Address to the Sydney Institute: Australian Freedom and an Australian Modern Slavery Act

It is a cold, clear night tonight here by the Harbour where modern Australia was conceived.  A perfect night to head out for a meal at one of our city’s world-renowned restaurants, perhaps, for fish.

Imagine it now, as we order the Yellowfin Tuna. The first mouthful is absolutely delicious. But what if we were then to learn that the fisherman who caught that same fish we are eating is a slave?

The fisherman hasn’t been paid for his work; he is forced to live in slavery on a fishing boat; lives under physical threat to his safety; the boat is always refuelled at sea so he can’t escape – and he hasn’t seen his family for 22 years.

This lived, real example of slavery in our region means that suddenly that same fish wouldn’t taste so good to anyone here, wouldn’t it?

And why is that? Because Australians, from our inception as a modern nation have loved and valued freedom and a fair go for all. Even more than we love harbour views or good restaurants or the good life, our commitment as a people to a basic egalitarian concept of freedom and a fair go for all, regardless of status, is an intrinsic part of who we are.  The fisherman or the fine diners are equal in our estimation as a people.

For a long time now we have enjoyed more of two things than almost any other society in history. Freedom and prosperity. In fact in Australia we have had so much essential freedom that we tend to assume everyone values freedom, so we don’t talk about it much. We don’t talk about why slavery is wrong; we just know that it is. But as history teaches us unless we act to conserve great principles, like freedom, then they are easy to lose.

Tonight I want to speak with you about:

·       The Australian passion for freedom and where it came from;

·       The frightening resurgence of slavery in our times;

·       How reviving conservative values can overcome slavery, and;

·       The Governments hope for an Australian Modern Slavery Act and the need for business and civil society to drive real change.

Our Australian passion for freedom may seem odd given we started as a penal colony on land that had belonged to Indigenous people, here for a long time. Yet today, The Legatum Prosperity index places Australia in the very top tier for personal freedoms. An enormous achievement in just a few hundred years.

We didn’t have a Thomas Jefferson, who wrote some of the most profound words in history on freedom (while himself holding slaves). Instead we had men, enlightened for their times, who were short on words and long on action, men like the Captain of the First Fleet, Arthur Phillip and the convict James Ruse. 

Phillip’s papers don’t reveal a lot of philosophy, but they do reveal deep conviction. In a detailed Memorandum of his plans for the new proposed colony, he wrote to Lord Sydney of two surprising things.

First, for the convicts, Phillip wanted a free life for them:

I shall endeavour to make them sensible of their situation, and that their happiness or misery is in their own hands,—that those who behave well will be rewarded by being allow'd to work occasionally on the small lots of land set apart for them, and which they will be put in possession of at the expiration of the time for which they are transported...[1]

Second, and perhaps even more startling for the time and appropriate for us tonight, Philip wrote:

There is one [law] that I would wish to take place from the moment His Majesty's forces take possession of the country: that there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.[2]

That is to say, perhaps the very first law of Australia that was uniquely Australian was that there would be no slavery.

Philip’s enlightened attitude to the world was not confined to slavery and led to perhaps one of my favourite stories to tell about both my electorate and the development of individual rights and freedoms in our country:

In 1789 the young colony of Sydney was in a crisis. The government farms, throughout my electorate at Castle Hill, had regularly failed to produce any crops. The colonists were all starving.

In desperation in 1791 a convict named James Ruse and his wife were to host what Governor Phillip described at the time as “an experiment”.

Governor Phillip granted the convict James Ruse a small uncleared piece of land and made him an offer. If Ruse could successfully farm the land, not only would he become a free man but also that land would be his.

By 1791, what began as a radical “experiment” had demonstrated that the individual, his family and his enterprise could do something that the government with all of its power and all of its convict labour could not. 

At Experiment Farm, James Ruse and his family were the first Australians to successfully run a farm; the first citizens to take themselves off the government store and sustain themselves without government support. I have always been especially proud to represent a region of Sydney that is home to the first free enterprise in our nation’s history.

So whilst we know that our history is not always perfect we can regard freedom from slavery as one of the birthrights of our nation and something to be grateful to our forebears like Arthur Philip for.  And I believe it is our job to conserve that birthright.

