Luncheon with Ian Biggs, Australian Ambassador to Turkey

June 25, 2013

Ian Biggs
Australian Ambassador to Turkey

I wish to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet. That is a formula; of course; but it is an important reminder about one of the tougher aspects of Australian history; and one of the themes of my remarks today.

My special thanks to Ahmet Polat and the Australian Intercultural Society for urging me to speak today. The AIS is a leading civil-society participant in every recent year’s Gallipoli commemorations – which is where I first became acquainted with its work. I am in back in Australia this week for some meetings of Australian Heads of Mission in Canberra; but the invitation to renew friendships in Melbourne was very welcome. And talking of friendship; I am delighted to find this session facilitated by Don Markwell; who coached me in debating at Brisbane Grammar School 37 years ago.

The topic is pretty all-encompassing. The objective is to note some of the shared features of our remarkable societies that have drawn us together; and in a few cases; how we might build on those commonalities. I shall offer some observations on recent developments in Turkey’s democracy and their echoes and parallels in Australia. All that while recognising that many of you know Turkey better than I do; and that most of you must surely know Australia better than someone perpetually out of the country can hope to.

And the final bit of throat-clearing; an essential caveat if this event’s constructive intent is to be served; is to note that I speak as an Australian public servant and a guest of the Republic of Turkey. So if anything I say sounds to you critical of the policies of either government; you have misunderstood me. I shall have nothing to say about issues contentious in the imminent Australian election campaign; and nothing that could be construed as interfering in the domestic affairs of my host country. The signal achievements and long-term trends of both Australia and Turkey happen to be remarkably healthy. So I can with clear conscience accentuate the positive.

And the terms used in the topic? Secularism or laicism refers to an attempt in the structuring of a political system to separate church and state; religion and government – the opposite of theocracy. Both Australia and Turkey have such a separation; although both countries’ governing systems unsurprisingly respect the beliefs and practices of their populations. So although the Australian Constitution bars the Federal Government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance; government schools (for example) have mechanisms for optional religious education; and some funding through the National School Chaplaincy Program; and zoning regulations and the tax code facilitate the establishment and operation of churches; mosques; synagogues and temples. Sessions of at least some of our Parliaments commence with the Lord’s Prayer; and Christian clergy have a coordinating role in certain national ceremonies – such as Anzac Day services. With rare exceptions; Australian politicians expect believers’ voices to be heard in the public square.

In Turkey; the official Diyanet or Presidency of Religious Affairs administers the endowments of Islamic foundations; pays the salaries of imams and muezzins; and builds and maintains mosques. It has no role in the administration of minority faiths or their property; and its executives are academics; not politicians. The Hanafi Sunni Islam taught in Diyanet institutions has an Establishment status loosely comparable to that of the Church of England (in England); and the centralisation of doctrine has to a remarkable degree saved Turkey from religious extremism. Within the last decade; the Diyanet has appointed female muftis; and this year; the Diyanet is publishing a new; updated seven-volume compilation of hadiths with advice as to their application in a modern community. Notwithstanding the facts that 90-something per cent of the population is Muslim of one sort or another; that nearly two thirds of Turkish women cover their hair in public; and that most of the current leaders of the Republic are personally pious; the Turkish state does not impose belief on anyone.

Republican Turkey has never put the name of God on its flag; nor declared itself an Islamic state; and 91 per cent of the people say they wish to preserve that separation. Overtly Islamist parties in Turkey have never had more than 20 per cent popular support. And one of the most important statements of the whole Arab Spring was Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s; in Cairo in September 2011; about the importance of secular politics in Muslim societies.

The second term for consideration from the assigned topic is ‘liberal’. As a concept that applies in both Australia and Turkey; and probably irrespective of future changes of government in either country; it might be described in simple terms as government that permits things unless they have to be forbidden – which assumes that individuals are in most cases best placed to plan their own lives. Liberalism in this sense does not go as far as libertarianism – the mistrust of any systems of regulation – nor is it contrary to conservatism – the preference for building on successful existing institutions rather than creative destruction. And both Australia and contemporary Turkey are clearly liberal in the sense that government does not seek to control the means of production and distribution; and that plans (for example) to limit alcohol advertising (in Turkey’s case) or the advertising of certain sorts of gambling (in Australia’s) are contested through societal debate; adopted; adapted or abandoned in Parliament; and enforced only to the extent that society supports enforcement.

