Australia Rising: Challenging Labor to Look Back Then Leap Forward

Labor’s leadership opportunity defined through vision, engagement and action.

- By Marcus Ehrlich

In recent interviews, former National Security Advisor to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has pointedly stated that the greatest security threat facing America is not Islamic terrorism or that of a nuclear armed Iran but the profound ignorance displayed by the American populace to the outside world. This ignorance stunts rational public discussion on issues of both national security and foreign policy. While perhaps not as extreme, Australia finds itself in a similar position. This may be due to the benign geostrategic environments that both countries have been blessed with. Like the United States, Australia stretches over a whole continent and is surrounded by immense bodies of protective water. Our civilian population has not suffered direct conventional threat since the darkest days of World War II and we have known nothing but relative prosperity. It would not be a stretch to suggest that there is a link between geographic isolation and prevalence towards geostrategic ignorance.

It is therefore unsurprising that so few citizens turn their attention to their country’s respective strategic futures. But as always, the times are changing. The world that allowed the luxury of such strategic illiteracy has passed. Australia now finds itself in a region where the tectonic plates of great powers are shifting and where highly effective weapon technology is no longer in the hands of the most capable of nations (who, for the most part have conveniently been Australian allies). In short, the stability of the Cold War and America’s ‘unipolar moment’ are coming to an end and the stakes are now too high—and Australia too capable— to sit on the sidelines in shaping this more fluid future. With a foreign policy history that is both activist and on occasion visionary, Labor is the only party with both the imagination and courage to lead a national conversation regarding our geostrategic future. In doing so, Labor will once more educate the electorate on issues of major import and raise the tone of our national discourse.

Despite our history, contemporary Labor has failed to grasp this present opportunity. Too often is it heard within the party ranks the false axiom that there are no votes in foreign policy. This has led to Labor abandoning its proud tradition of activist foreign policy championed by such titans as Doc Evatt, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Gareth Evans and Paul Keating. Instead, geostrategic doctrines have been largely left to bureaucrats and their white papers to formulate overarching policy. This stands in marked contrast to a proud past where Labor leaders engaged the population at large with a vision that was often far more expansive than that of their opponents or the public service. I believe both a return and an expansion of Labor’s activist foreign policy tradition would yield three broad outcomes that would be of great benefit to both the Labor Party, and more importantly, Australia.

Firstly, any objective discussion of Australia’s geostrategic direction would demonstrate Australia’s extraordinary success to a somewhat irrationally riled and disbelieving electorate – a success whose principle architects were federal Labor governments. Secondly, community engagement matched by clear and decisive strategic government direction will lead to more positive foreign policy outcomes that will help ensure our country’s future prosperity. Finally, a return to the ‘vision thing’ would deliver to Labor a large part of a broader narrative that spells out the case for why Labor is the natural party of government in 21st century Australia.

As a starting point, Labor must relentlessly combat the infantile tone that is smothering national discourse. Australia is currently suffering from a contrived despair that is divorced from reality. Labor should explain to the electorate our substantial national capabilities and economic success, which are made all the more impressive when comparisons are made to the rest of the world. Currently this form of national cognitive dissonance is stymieing our ability to answer our most important question: what to do with our prosperity and the strength it brings? We cannot effectively answer this question where falsehoods and misdirected energies prevail. And misdirected it is. At what other time in Australian political history has the opposition stated that a successful $25 million campaign for a UN Security Council seat is a “disgusting waste of money”? This is symptomatic of a country that lacks self-belief. Labor must instill in the community that Australia’s success is very real and our future potential is vast. Fortunately, if Labor needs evidence to make the case, there is plenty of it.

In his recent work The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan argues that despite the ‘shrinking’ of the globe through advances in communications and transport technology it is geography that continues to dominate the geostrategic fate of nations. On this count, Australia has come up trumps. Let it never be forgotten that we are the only country on earth that wholly inhabits an entire island continent. Australia straddles the two most strategically important oceans of the 21st century and we fuel the economies of the world’s fastest growing nations. Yet our geographical good fortune is not the only cause of our success. Courageous (mainly Labor) governments have undertaken dramatic and needed reform and we are a people that have by any measure some of the highest levels of human development. We are poised to continue to exploit our potential, even if we fail to believe it. Labor must be the party to deliver this message for we are the architects of the current reality.

