As Australia’s former ambassador to China, Frances Adamson is an expert in that delicate balance of condemning China’s persecution of internal opposition while preserving the existing friendship. On Saturday she demonstrated this fine art, reading the Confucius Institute Annual Lecture at the University of Adelaide.
“We understand the hesitation in China to ‘air the laundry’ so to speak,” the now departmental secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledged. Meanwhile, “Australians are happy – perhaps too happy sometimes – to tell each other exactly what we think.”
Fake news & uncomfortable responsibilities
We have seen accusations of ‘fake news’ and we have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference.
This is worrying and is being taken seriously in a number of countries. In our case, the Prime Minister has said: “The sovereignty of Australia, the sovereignty of our democratic processes, free from foreign interference is a matter of the highest concern.”
The Australian Government takes seriously its responsibility to ensure a robust legal framework within which free and open debate is protected and can flourish. That work is proceeding.
As well, Governments themselves must expect, and invite, scrutiny of their actions and their policy positions.
As China becomes more important to Australia’s future and to that of the world, it follows that there will be more scrutiny of China, including the ways in which it seeks to exercise influence internationally.
All of us here, as participants in a free society, have responsibilities as well.
It is our responsibility to challenge and question ‘fake news’. We can readily reduce the risk of being manipulated by seeking out collateral and confirmatory information, by testing through a second opinion.
And when confronted with awkward choices, it is up to us to choose our response, whether to make an uncomfortable compromise or decide instead to remain true to our values, “immune from intolerance or external influence” as Adelaide University’s founders envisaged.
The prospect of public scrutiny is an excellent discipline, and a vital corrective for our political culture and our institutions, including our universities.
We want to ensure these institutions remain secure and resilient.
Our success depends in part on the legal framework, but also on the attitudes and responses of all of us when exposed to unexpected pressure.