And democracy. Australia’s and Turkey’s models are different; but not diametrically so. The self-governing colonies that became Australia had practised representative Parliamentary democracy for decades before federating in 1901; whereas multi-party democracy was not introduced in Turkey until after the Second World War – but the Turkish model has clearly stabilised since the beginning of the 21st century; to the extent that no one respectable in Turkish politics; the media or any sort of polite society gives any credence to undemocratic alternatives. The details of (for example) Presidential prerogatives and the official formulation of national identity (Turkish? Of the Turkish Republic?) are certainly contested; but it is rightly taken for granted that anything significant will need the endorsement of Parliament or a referendum. The Turkish Republic suffered a military coup roughly once a decade until this century; whereas now even the institutions of military dominance; such as the National Security Council; are fully under civilian control. The shift in national political culture is real; owing something to the spirit of the age; something to the prosperity of a middle-class economy; and something to the realisation that a modern state – certainly one that aspires to EU membership – has to respect the will of its people.

Finally; religious pluralism. Pluralism carries the sense that diversity is normal; healthy; unobjectionable. This is obviously the common approach in Australia; has been so since the Protestant ruling class of England populated this land with Roman Catholic Irish. Now that 44 per cent of our fellow Australians are first or second-generation immigrants; many of them Buddhist or Hindu; and that about a quarter of the population denied any religious affiliation in last year’s census; religious pluralism rather goes without saying. It is accepted even by those of us with strong religious convictions; including the fervent wish that others would see what we see. A combination of good manners; simple decency; and the habits of tolerance that come from living with difference allows this to work; along with social initiatives such as the Australian Multicultural Council and the National Imams Consultative Forum. Half a million Australians are Muslim; there are 40 Islamic schools in Australia; funded in large part by the Government. I like to quote the Grand Mufti of Australia; Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed: ‘This country is not great or famous for its koalas and kangaroos. It is great for its freedom.’

As a related indicator; let me mention the results of the World Values Survey published last month; which found that fewer than 5 per cent of Australians; when asked about desirable neighbours; mentioned race – less than 50 years since the abandonment of the White Australia policy. Probably our most important outstanding business on this front is full reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples – their population reduced by disease; deprivation and assimilation – and Closing the Gap in life-expectancy; education levels and employment opportunities. All sides of politics in Australia now celebrate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in our midst.

Turkey certainly has less religious diversity than Australia has. The diversity of the Ottoman Empire was reversed by the population exchange of the 1920s; when the governments of Turkey and Greece implemented early 20th century notions of national unity by swapping millions of Orthodox Christians from Turkey and Muslims from Greece. But there are still active vernacular congregations of Orthodox; Catholic; Protestant; Syriac and Armenian Christians. Perhaps a fifth of the total population is Alevi. And according to historians; journalists and my contacts; for much of the 20th century; any overt seriousness about religious practice meant exclusion from the elite of Turkish society – from the officer corps; for example – so that something resembling atheism was privileged rather than persecuted. That is definitely not the case now; but is another clue to the religious diversity that is the lived experience of citizens of a country nominally more than 90 per cent of one faith.

Earlier this month; I attended two ceremonies in Ankara – one instituting a new level of cooperation between police forces; the other recognising the environmental achievements of Turkish municipalities – and at neither were the protests then roiling many Turkish cities even mentioned. This made a certain sort of sense; because both ceremonies concerned productive efforts under way long before this month’s protests and important for the longer term – but it still seemed slightly unreal. So to spare you a similar sense of unreality; let me say one or two things about the continuing demonstrations. The first is that no one has even hinted at military intervention – so the coup culture that lasted through the second half of the 20th century really does seem to have been exorcised. The second is that however the protesters’ demands are eventually dealt with; the vigour and sincerity of Turkish young people’s interest in the governing of their own country has to be a good thing – radically contrary to apathy; and boding well for the future.

