Sir Robert Menzies Lecture: Liberal values and an agenda for Australia’s future

Speech
  • Minister for Education and Training
  • Leader of the House

*Check against delivery*

It is a great pleasure to be with you tonight to speak in memory of the greatest of Australian liberals, Sir Robert Menzies, and to do so in the presence of his daughter, Heather Henderson, Patron of the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, and other supporters of the Trust. I am delighted that these include members of the Monash University Liberal Club, the successors of the student initiators of this lecture series nearly 40 years ago.

It is also very gratifying that recent years have seen renewed focus on the ideas and impact of Sir Robert Menzies. This renewed recognition has come in many ways. It has, for example, come partly through previous Sir Robert Menzies Lectures, partly through the public attention being paid to Menzies by a number of my colleagues in Government, and partly through various other important publications, including John Howard’s major work on The Menzies Era, Anne Henderson’s recent book on Menzies at War, and of course the delightful and invaluable books of Heather Henderson – the collection of Menzies’s Letters to My Daughter and A Smile for My Parents.

It is a particular privilege for me to give the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture both because I have been profoundly influenced by his political philosophy, and because as Minister for Education I am deeply conscious of Menzies’ commitment to and deep thoughtfulness about education. Indeed, I have quoted him often, especially on the importance of universities and the importance of their autonomy.

In her foreword in 1999 to the published volume of the first 20 years of Menzies Lectures, Heather Henderson wrote: “Education always occupied pride of place in my father’s family. It began with reading. My grandfather Menzies”, Heather wrote, “was something of a martinet, and from all accounts every young person who entered the house was expected to read aloud. Robert was no exception.”

Referring to how scholarships opened up opportunities for him, Heather continued: “Education was vital to his whole career. Anyone who heard him speak, or anyone reading his speeches now, will be aware of how often he plucked a phrase from the air appropriate to his subject: from Shakespeare, the Bible, even from popular songs.”

Heather’s writings have provided us with so many insights into just how good Menzies was as a father who loved his children. In this lecture in memory of Sir Robert Menzies, as I discuss a wide agenda of issues – from Indigenous well-being, to promoting productivity and the jobs of the future, to developing the best education system in the world - in which liberal values can help guide Australia in the 21st century, I hope you will indulge me if I occasionally, conscious of Menzies the father, also mention some of the impact on me of my own late father.

Liberal values
What parents want for their children is one way of beginning to think about the kind of society we want, and the role of government in it. Like Sir Robert and Dame Pattie Menzies and my own parents, I want my children to be able to live good lives. Shaped by my upbringing, my personal sense of a good life is one marked by the characteristics of perseverance, compassion, conviction and confidence, adventure, love of life, love of family and commitment to public service. Of being “a man or woman for others”. This is my personal choice for a good life. But these are certainly not the only values or attributes someone might choose. My children might want to lead very different lives. I want my children – everyone’s children – to be free to choose that good life for themselves, and to have the best opportunity to live that life to the full.

My political philosophy has at its heart the importance of the freedom of the individual – the importance of each individual being free to choose for themselves in as many aspects of life as possible. The opportunities open to individuals depend on the nature of the society in which they live. I want a society in which individuals have the greatest and fairest possible opportunities – for example, through opportunities for education and employment.

The importance of freedom, opportunity, and social justice means a limited role for government. It must not threaten but protect the freedom of the individual. It must also be active in promoting justice and creating opportunities for individuals to flourish, able to live the good lives they choose.

As I have so often done throughout my political career, I drew on the inspiration of Sir Robert Menzies in my first speech to Parliament in August 1993. I pointed out – as many others have done - that, while steeped in all things British, when he founded a new political party for Australia in 1944, he chose to call it the Liberal Party rather than the Conservative Party. Menzies considered himself a liberal rather than a conservative, and wanted his party to be liberal. In truth, of course, the Liberal Party, to borrow the phrase of our other great Prime Minister, John Howard, is a “broad church” of liberal and conservative thinking, in which many of us have kept both flames burning brightly.

In that first speech in Parliament in 1993, quoting Sir Robert, I tried to express the liberal philosophy and some of what it meant for contemporary Australia. We were in the midst of a recession. A blight on the lives of countless Australians, including my fellow young Australians. I had just turned 26. I said then that “to we who are liberals, there is a place for government in promoting economic growth and the recovery of this country; in protecting the weak from the strong; and in ensuring that all citizens are treated fairly and equitably. That does not imply that the state will always be right or will always have the panacea for our country’s ills. Indeed, a true liberal will expect government to limit itself, to encourage the freedom of its people and broaden the opportunities for choices to be made by each individual as free as possible from government intervention.”

