Deputy Prime Minister’s Address to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue
The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister | Minister for Defence
Thank you, Janine. We meet tonight on what is a really important and exciting moment – the 30th anniversary of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. And I want to start by acknowledging Phil and Julie Scanlan, and in doing so pay tribute to the colossal contribution that they have made to the alliance. I also want to acknowledge Tony Smith, who we look to with excitement about what the future of the dialogue will be.
The Australian Government regards the Dialogue as fundamentally important in terms of the way in which it gives expression to the Australian-American alliance. And you can see that by virtue of those who are joining us here with me tonight. I’m here with Tony Burke, my cabinet colleague; Andrew Leigh, another member of the Executive; the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, who’s here with Simon Birmingham and Sarah Henderson, three members of the Shadow Cabinet. It is a delegation which is senior and bipartisan, and speaks to how importantly we regard the Dialogue.
When Curtin said at the end of 1941 that Australia looks to America, it was a call that was not made by virtue of a set of existing personal relationships. It was not even at that moment a call made in affection. It was much more a call made out of necessity. A judgement that the chances of a British capital fleet defending Australia from a base in Singapore, whilst Imperial Japan was on the march was pretty slim. America had capability. It was a country with a Pacific seaport. It was a country of the Pacific, whose base in the heart of the Pacific had just been devastated.
But much more than that. As a pre-condition to the establishment of that call was an understanding that America was a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Right then, at the very beginning of the alliance, the shared values that we have as two democracies were fundamental in terms of pursuing this relationship.
Curtin would go on to forming a personal friendship with General Douglas McArthur, in so many ways a precursor to the relationships which exist within this room. And in those very first years there was a literal blossoming of personal interaction between Americans and Australians as a million American service men and women came through Australia. Through that, there were friendships built. There were relationships built. Indeed, there were families that were created. And what has evolved since is a line of Americans who look back at their family history and have within it an Australian story. People like former Senator Kristina Keneally, who actually became an Australian and served with distinction within our political system. Ambassador John Berry, whose father served in the 1st Marine Division which, when they were in Australia, were so moved by the experience of being in our country adopted Waltzing Matilda as their battle song.
A decade later the relationship was consecrated in the alliance and ANZUS, a treaty signed by President Truman and Prime Minister Menzies. But as we gather here tonight, it is hardly the words of a treaty which define the commitment that we have to each other. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a set of personal relationships between politicians and soldiers; between scientists and academics; between students and artists; between business people. It is a relationship which is completely human.
Over the last 30 years we’ve seen that relationship taken to a different level. It really is the genius of Phil and Julie Scanlon in establishing the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Because what they understood was that there was an opportunity to leverage the affinity between our two countries at a personal level to, in a systematic way, encourage these relationships to be formed at the most senior level of government, of defence, and business, of media. And what they have done through the Australian American Leadership Dialogue is simply amazing. The magic that has been created by the work that has been undertaken by people who met in this room is incalculable and it forms so much of the balance of the relationship between our two countries today. It is genuinely a colossal achievement of both our countries.
And we do look with excitement to what Tony Smith – someone I’ve actually known longer than the dialogue itself – will do for the organisation going forward. For me personally, I’ve been here for half of that journey. And so many of the friends that I have in the United States are formed in this room. And so it has played a fundamentally important role for all of us, and provides the cement in the relationship between Australia and America.
That is so important at this moment in time. Because both our countries face the most complex set of strategic circumstances that we’ve had since the end of the Second World War. The global rules-based order that started to be built at Bretton Woods, by America, by Australia, by so many other countries, is under pressure. A tension now that we’ve not seen since the Second World War. We see it in Eastern Europe with the appalling invasion by Russia into Ukraine where a large country is seeking to impose itself on a smaller neighbour, and not by reference to international law but by reference to the rule of power and might. And we see the global rules-based order under threat in the Indo-Pacific as well. China asserts a sovereignty over the South China Sea which is completely at odds with how we understand the operation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and what it means in terms of freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight across the high seas. And that goes directly to Australia’s national interests. That is a body of water through which most of our trade traverses. All of our trade to Japan, to Korea, to our top five trading partners, goes through that body of water.
China is engaging in a level of strategic competition in our near neighbourhood amongst the Pacific Island countries in a way that we have not seen before. And as China seeks to shape the world around it, it is presenting us, and in some ways by virtue of it being our largest trading partner, with so many challenges. But none more so than the fact that China is now engaging in the single biggest military build-up that we have seen since the end of the Second World War. It’s a compelling fact. It describes a period through which we are living of enormous danger. And it requires our two countries to work together like never before.
From the perspective of America, the United States rightly judges that its system of alliances that it has with countries around the world is a competitive advantage. And, of course, for Australia the alliance which has been the cornerstone of our world view, the cornerstone of our national security, now feels even more important in the future than it has been in the past.
The alliance today is being given its next chapter through the establishment of AUKUS, a trilateral piece of architecture involving our two countries with the United Kingdom. And I do want to take this moment to commend Peter Dutton for the role that he has played in the establishment of AUKUS.
What AUKUS is going to do for our nation is enable us to have access to the highest capabilities. The most significant of which is, of course, a long-range nuclear-powered submarine. But what we hope, in addition to that, is that what it will do is enable the industrial bases, the defence industrial bases, of our two countries to integrate together in a seamless way. So that that reflects the way in which our two Defence Forces are so interoperable – really, interchangeable – in the way in which we operate. And what all of that does is make Australia a much more potent and effective partner for peace in our region.
The alliance is, of course, bigger than the partisan contest in either the United States or Australia. It is bigger than any one individual. But the story of the alliance has been marked by the relationships of our respective leaders. And Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Biden are starting to write their own lines in that story. It’s really clear that the two of them have a shared mission, born, in fact, of a very similar shared personal history.
What they want to make clear is that climate change will be central to the way in which we engage. Australia is back at the table of global leadership on action in climate change. We want to work hand in glove with the United States in doing that. And there is no part of the world where that is more important than in the Pacific. A part of the world which is on the frontline of climate change, where the effects of climate change are existential and are felt viscerally.
I’m really excited about the potential of our two countries to work together in helping to tell the Pacific story to the world about their experience of being on the frontline of climate change. And that, along with working together for the development of the Pacific – and I am so excited about the announcement that the United States government has made in the last 48 hours about its engagement in the Pacific – in doing that, I am completely confident that we can be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. And so as we gather here tonight the alliance is busy. The agenda is full. And it means that the work of us all in this room has never been more important. Every relationship that you make, every initiative that you pursue, every deal that you do, adds to the weight of the Australian-American alliance. And that is so important at this moment in time. Because what it means is that, as we look ahead to a future which is fraught with danger, which has difficulties ahead, we can nevertheless do so with a sense of optimism, knowing that, whatever challenge is presented to our two countries, we can lead together and with success.