Turkey is a thriving country; with an economy growing healthily (5 per cent per annum from 2002 to 2012); unemployment well below the European average; a stable banking system; and several sorts of elections (local; Parliamentary and Presidential; and probably a constitutional referendum) due within the next two years. There are arguments that have now been intensified; about participatory versus majoritarian democracy; about the right sort of government interest in questions developmental; ethical and environmental; about the appropriate language for public discourse; and about the balance between freedom and responsibility. These are familiar arguments from other democracies. Turkey has a highly developed civil society of universities; think-tanks and NGOs; diverse domestic media and access to international media; and the self-awareness that has seen at least four major packages of judicial reform enacted over the last couple of years to address self-identified shortcomings in the legal system.

One of the questions asked in media commentary about the protests has been whether the Turkish brand of democracy has been damaged. The great thing about the Turkish brand is that a large-population Muslim-majority nation has settled on representative democracy and free-market economics. Turkey is the living proof that a Muslim-majority nation can honour the rule of law; implement its constitution; protect the rights of minorities and of opposition elements; run a sound economy; take a leading role in so many international organisations; maintain good relations with almost all neighbouring countries; and so forth – that Islam and democracy are not incompatible. And if that sounds cumulatively cheerful; I have not even started on the real prospect of an imminent and honourable resolution to the decades of struggle against PKK terrorism.

To return to the stream of my thoughts as they were being channelled before this month’s political developments: optimism about Australia and Turkey is warranted by a friendship going back a century. It sounds strange to describe as friendship something that began with our soldiers doing their courageous best to kill each other; but any of you who has been at Gallipoli for Anzac Day will recognise that it is astonishingly so. This has much to do with the magnanimity of Ataturk’s message to the mothers of the Allied fallen; declaring in 1934 that their sons were now Turkey’s sons; at home and at peace. And it has something to do with the general awareness among Australians; even in 1915; that we were fighting people against whom we had no reason to hold any grudge.

This friendship has been augmented by the experience of the Turkish-Australian community – tens of thousands of fellow citizens whose experience of immigration since 1968 has been overwhelmingly happy. Turkish Australia has community institutions in good shape; including Turkish-medium schools with thousands of students each. Australians of Turkish heritage have made major contributions in every field; from politics to academia and from business to the law.

Another ground for optimism is the state of our respective economies and societies. The OECD (with its Better-Life Index) and various think-tanks (and; for good measure; the United Nations Human Development Index) periodically attempt to capture all the data on the relative performance of different countries – income; employment; environment; life expectancy; literacy; gender equality; health service; consumer confidence; work-life balance and so forth – and Australia is always the most desirable country or among the most desirable countries on Earth of which to be a citizen. That is not the same as GDP per capita; but it is a real prosperity. With a population of just over 23 million; we have the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world; 75.5 per cent of our adult population makes it into the global top 10 per cent. And our economy grew faster than any other developed country’s over the whole period since 1985 – including before the resources boom. With a Gini coefficient of income inequality at between 0.3 and 0.35; and stable; the prosperity is shared: a genuine commonwealth.

And Turkey has been for several years since the commencement of the Global Financial Crisis one of the best-performing economies in Europe; real disposable household income is three times what it was a decade ago. The government’s announced plans for major infrastructure over the next ten years (until the centenary of the Republic; that is) include $250 billion of investment in the Istanbul Canal; the world’s largest airport; the third bridge over the Bosphorus; the tunnel under the Bosphorus; a national network of high-speed rail; three nuclear power plants… Fortunately (in view of that requirement for investment capital); two out of three of the international ratings agencies – Moody’s and Fitch – have within the last year upgraded Turkey’s sovereign rating to investment grade. Australia and Turkey are the only two members of the G20 to have survived the GFC without having gone into technical recession. There really should be complementarity and mutual advantage in such a pairing.

