Australian chargé d’affaires Katherine Ruiz-Avila arrived in Ottawa in January 2020 as the deputy high commissioner to Australia. In November, iPolitics sent her a list of questions about trade, security challenges, and her country’s relations with Canada. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
iPolitics: How would you describe Australia’s relationship with Canada?
Ruiz-Avila: Our bilateral relationship is long-standing, strong, extremely friendly, and highly productive. Trade relations date back over 100 years, and formal diplomatic links were established in 1939. Our shared history and commonalities make representing Australia here in Canada a daily pleasure, as well as a privilege.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted our close ties. Even though international travel largely stopped beginning in March 2020, the tempo of official exchanges only increased as we shared information, ideas, and lessons.
Our relationship covers trade and investment, defence, security, academic exchanges, shared consular arrangements, and extensive governmental connections. Canada’s defence relationship with Australia is its largest in the Asia-Pacific. Many Australians also make their home in Canada, and vice versa.
iPolitics: What key things do we have in common?
Ruiz-Avila: We both share proud Indigenous traditions, federal political systems, and robust democratic institutions. We also share values: our belief in freedom and openness, free speech, human rights, and equality irrespective of race, religion, and gender. In February this year, Australia was proud to endorse the Canada-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations.
To address the urgent global challenge of climate change, both countries are committed to developing clean energy solutions to drive down emissions.
We continue to support each other in times of need. During Australia’s Black Summer of 2020, Canada deployed emergency-service personnel to help fight hundreds of bushfires. In July 2021, Australia deployed emergency-service personnel to Canada, as you faced one of the worst forest-fire seasons on record.
Both countries have a longstanding commitment to preserving the liberal international order that has underpinned decades of stability, prosperity, and poverty alleviation. This includes our recent work together in the Ottawa Group and our membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
iPolitics: Both our countries went into lockdown in an effort to contain COVID. What does a return to normal look like in Australia?
Ruiz-Avila: Australia has one of the lowest COVID fatality rates in the world, and, like Canada, is approaching one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Australia continues to successfully plot a path out of the pandemic, gradually reopening as vaccination rates reach target levels. The resumption of quarantine-free travel in November between Australia and our neighbours, including New Zealand and Singapore, is a key milestone.
In response to the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression, the federal government put in place an unprecedented AUD$291 billion (about C$267 billion) in economic support measures. Our economy is coming back strongly, with almost one million jobs added since the peak of the crisis. Looking ahead, our recovery plan focuses on restoring our economy, supporting local communities and our region, and building infrastructure to create jobs.
iPolitics: Switching to security, a deal known as AUKUS was reached in September for the U.K. and U.S. to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines to strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region. What are Australia’s security concerns in the region, and how will the deal help to mitigate them?
Ruiz-Avila: The Indo-Pacific is now the centre of strategic competition. As our Foreign minister, Sen. Marise Payne, has said, Australia must compete to preserve and shape the international order that has underpinned decades of prosperity and economic stability in our region. The minister has also said that Australia has both the influence and agency to do so as a significant regional power.
AUKUS will complement our collective efforts to meet the challenges posed by our strategic circumstances, and ensure the Indo-Pacific remains stable, secure, prosperous, and free from coercion. Beyond the submarine component, AUKUS will enhance joint capability and interoperability in other areas, with an initial focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.
I would emphasize to a Canadian audience that AUKUS will complement, rather than supplant, Australia’s existing partnerships, including in Five Eyes, ASEAN, the Pacific Islands Forum, and the Quad.
iPolitics: What can Canada and the rest of the world do to allay their security concerns about China, particularly as borders begin to reopen?
Ruiz-Avila: For Australia, COVID has reinforced the reality that our security and prosperity is closely tied to that of our Indo-Pacific neighbours. This is our neighbourhood, and we have a direct stake in its peace, security, and stability.
This has meant deepening our regional engagement, getting vaccines to our region, and redirecting our development assistance to economic recovery and health security. We’ve doubled down on our investment in regional architecture and in relationships at all levels of government. In late October, we agreed with ASEAN leaders to elevate relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Australia is an enthusiastic advocate to our partners of the value of strengthening their own engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. We welcome the Canadian government’s increased attention to a region that is home to many of Canada’s key trading routes, and from where many of its diaspora communities derive.
The rising intensity of competition in the Indo-Pacific region means working together with our friends and partners to navigate risks and seize opportunities. It is in both our interests to do everything we can to support an open, sovereign, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific.
Katherine Ruiz-Avila was previously posted in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Port Vila, Vanuatu, and on short-term missions in Southwest and Southeast Asia. She’s had foreign policy, corporate, and development roles in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
This article was first published in the iPolitics Holiday Magazine that was printed in early December. Some information may be outdated at the time of its online publication.