On his final day as the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson AO delivered an address to the National Press Club of Australia. Richardson is retiring after a 48 year career in the Australian Public Service, which has included roles as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Ambassador to the US and the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. He is a member of the US Studies Centre Board of Directors.

Speech to the National Press Club of Australia


Thank you for your kind words and for the opportunity to address the National Press Club, a vibrant part of Canberra and in the life of the nation.

In fact, my first personal encounter with an Australian Prime Minister involved this Club. That was immediately before the 1972 elections. Prime Minister McMahon had phoned Dick Woolcott, who was my Branch Head at the time, for a game of squash before addressing the Club. Dick had a busy schedule and asked me to fill in. I jumped at the opportunity, only to remember, half way to the courts, that the one T-shirt in my bag was It’s Time. I quickly went home and changed it, but was a few minutes late, with an unhappy PM waiting for me.

The backdrop

This is my last day in the Australian Public Service, having commenced in January 1969 – 48 years ago. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and would gladly do it all again. And for that I thank my family, my colleagues and the Governments for whom I have worked.

Australia’s relationship with China and the United States will continue to be able to be summarised simply: friends with both, allies with one. Any notion that the growth in our relationship with China requires a recalibration of our relationship with the US is, in my view, inconsistent with the facts, and lacks logic or purpose.

All successful countries down through the centuries have had effective Institutions of State. It is all too easy to get cheap populist applause by going after public servants, although sometimes we do deserve a kick. The public servants, intelligence officers and law enforcement personnel with whom I have worked in Government have all been hard working, committed and professional. It has also been a privilege to have worked so closely with the men and women of the ADF and with the other half of what is called the diarchy, the Chief of the Defence Force, who is here today. I am proud to have been a public servant.

In 1969 the US economy, measured in nominal terms, accounted for 37.9 per cent of the global economy. China, then in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, accounted for just under 3 per cent.

Today, China’s share of the global economy is 15.5%, with the US at 24.4%.

  • Figures demonstrating both China’s remarkable rise and US resilience.

In 1969 the Cold War was 22 years old, with another 23 years to run.

25 years on from the end of the Cold War, nostalgia has clouded the reality of the security threats and challenges that then existed.

9/11 and Iraq has led to us being militarily engaged in the Middle East for most of the past 16 years.

The global financial crisis of 2008-9 gave rise to populist and economic nationalism in many Liberal Democracies, contributing to politico-strategic uncertainty and anxiety.

That populism, in part, also saw the election of Donald Trump.

And all of this, especially the rise of China and the arrival of President Trump, have raised questions about the continued relevance and value of our Alliance with the United States and the question of ‘independence’ in policy.

Two points need to be made up front:

  • First, the Alliance was an Australian initiative, with strong bipartisan support. Indeed the US was somewhat reluctant, with External Affairs Minister Spender needing to work hard to get the Americans on board.
  • Second, Australia’s initiative was not a product of the Cold War, but of the war that had come before.

So the very foundation of the Alliance is built on our judgement of our national interests.


Of course, it is open to us, or the US, to reassess the value of the Alliance at any time. But any debate and reassessment should flow from clear eyed analysis and judgement, not the emotional reaction to one person.

It is hardly insightful to say that Donald Trump is very different to any President with whom we have engaged over the past 70 years. Understandably, that difference has stimulated intense global interest and scrutiny.

  • Who doesn’t now look at their i-Phone first thing in the morning to see the latest Tweet?

US politics remains deeply divided, as evidenced by the President himself and Hillary Clinton’s re-emergence as, in her own words, ‘part of the resistance’.

All this has fed into media coverage which, at times, has become too influenced by Americana.

  • Witness the claim by a correspondent on TV a couple of weeks back that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Trump were the two most erratic leaders in the world.
  • And an article in a major newspaper last week, under the heading ‘Australia is at the mercy of the whims of two Mad Men’.

If we are not careful, such nonsense will lead to gross miscalculation, not by the US, but by ourselves. It is essential that we do not allow the poison evident in US domestic politics to infect our attitudes to the Alliance.

Certainly, US decision makers are generally disciplined.

  • I recall, for instance, Democratic Congressional leaders saying to me on my introductory calls in 2005 that, while they voted against the Iraq War in 2003 and continued to oppose it, they welcomed Australia’s military presence alongside their own.

Policy dependence?

Does our Alliance with the United States influence - and sometimes decisively so - our decision making in foreign and defence policies and in the broader national security arena? Absolutely. Does it impose a greater obligation to consult? Absolutely.