So what am I suggesting? Well; at the most elevated; almost abstract level; we have experiences to share and lessons to offer each other about challenges we have in common. That might mean comparing notes on dealing with populations dispersed across thousands of kilometres; and on making a virtue of cultural diversity; and on responding to the tragedies bequeathed by our forebears (in Australia’s case; the National Apology of 2008 to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was one truly cathartic response). We might have ideas to share from our Constitutional experience – drafted by colonial scholars after community consultation; adopted with Imperial permission and now treasured (amendments almost never win popular consent). Meanwhile; Turkey is drafting a new constitution almost from scratch; to match a political situation changed almost out of recognition in only 30 years; and the responsible Parliamentary commission has been consulting everyone from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to the Chief Rabbi.

The Asian Century is another idea that really must be name-checked in any current discussion on a topic like today’s. Geopolitical change challenges both of our countries. The broad idea that the global community’s centre of gravity is shifting from Europe to East Asia is by now almost universally accepted; including by the Turkish government.

The significance of the Asian Century for Turkey is great – all Turkey’s major East Asian trading partners (except Singapore) have a trade surplus with Turkey. Trade with China has grown ten-fold over the last decade; to $24 billion in 2011. As for Australia: concentrating our international engagement on East Asia has been second nature since before Federation. For much of the last century; that concentration tended to be fearful. We had trading arrangements within the British Empire and security alliances with Britain and then the United States to protect us; as we thought; from hostile neighbours and regional powers further north. To show how far things have moved: 72 per cent of our two-way merchandise trade is with other members of the East Asia Summit. From Prime Minister Whitlam’s visit to China in 1972; right through to the emergence of a major education industry serving the needs of India and Malaysia (among other countries); East Asia has been the focus for ambitious Australian diplomats and business executives; for internationally minded politicians and for academic experts. What is new is the simply extraordinary growth in wealth and significance of so many of the countries of East Asia; and the realisation that to continue succeeding in this era; we must review the languages our children study; the basing of our defence assets; the trade agreements to which we are party; our investment regime; and so forth.

One of the most effective mechanisms for people-to-people relations is education. Australia and Turkey have a national-level Memorandum of Understanding on education cooperation; and approximately 20 Australian universities have direct arrangements with Turkish universities for academic exchange. There are about 3000 people from Turkey currently in Australia on student visas.

Something else we have in common is our commitment to the machinery of international cooperation – pre-eminently the East Asia Summit; the G20 and; of course; the United Nations. The genius of multilateralism is to harness shared interests without insulting the principle of sovereignty; a principle that only grows in centrality as the number of nation states approaches 200. And so we are in the Security Council; as Turkey was in 2009-10 and will probably be again soon. Why does it matter for us? Well; distance is a cliché of Australian history; but it is indisputable that we are unusually dependent on controlling piracy; managing our maritime zones; preserving the freedom of the sea-lanes and the air routes; preserving cyberspace from sinking under the weight of malware and political censorship… And we are in no position to impose our will by force even if we wanted to. Our wide brown land abounding in nature’s gifts would have a lot to lose in a truly anarchic international society. As would Turkey; straddling south-eastern Europe; Central Asia; the Balkans; the Caucasus and the eastern Mediterranean.

But I was talking about Australia and Turkey and what we have in common. One of the things we do not yet share enough is trade; at a little over $1.2 billion in two-way merchandise trade per year. The largest regular items among Australian exports to Turkey are coal and live animals; with major sales from time to time of aluminium fast ferries; maritime surveillance systems; and telecommunications equipment. Australian firms have invested in exploration in Turkey for gold and other minerals; in the production of industrial explosives; and in pipeline services. I shall save the lament for meetings with bilateral business fora; of which there are a number; but a major impediment is the impression many Turks have; that Australia is unimaginably remote – at the uttermost ends of the earth; as New Zealand is described on the Chunuk Bair monument at Gallipoli. And since this distance thing is a matter of imagining; we are putting a lot of effort and great hopes into the 2015 Year of Australia in Turkey and Turkey in Australia. Public diplomacy; in the form of cultural and sporting and academic and other events; is how we shall reduce the frequency with which I am still mistaken for the Ambassador of Austria.

2013.6.25 Ian Biggs Luncheon