In this case it was Phillip who set out this freedom, but, like the fine conservatives who led the government in England at the time, he was building on the good ideas of others. One of those people was the Judge Lord Mansfield. It was his job to look at the possibilities of how the common law would work with people who the British Empire would absorb, following Cook’s contact with Terra Australis.  In 1772, Lord Mansfield handed down his judgment in which he said:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political … it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it … Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision. I cannot say [slavery] is allowed by the laws of England.[3]

And the judge hadn’t come up with this idea by himself either. The Wesley brothers had been preaching innate dignity for decades before. And it wasn’t just Protestants carrying the torch. Pope Paul III forbade slavery in 1537. In the 5th Century, St Augustine believed that slavery was a manifestation of sin in the world and it’s reported he had his church bankrupt themselves to purchase manumission, otherwise known as freedom, for the slaves.

But however strong this ideal was, like other nations, Australia has many instances of shame in its past.

The practice of ‘black-birding’ in Far North Queensland on the sugar cane fields, which enslaved thousands of Pacific Islanders; and more violently, the forced labour of Indigenous people in The West Kimberley for the Pearling Industry.

But these two horrific examples should be seen more as aberrations outside the principles of Australia. They were egregiously rationalised under the rubric of economic progress. But the idea of owning another human being was entirely outlawed.

Those practices of black-birding and forced labor a century ago outrage us now, and so they should. So why are we not more concerned by the existence of slavery just outside our shores? And, more pointedly, shouldn’t we be worried at the fact that many of the goods and services we enjoy have slavery built in to their supply chain.

In fact there is frightening resurgence of slavery in our times.  As in other Western economies the rot of slavery has crept in, out of sight, into Australian business and life. That story of the fisherman living in slavery away from his family for 22 years isn’t fiction. His story was documented in The Economist in September last year.[4]

The UN estimates that our Asian fisherman is one of 25 million people who are effectively slaves. They are forced to labor. They are trafficked for prostitution. They are denied their rightful wages.

Around half of the world’s slaves are in our Asia Pacific area, and far too many of them are part of the business ecosystem that ends in our grocery shops and department stores.

But a survey of the publicly available data shows that the extent of modern-day slavery in supply chains is unclear. The data does not show whether it’s concentrated in certain locations and products - which could help us create a more focused approach against modern slavery.

We do know this: slavery has been found in the fishing industry in our region whose workers have been exploited and their most basic freedoms taken away[5]; this was admitted by one of the world’s largest food producers and some of Australia’s largest retailers[6]. Slavery has even recently been found in the supply chain of one of our most iconic surf brands as far away as North Korea[7]. In the UK it has been found in car washes, and nail bars.

As we have forgotten the lessons of history, slavery has been allowed to return. It is sobering to remember that there are at this moment more people in slavery than there ever has been in world history.

To combat the frightening resurgence of slavery, we need to return to the conservative values that underpinned the successes of the past. We need to remember what those great principles are. And we need to build on them.

The fundamental conservative vision is that we flourish when all are free.

We work harder, we solve economic problems more efficiently, we are more motivated to plan for the future for our family and our communities and for ourselves when we are free.

This is proven by the liberal democratic miracle that is modern Australia—one of the world’s most stable democracies and richest countries per capita.

The original abolition of slavery is a case in point of these values. The core conservative guiding principle is that we must build on the good.  And we are indebted to those before us who taught us that we ourselves were enslaved when we enslaved others.

For Christian politicians in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the campaign to make slavery illegal was the ultimate radical act. To take the English speaking world back to the essential teachings of Scripture, that we are all made in the image of God.

Their ability to express their fierce convictions led to the freedom of many others. And of course we must remember these important lessons of history and understand the vital importance of religious freedom in Australia today.

The abolitionist movement in Britain was led by an evangelical Christian called Granville Sharpe; a grandfather member of William Wilberforce’s group which agitated for the removal of slavery from statute—the leading nation to do so, with the King’s Proclamations of 1807[8] and 1832[9].

It was probably the greatest human rights achievement of all time. Not only because of its actual outcome but because of its moral achievement – for the first time slavery wasn’t only illegal it was also considered wrong by everyone.

Today, we all believe that slavery is wrong. This goes without question. But it was the abolition movement that also drove the moral progress of society. Law is downstream of public conscience and we should be glad that the common law recognised that slavery was wrong. This now put it on the statute books which remain in place today.

Whether or not people in this room believe the same things as the abolitionist leaders did, it is indisputable that these abolitionists were driven by a sincere faith. But when we look at how these reformers got things done, we see another principle of conservatism at work. The principle of starting locally.