But no policies are determined and conducted in a vacuum. Indeed, it is not necessary to even be in Alliance with another country for that country to have decisive influence. Take, for instance, the handling by Australian governments of visits by the Dalai Lama – something of which I am totally supportive but use to illustrate the point.

In our immediate region, Australian Governments generally have a strong and consistent record of charting their own course, with the Alliance part of the overall strategy, not the driver.

  • Indonesia perhaps being the best example, where Australian and US approaches have often diverged.
  • And Australia’s approach to New Zealand after their effective withdrawal from ANZUS in the early 1980’s being another.

At decisive points, Australian Governments have very much done their own thing or have pressed hard on the US to take a particular course to serve our own interests.

  • The decision by the Howard Government in 2005 to seek membership of the East Asia Summit and the decision by the Bush Administration to call a G20 Leaders Meeting in 2008, as opposed to a G13 or G14, which would have omitted Australia, are but two examples.

Following Prime Minister Hawke’s historic APEC speech in Seoul in January 1989 a decision was made – in retrospect naively – not to consult with the US but to approach key regional countries first, with a view to approaching the US only if it was clear that others would not sign up without them. In other words, the US was not part of the proposal for the first 24-36 hours. But Tokyo made its position clear and Washington was quickly included.

  • A fact that caused an angry discussion with the Americans and which Deputy Secretary of State, Bob Zoellick, mentioned over lunch at AUSMIN 16 years later, in Adelaide in 2005.

The alliance and war

But does the Alliance drag us into far away and unwanted conflicts?

Including the Korean War – during which ANZUS was signed – Australia has been involved in ten major military operations since 1951, and I am excluding operations such as Cambodia, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands:

  • The Korean War
  • The Malayan Emergency
  • Konfrontasi
  • Vietnam
  • The 1991 Gulf War
  • Somalia
  • East Timor
  • Afghanistan
  • The invasion of Iraq in 2003
  • Iraq/Syria since mid 2014

The United States was not involved militarily in the Malayan Emergency or Konfrontasi, and was in a supportive role in East Timor.

The Korean War and the 1991 Iraq War were backed by Chapter 7 UN resolutions.

Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan were also supported and framed by UN resolutions.

It is certainly true that, without US leadership and involvement, we would not have been in most of the conflicts since 1951. But the Alliance has not always been the sole driver of decision making, with our presence in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan today serving strong national interests independent of the Alliance. In other words, in some instances, without the US we would not have been able to give full effect to our own national interests through the use of force. And sometimes the use of force is necessary.

The Alliance was the dominant reason for our involvement in Vietnam and in the invasion of Iraq. I think it is also arguable, that given the world as seen from Canberra in the 1960’s, there was a respectable case for Vietnam independent of the Alliance. And, in the case of Iraq in 2003, the Government was very careful and cautious about the extent and nature of its on-ground commitment - in contrast to the UK. The structure of ADF commitments across different operations has reflected the requirements of the particular circumstances, Alliance considerations and our judgement of our own national interests.

The point of all this is that Australian governments have generally been pragmatic and hard headed in weighing Alliance considerations on matters of War and Peace. Understanding this is critical at a time when it is all too easy to opportunistically suggest that Australia lacks policy independence.

What we constantly need to do, however, is to ensure that military operations do not drive policy. And there is always a risk of this in a prolonged period of operational activity. In fact, beyond operations, military-to-military activity needs to be conducted within a deliberate policy framework. For instance, a decision to embed an Australian naval vessel within a US Carrier Strike Group, should always be considered a matter of policy, not a Navy to Navy routine activity.

The alliance in 2017

Although conceived in a very different time and place, the ANZUS Alliance has been remarkably resilient and adaptable. It is, at the very least, as relevant in a Multipolar world as in a Bipolar one. And no other global power, current or prospective over the next 50 years, has a set of values and interests more closely aligned with Australia’s, than the United States.

The Alliance lives in the day to day activities of our diplomatic, defence, intelligence and military personnel in many parts of the world. · Since 1951, real substance has been added to the Alliance which has substantively served Australian and US interests alike.

  • Intelligence sharing arrangements, which have expanded enormously, are perhaps better understood and appreciated by the Australian community than at any time: Because of enhanced transparency and accountability and because of the immediacy of terrorism.
  • The preparedness of the US to share sensitive military technologies and capabilities is now more essential to our defence and broader strategic interests than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago, especially so given regional developments, regional force modernisation and narrowing capability gaps.

But the Alliance does not exist in a vacuum. Well over 200,000 Australians live and work in the United States. Cultural links are part of our everyday life. The US is our 3rd largest trading partner. As of December 2015, the total stock of two way investment between Australia and the United States was estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at just over $1.45 trillion. And US investment in Australia has played a big role in enabling us to take advantage of trade opportunities in East Asia, especially with the rise of China.

