Australian High Commission
United Kingdom
Australia House, London

Defending Liberal Democracies In An Increasingly Contested World

Defending Liberal Democracies In An Increasingly Contested World

The 2020 Gallipoli Memorial Lecture | The Royal United Services Institute

Thursday 25 June 2020

The national security risks that we face today have changed significantly since Australia and the United Kingdom fought side by side on the Gallipoli Peninsula over 100 years ago. In his lecture, the High Commissioner will consider some of the increasingly complex and novel threats that exist today. He will argue that strong relationships, agreed rules and norms, and effective institutions can help to mitigate these threats. The Australian example will be considered and, in particular, their legislative response to foreign interference, protecting critical infrastructure and other recent developments.



It is a great pleasure to deliver the 2020 Gallipoli Memorial Lecture to the Royal United Services Institute this morning.  I am of course disappointed not be with you in person – but I am pleased that we can continue to meet virtually in these challenging times.

The Gallipoli Lecture commemorates and honours the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.  In Australia and New Zealand, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings on 25 April – ANZAC Day – is the most emotionally significant national day in our calendars.  And, as the Australian High Commissioner in London, it is deeply satisfying to me to see how important the ANZAC Day commemoration is in the United Kingdom.

When we remember Gallipoli, we inevitably think of the tremendous loss and sacrifice.  A tale of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who would never come home again.   But the Gallipoli story is about more than loss of life in an unsuccessful military campaign.  It is, as well, a story of heroism and of endurance, of young men who discovered the best of themselves in the worst of all circumstances.  For we Australians, it has an even deeper meaning still.  The Gallipoli campaign took place only 14 years after the Commonwealth of Australia was constituted from 6 British colonies, to become the world’s youngest nation.  What Australians call “the ANZAC legend”, shaped by the hands of historians such as C E W Bean and Alan Moorehead, became a nationhood story:  how the brave young men who answered, in massive numbers, a call to arms to defend what, a century ago, Australians still called “the Mother Country”, made Australia’s arrival on the world stage and, by their heroism, announced that we were a country that was prepared to stand by our friends and to fight for what we believed in.  In that respect, Australia has never changed.

There is, of course, a mythic dimension to this.  But it is not just sentimentality.   As the great Australian international relations scholar Professor Robert O’Neill noted in the Inaugural Gallipoli Memorial Lecture, ANZAC is also a story of alliances and international cooperation.  It is, in the jargon which diplomats might use today, a story of likeminded nations joining together, in the shadow of a world crisis, in defence of their common values.

Today, we face a different kind of crisis.  Yet, as Australia and the United Kingdom did at Gallipoli, throughout the course of the First World War, and in all the great global crises since, we stand together as liberal democracies in defence of our institutions and our way of life.  It is the way we work together and learn from one another - particularly in the face of conduct by nations which do not share our values - on which I want to focus this lecture.  That contest of political values and different systems of government has been thrown into sharp and unexpected relief by the COVID-19 crisis, and by the way in which countries with different political systems have responded to it.

The last several months have seen the world face a set of challenges largely unanticipated and undoubtedly unknown in our lifetimes.   And while it is far too early in the course of the global health emergency we are currently experiencing to engage in a “lessons learned” exercise, it is perhaps not too soon to make some tentative observations based upon what we have seen so far.

In the first place, it seems clear that the impacts of COVID-19 have been felt differently across the world. Like Australia, many countries are now implementing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. National responses to the COVID-19 emergency have been calibrated and policies developed – inevitably, with an unusually short time for deliberation – to meet individual perceptions of that country’s particular needs.  Most have imposed some form of lockdown, but some have not.   Most have closed their borders or restricted travel, but those closures and restrictions have been imposed in different ways and at different times.  There has been very different use of track and trace technology among countries which have adopted it at all. 

While certain restrictions are necessary, governments must ensure COVID-19 emergency measures comply with international human rights obligations. These measures should be proportionate, transparent, non-discriminatory and temporary. Governments that uphold international law, including human rights, and are transparent and accountable to their people are best placed to protect their populations from the worst effects of the pandemic. They are also more likely to cooperate internationally in ways that promote the common good.