Classical liberal values provide a sound basis for Australia to face the challenges and seize the opportunities of the future. As liberals, we place a strong emphasis on the freedom of the individual. While recognising the necessary role of government, we believe that free enterprise should be – must be – the primary driver of economic prosperity and individual opportunity in a free society. Sir Robert wrote in The Measure of the Years that:

“[T]he basic philosophy of Australian Liberalism is that the prime duty of government is to encourage enterprise, to provide a climate favourable to its growth, to remember that it is the individual whose energies produce progress, and that all social benefits derive from his efforts.”

We Liberals believe that government power must be sufficiently strong to be effective in fulfilling the necessary responsibilities of government, but it must be limited and dispersed so as to prevent incursions on the freedom of the individual. In the Australian context, this includes a presumption in favour of federalism – that is, that Australia is a federal system in which the roles of the states must be respected and not crushed through the excessive growth of central power, while acknowledging the need for practical action to deal with emerging issues. Liberals also recognise the importance of the family as a building block of our society – yet see no conflict in recognising the changing nature of families. We seek not to be prescriptive but encourage responsibility.

Australia is a great country, a wonderful country in which to grow up and raise a family. But it faces many challenges, and as someone committed to public service, I am committed to doing all I can to help us respond well to those challenges.

Closing the gap for Indigenous wellbeing
For me, one of the highest, most urgent priorities is the promotion of mental health, and in particular of youth mental health, particularly as it relates to the tragedy and waste of youth suicide. Another is the overcoming of Indigenous disadvantage. My father was an ophthalmologist who lived for some time in Central Australia, and visited there often to work with Indigenous people. His involvement with Indigenous health has contributed to my life-time commitment to promoting Indigenous well-being – from the outback to urban Australia. I have pursued my commitment to Indigenous well-being from my earliest days as a Member of Parliament. This has contributed to my determination as Minister for Education to promoting opportunities for Indigenous students – from the encouragement of phonics based instruction, where the lessons of Noel Pearson’s initiatives can be applied, to supporting boarding opportunities for Indigenous students, and more. The annual report to Parliament on “closing the gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia shows how great the challenge of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage remains. The gap is something that, along with colleagues in all parties, I am utterly determined to close.

Ensuring educational opportunities for Indigenous students is an essential part of this. The Abbott Government has taken a number of initiatives to improve outcomes for Indigenous students. One of these was the provision of interim funding in the 2014-15 Budget to support non-government schools who have large numbers of Indigenous boarders from remote areas.

It is clear from an independent review that additional funding is required to meet the costs of providing boarding and tuition that caters for the needs of these students.

I am delighted tonight to be able to announce that the Government will provide $5.4 million to extend the current interim funding for remote Indigenous students attending non-government boarding schools for a further two years (2015-16 and 2016-17). This funding will assist non-government boarding schools with large numbers of Indigenous boarding students from remote and very remote areas to meet the additional costs associated with boarding and educating these students.

The funding will allow them to deliver improved services to students and provide effective additional support to boost school attendance and engagement.

I believe that this initiative is very much in the spirit of the Menzies Government, with its strong emphasis on the continuing expansion of educational opportunity for students around Australia.

In 1960, it was put to the Menzies Government that “unless some urgent action was taken to further aboriginal studies”, major aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage would simply disappear, including music and languages held in the memories of then-ageing Indigenous people. And so in 1964, the Menzies Government created the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Over the last fifty years, AIATSIS has played a central leadership role as a cultural and research centre for the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island studies.

AIATSIS’ purpose is to preserve, understand and communicate Australia’s Indigenous culture and heritage. It is a culturally, nationally and internationally significant collection – some Indigenous communities and languages only exist now in its audio-visual recordings. The collection includes over a million items which span a variety of media, some in historic formats well over a hundred years old. AIATSIS’ Languages Collection is on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

The Abbott Government, like the Menzies Government, is proud to support AIATSIS in its work. It gives me great pleasure to announce tonight that the Federal government will be providing additional funding of $5 million to AIATSIS in 2015-16 through the upcoming Federal Budget. This funding will increase the capacity of AIATSIS to manage and preserve its unique collection. It will support the engagement of additional highly-skilled employees to undertake essential conservation and curatorial functions relating to the most at risk items in the collection, including audio-visual material, manuscripts, and publications.