So the Alliance in 2017 sits within a bilateral relationship which is, itself, significantly broader and deeper than at the time of the signing of ANZUS in 1951.


More spectacularly, China’s relationship with Australia is beyond the imagining of 50 years ago: our largest merchandise trading partner by far, a growing investment relationship, people-to-people ties encompassing tourism, education and migration, and developing defence ties.

Australia and China are in the 20th year of annual Defence Strategic Dialogues, involving both the CDF and the Secretary. The range and scope of joint exercises has slowly increased, albeit from a very low base.

Where possible, we have explored options for trilateral exercises involving both the US and China. We now have one such annual exercise in Australia – Exercise Kowari – having taken two years to convince the US and China of its value.

Structured inter-governmental arrangements between Australia and China have been consistently enhanced and now include over 50 bilateral dialogues, covering everything from foreign relations, trade and economic cooperation, climate change to agriculture. The Foreign Minister and Treasurer meet at least annually with their Chinese counterparts under a formal structure, with the Prime Minister and Premier at the apex of what is called a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

But there are complexities with China. It is no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed at us. And it is more than Cyber. That is no reason to engage in knee jerk anti-China decision making or to avoid seeking to build a stronger relationship with China. It is simply the world in which we live.

Nonetheless, it is an inevitable backdrop to the consideration in some agencies and departments when it comes to certain foreign investment proposals from China. Such issues are weighed carefully and consistently on a case-by-case basis. But it does not follow that because one electricity grid can go to a Chinese entity, another must. Not all national infrastructure is created equally. Those who argue for so called consistency across a single sector of the economy should be careful of what they seek. We should have open and frank discussions with China about this. Certainly, they are not bashful in denying foreign investment opportunities in their own country.

Likewise, the Chinese Government keeps a watchful eye inside Australian-Chinese communities and effectively controls some Chinese language media in Australia.

More broadly, Australia and China do not always share similar perspectives – as voting records in the UN illustrate. Closer to home, we have substantive concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, and look to China to do much more on North Korea.

All this adds up to a relationship which is many sided. Positives are rightly emphasised, but it would be foolish to pretend that the negatives do not exist or to attempt to diminish their significance. If we do so, we will be fooling no one but ourselves.

I have always thought, however, that in Australia, we do not always see the full dimension of the US/China relationship in both its depth and complexity. The United States and China are strategic rivals. There are, and will continue to be, points of real tension. The dynamic will play out for many decades to come. Misunderstandings could lead to miscalculation. But both seek to manage the relationship reasonably sensibly and work hard to avoid military conflict, with a breadth of dialogue arrangements designed, in part, to minimise this.

Of course, nothing moves in a straight line, so there will be plenty in US-China-Australia relations for those whose job it is to analyse and comment on the moment. There will be alarming headlines and, sometimes, for good reason.

In summary, I think Australia’s relationship with China and the United States will continue to be able to be summarised simply: friends with both, allies with one. Any notion that the growth in our relationship with China requires a recalibration of our relationship with the US is, in my view, inconsistent with the facts, and lacks logic or purpose.

It is worth noting that, in the arc from the Korean peninsula around to Pakistan, the majority of countries are not in an alliance relationship with the United States. However, all but 2 or 3 want active US engagement in the region, and on a full time basis.

Some, including former decision makers, suggest that we should retain the Alliance, but with the US in more of a stand-off arrangement in the region, engaging when needed, especially if China over reaches. But how does that work? Do we expect an inalienable right to a US response if things get difficult, but in the meantime, put in less and talk the Alliance down?

The world has certainly changed, and almost beyond recognition over the past 60 years. Part of the challenge has been, and will continue to be, to manage the Alliance through such change.

It is essential for those who believe the Alliance is important to our national interests to engage in the public discourse. It is perfectly reasonable for millennials to question and query its contemporary relevance. That relevance should be articulated in terms of today’s world: its strategic dynamics, the vibrance and depth of the contemporary Australia-US relationship, and a bit of history to connect past and present.

It’s time

Finally, Mr President, let me acknowledge the role of journalists. Your job is tough but central to an effective democracy. The natural condition of public servants is to be cautious, and even suspicious of the media. The work of your profession ensures that we do not forget the importance of transparency in building and maintaining community trust. If you fail, governance fails.

That takes me back to the beginning of my remarks and that T-shirt, which I still posses. Forty-five years after it almost led to a misadventure with a Prime Minister, it now sums up where I am at. It’s Time.

Thank you.