And we have seen that COVID-19 is a shared crisis, and a timely reminder that many problems are best solved by international cooperation. COVID-19 has shown that the international order is as important as ever. There is certainly need for reform, and at times international organisations struggle to fulfil their mandates, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief the important role that international institutions play in supporting global responses to global problems. And, critically, it has shown the magnitude of the consequences if we fail to ensure that these international institutions are fit-for-purpose, accountable to member states, and free from undue influence.

As Australia’s Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne has said, Australia wants international institutions to play an effective role in addressing and coordinating global responses to global problems. We want to see a stronger WHO that is more independent and transparent, trusted to take a leadership role in improving global health security.

Australia will advance those interests in response to COVID-19 as part of our plan to step up engagement with multilateral institutions, to ensure we advance our interests and objectives as a liberal democracy in the Indo-Pacific.

And yet, we have seen some states seek take advantage of the emergency to pursue interests inimical to our own and to the rules-based international order.  There has been, concurrent with the COVID-19 crisis, a further sharpening of geopolitical tensions, particularly in the Indo-Pacific Region.  Some countries are choosing this moment to gain strategic advantage at a time when the region should be focused on responding to and recovering from the pandemic.

At a deeper level, we have seen attempts by some to use the pandemic to promote what I might call a “contest of efficacy” between different systems of government, based upon criticism of how effectively different countries have responded.   Of particular concern, we have seen some countries engage in concerted disinformation, along medical, political and economic lines to complicate healthcare responses and economic recovery efforts. According to a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute Report called ‘Retweeting through the Great Firewall’, this disinformation originates within party-state circles, and is increasingly being disseminated through network centric campaigns utilising Western social media platforms. 

That disinformation has been particularly directed against liberal democracies – in some of which, including the United Kingdom, the spread of the pandemic – at least in its early stages – occurred so widely.   By contrast, so the argument goes, a country like China was, because of its different political system, able to contain the spread of the pandemic more swiftly and effectively.

There are many weaknesses with that argument, not the least of them that it is too soon in the lifecycle of this pandemic to make any definitive judgments about relative success and failure.  Secondly, while some of the liberal democracies, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have seemed to fare worse, in comparative terms, in the early days, others – such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – have been among the most successful in containing and nearly eliminating COVID-19.  Thirdly, the argument itself depends upon the reliability of reported case numbers, about which there is already dispute, which we can expect to continue for a long time to come. 

Nevertheless, the attempt by some to turn comparative national responses to the pandemic into a critique of the liberal democratic model of governance, whose responses are asserted to be disunited and confused, compared with that of single-party states whose responses are represented to have been decisive, firm and therefore effective, does tell us that the lines of division in international politics have evolved from the kind of ideological contest which the liberal democracies fought, and won, in the twentieth century, into an attack upon the efficacy of our systems of government in protecting our citizens.

Of course, pluralism will always look more untidy than conformity.  Democracies such as ours, for whom the right of citizens to freely criticize their governments and challenge the wisdom of their leaders, will never have – or wish to have – the apparent unity which authoritarian governments prize.  Nations which value freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful protest, freedom of the press, and intellectual freedom, will never speak with one voice.  Indeed, it is in the Babel of many voices – in the contestability of ideas - that we look to discern the best course of action for our governments to take.   None of this is weakness; our freedom is our great strength.  Yet, particularly in a time of crisis, it can be misrepresented as confusion.  

As Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said recently:

 “There are some who believe liberal democracies and free societies    cannot cope with these sorts of challenges.  We will prove them wrong  here in Australia.”

And in my country, that is precisely what has happened, with the fatalities from COVID-19 among a population of 25.7 million limited to 103.

Nevertheless, against such an unanticipated background, the epic contest between what Sir Karl Popper once called “open societies” and closed ones – between pluralism and authoritarianism - is with us again.  Of course, notwithstanding the foolish proclamation of “the end of history” during the false dawn of the 1990s, it never went away.

So one of the key early lessons of the global health emergency is that the liberal democracies must be ever more alert to defend our values, to protect our political systems, and proudly to assert the virtue of free societies organized around the fundamental liberal principle of the inviolable rights of every citizen.  We have always known that, but recent events remind us of how vigilant liberal democracies must be.

