Leadership in a changing world

Leadership in a changing world

In an extract of a speech looking back at Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s leadership, Australia’s former ambassador to China says Australia’s foreign policy needs strong leaders

By Dr Geoff Raby AO

Today, the world is changing more rapidly than we can comprehend. We are living through a time when the verities of the old global order are disappearing.

Australia needs to chart a path in the new multi-polar global order in which democracies are under populist threat internally, and autocratic states are asserting themselves and global rules and institutions are under challenge from many sides.

At such times, strong, unsentimental, leadership focused on Australia’s national interests is required.

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It is little remembered today that on his first trip overseas as Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser chose to make Tokyo and Beijing his first destinations.

This was a sharp break with convention. He was criticised by his colleagues for not making London and Washington initial ports of call.

Tokyo was understandable and modern. But China then was of little more than boutique interest for Australian diplomacy.

China at the time was poor, inward looking, politically divided, anxious and threatened. When Fraser arrived, Mao was gravely ill and three months from his death.

It is this context that makes the Prime Minister’s visit in 1976 even more remarkable when viewed from this historical distance. What was he thinking by making Beijing his second overseas stop after becoming Prime Minister?

Fraser’s visit to Beijing then marked the point at which he recognised that no matter how important and enduring the US alliance might be, Australia still needed to make its own way in its region and find its security, as Paul Keating would say many years later, within the region, not from the region.

As all Prime Ministers should do, and in Australia most have done so, he placed great importance on foreign policy. He did so based on principle not expediency.

In 1976, he said, speaking of the role of Prime Minister, that “If you are interested in a better world then you have to be interested in foreign policy”.


Today, the Australia-China relationship is at its lowest point ever.

Among countries that share Australia’s commitment to open, liberal, democratic values, Australia is an outlier in its relations with China. Only Australia has had its official relationship with China suspended for over two years.

Other likeminded countries, even where they have historical or outstanding territorial disputes with China, have managed their relations more adroitly than Australia has been able to do.

The problem with the current approach of strategic competition is that we harm our interests while not being able to advocate for liberal values.

It is a lose-lose strategy. It fails the test of pragmatism while not advancing our principles. It is the role of diplomacy to square the circle as it were, to find win-win outcomes in complex and difficult circumstances.

How then do we deal with a rising assertive China? Does Malcolm Fraser’s realist approach, based on a combination of interests and principles, provide guidance to this major public policy challenge? I believe it does and that Fraser would have handled the relationship very differently than today.

As we have seen, Fraser was an activist and a leader in foreign policy. He believed that Australia could make a difference and should provide leadership internationally.

In pursuing a realist principled foreign policy, he would want to ensure that Australia had its own house in order.

He would emphasis traditional liberal principles: democratic institutions, freedom of the press, rejection of racism, and accountability of the security and military services to the parliament and openness to public scrutiny – there would be no secret trials.

He would also seek to repair relations with China. He would do this because to defend and advance Australia’s interests, and be able to influence events to Australia’s advantage, it is necessary to have normal, functioning relations with the major power in our region.

This is consistent with foreign policy leadership based on pragmatism and principle, but from a philosophically conservative politician, who led the conservative side of politics for many years.

In contrast to today’s conservative government, Fraser would deal with the challenges of today’s new world order based not on ideology but a strong understanding of Australia’s interests. He would not look nostalgically to great powers to protect Australia, but would have an independent foreign policy.

Of course, we know that the only time our strategic dependence on a great and powerful ally was fully tested, the British abandoned Australia in Singapore.

In the case of the US, strategic dependence has led Australia into one futile, costly war after another at the side of the US. The latest, of course, being the debacle in Afghanistan.

Highly relevant to the tensions besetting Europe and the Western Alliance more generally today in the Ukraine, Fraser was critical of the US, especially the Clinton Administration, for losing the peace when the Cold War ended.

He extended that critique to Australia for not having seized the moment to bring strategic dependence to an end and forge a genuinely independent foreign policy.

Fraser did not live to see the heightened tensions that emerged in US-China relations during the Trump Administration, and which continue today, albeit with more muted language.

But he would have been deeply disturbed in the way that Australia has followed the US into super-power confrontation as the US’s chief enforcer on China. He would be appalled by Australian bragging that it has been at the vanguard of “pushing back” against Beijing.

His prescription then as now remains vital to Australia’s future.

He would urge leaders to seek out a more independent foreign policy stance from great powers, work with smaller powers as best we can, understand what the security concerns are of the great powers and seek to find ways to accommodate them without conflict or conceding our own interests, and speak boldly of our views equally to all great powers.


It is the antithesis of political leadership to stoke populist myths and anxieties; to demonise the Other; to play on prejudice; to develop the dog whistle into a refined political art.

We look to leaders to make us bigger and better than we are when we’re divided and fearful.

We need leaders who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

We are fortunate in Australia to have had leaders who have set high standards against which successors can be measured and judged.

Fraser gave practical effect to the ending of the White Australia Policy when he accepted big numbers of refugees from Indochina after the Vietnam War.

His position was simple: we fought alongside these people, so we now had to accept them into Australia. He took this decision against the advice of his ministers and the bureaucracy. He did so because it was the right thing to do.

He would have no hesitation today to take all the Afghan’s who helped Australia in that war.

We do need to uphold our values in the face of challenges from other states that see democracy and the defence of human rights as signs of weakness, but to do so we need our leaders to practice what they preach.

*This is an extract of the former Australian ambassador to China, Dr Geoff Raby’s speech delivered at this year’s Malcolm Fraser Oration at the University of Melbourne. The oration explores matters of public and social interest in line with Malcolm Fraser’s vision for Australia.

*This article first appeard on the pursuit.unimelb.edu.au website

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