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Celebration Paul Dibb

Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, at Dinner celebrating launch of Desmond Ball and Sheryn Lee (eds), Geography, Power, Strategy and Defence Policy: Essays in Honour of Paul Dibb (ANU Press, 2017), Commonwealth Club, Canberra, 5 June 2017

While I don't think Paul really needs his self-confidence further reinforced – especially after all the tributes paid to him in this splendid festschrift and by Kim Beazley in launching it today – remembering Adlai Stevenson’s observation that ‘flattery is all right so long as you don't inhale’, let me add a couple of reinforcements of my own from the perspective of a foreign policy, not defence, practitioner.

Bruce Grant and I wrote in Australia’s Foreign Relations in 1991 that ‘A conceptual watershed in Australian foreign policy occurred in March 1987 with the tabling by the Defence Minister Kim Beazley of the White Paper on The Defence of Australia, based upon a review by Paul Dibb a year earlier …This new confidence in our defence policy liberated Australian foreign policy. Australian foreign ministers are freer to think about their responsibilities more systematically, and more intricately than ever before. It is possible to now to contemplate an approach to foreign policy decision-making which involves not the writing of manuals on how to get one’s foot in the door of a protector’s office, but rather the case by case weighing and balancing of national interests across a complex and variegated field.’

Not everything in the Dibb Report was brand new, as Paul would be the first to acknowledge. In particular the conceptual shift toward much greater self-reliance, albeit still within an alliance context, had been flagged in the 1976 Defence White Paper. But what was new was the intelligence, rigour and comprehensiveness with which the analysis was carried through – and the clear and realistic guidance on capability needs, if layered defence in depth were to become a reality, that went with it.

That thinking continues to be relevant today, and should have much more resonance than has been the case with successive conservative governments whose reflex instinct has not been very different from the first generations of Australian policymakers, viz. to send off expeditionary divisions, or at least battalions, to far flung places to fight our great and powerful protectors’ wars for them.

I have always been in favour, from when I was Foreign Minister until today, of Australia playing an active, albeit necessarily niche, role in UN-mandated peace keeping and peace enforcement operations in pursuit of global public goods like R2P – exercising the responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. And I have never seen this as being in competition with the primary role and responsibility of our forces to operate in area, able to protect Australia from all but the most extreme threat contingencies. (I’m not sure that Paul himself was ever a true believer in the ADF having that UN role, but I live in hope.)

The 1987 White Paper, and the Dibb report lying from which it was constructed, not only liberated Australian foreign policy but operated as a significant source of guidance in my conduct of it – in the priorities that I set. I adopted very much Paul’s ‘concentric circles’ approach – in the sequence of initial visits I made, and in the way I formulated and prioritized our foreign policy objectives. Rather than thinking I had to begin with a pilgrimage to Washington, as my early predecessors had long before me done to London, I started with our immediate South Pacific region, then moved to getting our relations right with South East Asia right, then focused on North East Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific, and only then gave major attention to the global great and powerful.

With the Dibb-influenced approach I have described, and in the heady – and probably now unrepeatable – atmosphere of those early post-Cold War years, it was a great time to be in the job. Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, and to be Foreign Minister was very heaven! Australia found itself with a lot to contribute to both regional and global policy-making, and we made the most of the opportunities we had.

It has to be said, however, that in those days I don't think it is entirely clear that Paul’s passion for diplomacy matched mine. His own enthusiasm was for the hard stuff of defence and intelligence, and I’m not sure that he had much sympathy for those lesser mortals in the international community who couldn't deliver much of either. As is documented in the festschrift, he referred to them as ‘PAC’s – not the Political Action Committees familiar to US election tragics, but Piss Ant Countries.

That said, it has to be acknowledged that as Professor Dibb ripened, he really did immerse himself in regional diplomacy, as a great supporter of new security dialogue and policy-making institutional machinery, above all in the eleven long years he spent as co-chair of the ASEAN Regional Forum’s Experts and Eminent Persons (EEP) group. That role was not without multiple frustrations, and as one of the ARF’s founding fathers I completely share his unhappiness that it has never moved beyond tentative first steps in confidence-building, to become the confident, effective conflict prevention, management and resolution body we had hoped it would rapidly become.

Paul, I know, feels a little less appreciated than he should be by successive Australian governments for the time and effort that he put into this enterprise. But as I said to him recently, channeling that old line about politicians feeling the need for friendship, if you want gratitude in this country for your contributions to public policy, buy a dog.

All that said, Paul Dibb deserves the heartfelt gratitude of all of us here for the fantastic contribution he has made in so many ways to the intellectual and policy life of this nation, and the wider world. Implausible as it is that he will ever do either, may he rest once and for all on his many laurels, and have a long and happy retirement.