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Geoff Hiscock: Turnbull extols 'exciting times'

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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull enters a media conference in Sydney, Australia, on March 23.   © Reuters

Every chance he gets, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urges his fellow citizens to make the most of the "extraordinary and exciting times" they live in. He wants them to be agile, innovative, resilient and ready to pounce on the opportunities arising from the economic growth of Japan, China, India, Indonesia and the rest of the Asia Pacific region.

     Since taking office last year, Turnbull has made it clear he wants to hasten Australia's transition to an "ideas economy" where technology, services and value-added goods are just as important as the coal, iron ore, liquefied natural gas and other commodity exports that have long been the basis of Australia's trade with Asia.

     But in a major foreign policy address in Sydney on March 23, Turnbull momentarily switched his focus from Asia to Europe and the recent terrorist attack in Brussels. Europe, he said, was at crisis point, confronted by a "perfect storm" of Islamic State-directed terrorism that had been enabled by porous borders, foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, neglected integration and dysfunctional European security services. IS was attacking in Europe because it was hurting in Iraq and Syria, Turnbull said.

     "We stand with you, unflinchingly, in the face of this global threat," he told Belgium ambassador Jean-Luc Bodson, who was in the audience.

     Turnbull, who became prime minister and leader of the conservative Liberal Party after ousting his predecessor Tony Abbott last September, is an Asia-Pacific version of the "anti-Trump": Rhodes scholar, a former journalist, lawyer, investment banker, technology entrepreneur, internationalist and an articulate politician with a formidable intellect, he is wealthy beyond the dreams of most ordinary people. Yet he tries hard to shun anything resembling an elitist approach.

     He shares Trump's supreme self-confidence, but that is about all. Where Trump wants walls against neighbors, Turnbull wants engagement.

     In his days as an investment banker, Turnbull was often the smartest person in the room. That was probably true on Wednesday, when Turnbull addressed 600 leaders from business, politics, diplomacy and academia for the Lowy Institute's annual lecture. The institute, founded by billionaire shopping center tycoon Frank Lowy -- a postwar refugee from Europe -- is Australia's best-funded think tank and knows how to draw a crowd.

     In the wake of the Brussels attacks, security was tight, with bag checks and police sniffer dogs at the five-star Wentworth Hotel in the city center, where the Liberal Party celebrated when it was elected as the ruling party in September 2013. The crowd included former Prime Minister John Howard and BHP Billiton chief executive Andrew Mackenzie.

Addressing foreign policy

     The Lowy Institute billed it as Turnbull's first major foreign policy speech in Australia. Actually, the well-polished lines and anecdotes about the rise of Shenzhen from Chinese village to metropolis and Turnbull's "walkabout" in Jakarta with Indonesian President Joko Widodo had been used before in both Canberra and Washington D.C. But no matter - continuity in policy is all to the good. Turnbull understands the value of staying on message.

     Some of the lines on foreign policy might have sounded a little harsher to Chinese ears this time. China's recent actions in the South China Sea "undeniably" had raised tensions in the region, Turnbull declared, describing actions such as the building of islands as "counter-productive." He urged that any differences be resolved in accordance with international law.

     Nevertheless, he readily acknowledged, Australia had a huge stake in a successful transition for China from an economy built on exports, infrastructure and construction investment to one where services and domestic consumption predominated. Similarly, Australia stood to benefit immensely from the coming rise of India, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations, along with the continued trade with Japan and South Korea, he added.

     Turning closer to home, Turnbull, in particular identified a strengthening of links with neighboring Indonesia as a "personal objective." He noted that none of the region's great economic advances could have been achieved without the stability and security provided by the U.S. in the postwar era.

     "Prosperity and peace flows from open markets," Turnbull told the audience. "The lesson from Brussels is that none of this can be taken for granted."

     The other lesson already embraced by Turnbull is to seize the moment. Turnbull said earlier this week he will call an early federal election on July 2 if the Senate does not pass key legislation in April covering the building and construction industry. His Liberal-National coalition leads the opposition Labor Party in the polls, but the momentum could shift if Turnbull's promised "exciting times" fail to materialize.

Geoff Hiscock is an Australia-based writer.

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