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TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Kennedy In Conversation with Jennifer Hewett
March 10, 2023

Australian Financial Review Business SummitSydney, Australia

Moderator: Moving on, and look we often hear about the important relationship between Australia and the U.S. The wars, of course, fought alongside each other; the security pacts, most recently of course being AUKUS in conjunction with the U.K.; trade; and just generally the shared values between the two countries.

But perhaps the strongest indication of the strength and importance of the relationship is who the U.S. sent to be the Ambassador to Australia: Caroline Kennedy. Having been the Ambassador to Japan in the Obama Administration, Ambassador Kennedy has a keen understanding of the region, its changing dynamic, and of course, the U.S.’s role within it.

For more on the U.S.-Australia relationship, as well as the geopolitical landscape of the region – we’re very pleased to welcome the Ambassador — the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, speaking with the Australian Financial Review’s National Affairs Columnist, Jennifer Hewett.

Jennifer Hewett: Well, I think it’s now good afternoon, just, so I’m particularly pleased to welcome the Ambassador here today. And I’d just like to start by asking, what attracted you to this role in the first place? And did it come out of the blue in a conversation with Joe Biden, or had you let it quietly be known you’d be quite interested in the idea?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, when I became Ambassador to Japan it came completely out of the blue, but I found that serving my country abroad and sort of representing the values that I grew up with, and seeing my country from another vantage point taught me so much, and I found that it was so rewarding to meet people in other countries to see what we shared, how we could advance our shared goals and values. So, I was so eager — I have the deepest admiration for President Biden and have known him really throughout his career. He worked with my Uncle Teddy on labor issues, women’s issues, justice issues, education. So I was eager to be part of his Administration and I felt that coming back to this region would be a place where I could make a contribution.

Jennifer Hewett: And since you’ve been here now, eight months or so, is there anything that struck you most or even surprised you? That you weren’t expecting?

Ambassador Kennedy: Oh, I wasn’t expecting anything. [laughs] That’s what’s so incredible about— I knew it was going to be great. And I’d say that the only thing that surprised me was that it’s even much better than great and how wonderful it is to be here, how close this partnership is, how close this alliance is, and how important it is. I think people at home are beginning to appreciate — sort of the general public — but certainly anyone in government knows, that Australia is absolutely our key ally in this region, and so I feel like there isn’t a more important place I could be.

Jennifer Hewett: So during your time here, I note that you’ve done lots of public engagements, ranging from attending the memorial for Olivia Newton-John, to celebrating the life of an African American at the Eureka stockade, to the Avalon Airshow, but I noticed you’ve also done some various private events, in fact, including I think, visiting the station of our previous speaker, Andrew Forrest. Why is it do you think it’s important to kind of get beyond not just the Canberra bubble but also official engagements?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I mean, I’m the ambassador to all of Australia. And so the primary role is, is to represent our government to the Australian Government, and work together on our shared priorities, but you can’t really do that unless you understand the country and you know what people are thinking. And so I think the best way to do that is to get out and meet people. And there’s so much going on in the economic partnership that we have. Obviously, Avalon airshow is a great example of that. And I was — you didn’t mention but I was fortunate enough to go on an airplane flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. So that was really a culmination of — everything is a culmination here. I can’t believe how many great things I’ve been able to do since I arrived. But I think that each one has given me a new insight into a dimension of this relationship and how it is sort of at a level that is poised to grow in the next few years —while I’m here and continuing after. And I think that’s really the most exciting part of it.

Jennifer Hewett: Well, we talk a lot now about shared values and the importance of that, and at the same time, you’ve had people like Nouriel Roubini this morning offering a rather gloomy, typically gloomy I’d say, view of the risks and the costs and the threats of that. So do you think if we take a slightly more optimistic view, what are the economic opportunities for Australia as a result of this kind of changed dynamic between allies?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I think we’ve heard a lot about that this morning from Andrew, from the earlier speakers, from the Prime Minister — there is just a massive amount of partnership. Even if you’re talking about AUKUS, it’s really a technological sharing agreement. And so, Australia has sort of leading innovation. The head of the National Science Foundation was just here, couple of weeks ago, to announce a partnership on AI with CSIRO, and quantum. There’s a huge amount of collaboration, green energy, clean tech. So, I think that really as you look across the board, there are huge opportunities and certainly we’ve heard a lot about the Inflation Reduction Act, but that is just a massive, massively going to increase Australia’s opportunity in the U.S. and for Australians. I think the money will flow back here as well.

