Australian Outlook

In this section

Foreign Policy for a Top 20 Nation

06 Nov 2014
Senator the Hon Brett Mason
National Conference 27 Oct 2014

Senator the Hon Brett Mason opened the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Conference on 27 October with the following remarks. 

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you this morning, giving this keynote address on behalf of Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and also officially representing Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia.

For 90 years the Institute has been stimulating debate about international affairs within the Australian community – it’s a very important public service.

Throughout Australia’s history, our prosperity and our geographic isolation have sometimes created the temptation to dismiss the world beyond our shores as largely irrelevant to our well-being.  In his 1958 essay ‘The Prodigal Son’, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature, Patrick White, wrote of the ‘Great Australian Emptiness… in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes.’

This is no longer the case. When Australian look at the world, their stare is no longer blind.

Australia is now more prosperous than it has ever been before in its history, and also less isolated than it has ever been.  Far from the tyranny of distance, we are now exposed to the tyranny of proximity. No threat and no opportunity, however remote it might seem, is without some resonance and relevance for our country.

That’s why I would like to pay special tribute to the Institute and thank you for the essential work you do educating and engaging Australians in debate about the world and our place in it.

Australia as a top 20 nation

And our place in the world is, as the conference’s theme suggests, as a Top 20 Nation.

Julie Bishop tells me it’s a term she coined and has been frequently using since becoming Foreign Minister a little over a year ago.

She firmly believed that Australia’s tendency to be modest about our achievements doesn’t always work to our advantage – that sometimes we need to tell the world how good we are!

Julie told me last week, when we were discussing this conference, “Brett, I’m tired of hearing people say that Australia punches above our weight. In reality, we carry significant weight and we punch in line with it.”

We are not a middle power – a term, which gives the impression of sitting somewhere in the middle of the 193 members of the United Nations.

Our influence – our economic and political influence is so much more than that.

Despite our relatively small population, on almost any measure you care to name, Australia is well within the top 20 nations of the world.

Our membership of the G20 is the most visible sign of that – but far from the only one. Our economy is the 12th largest on earth – and the 4th biggest in Asia. We’re the 5th wealthiest nation on earth, based on GDP per capita.  Our currency is the 5th most traded.  We are second in the world, behind only Norway, in the UN Human Development Index.

In some areas – agriculture, natural resources, education, I believe we are actually a superpower.  Per head of population, we educate more international students than any other country in the world.  Our university system is the third strongest in the world, behind only the United States and the United Kingdom.

We should be immensely proud of these achievements – but they also bring with them a serious responsibility to play our part in building and maintaining global security.

A top 20 nation, Ladies and Gentlemen, has to play a top 20 role.

We have always taken our responsibilities seriously, from the battlefields of three continents, defending our values, to the meeting rooms of the League of Nations and the United Nations, both of which we have helped to found.  And we continue to do so.

2014 has been a big year for Australian diplomacy – with the UN Security Council, G20, the Indian Ocean Rim Association – in each of these forums, we took the opportunity as a chair or a member to shape the global agenda and to encourage our international partners to work together towards greater regional and global peace and prosperity.

Australia on the Security Council

It is in the UN Security Council, particularly, that Australia shone brightly on the world stage.

Our Foreign Minister was thrown head first into the deep end of the pool – virtually the first thing Julie Bishop did after being appointed Foreign Minister was to jump on the plane to New York to chair the Council.  She performed with great distinction – ably assisted by our foreign service –and she has set the pace and the standard for Australia’s exercise of influence and championing Australian values in the international arena.

Perhaps there is no such thing as a quiet year in world affairs, but 2014 seems to have been particularly challenging: from Syria to North Korea, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from the natural plague of Ebola to the man-made plague of extremist terrorist groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram, and all the way to Ukraine – the Crimean crisis, the instability, and the shocking loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in the skies above Ukraine – truly, we have had our hands full.

Considering none of these challenges have easy fixes, I believe that Australia has served its term on the Council with great merit, doing what we do best: working hard to build international consensus; and focussing on security, human rights and effective peace-keeping and humanitarian responses – all that, while promoting our values, serving our national interest and enhancing our international reputation.

Nothing demonstrates our skills in effective crisis response better than Australia’s leadership in the days and weeks immediately after the downing of MH17 in eastern Ukraine.

We moved swiftly to demand justice was done for the 298 people on board, including 38 who called Australia home, who were so shockingly murdered.

The plane went down on Thursday.

We moved immediately – and successfully – to secure access to the crash site.

By Friday, our diplomats in New York had drafted a resolution and it was circulated to other members on the Security Council on Saturday.

Negotiations began on Sunday.

And by Monday every one of the 15 members of the Council was on board – including Russia.

Without Australia’s diplomatic effort, the Council’s resolution 2166, calling for a full and thorough investigation of the MH17 atrocity, would never have been adopted, and the matter would not have received the international attention it needed and deserved.

This is just one example of Australian diplomacy at its finest – but it’s far from the only one.

Take our work to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the innocent victims of the Syrian conflict, starting with resolution 2139 we co-authored with Jordan and Luxembourg.

Take our work in drafting the Council’s first ever resolution – number 2117 – regarding illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

Take our work to protect peacekeepers, including securing the release of Fijian peacekeepers who had been taken prisoner by Jabhat al Nusrah in the Golan Heights.

Or take our work to ensure the outcomes of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea resonated internationally and were reflected in the work of the Council.

In all these instances, our actions reflected our values and our national interest – as they should – and our concern for peace, stability and prosperity around the world – as they must – but also our regional perspective and our desire to tackle strongly and directly issues affecting our region’s stability and well-being.  This was our commitment to our friends and neighbours throughout the region who have entrusted us to represent their concerns on the Council – and we have proudly kept it.

Australia’s next Presidency

But the job’s not over yet.

At the end of this week, Australia will again have the privilege of assuming the Presidency of the Security Council.

It’s a pretty good way to spend the penultimate month of our term – and we have big plans.

First among them is continuing to fight the scourge of terrorism and, specifically, tackling one of its nastiest offshoots – the phenomenon of foreign fighters – who are a threat not only to fragile, war-torn parts of the world, but also in our own backyards.

So we will use our second presidency to bring the international community together to examine ways we can counter violent extremism, radicalisation and recruitment.

We will also host the first ever dedicated Council session and resolution on policing issues, particularly to highlight the role that police increasingly play in peacekeeping and peacebuilding.  It is an area where, as a nation, we have a recognised track record, including throughout our region.

We will also work to improve the UN sanctions regimes, to make them even more efficient and effective instruments of international policy. To this end, we have been working with Finland, Greece and Sweden on a comprehensive review of existing sanctions, and this work will underpin the proposals we will take to the Council next month.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I have no doubt that Australia’s term on the Council has paid long-term dividends, both in terms of an immediate impact on issues like MH17 and Syria, but also in less tangible ways.

We have worked to further our values – values of peace and prosperity, democracy and human rights, protection of the weak and vulnerable, and the right of all people to live their lives in peace, free from extremist ideology and practice. And we have not only strengthened our existing friendships and alliances but also raised our profile – and influence – with countries where Australia perhaps isn’t always front of mind.

As I said at the outset, Australians often underestimate our own importance and the impact we can have in the world.  Our recent experience on the Security Council suggests we do so at our peril.  What we do matters.  We are a top 20 nation.  Others around the world know it.

Thank you all for your work to help Australians recognise and celebrate that achievement.


Senator the Hon Brett Mason is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.