The Hon. Alan Baird Ferguson (22nd President of the Australian Senate)

06.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Daniel Vincent & Holly Perman Turnbull

Senator the Hon, Alan Baird Ferguson joined the Liberal Party in 1960 when he was just 17. From then he became a delegate of the Liberal Party Council of South Australia. He was later appointed first as Vice-President and then President of the Liberal Party of South Australia in 1990. This influential position within the party helped advance his career to the federal level, and on the 1st July 1993 Ferguson took up his first senatorial seat. Ferguson would go on to spend three full terms in the Australian Senate as a representative for South Australia. In 1999, he was appointed to the prominent post of Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. He has also held many diplomatic and humanitarian roles on behalf of the Australian Government and of the Commonwealth.

In August 2007 Ferguson was elected as President of the Senate. In his new role he has taken initiatives to improve the image of politicians and the parliament in the eyes of ordinary Australians. At the ‘World Without Walls’ congress, Senator Ferguson gave a lecture entitled, ‘Breaking Down Barriers and Building Bridges’ during which he emphasized the importance of culture in providing a stage for dialogue and mutual exchange. He kindly took the time to speak to the CD News team about political engagement and intercultural dialogue within Australia as well as the country’s economic relationship with Asia.

In his opening lecture, Benjamin Barber referred to the irony of that freedom isn’t recognised until it’s taken away from us and also mentioned the apathy of voters in the US, especially among the younger generation. I wanted to ask you for your reflections on the situation in Australia and if that’s also the case there.

I think it is very true. One of the problems in a country like Australia is that we’ve never had a war. Democracy is taken for granted and so there is a general apathy, not only amongst young people but among older people as well, towards politics and governments in general. That’s brought about because they’ve never been under the stresses that countries in Europe have over the last 100 years. So I agree entirely with what Barber said: if you’ve never been deprived of freedom you don’t appreciate the freedom that you have, that is very true. In the case of Australia it is important to note that we have compulsory voting.  You are compelled to vote at an election. And, while we get a 95% turnout, there is still a 5% who don’t vote, which is punishable by a fine, believe it or not, although this fine is rarely imposed. One of the dangers of that, in a country where there is a considerable apathy towards government and politics, is that you finish up getting the people who don’t care actually electing who wins because they are compelled to be there. I am not a supporter of compulsory voting. You must have the right to vote but you must also have the right not to vote if you choose not to, and if you don’t like what the government is doing and you haven’t voted you’ve got no-one else to blame but yourself if you haven’t taken that opportunity. 

How are relations between the indigenous population in Australia and the settler population managed? Can we talk of a pan-Australian culture? Do efforts have to be made to facilitate inter-cultural dialogue?

Cultural dialogue can’t really be separated from every-day dialogue with the aboriginal community because the aboriginal culture is the one thing that is appreciated by all Australians. The culture is appreciated because it is very old. People like aboriginal art, they like the traditions of indigenous people in Australia, probably the oldest amongst civilizations - 40,000 years plus. But the relationship between indigenous Australians and other Australians is not at a good level. Indigenous peoples are a very small minority. I think the latest figures are about 3.5% of the total population. They are disadvantaged, many of them still live in remote communities where health is an issue and very few of them are employed or work for a living so social welfare and a continuation of their existence or their subsistence on government handouts is still a real problem in Australia. There is sometimes tension between aboriginal groups and other Australians. Indigenous peoples feel disadvantaged while some other Australians think they are being treated too kindly by governments and that gives them no incentive to try and get on in the world and do things for themselves. Almost every Australian would say that the place of indigenous Australians in our society is a very complex one and one that we feel is a very difficult problem.

Is there a way to increase indigenous participation within the nation without compromising cultural autonomy or ‘assimilating’ indigenous peoples?

That’s what we’re trying to do but there is reluctance, even within the aboriginal population, to become involved. Partly because if you claim to have just a trace of indigenous blood in you, you are entitled to so many more benefits than if you are an Australian of other background, a Middle-Eastern Australian or an Asian Australian for example. Sometimes this resentment is felt amongst the ‘newer’ Australians as much as it is amongst the Australians who have been there for two hundred years, who are basically European. Barber spoke of the multi-cultural America but we have 152 nationalities in Australia, Many of them have been assimilated into our community in the last 70 years, since the Second World War. The population of Australia when I started school in 1949 was 7 million. Today it’s 22 million. Much of that increase has been brought about by European migration – Italians, Greeks, Germans and others displaced during the Second World War. After 1979 and the end of the Vietnam war a lot migrants arrived from Vietnam, then the Cambodians and now its an increasingly Middle-Eastern influx.

We have an orderly migration program in Australia. We accept 120,000 every year, no more, no less, although last year we did accept some more because we had a shortage of workers. Before the financial downturn we were encouraging more skilled workers to come. Of those 120,000, 20,000 must be refugees, or are allowed to be refugees, the rest are selected on a points basis. Family reunion is often an important factor in gaining points. We think that, because of the orderly migration system, we have a country where migration has never been a problem. When I was young we referred to migrants who had recently arrived as ‘new Australians’, which conveys the very accepting view of immigrants in those days. But we are currently having tremendous problems with unauthorised and boat arrivals.

Would you say that it is fair to say that Australia is associating itself with Asia now more than with Europe?

I think that is the impression that is gained by Europe. There is no doubt that we are a western nation geographically placed in Asia. We’re changing, but we are basically Europeans living in Asia. There certainly is a concentration of our efforts to become much more involved in the political and governmental decision making in the Pacific area. We’ve always had a strong trading relationship with Asia. Japan has been our number one trading partner for the last 40 years. Just this year China has overtaken Japan so they are one and two with the US and Korea in third and fourth place. We’ve got a Free Trade Agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the US and we’re trying to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with China, but I am very pessimistic about the outcome. The thing is that, although we would prefer to have the WTO and multi-lateral relations put into place, they were just stagnating. The WTO was just bogged down and getting no-where, particularly on the issue of subsidies and tariffs, and so, we said if we cant make any progress in the multilateral forum, we will seek bilateral relationships, and that’s what we’ve done because we are an exporting country. We produce an enormous amount more of goods and services than we can consume so our whole future and our whole economy is based on exports and having excess.

Considering this, how has Australia been affected by the financial downturn?

The financial downturn has made a difference but we are the only country in the Western World that has not gone into recession. We only had one quarter of negative growth - I think that was minus 0.3 - and all the other quarters have been positive growth. There was a stimulus package put into place to try and stop us going into recession but we can quite proudly claim that we are the only country that is not in recession. One of the consequences of this is that our dollar has increased dramatically in value from around 60 cents to the US dollar to 92, so we’re almost on parity with the US Dollar, and that’s just killing some of our export markets because we trade in US Dollars you see. Our wine industry for example is worth 3 Billion Dollars in exports but we’re now finding it difficult to compete against Chile, South Africa and Eastern Europe where wines are all much cheaper. And while our wine is great quality wine, people still buy to a price. The majority of the population buys to a price. We still do well in the sophisticated market but not in the general bulk wine market.

Senator Ferguson it has been a real pleasure talking to you.  Thank you so much for your time.