Jennifer Hewett: Well, in fact, in terms of the Inflation Reduction Act, some people — it seems to be mainly the Europeans but—maybe I’m being biased — suggest that this is actually unfair and that America subsidizing its industry so heavily, means that it’s drawing in capital and talent from all over the world. And it’s a form of actually protectionism. Do you do think that’s fair?

Ambassador Kennedy: I’m, a, I’m — I don’t agree with the Europeans. [laughs]

I think it’s a massive initiative, and it’s bipartisan. So I think what it really shows is U.S. leadership, both economically and globally, and also politically. I think that for — if you remember what people were saying when Joe Biden took office, it was, you know, that we can’t get anything done, we can’t get anything passed. And you have sort of three major pieces of bipartisan legislation that are putting the U.S. in the lead in terms of climate change — pushing back against that, developing all these new technologies for the clean energy world. So I think it’s, you know, I hope that others will take steps to, to match us — to beat us. I mean, we all share this goal to get to decarbonize our future. And so I’m really proud of President Biden’s leadership and the U.S. in general to do this. And I think it’s a huge opportunity. And for no place better than Australia here. This is — you have a unique ability and opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, that almost no other country has, as a free trade partner, as a source of critical minerals, with the know-how and expertise to mine them and extract them, at a time when there’s nothing more important than our alliances globally. And so we want to work with our trusted partners to secure the supply chains, to build those alliances into even stronger than they are today. So, so I think it’s, it’s — really I’m so proud that we were able to do this and I think it’s going to — it is already, from what I’ve heard this morning — having a huge impact on businesses in real time.

Jennifer Hewett: And you mentioned AUKUS. Obviously we’re going to be having an announcement on, on submarines shortly. But you said it’s much more than that. To what extent do you, in terms of the technology exchange and the opportunities there, to what extent do you think that is a game-changer as opposed to accelerating maybe the trends that were already happening in technology and the cooperation?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I’m sure there’s people here who know more. I mean, submarines are significant, and I think that that kind of cooperation, the training that will come, the workforce development, the capability development that’s going to come as a result of that, will build on the kind of partnership that we already have in the security realm. But I think what’s going to happen in these new technologies is something that I can’t even envision. But quantum, AI, hypersonics, cyber, all of those are the industries of the future. So for our governments to make this kind of trilateral massive opportunity, and in the process to reform some of the export controls, and the ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] regime, and using AUKUS as a vehicle through which to do that — that is going to really change a number of industries in a significant way and accelerate the development of new technology.

Jennifer Hewett: Well if we now move on to a kind of more — broader kind of geopolitical look at things? I mean, we’ve heard a lot again today about the world being a very dangerous and unpredictable place this decade. And yet, we had Andrew Forrest again saying we should have less chest beating from both the U.S. and China. Do you think the U.S. is doing too much chest beating?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I think that the region has changed and depending on your perspective, you have a different sense of that. I think the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister have, you know, made clear that, that they want to stabilize the relationship. President Biden also has made clear that we need to manage this responsibly. So, I think all of us are looking for increased dialogue, for cooperation on areas like climate, but there are issues that we need to respond to. And so, I think that it’s a process of managing that. You know, Australia is starting to reengage with China, they’re coming out of lockdown. So, we’re going to have to see how all this unfolds, but certainly nobody wants conflict and, and the more dialogue that we can have at all levels, the better.

Jennifer Hewett: Do you think that the West in general, including the U.S. but also Australia, was too blind to China’s kind of greater ambitions over, over a long time, and that’s now changed?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I wasn’t out here then and I wasn’t in Australia, so I can’t really comment on that. But I can say that people, you know, other countries really took notice of Australia’s response to the economic coercion that it faced. And I think it set a great example for others, inspired others to, to think about how to become more resilient as well, and less dependent. And I think that that has actually had a very important impact on the rest of the world.

Jennifer Hewett: Okay. Now, one of the things of course that the Trump administration — the advent of the Trump administration meant — was that allies became much more concerned about the stability of U.S. politics, and the relationship with the U.S. So the Biden administration has kind of brought that back into balance a lot more, I’d say, but the volatility of U.S. politics remains extreme, and it seems that it’s even potentially possible that you’d see the reemergence of another Trump administration. Do you think that allies should be concerned about that stabilizing force of the U.S.? Or is it that is that overblown?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, the U.S. has been, you know, a stabilizing force in this region for seventy years. We’re a Pacific nation. I think that there’s bipartisan support for that, just as there has been — when I was in Japan, I certainly saw the strength of that alliance and how it’s grown over the past 70 years in a way that allowed President Obama to go to Hiroshima, which was the first time a sitting president had done that. So that gives me great hope that, that these kinds of conflicts and generational tensions can be resolved if people work hard at them. And I think that in the U.S. what we’ve seen is, you know, President Biden’s leadership has restored the strength of our alliances. Certainly, if you look at the invasion of Ukraine, what — how NATO has come together has been something that nobody would have predicted a few years ago, or to the extent that it has. Certainly it’s always been a strong alliance. So, I think that the midterm results showed that people are eager for a more competent, calm government in the United States and I think that we’re going to see that continue. Of course, there are issues that are hotly debated and polarizing figures in politics, but I think overall, that President Biden and the kind of commitment that he’s made to our global leadership as well as to tackling domestic challenges, putting workers at the center, putting the environment at the center, is going to help stabilize our politics.

