grandchildren of which I have nine.

Whether one watches the news on television, or reads the morning papers, one is reminded daily of the catastrophic consequences of some human actions. One thinks of the dangers of intolerance, greed and racism that lurk in those latent atavistic urges, which we have inherited from our dark and distant past.

In my lifetime I have seen the rise and fall of the relatively recent barbarisms of Nazism and Stalinism, the inhumanities of World War II, a recrudescence of religious bigotry and racism, the tragic events in Rwanda and Kosovo and, more recently, 11 September, the disastrous situation in Iraq and the ongoing problems in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Sri Lanka and North Korea, just to name some.

Don't misunderstand me. I believe Australia is a wonderful country, richly endowed with resources and natural beauty. We can be proud of many of our achievements and many of the things we do, such as our compassionate and generous response to the disastrous tsunami in 2005 and the subsequent earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan.

Australia is a country of enormous opportunity and potential but it is not now the country I represented mostly with pride and always with dedication during my diplomatic career. Whether we take these opportunities and fulfil our potential, or whether we become a land of faded promise, is in our own hands.

We can be too complacent and self-satisfied. There is much we should do to make Australia a better and more widely respected nation. Many are shocked that the government has tolerated bribing Saddam Hussein to buy our wheat while, at the same time, preparing to invade Iraq and inflict such devastation and so many casualties on the country and its people.

Other widely held concerns include the weakening of our democracy, the excessive anti-terror laws, the propagandist 'spin' about alleged successes in Iraq, the cultivation of fear and jingoism, the harsh treatment of so many asylum seekers, attempts to arouse excessive patriotism and the exploitation of the Australian flag to this end, the erosion of support for aboriginal reconciliation, the undermining of civil liberties, human rights and social justice are all indicators of what Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe University has called 'a profound conservative-populist transformation' in this country over the last decade.


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