This decision reflects the importance we as a Government attach to supporting AIATSIS in managing its collection in a way that reflects its enduring importance to the nation.

Engaging with Asia and securing our nation
My father’s life had lessons for me on two other priorities: that Australia should engage more deeply with our Asia-Pacific neighbours, and that we must provide more adequately for our nation’s defence, in part by securing an adequate defence industry capability.

My father’s experience of Asia was initially through Korea and Japan – two countries which have for decades been important friends and trading partners of Australia. Today, as Australia’s future is more than ever tied to the Asia-Pacific region, we face different challenges and opportunities to those my father witnessed in North Asia in the 1950s. One of the most important questions of the 21st century is how the rise of China will take shape, and how well other countries – including Australia and our greatest ally, the United States – will respond. Constructive engagement with China, while standing firm with regional neighbours including India and Japan, is vital.

One of the greatest challenges to Australian security in the present century has come from the rise of terrorism. It is driven by a radical, fundamentalist and extremist perversion of Islam. Australia must do all it can to combat this threat, both at home and abroad. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” is a lesson we learn again and again. Meeting the challenge involves supporting moderate Islam in responding to extremism. By promoting inter-faith dialogue and understanding. As a committed Christian and practising Catholic, I believe that promoting inter-faith understanding within Australia and our region is increasingly important to our own social and inter-cultural cohesion.

Of course, other security issues confront us. Border protection is one – including preventing any recurrence of the deaths at sea of over 1,000 asylum-seekers trying to enter Australia by boat as they did under the Rudd and Gillard Governments. Cyber-security is another. One part of defence preparedness is ensuring that we have sufficiently strong defence industries within Australia. As we mark the centenary of Anzac, we are all now especially conscious that we must fulfil our obligation of gratitude to our veterans.

Good process in policy formulation
My own experience as Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives from 2009 to 2013 and as Leader of the House since the 2013 election has heightened my long-standing interest in ensuring good processes of public policy-making, including through getting our Parliament to work as well as it could.

At various points in my career, I have advocated ideas to improve policy-making processes. Through my work on mental health and Indigenous well-being and in my other actions as a Minister, I have been a consistent advocate of involving people in finding solutions to their own problems by bringing their lived experiences to bear in policy discussions. As a Cabinet Minister since September 2013, I have sought to make my own contribution to ensuring good process in policy formulation, including through the various consultative and review processes I have initiated. I have learnt something of the difficulties for good policy-making from the composition and conduct of the current Australian Senate, as you may imagine. I have been profoundly disappointed by the unwillingness of the Opposition to engage in constructive discussion on necessary reforms. I have watched them block measures they themselves initiated when in government. Continuing to pursue good process will remain a theme of my political career.

The importance of this to our national well-being is difficult to overstate. In November 2012, in the final year of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd experience, the retiring Chair of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, made a speech in which he gave a “to do list” for improved productivity. He was obviously concerned that far too little was being done. He said “Good process in policy formulation is ... the most important thing of all on the ‘to do list’, if we are serious about securing Australia’s productivity and the prosperity that depends on it”. The equally independent Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, quoted and endorsed these words in a speech he gave a few weeks later.

Promoting productivity and the jobs of the future
Promoting productivity is essential for any realistic agenda for growth, jobs, and competitiveness – for the economic prosperity that promotes jobs and job security, and enables families to manage the cost of living as well as they can. I want my children to live in an Australia that is prosperous, with high and rising standards of living, good jobs for all who seek them, and the ability of families and individuals to cover the cost of living with as little anxiety as possible. This is becoming harder to achieve with the growth of fiscal deficits and debt, the slowing of the mining boom, the decline of resource prices, and generally increased volatility in the international economy.

At the heart of Australia’s future prosperity – and so of the economic well-being of all Australians – is productivity and international competitiveness. We need each hour of effort to produce as much economic benefit as possible. We need to ensure that Australian goods and services compete strongly – are attractive both for quality and price – in competitive international markets. We need to ensure that Australia can compete and earn increasingly in international trade with knowledge-based goods and services, and rely less than we have done on selling what we extract from the ground (crucial though this will long remain). We are arguably an intellectual powerhouse, punching well above our weight in science and research. We now need to develop advanced manufacturing and transition from old industries to those where we apply our knowledge. We need to see jobs created in businesses small as well as large around all parts of our nation.

If Australia is to prosper in the 21st century, with all that this means for our people, we need to ensure that all aspects of government policy – at state and local levels, as well as federal – promote productivity and do not stifle it. We need an ethos of entrepreneurship and innovation.

