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Australia Day Address 1999 by Phoebe Fraser

Phoebe Fraser delivered the Australia Day Address at Parliament House, Sydney, on 21 January 1999.


Thank you very much. Premier Carr, The Honourable Barrie Unsworth, Young Australian of the Year, Brian Gaensler, congratulations, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I'd like to begin this evening by acknowledging the Eora people and that we meet on the country of which they and their forebears have been custodians for many centuries.

Australia Day is many things for many people. But one of the things it is to all of us is a time for reflection and anticipation.

This Australia Day we can be proud that we have one of the highest standards of living in the world by almost any measure. We have, despite some notable exceptions, a tolerant society, captivated by our cultural wealth and diversity. We have an economy that has, to date, withstood the ravages of the Asian collapse, and we have a people known around the world for their sense of humour, friendliness, and fairness. We can celebrate our society, which finally acknowledges not only the need, but also the desirability of reconciliation and settlement with the original owners of this vast land. We can give thanks to a strong environmental movement, which is a loud and necessary check on the proponents of economic development at any cost.

And although it would be wrong to paint a glowing picture of Australia without acknowledging those doing it hard, the disadvantaged and dispossessed, overall there is no doubt that as we stand on the brink of the millennium, and on the eve of the centenary of Australia's federation, we can be proud of our often remarkable achievements, our development and our growth.

On Australia Day, although the tendency is to think of Australia at home, I want to talk about Australia abroad. Global realities force us onto the international scene. Increased access to information and communication and the ease of international travel combined with the interdependence of international security, economic and environmental concerns all turn global realities into local realities.

Necessity forces us out into the world, but some people still advocate a locking of the metaphorical door, a 'we're right mate' mentality which would have us withdraw from the international arena, reduce or refuse immigration, and live our lives out, down here at the bottom of the world, in our blissful island haven of relative wealth and prosperity. On the other hand we have much to offer and much to learn. Without active engagement Australia risks being left behind. Not only that - in reality, without active international participation, our island haven could be ruined.

Why would Australia be ruined?

As long as 80% of the world's population live in abject poverty we can expect to see continued suffering of and on the earth. High in the hills of Vietnam, villagers are eking a living out of the receding forests, the degradation of their environment is also the degradation of our environment. It is commonly recognised that extensive logging in the Amazon, often considered to be the lung of the modern world, has the potential to affect weather patterns and therefore the environment throughout the world. And yet while the industrialised nations have built their wealth on the back of their own environments we are saying to poorer nations 'it is time to stop'.

Australia has been redefining the balance between economic development and environmental protection. Whether we have reached an optimum situation or not is still hotly debated. The fact is, however, that we have recognised the intrinsic value of the environment, not only for its beauty and complex ecology, but also in terms of economics, and most importantly in terms of the survival of us all.

In developing countries where often resources are limited, it is difficult to ask communities to set aside a resource for posterity when there is no other source of wealth or income.

Australia must continue to play a strong role in assisting developing countries to look at the development of alternative sources of income for their countries and their people, otherwise we can expect continued deforestation, environmental degradation and resulting global climatic chaos.

In Malawi a child is orphaned by the AIDS virus. It is expected that by the year 2020 there will be 40 million AIDS orphans around the world. In Malawi, by that time, it has been predicted that life expectancy will be just 29 years of age because of the virus. The social strain, upheaval and instability of those countries heavily afflicted with the virus will have global ramifications in the future. This is not only an African problem. While on the decline in Australia the incidence of HIV is also on the increase in Asia whose incidence graph is just 10 years behind Africa.

Before the Asian markets collapsed, some demographers and economists were predicting that the AIDS virus would reduce Thailand's economic growth by as much as 20% due to lost productivity. HIV/AIDS is one major health issue affecting the world today; there are many others, which have a direct bearing on Australia's health and economic well being.

Australia has been at the forefront of scientific discovery. Howard Florey's discovery of penicillin must be one of the greatest turning points of this century. Recent breakthroughs in the development of an AIDS vaccine may prove to equal Florey's work in terms of global significance. Another remarkable and valuable Australian achievement.

Environmental and health problems worldwide affect everyone on the whole planet. Australia has a real capacity to make a significant contribution to their resolution. For political and economic reasons we should also be involved.

Many international and Indonesian commentators have said that Indonesia has nowhere to go but up, and yet 116 million people are now living below the poverty line and have no food security. The situation could deteriorate much further. Political and economic instability in that country presents security risks through the region.

In this deregulated, globalised world the movements of capital are quick, they are often sudden and unpredictable. We have seen the impact of that movement in the rise and more particularly the decline of the Tiger economies.

Australia is inextricably entwined in the global economy and politics. This again provides a powerful reason for full involvement to work for a better and more stable system.

