British values, institutions have stood the test of time, Tony Abbott says
Like about a million other Australians, including Prime Minister Gillard, who also came to Australia as a child, I was born in Britain. As well as people, the British Isles have given Australia our language, our system of law and our parliamentary democracy. The conviction that an Englishman’s home is his castle and faith in British justice, no less than the understanding that Jack is as good as his master, have taken strong root in Australia. As my former teacher, Father Ed Campion, used to say of our country: the English made the laws, the Scots made the money, and the Irish made the songs!
So when the plane bringing me back to Britain flew low up the Thames Valley and I saw for the first time as an adult Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s cathedral and the Tower of London, I had a sense of belonging, not because I was born here but because our culture was. Australians shouldn’t be oblivious to our heritage just because we have refined it and improved it and because we also honour the way it has been added to and deepened by the people of many other cultures who have been attracted to it.
China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia. Size, proximity, and economic and military strength matter. Of course they do; but so do the bonds of history, of shared values, and of millions of familiar attachments. This century will inevitably be more of an Asian one than the last, as Asia’s economic strength grows. Australia’s foreign policy should rightly have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus; but Asia is not the only region where there will be an Australia citizen to be protected, an Australian interest to be advanced, or an Australian value to be upheld. As John Howard often said, we do not have to choose between our history and our geography but should benefit from both.
These days, Britain might only be our largest trading partner in Europe, the second largest source of direct foreign investment in Australia, and America’s most important and most reliable military ally but Australians, of all people, shouldn’t underestimate its standing as a beacon of democratic freedom, as a powerhouse of ideas and as the world’s sixth largest national economy. Even the Australians and New Zealanders who regard their time in England as an essential rite of passage love to grumble about English weather, food and service and to be outraged about standing in the non-EU queue at Heathrow; but my own experience of this country only deepened an instinctive respect for values and institutions that have stood the test of time.
An incoming Coalition government will swiftly re-establish the Colombo plan as a two-way street student exchange under which Australia’s best and brightest can study in our region’s universities as well as theirs in ours. It’s my hope that this new Colombo plan will become the Rhodes scholarship of our region.
As I learned here, serious thinking involves the assimilation of others’ best thoughts. Likewise, effective decision-making involves the assimilation of expert advice. It’s not simply doing what one set of experts advises. It’s not simply picking the most authoritative of competing sets of advice either. It’s neither contracted out nor conducted in isolation. It involves engaging with the relevant experts and assimilating their arguments but the person who will take responsibility for the decision actually has to make it.
The next Coalition government won’t shirk hard decisions but will talk to the experts before decisions are made rather than just argue with them afterwards. As those who worked with me as a minister can attest, my style is to consult with the people that a government decision could impact and to work out for myself what are its real pros and cons. The next Coalition government won’t take an “officials know best” approach to the problems of the nation and won’t make decisions that impact on people’s lives without, as far as is possible, taking them into our confidence first.
This is an edited version of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s address last Friday to the Queen’s College, University of Oxford. The complete version of his address is available here.