Jennifer Hewett: Well, yes, because despite the solidarity that’s been shown over Ukraine, there was a kind of momentum building or a conversation building that said democracies were in decline basically because they were destroying themselves from within, whether it was due to greater inequality or identity politics, just a general sense of division. I take it you don’t share that pessimistic view at all?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I mean, I know that there are problems that we have in our society for sure, and some of those are among them, but I think that we are facing really serious threats right now. We have a number of crises and I think people are focused on how to, how to manage them, how to create a better world for our children and grandchildren. And we don’t — we have to focus on these challenges and try to solve them. We can’t— you know, expend energy in that same kind of way — in division — because it’s not going to get us where we need to go.

Jennifer Hewett: You said you’d known President Biden for a very long time. What do you think his great strengths are as a leader?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I think that what he’s done, and actually, he — I mean, first of all, his compassion, his experience, his competence, the team that he’s assembled, all of those are without a doubt his great strengths. His international background certainly. But I also feel like he, he just has a fundamental belief in patriotism that I think he has restored the soul of America in a way. And that is what he ran on. And his commitment to inclusion, and to really in all levels of government, sort of making the government look like America, making sure that we can get the most talent, the most voices, is a really significant development that will allow us to continue to play a leadership role and include sort of our entire population in that, which also has political benefits as well.

Jennifer Hewett: Okay, well, let’s hope so. [laughs]

Ambassador Kennedy: Why do you seem so pessimistic? Just because you’re a journalist or are there other reasons? [laughs]

Jennifer Hewett: [laughs] Well it’s possibly both and I think when you look at the U.S. always from the outside, you tend to hear, see the most, you know, extreme examples of what’s going on, and including some of the kinds of great political debates and even the violence obviously that occurred, and so people just become nervous about what that means for the future…

Ambassador Kennedy: It’s funny, because I feel like seeing the U.S. from the outside, I see the good things. And I — and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed and found it so rewarding to see how other people see the U.S. And I think that we actually, in the U.S., do spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves and arguing about things, but if you step away, you see that there is much more that unites us than divides us. And so I wish that — so hopefully you’ll come back and…

Jennifer Hewett: Oh, I’ll definitely come back.

Ambassador Kennedy: …see what I’m talking about. [laughter]

Jennifer Hewett: On a more personal note, is it — is it true that Neil Diamond told you that a photograph of you as a little girl on a horse was the inspiration for Sweet Caroline?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I’ve been asked that before, amazingly enough. [laughter] And he said so, but when I listened to the words, I’m not so sure.

Jennifer Hewett: What about another thing I read, which was that you had, you contemplated a career in photojournalism, but then you realized that too many of the people that you were trying to write about or take photographs of were more interested in looking at you rather than you looking at them as the subject, and that put you off?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, if I could only have been a journalist. [laughter]

Ambassador Kennedy: I went to law school after — I certainly am interested in current events and in people, and I think journalism is a great way to make a contribution to both of those but I — I went to law school after I worked in the museum for a number of years, and I found that to be another way of doing that. And I started out by writing books about constitutional law and its effect on individuals. And I feel like, in a way because I come from a family that’s so prominent, people know who I am. And it’s allowed me to, to sort of connect with people in a way that they feel like they know me, and so they do. They’ve watched me grow up in a way that, obviously I don’t know them in the same way but — but I think that that’s really helped me in my work as an ambassador, for example. So it’s kind of come full circle.

Jennifer Hewett: Yeah, I’m sure it has helped you a lot. But how hard is it to have lived your whole life not only in the kind of public eye but also in the public imagination — in a way? Globally?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I don’t know — I mean, it’s, it’s all I’ve ever known. So it’s worked out really well for me. I have — I’m really fortunate. I have a wonderful husband and three children and an extended family that, that I’ve grown up with, so I feel like that — those important things have been really what has, has made this all such a wonderful adventure.