We need a tax system that creates incentive for individuals and companies, and that does not penalise or discourage entrepreneurship. We also need a tax system that raises the revenue that government needs in a way that is efficient and fair.

The period of the last Labor Government in Australia saw a considerable growth in government regulation and red tape. The automatic response to almost any problem or issue seemed to be to increase government intrusion and regulation. This growth of the nanny state was seen in countless ways. Charities were to be regulated by an unnecessary Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The autonomy of universities was challenged by the early over-reach (now corrected) of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The idea that a government agency should control the media seemed uncontroversial to Labor ministers – when it is in my view a fundamental threat to a liberal democracy. All this stood in sharp relief for those of us who believe the protection of individual freedom and the prosperity of our economy lies in limiting the power of the state, and that the growth of state power undermines individuals, families and communities.

Big government deters the entrepreneurship on which prosperity depends. Red tape and regulation create major and costly burdens for the businesses which create jobs. They place a burden on individuals and families trying to “make a go of it” by supplying goods and services in their local communities. If we are to create jobs and help alleviate cost of living pressures, we must reduce the burden of regulation and red tape wherever we can.

Productivity also depends on having an industrial relations system that is fair to workers and which makes it as straightforward as possible for employers to offer jobs, and for employers and employees to increase the efficiency of their work. Not only should such a system help to promote economic prosperity, it should also help more and more people to have fulfilling lives.

Productivity also depends on having the best infrastructure we can, whether roads, rail, airports and ports or information technology. The most efficient movement of people and of goods is crucial to our economy. Having the best infrastructure for the 21st century includes facilitating the movement of exports on which our prosperity depends, but it also includes making our cities work better and so improving the lives of families. Making our cities work seems to me something to which governments at all levels will need to give increasingly co-ordinated attention.

To be a knowledge-intensive international economy, how well Australia performs – and so the opportunities for our people – will depend on how well we use our intellectual capacity. We need to position ourselves at the cutting-edge of knowledge. While Australian research is of high quality by international standards (though not as high as we might think or want), Australia does not perform well in the linkage between industry and universities, and in the application of research to achieve positive economic, social or other impact. Boosting the commercial returns from research is important, though we must hold on to research driven by curiosity which just may hold a key to an unimagined future.

That also means having the best education system we can. Fulfilling careers for individuals and a productive economy depend on individuals having – and taking up - the best opportunities for education and skills training. It is my aspiration that, building on a good system, Australia should develop the best education and training system in the world. This is my goal as the Australian Minister for Education, and I will say more about this later.

Australia needs to position ourselves well to compete internationally. We are right to strive for bilateral free trade agreements such as the Coalition Government secured in 2014 with Korea, Japan, and China, and is now seeking with India.

The competitive environment never stands still. Our competitors are continually seeking to improve their positions. All aspects of our economy and government that affect our productivity and international competitiveness must be in play. This was realised by Hawke and Keating in the 1980s, and was demonstrated again during the Howard Government. Australia’s remarkably long run of economic growth owes much to that era of reform. If Australia is not to fall behind economically – with terrible results for jobs and living standards in Australia – we need to renew and sustain a momentum for reform. All responsible political leaders of whatever political persuasion need, like both Labor and Liberal leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, to emphasise that Australians’ best hopes of good careers and good living standards, including opportunities for their children, rest with Australia being willing to make the changes needed to keep up with the world.

Naturally, an agenda for growth and productivity depends on sound economic management. This, like national security, must always be central to any government’s thinking. Governments must live within their means. There are times when governments may need to run deficits to stimulate an economy in recession or depression. But governments spending more than they raise and so running deficit after deficit, year in, year out, and increasing the public debt without limit is unsustainable. Endless deficits mean that we don’t have the ability to respond well to future crises, like another Global Financial Crisis. Governments running up massive deficits mean that the present generation is leaving a debt for their children to repay. This truly is a form of inter-generational unfairness – even, as has been said by Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, of “intergenerational theft”. Just as I want to leave my children with a positive inheritance and not with debts I have run up for them to pay, so I believe that we as a country need to discipline our public spending so that we can pay for what we spend now and not amass crushing debts for our children.

We cannot indefinitely live beyond our means. We must strive for a more mature public discourse. Purely partisan oppositionism, with excessive rhetoric and no consideration for the long-term national interest, is an anachronism.