As a nation we are in a unique position. The modern Australian commonwealth is young, and despite some very real concerns at home, internationally we are not seen to carry too much political baggage. We are not, generally, seen to be colonial power (except perhaps by our nearest neighbours in Papua New Guinea). We are not big enough to be an economic threat. We are not a political threat. We have a stable and enduring democratic system respecting the rule of law, a strong economy, and a welfare state. We are not seen to be too closely linked to the major powers. [This was very evident when CARE Australia was able to work in Iraq immediately after the Gulf War even while we were working on the ground in Iran - and CARE has continued to work in Iraq through crisis after international crisis with that country -however, our American colleagues found access very difficult.] On the whole Australia is seen to give people a 'fair go' and to be reasonable, practical and competent in a crisis.

So what could be Australia's role in the future?

One of the greatest threats to mankind in the 21st century will be poverty. Poverty destroys the environment, and threatens global health and security. Poverty anywhere threatens our way of life. If we are not prepared to invest in the eradication of poverty for humanitarian purposes, then we should do it to protect our environment, our health, our security. Call it enlightened self-interest. The motivation is not important the end result will be.

Many are skeptical about poverty alleviation programmes and the effectiveness of foreign aid. But since the end of World War II international foreign aid has helped to:

  • More than double average real incomes in the developing world

  • Halve infant and child mortality rates

  • Increase average life expectancy by 33 per cent - although the AIDS epidemic is devastating progress made in this area • Increase the proportion of children in the developing world starting school from less than 50 per cent to more than 75 per cent (even as the population has doubled)

These are real figures, and real achievements. It is daunting to think what might be possible if greater political will was present. Over the last few months we have seen on our televisions progress in the construction of an international space station. Many of you might be able to remember the day when walking on the moon was considered a dream. It is now a simple reality. It is time we take the mental 'giant step for mankind' in our thinking about the alleviation and eradication of poverty. It too could become a reality.

Australia is in a unique position to gather like-minded nations together to work for the eradication of poverty and in so doing confront the global problems of overpopulation, environmental degradation and political instability. Indonesia is a particular case in point. Australia has played a remarkable role in Indonesia since the crisis. But now it is time to garner international support to ensure food security to those 116 million people who have fallen below the poverty line.

While there is much for Australia to contribute in making a better world there are also lessons we can learn from that world. Aid workers have some unique experiences and insights some of which can be related back to contemporary Australia.

In Vietnam in 1990 before the trade embargo was lifted and while North Vietnam remained much the same as it had been for years: poor and underdeveloped. CARE Australia had begun working there - particularly with the typhoon struck people of Dong Hoi, the capital of a region so hot that it is known as the frying pan.

We were afraid to talk about the War, and about the experiences of the people there, and yet reminders of it constantly confronted us. In Dong Hoi much of the land is so compacted from bombing raids in the war that it is still impossible to farm. The people themselves talked freely and openly about their experiences, their losses, and their pain.

I marveled at their strength, their resilience, their honesty, and at their capacity to cope. And it was not that they ignored realities, or hid the truth. It was not that they did not seek justice. But that they recognised that without dealing with the past with honesty without blame, justice free of guilt, fairness not resentment, there would be no moving forward.

Nobody could fail to be greatly influenced by the attitudes and philosophy adopted by the people of Dong Hoi. They understood it was not possible to change the past although one might regret it. They understood that the past has to be faced with honesty, that they had to learn from it to assist their advance into the future. It is a line of thought that can be directly applied to one of the greatest challenges facing Australia at this time - that of reconciliation with our indigenous people.

On this Australia Day I rejoice to see that we are finally beginning to face our past with honesty, justice, and fairness. That movement towards reconciliation with the first inhabitants of this great land is being made. Without it Australia will never be able to move forward as a strong, just and united society. Reconciliation is the cornerstone to our future as a prosperous egalitarian society, which holds freedom, justice, and a fair go for all to be its pillars.

I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that if reconciliation fails many of our ideas about what Australia is and could be will be destroyed. The success or failure of reconciliation will not only be at the political level, but will lie in the community, and with each of us as individuals. It is not just a process for 'someone else' to complete on our behalf. Reconciliation must, by its very nature, involve each of us. There are detractors.

There are people who would hijack the process for their own ends. Let both sides be prepared to compromise, to reach a point where we can find truth, where we can face truth, and like the Vietnamese, where we can cope with it, and then we can move forward together.

Another challenge for the future, is the character of our society. I perceive two forces at work which have the potential to break down the wider framework of community and society: those essential foundations which strengthen the nation. These forces are individualism and economic rationalism. Taken to the extreme these forces are destructive of a cohesive society.

Current thought predominantly promotes the individual and individual rights. In Somalia the political situation had torn the country apart. Civil war and inter-clan fighting had left Somalia in a state of anarchy. There was no government, no law, no order, no police or army, no administration, no health care, no education, no jobs, no self-employment, and respect for traditional dispute settling elders had been destroyed with the younger generation shaping their New World order with the gun.

There was a saying in Somalia and it went like this… I am Somali, my country against the world I am Somali, my clan against my country, I am Somali, me and my brother against my clan I am Somali, me against my brother.

In Somalia the political, economic and social situation caused society to disintegrate so far as to set brother against brother. The balance between individual rights and wider responsibility to family, community and nation had been destroyed. It is important to note that should similar economic and political circumstances arise in any country around the world, what happened in Somalia could be repeated. The Somali experience clearly demonstrates the need to foster the individual within a wider context.