Conservatism argues that the great answers aren’t created by big government, they come from small groups of passionate people. And I’m happy to admit that the Turnbull governments work with the Modern Slavery Australia Act has been driven as all good legislation should be by a whole of society approach – Australians who are passionate about freedom.

Conservatism – the principle of remembering and building on the good – can also help us with another great moral crisis we’re facing in Australia. I speak, of course, of the moral crisis Australia’s financial sector. Which as you will see is implicitly related in many ways to why some of our business leadership of today have lost their way.

Take great financial brands like AMP, who have forgotten their roots entirely.  The Australian Mutual Provident Society came out of the same nourishing soil that gave us the anti-slavery movement. It was evangelical business leaders like Thomas Holt who founded the AMP to “to place within reach of the labouring classes a way to look after their families in an uncertain world.” If  only they would return to their original mission then I suspect they wouldn’t be involved in appalling scandals, such as charging fees for no service.

But it isn’t just many business that have lost their moral compass and sight of their true purpose.  Without clear leadership government and its institutions regularly fail us also. A prominent, recent and regular example of this is the so called “Australian Human Rights Commission” of today.

An organisation which seems to be more concerned with the rights of murderers,  pedophiles and those committing violence against women than discovering the real human rights violations of truly vulnerable people.  Their ongoing bizarre record, including the prolonged harassment of university students over untrue and trivial matters brings shame upon our reputation as a free and just country.

In times of cultural confusion for business and government, we need to return to the good and build on it. To return to essential principles that we all agree on such as individual freedoms and a fair go.

This is the hope contained in the Australian Modern Slavery Act. I believe all Australians will be proud of our Bill to fight modern slavery. It builds on founding principles of our nation and ensures a whole of society effort to tackle the most serious human rights issue in our region and the world.

Last week I introduced The Turnbull Government’s Australian Modern Slavery Bill which will require large corporations and other entities like universities to publish annual statements on their actions to address modern slavery in their supply chains and operations.

The reporting requirement will apply to around 3,000 entities in the Australian market with annual global revenue above $100 million.

It will apply not only to Australian businesses but also foreign businesses with operations here in Australia. All Modern Slavery Statements will need to be signed by a company director, and approved at board level. This ensures that modern slavery risks are considered at the highest levels within the largest businesses in the Australian market.

Importantly as a Government, we will lead by example by requiring the Commonwealth Government to publish our own annual statements. Australia will be the first nation in the world to take such a step.

All Modern Slavery Statements must include information about:

o   the entity’s structure, operations and supply chains

o   potential modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains,

o   actions taken to address these risks, including due diligence and remediation processes, and;

o   how the entity is assessing the effectiveness of their actions.

Modern Slavery Statements will be due six months from the end of the entity’s financial year. We will publish all Modern Slavery Statements on a central Government-run website, to ensure they are easily accessible to the public.

A freely accessible list of all Modern Slavery Statements, and a deadline for reporting, will assist to drive competition to improve transparency in supply chains and raise awareness of modern slavery.

One of the great achievements of this bill is it looks at slavery as it is today, not as it was. The core difference between modern-day and traditional slavery is it is no longer a legal arrangement. Stated simply, modern slavery is de facto human ownership, rather than de jure human ownership. It is still slavery in every other way – and in some ways is worse because it is hidden.

The Hidden in Plain Sight report was the title given to the Parliamentary inquiry into modern slavery and I want to take this opportunity to praise its key authors my colleagues Chris Crewther and Senator Linda Reynolds for their passion and groundbreaking advocacy for this important legislation.

That modern slavery is hidden is why this government is helping the modern slavery response by clearly labelling the crimes in codified offences. We are also committing to reviewing the criminal code relating to slavery when necessary.

Just as important, we need to see that modern slavery certainly exists in supply chains, but it might be concentrated in a few companies and products. Some specific industries might be most fruitfully targeted to create change.

We owe it to those stuck in modern slavery to better collate the data on this crime and better target our responses.

We already expect Directors to ensure their companies are free from money-laundering and corruption. Due to the seriousness of slavery, we will make it compulsory for a Director of eligible companies to sign their slavery disclosure.

Also, due to the complexity of the issue our newly established Modern Slavery Business Engagement Unit within the Home Affairs Department that will provide guidance and  publish the most helpful guidelines and clearest data on modern slavery available.