Developing the best education system in the world
As I have said, my aim as Minister for Education is that Australia should develop our good educational system into the best educational system in the world. Why should it be anything less?

Australia has many excellent schools and many dedicated and good teachers, to whom we have much reason for gratitude. But, overall, the performance of our school students by comparison with students in other OECD countries has been disappointing especially in literacy and numeracy. We have not developed the strength in science, technology, engineering, and maths that is needed in the technological age in which we live. We are falling behind.

As Minister for Education and Training, I have given attention to the “four pillars” of what is needed for Australia to have school education of the quality that our children need and deserve.

The first pillar is a robust curriculum. What is taught in our schools is obviously crucial. The review of the national curriculum which I commissioned and which was undertaken in 2014 has received widespread support for streamlining the national curriculum, and eliminating politically correct thematic requirements that ignored real educational needs. We are working with the states to give effect to our curriculum review.

A second pillar of improving our school system is teacher quality. I greatly admire the quality of so many teachers and want to see them encouraged and supported. I am keen to raise the esteem in which our teachers are held. But too much teacher training in Australia has failed to equip teachers with the practical classroom skills they need. The review of teacher education undertaken in 2014-15 by an advisory group that I appointed has also made a widely-welcomed contribution to improving this, and I am working with the states, universities, and others to act on what it has found.

Research internationally as well as within Australia has shown a strong correlation between the quality of educational results and the degree of autonomy individual schools enjoy. School autonomy is a third pillar of my programme to improve school education in Australia. For schools to have the freedom to appoint staff and allocate resources to meet their particular local needs, rather than be dictated to by a distant central bureaucracy, will improve the quality of education for our children. We have made Commonwealth Government funds available to all states which take part in our “independent public schools” initiative – giving their schools greater freedom to act in response to their local needs. Different states are doing this in different ways and using different words to describe it, and every state and territory has signed up to the Government’s independent public schools initiative.

My wife and I have tried to be actively engaged in the education of our children – though I have deeply regretted the limits that public life place on that. The more parents are actively engaged in the education of their children, the more their children will learn. Promoting parental engagement is the fourth pillar of my programme to improve our schools.

There are, of course, other and related aspects to what the Australian Government can do to promote school education around Australia, typically working in what should be constructive partnership with the states. We need a sustainable and fair funding model – and not one that creates false hopes and illusions. We need funding that ensures a fair deal for students with disabilities. I have a passionate commitment to helping students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, and to the need for research and teaching to this end. We need measures to promote cyber safety for young people. We need school report cards that parents can understand (and so promote that all-important parental engagement). We need to support the states to promote salaries and conditions for teachers that encourage and reward the best performance by teachers for the benefit of students. We need to stop wasting massive amounts of money on the collection of data that isn’t put to good use, and we need to try to reduce red tape and excessive regulatory and reporting requirements generally – ending the “command and control” system that fetters our education system.

We need also to free up and to reform our higher education system to ensure that Australia is not left behind in growing international competition and to spread opportunity to more students to have the life-changing opportunities that higher education can give.

In February 2014, I spoke at the Universities Australia conference under the heading “Embracing the new freedom: classical values and new frontiers for Australia’s universities”. I drew heavily on the remarkable legacy of Sir Robert Menzies in espousing classical values in university education and in massively expanding Australia’s university system and creating opportunities for far more Australian students to benefit from it. My speech discussed Menzies’ values and my approach as Minister for Education and Training on why universities are so important for Australia, in teaching and research, both for ensuring a civilised society and a competitive economy; the importance of the autonomy of universities; the importance of quality, both in teaching and research; the crucial role of universities in creating opportunity for individuals from all parts of our community; the importance of research, be it in science or the humanities or other disciplines; the need for deep international engagement for our universities; and the vital challenge of adequately resourcing our universities, through both public and private means.

In line with these values, to respond to a variety of inescapable challenges, I embarked in 2014 on a major programme of higher education and research reform, aiming to free our universities to be able to offer education of the highest quality, provide Commonwealth support to tens of thousands more students (in diploma and similar courses, and in non-university higher education institutions, including TAFEs) who have not previously been supported, greatly expand the scholarship support for students to cover living costs, and abolish unfair loan fees that some students have to pay and other don’t. The reform package embraced huge benefits for students.

It also included significant provision to support high-quality research in Australia. The previous Labor Government had provided no future funding in the forward estimates for two key research programmes – the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and the Australian Research Council’s Future Fellowships for mid-career researchers.