Jennifer Hewett: Okay, so I think in 2008, late 2008, you were interested in possibly taking Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. And that was in fact the seat that Robert Kennedy had held. But you changed your mind. You decided not to. What — why was that?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, it was actually — my uncle had died the year before. So I, you know, I saw his commitment and his devotion to the Senate and what he was able to accomplish over his 47 year career there, and really the culmination of that was the Affordable Health Care Act. And it took 70 years for the United States to have accessible, affordable, you know, health care. And so, so there was a time when I thought, oh, maybe that would be something to pursue. But I really don’t think that that would have been the right thing for me. So when I thought about it some more, I thought that that was not probably the best plan.

Jennifer Hewett: And, and you didn’t obviously though — that didn’t deter you from continuing a public service role. And, and, and you were — did become an ambassador to Japan, you said that did come out of the blue — but what, what was it that encouraged you to kind of continue that public life as an ambassador?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I had been working in the New York City public schools for 10 years. I think that after 9/11 was when I really felt like I had an opportunity and obligation to, to try to figure out what I could do to contribute. My children were old enough that I felt like I had more time to do that. And so, so I had — and I think that education is really the most important long-term issue that we face in the U.S.— so I had been doing that. So I want it to continue in some way. And I certainly have worked hard to represent the values that I grew up with and that my family has represented. So when President Obama asked me to be ambassador to Japan, it wasn’t anything that I was expecting, because my focus had been much more on domestic issues, education being the most important. And so — but it was a great opportunity. So, I thought, like we’ve been talking about, sometimes you have to change your whole plan. When you, when something comes along. And so I heard that this morning from the women at the breakfast — the CEOs who were also talking about taking advantage of opportunities they weren’t expecting, or learning from things that were difficult. So I feel like I was able to do that and then — here I am.

Jennifer Hewett: And what was the toughest challenge you faced in Japan as ambassador? Obviously, a very different culture, particularly the treatment of women.

Ambassador Kennedy: Right. Well, I think there were again — I think that — I was surprised by the affinity that they felt for President Kennedy. And I think that my family legacy really was something that was very much — the public service, this sense of patriotism, that they feel sort of resonated. And the fact that they felt that they knew me allowed me to help advocate. TPP was going on. President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was going on. It was rising tension in the South China Sea. So there were a number of issues that, that were happening at that time, some of which are — have developed further and others were particular to that place and time, but I was really happy to be able to help — to the extent that I could be a visible symbol for women’s empowerment. Certainly Japan needs more of that. And the women there are really talented and dynamic. And so it’s great to see, hopefully, some progress for them and for the LGBT community there.

Jennifer Hewett: Okay. Now, when I was — when I was in the U.S. many years ago, one of the embassy officials said to me that Australia and, and, and the U.S. were two countries, divided by a common language. And by that I think he meant that — despite our many — many sim— cultural similarities, there were also kind of differences that were at a deeper level that we didn’t—what— weren’t immediately apparent. Do you see any of those cultural differences?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, no one in the U.S. would sit through a whole conference all morning like this… [laughter]

Ambassador Kennedy: I mean, that’s for sure… [laughs] But, so thank you all, for you know, waiting it out — I know lunch is coming soon. But I mean, yes, of course. And also, I can’t really in a way generalize about the entire U.S. But we do have really strong regional cultures. But I’ve been struck, you know, certainly by the sort of — the deep friendships, the way people look out for each other, the nicknames, things — the way people obey the traffic laws here — that I think are all, really great. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I have to discover.

Jennifer Hewett: Yeah. Well, on that point, I mean, you said you wrote a couple of books on civil liberties. And there does seem to have been more of a focus in the U.S. always on individual rights in compared to the kind of the probably the stronger British tradition, I guess.

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I think we have both. We have rights and responsibilities, and they are — sort of the pendulum goes back and forth in terms of which is, you know, more emphasized. Certainly, during the, you know, my father’s administration, we made a national commitment to go to the moon and everybody was part of that. The Civil Rights movement, you know, women’s rights, human rights, all of that was a way of improving our, our society. And I think that each generation has an obligation to try to do that. So I think there is a very strong community spirit and citizenship and sense in the United States and a sense of, of giving back. But, you know, right now, we maybe — the emphasis became more on the individual rights, and certainly we saw with some of the reaction to COVID and who was going to wear a mask and things like that — but I think that those things are always in tension in a free society, certainly in the United States. So, so I think it’s just a balance that we’re always — always juggling — always. There’s always a tension there. And we need the innovation. We need the individuality, and we need the collective sense of responsibility.