While each of us have rights as enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we also have wider responsibilities to ensure that ultimately those rights have value and contribute to an enhanced quality of life within the wider context of family and community. This balance is epitomised by one of Australia's core national values - mate ship.

The second force that could threaten the cohesion of our society, is excessive reliance on economic rationalism as a means of judging what is good and what is not. Over the last year we have seen the value of our children itemised in terms of lost income when one of our leading newspapers revealed that one's first child costs around $700,000. There was no mention of the immeasurable value of that child. We have seen the role of mother and homemaker itemized into the relative financial costs of cleaner, cook, child-minder, gardener, shopper, counsellor … and I could go on… without recognising the inherent value of homemaking and child rearing other than in financial terms. It seems that under the new economic order everything must contribute above the line on a financial balance sheet.

There are some things of intrinsic worth which are essential to any cohesive society and which cannot be judged in financial terms. Again it is a question of balance. There is no doubt we need economic efficiency to build wealth, but not wealth at any cost. We need to reassess the balance between those things that it is appropriate to judge in financial terms, and those things that it is not. The balance between our standard of living and quality of life must be maintained.

The disadvantaged and dispossessed contribute very little to the national accounts. They have little quality of life. How can we better empower them in the future? Are we content that the modern welfare state is concerned with only maintaining life and a minimum standard of living rather than developing it? Hope, optimism and opportunity are vital ingredients that the welfare state largely ignores.

The first experience I had of a true development project was in Bangladesh. The project was a complex one involving literacy, nutritional and public health education, and revolving community loan schemes. All the women involved in the project, and there were over 2000 of them, were required to buy exercise books for their literacy classes. They paid CARE two rupees which was nothing like the value of the exercise book but significant enough in their impoverished existence to give them a sense of ownership and pride. They had made an investment and as a result they were going to make the most of it. Revolving community

loans, designed around the Grameen Bank model, were set with competitive market level interest rates. There was no charity, only opportunity, no welfare or maintenance of life, but a leg up, a change to break the cycle of poverty and despair. On that trip to Bangladesh issues around aid dependency and techniques to avoid it were pivotal. Maximising life's potential was the key.

Returning home, it is possible to propose that what we call aid dependency in development- speak could be called welfare dependency in Australia. It is also notable that the checks and balances aid programmes around the world have created to prevent such dependency do not appear to exist in modern industrialised welfare states. We have created in our own countries what we refused to create in the third world (after some notably bad experiences in the 1950s and 60s where aid dependency was correctly identified as being economically unsustainable). We have created for ourselves a rod for our backs, a system that does not give a leg up, hope and optimism, but barely maintains life.

While looking at the issue of welfare and the dispossessed I would like to touch on the predicament of our indigenous community. There is a common perception that money is thrown at aboriginal problems. On closer analysis we are coming to understand that this is not so, that in relation to the real need of aboriginal communities much greater funds need to be spent. It is shameful that many begrudge this group tax payer dollars to alleviate their conditions. It must be a national goal to equalise the quality of life and standard of living of this, and all communities in Australia no matter what it costs.

Assistance must also be appropriate.

In Namibia, the World Bank initiated a cattle raising project with some of the more isolated tribal groups. There was widespread community participation. Agreements had been made regarding the sale of beef to the European Union. The Namibian people with whom the World Bank was working were traditional cattle herders, they were excited by and committed to the project. Great success was expected.

Herds were delivered, breeding began and the herds began to grow and grow…and grow… There was one vital factor that had not been taken into consideration in the project design. Namibian tribes people measure their wealth by the size of their herd. Important social transactions, such as marriage, are paid for by head of cattle. The World Bank and the Namibian government found that the cattle were not being sold - the result - water shortages and desertification, as gross overstocking was the project outcome.

The project was perfect in all its aspects save one, the most important, it failed to take into account the fundamental cultural and spiritual life of the people with whom it was working. Is it possible that we, too, are a little guilty of this with respect to the indigenous people of Australia?

So having reflected, a little, about where we've been and where we're going, to me it is clear that we have much untapped potential as individuals and as a nation. We have so much to offer and we should offer it - who are we not to? We must aim to empower everyone to reach their full potential.

Although it may seem that isolation and non-involvement is an option, environment, health, financial, trade and security concerns are all globalised. Therefore there is no real choice.

Whether we like it or not we are going to be dramatically influenced by the world. If we believe Australia's values and ideals are worth preserving then active participation and positive contribution in the international arena is the only way forward.

Recently I had a conversation about our future. Much of what I have said today was discussed, but particularly the issue of Australia's potential to be great, and to make an even greater contribution than we have to date. My colleague's response was "But why would we want to? Can't we be content as we are?" I'd like to answer him now with the words of Nelson Mandela.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves 'Who am I to be brilliant?' Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Each of us has the potential to find something special within us to contribute to our family and friends. Some have special talents to offer to the nation and the world. Australia should grasp the light and run, we are perfectly poised to make a truly great contribution during the next century.