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Building Australia's Future in a Changing World

By Alexander Downer - posted Wednesday, 22 September 2004

In this country we enjoy a good debate on issues of foreign policy and foreign affairs - a much more robust debate than in many other countries. Sometimes I follow our debate with disappointment, occasionally with a touch of anger. On other occasions I greatly approve. The point here is that our robust debate is important. It reflects the type of country Australia is: not only a robust democracy but also a genuinely significant country that plays a positive role in the region and the world.

There have been other watersheds during my time as the Foreign Minister but the biggest single change came on the eleventh of September 2001. The world changed on that day. Terrorism had issued a challenge not only to the United States but also to the western world and the moderate Islamic world.

And we've seen the consequences: The attacks in Bali where 88 Australians and over 200 people were killed, the recent attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the Beslan attack. The slaughter of those children was terrorism that broached new boundaries of barbarism. And there have been many other attacks around the world.


Australia’s robust debate on terrorism tends not to go far enough. Terrorism is linked to current conflicts such as Iraq, and it’s often stated that the Palestinian-Israeli question is a key issue. But I think that is a misunderstanding of what organisations like al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiah are ultimately about. If we are to understand the national and international dynamics of terrorism and to work out what to do about it, it's fundamentally important to understand what the real issue is. What do these people really want?

Put simply, they want to drive the western world and its influence out of the Islamic world. They want to overthrow the moderate governments of the Islamic world and replace them with Islamic extremist dictatorships, Taliban-style.

These people, of course, don't want Australian, American, European or Japanese influence in Indonesia or the Middle East. But equally they don't want the House of Saud, and they don't want free elections in the emerging democracy of Indonesia. They don’t want democracy in Malaysia. They want to wipe all that out. That is the truth about their ultimate objective. Much of the debate about terrorism is insufficiently sophisticated because it doesn’t take that objective into account.

Let me emphasise that this is a regional problem. But it is much more than that. It is a global problem. For some time there have been significant links between the Islamic extremist terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda. Those links mean we have to understand this as a global problem with a regional dimension.

So the question for our country, with its heritage of making strong contributions to a better world, is, “What should we be doing about this?” The answer is that, so far, we have been contributing very substantially both regionally and globally.

It has been put out, particularly by the Labor Party, that we devote too many resources to the global effort against terrorism, working through the American alliance and helping the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq - but we don't do enough regionally. So I'll start with what is actually happening and the work we are doing in our own region.


I haven't heard Mr Latham mention that Australia has signed Memoranda of Understanding on Counter-Terrorism with nine countries in our own region, from east to west, from Fiji to India and with ASEAN. Importantly, in February 2002, well before the Bali bombings, we signed Memorandum of Understanding on Counter-Terrorism with Indonesia. Under the auspices of these Memoranda there have been an enormous amount of detailed, technical and important work to assist these countries’ intelligence services and police.

The best way to deal with terrorism is to invest significant resources in intelligence and policing. Domestically, we have very substantially increased this investment. As one example, over the last eight years we have doubled the budget for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, ASIS.

Regionally we've invested very substantially in helping to improve policing and intelligence capabilities. As examples:

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This is an edited version of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, September 14, 2004.

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About the Author

The Hon. Alexander Downer MP is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Member for Mayo (SA).

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