And to all Australians, we want them to realise that government can only do so much. That a Modern Slavery Bill is primarily about transparency and must be followed by consumer action, by leadership from business and civil society and I challenge everyone to get involved.

In particular this is my invitation to modern business leaders to really lead.

The first abolitionists called themselves ‘The Society for Effecting the End of the Slave Trade’. One of its most effective members was the businessman Josiah Wedgwood, who was a prominent businessman and is still a household name today for his exceptional ceramic products.

Interestingly, inspired by his membership in this society, Wedgwood asked himself how he could contribute to the abolitionist movement with what he had. He used it to create a range of anti-slavery medallions, crockery, figurines, tea-sets, snuff boxes...and many types of goods, that all featured an inscription with a slave in chains asking the simple question ‘Am I Not A Man and a Brother?’.  This figure on these medallions it was said:

'ended up probably being the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th Century Art...these goods had a huge impact on the first abolitionist movement, and really become the icon of the movement. It also had the broader effect of making it seem honourable to promote the cause of justice and, humanity and freedom'[10]


Wedgwood showed how business can create remarkable change. He was an innovator with technology. But his thinking and his message on the ceramic collectibles came right out Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.

This example should be an inspiration to modern business leaders. We should encourage businesses to have this attitude today: to ask, 'what can I do with the resources I have in front of me’.

This Act will put Australia back on the front foot in the great struggle to eliminate slavery. But I know it is business leaders who will make the biggest changes. What I am asking them to do is to ‘ask the question’.

To ask the question: ‘are our products made by slave labour? And to work in relationship with society who will ask the same of business. In the end they will work together to turn supply chains into supply partnerships. “

Australia has a modern day Wedgwood, in our very own Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. I want to clearly acknowledge the role he has played here.  He is a business leader who has sparked a movement for change from discovering slavery in his own supply chains. As Andrew has said ‘we found slavery deep in our supply chain simply by asking the question - tell us about your sensitivity to slavery’.

On behalf of the Government and all Australians I want to thank Andrew Forrest for his real leadership, his vision to establish the Walk Free Foundation and his determination to achieve real change across our society. 

But if you still don’t believe me that modern business leaders like Twiggy are making a substantive difference, consider the following modern 'Wedgwood moments' that set an example for others:

·       The large multinational software company Microsoft that repurposed some of their image recognition software to identify child pornography on the internet (even if it has been manipulated by methods commonly employed to avoid detection). This software has been freely given to many web companies, such as Twitter, who are using it to pull child pornography out of internet circulation.


·       The giant car manufacturing company Ford at the behest of the Chairman, conducted an investigation deep into their supply chain to see if it contained any forced labour. They uncovered modern-day slavery prevalent in the production of one of the inputs in their steel production in Brazil. In response, they coordinated an industry-wide action against this criminal practice.

And so as a Government we are urging Australian companies to ask the question ‘is there slavery in our supply chain’?

Overall, the level of business responsibility for modern slavery is unclear, we say the term ‘supply chains’ these days but I hope we can start to think of them as ‘supply partnerships’. A network of relationships.

But to finish tonight, I want to first return us to the fisherman, enslaved for 22 years.  Enslaved on a boat a life time away from his family to supply others with food, in our region. Our neighbor; Our brother.

To remember that tonight we are discussing doing something practical to help every one of the people in slavery in our region

To remember we are indebted to those before us who taught us that we ourselves were enslaved when we enslaved others. And that our freedom comes with an obligation to love our neighbours.

The Turnbull Government believes our legislation will see business partnering with civil society and government to achieve change. It will provide clear regional leadership that doing something about slavery is a whole of society effort.

And tonight I leave you with an appeal to all Australians.

I appeal for you to join us in doing everything we can to end modern slavery. To let us extend our uniquely Australian commitment to a fair go, to all of those in our region.

To let us inspire the next generation of Wedgwoods of Wilberforces and Forrests in our business leadership of today.

And to let us affirm our ongoing commitment to individual and collective freedom in everything we do - starting with the way we do business.

Thank you.

[3] Somerset vs Stewart Easter Term 12 Geo. 3, 1772, K.B. May 14, 1772 at 510; (1772) 98 ER 499 (“Somerset’s Case”) per Lord Mansfield.

[4] “Modern Slavery is Disturbingly Common” The Economist  September 20, 2017

[8] Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807, 47 Geo III Sess. 1 c. 36

[9] Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73)

[10] Retrieved 2009-04-11. The Wedgwood medallion was the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th-century art.