Gillard urges ‘deep, thoughtful and consistent engagement’ with Asia during address at Elon

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered her perspective on opportunities and challenges in Asia in her talk during the university’s Spring Convocation on Thursday. Her talk was part of the annual Baird Lecture Series. 

> See the Spring Convocation photo gallery

After the end of the Cold War, and less than two decades ago, it appeared democracy had won, said former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during an address at Elon on Thursday. There was confidence that democracy would become the predominant political system, bolster in part by the triumph of capitalism over communism.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

But since the spread of democratically elected governments and the expansion of civil rights, the trend has reversed, Gillard noted in her April 4 address, with more strongmen appearing on the global stage, societies becoming more restrictive and countries stepping back from a more global approach.

“Since as long ago as 2005, democracy has stopped winning,” Gillard said.

With the shift in global dynamics, it has become more important for the United States to remain engaged globally, and not just to protect its economic interests, said Gillard, who served as prime minister from 2010 to 2013. Scheduled trade talks between the United States and China present an opportunity for this country to move back toward a deeper level of engagement, with striking a new trade deal potentially a first step toward achieving that goal, but not the end goal itself, she said.

“I do not want to underestimate the importance of making progress on trade,” Gillard said. “But such a deal is not a substitute for patient, strategic American leadership of the global community as we all China’s rise. … Certainly from an Australian perspective, it is not a substitute for deep, thoughtful, consistent engagement in our region.”

Gillard was speaking during the university’s Spring Convocation, an annual celebration of academic achievement and philanthropy. Her talk was part of the Baird Lecture Series that was made possible in 2001 with an endowed gift from James H. and the late Jane M. Baird of Burlington, N.C.

Spring Convocation offers the opportunity for the university to recognize the academic accomplishments of members of the senior class, and this year also presented the unique opportunity to honor Glenda Phillips Hightower, who in 1963 enrolled as Elon’s first black full-time student. Elon presented Hightower with an honorary doctorate of humane letters in recognition of her courage and her role blazing a trail for generations of students. (More about Hightower’s honor here).

Glenda Phillips Hightower, Elon's first black full-time student, delivering remarks after being presented with an honorary doctorate.
"’Thank you’ is woefully inadequate to express my gratitude, my humility, my honor and my great satisfaction at being included in a celebration of education and grandness," Hightower told the crowd. "I thank you so much for creating for me a healing. I didn't realize at the time that what I was doing was leadership, but I certainly am glad it was interpreted as leadership."

President Connie Ledoux Book announced during the program an estate gift from the late Edna Truitt Noiles ’44 and her husband, Doug, that has made possible 10 new Odyssey Program scholarships, with those awards giving preference to students from Alamance County. (More on the impact of that gift here.)

With the theme of “Engagement in the Asian Century: The Opportunity of Our Lifetime,” Gillard’s remarks centered around shifts in global dynamics from the perspective of an Asian country. Gillard noted that Australia began building a diplomatic relationship with China with a visit by the Australian prime minister to the country in 1971, a move she described as “the starting point of our contemporary foreign policy.”

During the next 40 years, “our understanding of and relationships with the nations in our region had deepened and overwhelmingly flourished,” Gillard said.

Sidney Wilson '21 singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" during Spring Convocation

That’s been seen in Australia’s welcoming approach to migrants and acceptance of other cultures. She noted that the city of Sydney, which many associate with its iconic opera house and bridge, is now a metro in which more than a third of the residents speak a language other than English. “Our home is not just geographically in the Asian region of the world,” Gillard said. “Now we live in the Asian century, and welcome migrants and students from across Asia.”

Gillard credits young people for playing a key role in that diversification. “I believe the young people of today understand the need to think globally, to build in-depth people-to-people links, to try to understand each other,” she said. “I think young people today have a sense that who we are is being changed by the movement of people and ideas, and that ultimately, who we are is improved as we embrace newcomers, new ideas and new cultures.”

Gillard saw her own global profile elevated when in 2012 she delivered a speech in her country’s Parliament decrying misogyny and sexism. Gillard, her country’s first female prime minister, said that education played a key role in her interest in and eventual rise in politics. She said her working-class parents taught her and her sister to aim high, seek out education and give great thought to their careers, all sentiments that ran contrary to much public thinking at the time she was growing up.

Her first foray into politics was to campaign against major government cutbacks to education, and saw some success. “From then on, I was hooked, hooked on believing that you could fight for a cause and win,” she said.

Speaking to the students in the audience, Gillard said, “I hope you find while you are studying, here at this great institution, your passion and your purpose for your life. You never know where it can lead. Mine led me to the highest office in my land.”