Australian Foreign Minister Calls on Britain to Confront Its ‘Colonial Past’

UK counterpart responds saying he is proof of Britain's success in dealing with the past
By Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng
Daniel Y. Teng is based in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at
February 1, 2023Updated: February 1, 2023

The United Kingdom must deal with its colonial past so that it can strengthen ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, says Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

As part of her visit to the UK, the centre-left Wong delivered a speech to the King’s College in London where she spoke of how Australia eventually developed its own identity separate from the one it had as a British colony.

“Today, as a modern, multicultural country—home to people of more than 300 ancestries and the oldest continuing culture on Earth—Australia sees itself as being in the Indo-Pacific, and being of the Indo-Pacific,” she told attendees.

Wong said on her mother’s side, her forebears were some of the first British to settle in South Australia, but the story was different on her father’s side of the family, who had a “different experience of British colonisation.”

“My father is descended from Hakka and Cantonese Chinese. Many from these clans laboured for the British North Borneo Company in tin mines and plantations for tobacco and timber. Many worked as domestic servants for British colonists, as did my own grandmother.

“Such stories can sometimes feel uncomfortable—for those whose stories they are and for those who hear them. But understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future.

“It gives us the opportunity to find more common ground than if we stayed sheltered in narrower versions of our countries’ histories. It helps open the world to us. It helps open the Indo-Pacific to us.”

Defence Minister Backs Speech

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles followed up Wong’s speech to say her comments were important for building ties in the Pacific.

“Acknowledging the past allows us to do much more in terms of engaging in the future, and engagement going forward in the Indo-Pacific is going to be really important,” Marles told ABC TV.

“We very much welcome the greater presence of Great Britain in the Indo-Pacific, and that’s going to be really important in terms of the stability of our region in the future.”

The Old Empire Strikes Back

Yet Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was quick to point out that the top four cabinet positions of the UK government were held by individuals with non-Anglo heritage.

“You’re asking the black foreign secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain?” Cleverly told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Yeah, I think the answer is yes—you’re looking at it, you’re talking to it!”

“I mean the bottom line is we have a prime minister of Asian heritage, you have a home secretary of Asian heritage, you have a foreign secretary of African heritage.”

Wong’s speech comes as Western governments continue a pivot towards the Indo-Pacific region amid ongoing tensions with Beijing; part of the effort includes building stronger relations with Pacific Island nations, many of whom were former colonies of Western nations.

Whilst colonialism did impact certain societies, the label has often been used by current leaders of these countries—many with poorly run economies—to detract from the day-to-day governance and corruption issues.

“These countries find it convenient (or ‘comforting’) to excuse their failures by blaming ‘colonialism’ or by accusing the developed world of being exploitative, patronising, or neo-colonial,” wrote Eric Louw, former member of the African National Congress, in The Epoch Times.

“A recent variation of this ‘chip on the shoulder’ politics has been to exploit the radical left, Green narrative that underdeveloped Pacific Island countries are victims of climate change caused by the developed world.”

This type of rhetoric has also been exploited by Beijing to win the influence battle over developing nations, he said.