Kelly emphasised the wide array of topics covered by the Programme and hopes Australia will respond to the interest shown by Spain
The Australian Leaders Programme 2016 included four Australian journalists specialising in different areas who visited Spain in November to gain a greater understanding of Spain as a country. The Council Foundation, as part of its active communications policy, is publishing interviews with them monthly.
Journalist, former Editor-in-Chief and current Editor-at-Large on The Australian, Paul Kelly writes on Australian politics and international affairs and is considered to be one of Australia’s most eminent experts in those areas. He is the author of several books on political events and the history of Australia over recent decades.
- Has this trip changed the ideas you had about Spain before you came?
I have enjoyed this Programme thoroughly. I have found it highly stimulating, informative and thought-provoking. I must humbly admit that I didn’t know much about Spain. I had only been here once before, and it was in January 1973. It was a different world and Spain was so, so different then.
I have now had the chance to see modern, contemporary Spain, and I have enjoyed it so much. This has truly expanded my perception of the country.
- Although from a political and diplomatic point of view, relations between Spain and Australia are strong, the geographical distance means a lack of awareness for the vast majority of Spanish society, which means people often resort to stereotypes. Is the situation the same the other way round?
The two countries are so far from one another, Spain in Europe and Australia in the South Pacific, that we hardly have any historical ties. In Australia, naturally, we have a long history with the UK - we were a colony after all - and with France due to the World Wars. But we have no historic or face-to face relations with Spain. That’s why programmes like this one are so important. I am truly impressed with SACF’s Leaders Programme.
I believe one of the main issues right now is the fact that business relations between the two countries are asymmetrical. There are a significant number of Spanish companies operating in Australia in the fields of renewable energies, water and defence, among others, but there are no major Australian companies operating in Spain.
Business relations between the two countries therefore tend to be asymmetrical, with greater efforts made on one side. Australia is not reciprocating; we are not making the same efforts as Spain to build bridges and strengthen ties.
I’m determined to boost interest in Spain when I go back to Australia. For example, it has been a long time since there was an official state visit to Spain by one of our ministries. We are not paying this country enough attention.
- At the moment, the European Union and Australia are in negotiations to draft a free-trade agreement for the future. How is this perceived in Australia? Has Brexit had any impact on the negotiations?
Public opinion in Australia isn’t too concerned about this issue; the Government is acting on its own initiative and considers this to be very much a long-term project, as I imagine the EU does. Drafting an agreement that will reflect all the aspects of a relationship like this will take a long time.
I am a bit sceptical about this, but I don’t think it will do any harm. After the elections in the US, there will be more emphasis on protectionism and more scepticism around free trade. In this context it is important that, generally speaking, both the EU and Australia support the principles of free trade all over the world and make progress in negotiations for a joint agreement.
- Last September, an EU-Australia Leadership Forum was announced, which will bring together politicians, companies, NGOs, media outlets and universities, among others, to examine relations between the two regions. What do you think of initiatives like this?
It is obviously a good thing. There are always priority issues that governments, officials and the private sector can discuss at forums like this. The fact that these events are taking place between the EU and other countries is positive and I trust that they will be fruitful.
- Finally, which aspects of the 2016 Australian Leaders Programme would you highlight out of everything you’ve experienced this week?
I wouldn’t want to highlight anything in particular. The most important thing about the Programme is the fact that it is all-encompassing. The meetings at the Ministries of Economy and Foreign Affairs, with Spanish journalists, dialogues with companies in the defence, renewables, fashion and transport industries. That is where the strength of the programme lies: in its diversity and in the wealth of aspects analysed in the past few days.
The key to its success and the positive response it has triggered in the Australian participants is its vibrant, diverse nature. We all have different interests and I think we have all been able to look more closely at certain facets of our own fields and learn about areas we didn’t know much about before.