Jennifer Hewett: In — given that it is International Women’s Day tomorrow and you were at the breakfast this morning — U.S. women, in many ways, kind of seem to lead the way in terms of, kind of taking their place in the world, asserting their rights in the world, greater equality corporate life and, and more recently, of course, the Me Too movement. Do you see again, much difference between the U.S. and Australia there, or have those differences diminished?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I — I mean, there are just as many, you know, talented women here and the military and the intelligence community and the business community and the scientific community. So it’s really exciting for me to meet women leaders across this relationship. And, you know, one of the first things I did here was go to a graduation and just see the diversity of this society. So and — all the young women who are pursuing you know, so many different degrees — I recently met with the Fulbrighters who are going off to the U.S. and there were, you know, just a full range of Americans and Australians, so I mean, looking ahead, I feel like there’s so much talent in both places and certainly we have a long way to go with women’s advancement. And UN Women’s Day is a good chance to take a look at it.

I mean, the gender pay gap is still — I heard 23% here. I thought it was 14, the U.S. is 17. I mean, that is an embarrassment. And the challenges that we face getting women to stay in STEM fields, not just to enter them but to, to be retained. But people are, you know, hopefully, this generation is going to keep at it and we’re going to continue to make progress. But we have a long way to go.

So many more women, elderly women are living in poverty. Then because of the compounded effects of the pay gap. And then you get into the global situation where I mean, Andrew was talking about ending modern slavery. Most of the people that are trafficked are women and girls. Refugees are 80% women. There’s over 100 million displaced people and most of them are women.

So all the challenges that are transnational, like climate change, and other things, impact women more severely. And so we’re lucky to live in countries that women don’t face extreme danger every day, but they’re certainly — it’s not equal. And I think there’s a long way to go. So it’s great that there were so many men — at our embassy, which is led — our whole country team is women, all the CGs — Consul Generals — one of whom is here today — as well as having a woman Ambassador, so — and there’s so many male champions. We all heard at the breakfast about the sponsors, who really lifted up talented women, and so I really hope that everybody here will do that for a talented young woman that they see in their workforce.

Jennfier Hewett: Now we also have — both countries obviously have a huge focus on, on racial issues. Both huge immigrant societies, but also just in terms of racial issues. The, the focus in America seems to be much more on Black Americans than Indigenous Americans and Native Americans. Why is that, do you think? Or are we just reading the wrong things?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, historically, you know, we’ve — we had slavery. Obviously until the middle of the 19th century, so — and the Civil Rights movement really was a way of, of rectifying some of the wrongs that have been committed and I think that inspired the world, and they’re still going on with Black Lives Matter and other movements. So that’s an ongoing struggle that the United States faces. We also have a Native American rights movement. It’s smaller, but I think it’s getting — once again, we have the first Native American cabinet secretary, the Secretary of the Interior, who is an Indigenous woman —

Jennifer Hewett: Been to WA —

Ambassador Kennedy: Yeah, and she has shined a light on the Federal Boarding School Initiative which bears some resemblance to the Stolen Generations here. So I think that, that the legacy of injustice, of exclusion, is something that both our countries face and the U.S. is, is grappling with this and I think it’s something that we all can learn from – have to learn from — in order to move forward. So I think that the Civil Rights movement gave people a lot of hope around the world in terms of other movements, but certainly the Native American rights movement exists as well.

Jennifer Hewett: And we’re going to shortly break for lunch, obviously. But if we step forward a couple of years — kind of question — which is probably fair, but what would you be most proud of? What would you be most proud of achieving at the end of your term as ambassador?

Ambassador Kennedy: Well, I have found — I mean, I have some things that I really want to work on, and I know that they’re — they’ve been long-standing issues. But they’re somewhat specific. Certainly ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] is one of them. And there’s other — but I found in Japan that it takes like, six to nine months to figure out what where the opportunities really are, and then the rest of the time to try to make progress on them. But the great thing about this relationship is that everything is going really well and so I am happy to work on problems that anyone may have. But I think that everybody here is so capable and there’s so much existing partnership, friendship, dialogue going on at all levels, that — that it isn’t even something that the U.S. is — I mean — that the ambassador — is the one that’s leading. I think the public is leading.

Jennifer Hewett: Well, I guess that means you will just have to come back to this summit next year.

Ambassador Kennedy: This summit, yeah.

Jennifer Hewett: And I’ll ask you again.

Ambassador Kennedy: Yeah, definitely. I’ll have figured it out by them.

Jennfier Hewett: Okay, well, I just like you to join me in thanking the ambassador very much for a fantastic conversation.