The higher education reform package was supported (with some amendments) by all the university and other higher education peak bodies in Australia, including Universities Australia and TAFE Directors Australia, as well as the bodies representing private higher education, and 40 of 41 Vice-Chancellors – quite an achievement in itself. They saw the reforms as necessary for the long-term good health of Australian higher education, including preventing a decline into mediocrity in the face of international competition, and as fair to students as well as to taxpayers. The scare campaign run against the reforms was dishonest  vastly exaggerating the levels of fees that students would face, and falsely suggesting that they would need to pay upfront. It was particularly surprising given that the previous Labor Government, to their credit, created the so-called demand-driven system of university funding. Under this, universities were free to decide for themselves how many bachelor-degree places to offer, and students (including many from disadvantaged backgrounds) benefited from the opportunities this created which would not otherwise have existed. But the Labor Government did not find a sustainable and stable basis for funding the demand-driven system. This is why they cut $6.6 billion in other areas of higher education and research. They should have welcomed our reform package for completing what they started.

Instead they hint now at a return to the days when Canberra controlled both how many places a university may offer and how much they can charge – a system that Julia Gillard and many others in the Labor Party rightly recognised had to change.

One aspect of Australian higher education about which I have long been passionate, and which remains crucial today, is international education. In my first speech to Parliament in 1993, I stressed that “using our intellectual ability” was crucial for the future prosperity of Australia and specifically my home state of South Australia. I mentioned that my father’s establishing with David David the Australian Cranio-Facial Unit was “an example of health as an industry capable of export and able to generate employment and investment”. I also mentioned that making Australia attractive to students from around Asia and beyond could have enormous benefits to Australia as an export industry. Of course, it provides a high-quality education in a safe, secure and attractive environment to young people from many countries who also contribute to the cultural enrichment of Australia and who, we hope, develop lifelong friendships with Australians and with Australia. Australia educating students from other countries builds goodwill towards Australia in countries in our region and beyond, and marks an important contribution that Australia can make to the development of their intellectual capital.

Since 1993, international education has grown to be Australia’s third largest export industry, and our largest non-resource export industry. It supports tens of thousands of jobs around Australia – not only in educational institutions, but in all the ways (such as accommodation, and retail) that flow from attracting hundreds of thousands of overseas students to Australia. Our very important tourism industry (which, perhaps surprisingly, is much smaller than our international education industry) benefits hugely also – including from the proud visiting parents and other relatives and friends of students who come to Australia.

Unfortunately, under the previous Labor Government, there was a significant drop in the numbers of students coming to Australia, and in our export earnings. As Minister for Education and Training, with the strong support of other relevant ministers, I have worked hard to promote Australia’s international education effort, and numbers of students coming to Australia have been rising strongly again. This is at the heart of why we have recently released a Draft National Strategy for International Education for consultation which is currently underway.

It is also imperative that the international flow of students is not just one way. Young Australians need a much greater exposure to the Asia-Pacific region than most now have. After all, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that so much of our future lies – certainly including so much of what will determine our economic prosperity and national security. It is for this reason that I have been such an enthusiastic partner with my colleague Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the implementation of the New Colombo Plan. It draws its name and inspiration from the original Colombo Plan, created under Prime Minister Menzies that brought thousands of students from around our region to Australia from the 1950s on.

The New Colombo Plan is a signature initiative that encourages and supports Australian undergraduates to undertake study abroad in the Asia-Pacific (or, as we increasingly call it, Indo-Pacific) region. There are highly prestigious New Colombo Plan Scholarships, and some thousands of students supported with mobility grants. I see this exchange as nothing short of essential if we are to develop a rounded citizenry comfortable in in a globalised world.

Conclusion
In tonight’s lecture, in seeking to honour the liberal values and the legacy of Sir Robert Menzies, I have proposed an agenda for Australia’s future – especially, closing the gap for Indigenous wellbeing; engaging with Asia and securing our nation; good process in policy formulation; promoting productivity and the jobs of the future; and developing the best education system in the world. This, I believe, is faithful to the enduring inspiration of Menzies and to the values of the great Party he founded.

In my first speech in Parliament, I said that the Liberal Party exists to give Australians “opportunities for all to live their lives with dignity”, and concluded:

“I joined the Liberal Party because I believe that it represents the sort of Australia I hope we can be – individualistic, determined, self-reliant, compassionate and progressive.”

I continue to hope that Australia can be just that, and continue to believe that these represent the values of Sir Robert Menzies – values which achieved so much for Australia in the 20th century, and which can inspire so much in the 21st.

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