So what must we do?   At a global level, it is ever more important that the liberal democracies strengthen and deepen their co-operation in defence of our common values.  Nowhere is that more evident than in Hong Kong. Australia has a substantial stake in Hong Kong’s success – it is home to one of our largest expatriate communities (second in fact after the United Kingdom) and is our largest commercial presence in Asia.  As Senator Payne has pointed out, Beijing’s recent decision to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong is deeply concerning.  Along with others in the international community, we continue to raise our serious concerns that the legislation will undermine the One Country Two Systems principle and erode human rights and individual freedoms that have been guaranteed by the basic law and by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. 

We have, of course, long co-operated through military alliances.  We have done it, with increasing levels of engagement, through intelligence-sharing – most particularly, the Five Eyes, which is the closest intelligence partnership in the world.  In recent years, the Five Eyes community has expanded beyond a community of intelligence agencies and national security ministers, to become a forum where, from time to time, foreign ministers, defence ministers, and other ministers meet. 

We have co-operated increasingly through multilateral partnerships between democratic nations, such as, in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, comprising the United States, Australia, Japan and India, and with ASEAN.  And we now see the emergence of the G7+ grouping.

We work closely with democratic nations to shape international outcomes in line with our shared interests and values. Australia is an active member of the Human Rights Council, advocating for the promotion and protection of human rights not only multilaterally, but regionally and bilaterally as well. Australia made a principled call for an independent review of the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure we can act on lessons learned in the wake of the unprecedented human and economic costs of this pandemic. We built a coalition of support and now have strong mandate for such a review after the World Health Assembly passed a resolution calling for an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation into the lessons learnt from the global response to improve prevention and preparedness and, also, an investigation to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population. A record 145 countries co-sponsored the resolution. Australia will continue to work closely with the international community to take these commitments forward, recognising opportunities for early actions without disrupting the ongoing emergency response.

And beyond the WHO, we have co-operated in the reform of international organizations.  Australia, for instance, has led the way for reform of the World Trade Organisation – on issues such as governance and e-commerce.  We are delighted that the United Kingdom will soon join us in that campaign. 

And, it is particularly timely to say, we must co-operate through trade itself.  I offer no view on the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, but one thing is clear, now that Brexit has happened:  the whole point of “Global Britain” is for this country to be free to pursue its own independent trade policy around the world, and I am delighted that the four countries which Prime Minister Johnson has identified as his first priorities for Free Trade Agreements are likeminded democracies:  the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  Australia is a proud free-trading nation – 76% of our goods and services are exported to nations with which we have free trade or preferential agreements – and, in the past three decades, we have prospered as a consequence, as Britain can do.

But whatever the vectors of co-operation may be – militarily, diplomatically, strategically, in intelligence-sharing, in international organisations and through closer trading relationships – the imperative for the liberal democracies to strengthen and deepen their engagement has never been greater than it is today.   Not only because such engagement among likeminded partners is a good thing in itself, but because that deeper engagement and mutuality is also a protection from those actors which do not share our values and will on occasions act in ways inimical to our interests.

Underlying that deepening engagement and co-operation is not merely the recognition that we share similar values and recognize common interests.  At the deepest level, it depends upon trust.   Earlier this week, the Lowy Institute – which, as I am sure you know is one of Australia’s premier international affairs think tanks – published its annual report on Australian Attitudes to the World – a public opinion poll on the view everyday Australians have of a number of key countries.  It pleases me no end to say that the United Kingdom, once again, was judged by Australians to be the country they trusted most:  some 84% of Australians think that the United Kingdom was a trustworthy partner.  Japan was second, at 82%.  It is revealing of the current state of public opinion in Australia that on the same metric, Russia fell to 24% and China to 23%.

Just as it is important that the liberal democracies deepen their international co-operation, it is also important that we learn from one another in the ways we seek to protect ourselves domestically from evolving threats to our security.  The massive growth in various forms of hostile intrusion into the domestic affairs of our countries by both non-state actors, and by foreign states or their surrogates, has been one of the most alarming developments of recent years, and one which has lately been a primary – indeed, I would go so far as to say, the primary – focus of the Five-Eyes nations.  This has taken many forms:  among them are cyber-intrusion, intellectual property theft, interference in democratic processes by seeking to influence the outcomes of elections, entryism into political parties, strategic acquisition of critical infrastructure and assets, covert interference in government decision-making, interference – both covert and often overt - in universities, the spreading through both the traditional media and, more pervasively, social media of disinformation.   We in Australia have seen all of those phenomena in recent years, at a rapidly escalating rate. 