The Australian story of the last 30 years does not read like a recipe for despondency. It is the calling card of a rising, confident state. Our continued economic success has lent us not just wealth but also strategic weight. Currently there is much talk of the supposed rise of regional powers such as Turkey, Mexico and South Africa. But not one of these states possesses our inherent potential or the institutional strength needed to exploit it. Analysts often point to population and the massive youth bulges experienced by ‘rising’ states as the evidence of inevitable Australian decline. But a so-called ‘population dividend’ is only such if citizens have the skills to be useful; otherwise, it represents a profound diseconomy of scale (a country like Ethiopia is a prime example). In short, it has proven extremely difficult for states to effectively unlock a population’s potential and few nations have proven able.

We are also experiencing a veritable pandemic of commentators who simply extend the growth rates of the recent past as an indefinite guide to the future (in a similar vein to 1980s Japan or Russia today, despite mounting evidence to the contrary). What these commentators ignore are the fundamentals. Yet unlike Russia, Australia enjoys sound foundations: low inflation; a growing population; vast resources; an advanced, vibrant economy; low public debt; quality infrastructure and investment; strong civil society; growing wages; and a highly competent government. For all these factors and many more besides, Australia has the right stuff. This message must form the basis for Labor’s discussion with the Australian people. As a nation we are primed for future success. The anger and frustration is of our own making and it has little connection with reality. The effective delivery of this message will on one hand instill confidence in a population that appears to have lost it. On the other, it will allow a government to engage with an electorate who is informed of the reality to the current state of the nation and not be oblivious to its success or its future choices. This should change the very tone of our national discourse.

An injection of rational and informed discussion could not come soon enough. Already much of the debate is swamped by infantile talk of zero sum decisions – “do we support China or the US when the  shooting starts” is probably the worst of the current discussion points. This is unsophisticated and does the country a great disservice. To make a situation that much worse, it also often feels as if the rest of the world is largely inconsequential in what currently passes for geostrategic discourse. Disturbingly, it appears that this pathology is not limited to the commentariat but to government itself. The 2009 Defence White Paper dedicated two desultory paragraphs to Indonesia (by way of reference, New Zealand got three). Much could be said on this but needless to say Indonesia is a country that will play an enormous part in any Australian future but leading thinkers in our defence establishment gave it not much more than a footnote. This example is emblematic of a country ignorant or apathetic to its surroundings. This has to end.

Labor must once more take a firm grip of the reins and lead not just an informed national debate about our geostrategic future but show the vibrant foreign policy activism of all previous Labor governments. Despite the current fluidity, there are extraordinary multilateral and bilateral opportunities for Australia to pursue. Foreign Minister Carr must be commended for his recent efforts, particularly his sophisticated and highly effective campaign to secure Australia’s place on the UN Security Council and his recent comments of the need to cast our national gaze over Papua New Guinea’s economic potential (an area very much in our blind spot). These actions are indicative of a proactive rather than reactive Foreign Minister.

Yet the foundation stone should be Keating’s concept of engagement. The possibilities from there are myriad. By way of a few examples, Australia could do any of the following: look to join ASEAN; expand the Five Power Defence Agreement; deepen defence ties with Indonesia, strengthen APEC; create new bodies (such as an India, China, Indonesia, Australia forum – a kind of Indian/Pacific Ocean Cooperation Group); and pursue MP Rudd’s goal of an Asian Pacific Community. Whichever direction we strike off in, let me say that our foreign policy story, the one we share with the Australian electorate, should consist of innovation, daring and a little bit of courage. That combination always makes for a good read. And from it, a political movement that is struggling to find its current purpose may just stumble upon its contemporary raison d’être. All politics may be local, but that’s not to say those localities exist in a vacuum. We are in an age where so much of what we do is altered by forces well outside our individual community’s ability to control. It is high time we turned both our attention and effort to navigating these increasingly dramatic influences.

We now live in a region that is far less certain than at any time since 1945. In the coming decades Australia will be called upon to do more and we will have to think creatively and proactively. This is the antithesis of our conservative opponents. At their heart, the conservatives’ vision remains true to form: small and belonging to another time. It is one that sells Australia short and keeps us as part of some obsolete worldview that exists only in their minds. Its implementation would see us fail to exert both our positive influence and unleash our potential. The ‘deputy dog’ moniker of the Howard years stuck because it elucidated the truth. We should not return to this recent past. Fortunately, the times do not suit the conservatives. The period ahead will be one that rewards those with vision and nimble feet and Australia has never been better equipped to meet this challenge. We have so many reasons to look to the future with optimism and belief in our own impressive capabilities – even if we cannot currently see this for ourselves. Play our hand right and there is nothing but upside for Australia, but only if the nation is empowered by a Labor Party which has both a foreign policy vision and the courage to see it through. If we as a party stay committed to engaging the community, Australia will take advantage of the opportunities presented and will maximise its enormous potential in this Indo-Pacific century.