Australia’s International Challenge
Ever since Professor Hugh White raised the issue of Australia having to choose between the USA and China in terms of geostrategic alignment, Australia has struggled to develop a coherent vision and narrative on the issue.
Complex as security and trade relationships are, Australia is also a net immigration and investment destination and will remain so in the foreseeable future.
Although in some quarters there is a political hankering back to the white Australia policy, global realities have changed, as has Australia’s own demographic.
In an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister I asked if Chinese investment in Australia was still welcome despite the recent anti-China rhetoric, particularly by the ABC and Fairfax.
He responded by saying, somewhat coyly, that all investment was welcome as long as it was in the national interest of Australia.
The problem with that answer is that it raises the question of what constitutes Australia’s national interest and how it is determined.
In a world of Trumpist intervention we ask, where does a liberal market economy stop and a government command economy start?
Most recently this question has had to be contemplated in relation to energy prices in the Australian domestic market.
It is arguable that the reasons behind the recent dismissal of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister by his own colleagues was not populist politics but that he dared to make independent decisions on energy and foreign interference laws and thus ran foul of vested interests in the energy, security and media establishments.
The problem is that it is difficult to get a clear view of the political dynamic in this era of populism and fake news, where public debate has become distorted by hate speeches of vocal self-serving interest groups.
In such an environment most of us are likely to wonder what our national interest is and if indeed the government is able to explain it.
Most big issues in the world no longer stop at national boundaries nor can they be solved on a national level.
Nations share only one planet, to state the obvious, and so need the international rules based system.
Another fact to consider is how national interest is expressed and managed.
Angela Merkel has started to step back from running Germany after 13 years and has announced she will not stand at the next elections. This reflects changes in the way interests are identified in Europe.
By contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping seems to want to rule well beyond the previously expected terms.
It will be interesting to see how President Xi will adjust to the changing interests of his citizens, particularly the growing middle class, some of whom will start to fall behind if China cannot sustain the current high growth rates.
In Australia recent by-elections have shown that environmental issues still cut through, irrespective of kitchen table economics, which would suggest action on environmental issues is in the national interest.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison needs to define a national agenda that covers the prevailing current concerns and addresses them with a narrative that explains his government’s policies in a way that is consistent and can be followed by a commonsense voter.
To win the next election the Prime Minister will need to do more than be seen as a good bloke and NRL tragic.
He needs to define our Australian national interest in all areas of debate and show how his government is acting to maximise them.
The relationship with China is particularly pressing. A carefully argued explanation of China policy would help to re-establish the government’s credibility, both in Australia and internationally.
It would do more than the mantra, that Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural society, to dispel the notion that Australia is resistant to integration with Asia.
Explanations are better than slogans in terms of leadership: they also show up those that are intellectually dishonest.