Hail the chief: The PM in America

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James Riley

There is a certain order of things that need to happen on the international front when a new Prime Minister takes charge in Australia.

When Mr Turnbull took over the leadership last September, he was almost immediately on a plane to a couple of multilateral events – APEC and the East Asia Summit – and there was also long-scheduled bilateral with the German Chancellor. These took place before he had really put his feet under the desk as Prime Minister.

And then the ‘certain order of things’ kicks in. He visited Japan in December. He is wrapping up a visit to the US today, and you can be almost certain that an official visit to China is a ‘sooner rather than later’ proposition.

That may depend in part on whether Coalition strategists intend on taking up the option of a March/April election, but you can be sure that Mr Turnbull is actively planning a visit to Australia’s largest trading partner as his next overseas destination.

The theme coming through stronger than ever from the Japan and US visits is the priority given over to the innovation narrative.

The first order of business for any Prime Minister visiting the US is the tending to the strategic relationship – as it should be. So Mr Turnbull’s first couple of engagements were defence and terrorism-related.

But when speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Mr Turnbull turned his attention to innovation issues, and its increased role in globalisation and trade. This is a great speech, and very much worth a read.

The point, I guess, is that in years past, once the strategic security issues had been dealt with, a visiting PM would move to the next most pressing issue – something like sugar tariff, or meat/cattle exports or some such.

In Mr Turnbull’s mind, innovation and research and collaboration and entrepreneurialism was next on the agenda. And he used these themes to weave a narrative that was actually about China, global trade, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a route to ongoing stability through the region.

The point is, the usual Turnbull stump speech about agility and innovation, the fact it has never been a more exciting time to be alive, is used as a proof-point in his extrapolation to trade and security issues.

While noting the rise of China economic power, Mr Turnbull says “the United States has every reason to be filled with optimism and enthusiasm for the future.”

“We are seeing a transformation in world affairs, which is driven by – supercharged by – technology. It is supercharged by the digital technology which was in large part imagined, developed, created here in the United States,” Mr Turnbull told the US Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

“It’s not so long ago that people were saying America, it was all over. It was in inexorable decline. The digital world, the modern digital economy driven by technology was imagined in the United States,” he said.

“The United States leads in that digital world, not by force of power, but by force of innovation, by force of imagination, by a force of intellect.”

This is the cultural change that Mr Turnbull is trying to excite in Australia. If he could import one key component of the American story to Australia, one suspects it would be the relentless drive to renew itself through entrepreneurial adventure.

“But all of that requires, in many respects, a change of culture. It requires a move away from excessive deference; it requires a move away from the attitude that says we’ve always done things this way, and a fear of doing things differently,” Mr Turnbull said.

“Right across the board, innovation is the key to our success, and to your success. It is the key to America’s success. And that is why when we come to America, and I felt like this 41 years ago [when I first visited the US], and I still feel like that today, I’m always energized by the enthusiasm of this country – by a new world constantly reimagined by entrepreneurship, and innovation,” he said.

Which brings us to China. Of course the rise of China has unsettled many in the US, and our Prime Minister has this week been meeting with US legislators arguing for them to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership as both an opportunity and a vehicle to stability through the region.

“[The TPP] It is a very important element in the maintenance of the United States as the credible, strong, consistent enduring guarantor of the rules based international order,” he said. “It sets a very high bar. It encourages countries to reform.”

“The pace of opening markets, of ensuring that you have greater transparency, better transparency for business, for investors, stronger rule of law, all of those things that are absolutely critical to the peace and stability the United States has underwritten in our region for so many years, all of those things need to be built on and the TPP is a key part of that.”

Whenever Mr Turnbull visits Beijing you can bet that regional stability and security will top the agenda. But also look for a speech that speaks to a broadening of the Australia-China relationship and the better integration of research and innovation collaborations.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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