Australia continues to be targeted by malicious cyber actors.  On 19 June, Prime Minister Morrison announced that “a sophisticated state-based cyber actor” was responsible for a major cyber-attack across a range of sectors including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers, and operators of other critical infrastructure.   He refrained from naming the particular country responsible for the attack, because the high level required by the Australian Government for public attribution had not been reached.   In Mr Morrison’s words:

“[T]he threshold for public attribution on a technical level is extremely high.  And so Australia doesn’t judge lightly in public attributions … What I simply can confirm is there are not a large number of state-based actors that can engage in this type of activity and it is clear, based on the advice that we have received, that this has been done by a state-based actor with very, very significant capabilities.”

Australia’s immediate focus now is on securing the networks, protecting the victims and conducting ongoing investigations.

Australia’s response to this, and other, attacks was in accordance with our National Cyber Security Strategy, adopted in 2016 (and which is currently being updated).  That is one of a number of measures which have been adopted by the Australian Government, during the period since the election of the government of Tony Abbott in 2013, and continued through the governments of Malcolm Turnbull and the now Prime Minister Morrison, which have been designed to harden Australia’s defence against hostile foreign intrusion. 

For most of that time, as the Attorney-General in the Abbott and Turnbull Governments and, under the Australian system as it then operated, the Minister responsible for domestic national security, I had the responsibility for most of those measures.  They included, among other things, legislation to widen the scrutiny of and grounds for the refusal of foreign acquisitions, in particular of critical national infrastructure such as ports, transport facilities, electricity and telecommunications networks and other critical national assets. 

One other important measure Australia has taken has been to reform our foreign interference laws.  One thing which is obvious beyond question is that the pervasiveness of foreign interference in Australian domestic affairs has been such that the old law of espionage is entirely inadequate to deal with the problem.  On the other hand we did not want to cast the net so widely as to capture the legitimate prosecution of their interests by foreign governments or other foreign principals.  So Australia’s foreign interference laws proscribe certain categories of conduct – broader than the old offence of espionage but nevertheless sufficiently inimical to the national interest, if engaged in covertly on behalf of a foreign government – to attract the operation of the criminal law.  Alongside this, to protect yet make transparent legitimate activities engaged in on behalf of foreign governments or foreign principals, we introduced a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which requires the public registration of those agents of influence:  essentially a kind of lobbyists’ register for those acting on behalf of foreign actors.  It is lawful to engage in activity covered by the scheme, provided that the agent is registered and the principal identified.  These provisions were based upon, and sought to overcome the shortcomings that had been evident in the enforcement of the 1938 American Foreign Agents Registration Act.  

The legislation for the Australian scheme was presented to the Parliament in late 2017 and came into operation the following year.  The advice of Australia’s intelligence agencies is that it has been effective in reducing the level of hostile state activity within Australia.

I know that there has been a significant degree of interest here in the United Kingdom in adopting a model similar to the Australian legislation.  I know, in particular, that there are many in the national security community who wish to see a similar scheme adopted here.

I should point out that the Australian foreign interference legislation and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme were developed by Australia explicitly as a Five Eyes project, in consultation with the four other governments, so as to produce a world’s best practice model which could be readily adopted by others.  

This, and other Australian reforms about which I have spoken, is an example of my broader point:  that Five Eyes countries in particular, and other liberal democracies as well, need, at a time when global politics is an increasingly contested environment, both to co-operate even more closely internationally, and to learn from one another’s domestic national security measures, to defend our systems and our democratic values.

I spoke earlier of the importance of trust.    The trust that exists between Australia and the United Kingdom – the fruit of our long history, our shared values, our recognition of common interests, our deep people-to-people links – makes us the most natural of partners.  Through highs and lows, we have always been there for one another.  Gallipoli was the first great occasion of that and it has been an emblem of our two nations shared history ever since.  At a time when the rules-based international order is once again being tested, when the values and efficacy of the liberal democracies is once again being challenged, when our political systems are increasingly being threatened by hostile interference, the depth and strength of that partnership has never been so important.