Speech to the Conference "Australia and Britain 1900-2000: A Unique Partnership"

Australian High Commission, 6 July 2000

Apart from listening to Test matches under the bedclothes on my transistor radio at school, my first real contact with Australia came when I met my wife Katie in the 1970s. And she wasnít at all keen on Australia then. Indeed she had decided to flee from life in the bush to go to art school in Europe, first in Italy and then in England. I remember her complaining that the only spaghetti you could buy in her country town came in a tin. And that the drink for girls at parties was flagons of invalid port.

Well a lot has changed since then. Katie has rediscovered her affection for Australia, and Iíve developed mine. And her country town now has both a café serving cappuccino and a wine bar.

Iíve spent a total of four years living in Australia since weíve been married, in Sydney, Perth and Canberra, as well as making numerous shorter visits. And Iíve seen quite a lot of Australia in that time. From camping in the Kimberlyís to sailing in the Sydney-Hobart. And from different perspectives: from bicycling to work in a computer company in North Ryde in the 1980s to being driven around in the High Commissionerís Jaguar in the 1990s.

High Commissioner are always being asked to make speeches about the relationship between Britain and Australia. After a while in the job, I went on strike, since I found I covered the same ground again and again. So I subjected audiences instead to what must have been incomprehensible speeches on the Euro or on constitutional reform. But when I was asked to speak at this conference, I was tempted to revisit the subject again.

I start from the viewpoint that the relationship doesnít owe much to Governments. That may seem ungracious during a week when I am accepting hospitality from both Governments, and where the focus is on links between the Governments and the Parliaments in both countries.

But most people and most businesses donít even think of Governments when they think of links between the two countries. For individuals it is the personal impressions and personal links that matter. And for firms, it is the ease of doing business in a familiar environment, even if many miles away.

I wasnít sure when I started visiting Australia, and living there, what the image of Britain would be. Would it be coloured by long-past colonial images? Or recycled images of whinging Poms? Would it be swamped by the repeats of British sitcoms like "Are You Being Served" or "Keeping Up Appearances"? Or by tourist images of changing the Guard and cream tea in thatched cottages? Or indeed, would Britain be seen as irrelevant given the growing importance of Asia to Australia?

Of course all of these have had some impact, and it certainly wasnít comfortable being High Commissioner and witnessing the Australian reaction to beating England in a Test Match. But most of the time I was surprised by the depth of knowledge and interest that many Australians revealed about what is happening in Britain. Paradoxically, those with the most out-of-date impressions sometimes seem to be those who had themselves emigrated from Britain and whose image was frozen at the time they left. Those born in Australia often have a much more open mind about how Britain is changing. And even though most people accept the importance of Asia to Australiaís future, that doesnít seem to mean they are less interested in Britain.

One area where more atavistic attitudes may still prevail is in the greater readiness to acknowledge ties to Scotland , Wales or Northern Ireland, or to the regions of England, than to Britain or England as a whole. This is something we also see in Britain itself. But in Australia, I found nothing to match the turnout at the St Andrewís Day dinner of the Melbourne Scots, or the boisterous good humour of a Yorkshire night in a pub in Woollahra.

Is the same true the other way round, in terms of British perceptions of Australia? To some extent I think it is, though a smaller proportion of Britons have had direct contact with Australia, though that is changing all the time with the continuing growth in international travel. But even so, most people seem to recognise the Crocodile Dundee and Les Patterson images for the parodies they of course are, and can relate more to the Australia they may know from visits or from relatives.

But I do have some sympathy with Australians who come to the UK and complain how hard it is to find news about Australiaóor rather I used to feel that before the internet arrived. Now, you can read the Sydney Morning Herald online over breakfast, or listen online to ABC NewsRadio.

I mentioned the trade links. Most of both our Governments export efforts are concentrated in other markets, in Asia and elsewhere. But thatís largely because firms are well able to build and maintain the links themselves. I fear the statistics on trade and investment between Britain and Australia may become boringly familiar to those of you attending the various events this week. But I often surprised colleagues in the Foreign Office or the Department of Trade and Industry by pointing out that, despite all the hype about Asian tigers, Australia is a larger export market for Britain than any other Asian country other than Hong Kong or Japan. Their perception was coloured by the fact that we put more Government effort into what are smaller markets.

But having stressed the way the relationship does not depend on the role of Governments, I do want to say something about that aspect.

I found my time as High Commissioner in Canberra absolutely fascinating. Iíd worked in the Prime Ministerís office in Britain, and I now had the chance to observe the way things work at the centre of Government in Australia. Britain and Australia have recognisably similar systems, but ones that have evolved in different ways.

For example, in London, Ministers work in their departments and only go to Parliament when there is necessary business there. In Canberra, Ministers all work in Parliament House and only rarely go to their departments. That creates some subtle differences in the relationship between Ministers, their departments and Parliament.

It is when changes are contemplated that experience in the other country becomes particularly relevant. While I was in Canberra, the British Government set up the new devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and began the reform of the House of Lords. Australia offered parallels and lessons, in the relationship between the States and the Federal Government and in the relationship between upper and lower houses in Parliament. So there was a lot of interest in studying Australian experienceóeven if the lessons were not always comfortable.

There are a vast number of other areas where our Governments face similar problems and find they can learn from how the other is tackling the issues. My own current responsibilities as e-envoy are a good example. Australia has rightly got a reputation for leading the way on e-government, and we follow very closely what is happening, both at Federal and at State level in Australia. Not only is our e-Minister, Patricia Hewitt, an Australian, but I have just recruited an Australian to head up our e-Government work here. And John Howard and Tony Blair agreed on Tuesday that we should draw up a Memorandum of Understanding on e-commerce and e-government.

I think Britain and Australia can also learn from each other on e-democracy. Both Governments face problems in getting voters enthused and interested in the political process, and feeling that it is relevant to them. In Britain this is manifest in low turnouts. In Australia, with voting compulsory, it is sometimes evident in swings to and from fringe parties. Thatís a huge issue, but I believe the internet does have a role to play in getting people more engaged and providing new means for people to engage in political debate, through online forums or through direct email contacts with Governments or MPs. There are many interesting examples in both Britain and Australia where this is already happening, for example in South Australia where Michael Armitage, the Minister for the Information Economy has a strong interest in this area.

I also believe the internet will bring a profound change in the way Governments in different countries communicate and work together. This will be particularly true for countries that share a common language and similar political structures, as the UK and Australia do. We already find, for example, that during the East Timor crisis, it was entirely natural for Robin Cook and Alexander Downer to pick up the phone to speak to each other directly. And we are already seeing Parliamentarians in the two countries communicating directly with each other by e-mailóthough I have to say that British MPs and Ministers are often behind their Australian counterparts in the use of the internet.

I believe the trend towards direct contact, not intermediated through a chain of civil servants and diplomats, will continue, and I welcome that. It does have implications for the role of diplomatic missionsóbut thatís a topic for another day.

If I can end with some general impressions, I feel Australia and Britain both sometimes spend far too much time worrying about their position in the world. Australia about whether or not it is an Asian country, and Britain about its relationship with Europe. In both cases, this can be of fascination to journalists, academics and politicians, but a real turn-off to many other people. And it can detract from recognising what each country has to offer. When I was in Australia, I kept wanting to intervene and say: "Why so much navel-gazing? Why donít you just appreciate what youíve got?"

So Iím glad Australia is celebrating the Centenary of Federation. It provides an opportunity to reaffirm all that we have in common, while at the same time recognising not just what are now our distinct roles and identities, but alose how much we can learn from each other.

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