Commentary |
28 May 2021

Australians have never been so fearful and insular

How Australia has dealt with COVID-19 and the rift with China underscores changes in the national psyche. Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

Hervé Lemahieu
Hervé Lemahieu

Emigration requires a leap of faith. The light on the other side of the ocean inspires the journey. But once ashore, it can be the ambiguities of an adopted country that truly fascinate.

A central motif of Australian public discourse is the dance between competing desires for security, because the world is threatening, and openness, because engagement with the world brings prosperity.

Wrestling with this tension is not unique to Australia. But our history and geographic isolation, set against the wider geopolitical instability of the Indo-Pacific region, means the stakes are higher. The challenge is to reconcile two powerful and often opposing ways in which we relate to the world. Too much of one, or too little of the other, will harm us either way.

When I arrived in Australia in 2016, my image was of an open and confident country. I had two reference points to support my view.

The Australians I came across in Myanmar, where I spent my teenage years, were a genial bunch of diplomats, UN staffers and eccentrics. Many had a practical intelligence and familiarity with the region that stood out. They were also the life of the party. The Australian Club on Sundays was the place to be for the small Yangon expat community.

A decade later, I would spend cold and dreary weekends in Britain watching MasterChef Australia. The show’s allure is in the unselfconscious display of so many first- and second-generation Australians with deep personal ties to other parts of the world. Australia’s hybrid cultural and culinary identity stood out again.

I had few qualms about moving to Sydney to join the Lowy Institute. As a foreign policy analyst, it seemed to me that Australia’s challenge of learning how to live in the Indo-Pacific in the 21st century was far more consequential than Brexit. Five years in, and days away from my Australian citizenship test, the Brexit refugee in me has not been disappointed.

The dismal binary of being isolated and protected or open and exposed need not be our only choice.

Even so, my broad-brush impressions have given way to finer shades of admiration and ambivalence.

Admiration for Australia’s ability to deal with challenges as different as the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s growing assertiveness. Our ability to weather the biggest global health and economic crisis in a generation and unprecedented Chinese sanctions speaks to Australia’s resilience, all based on strong fundamentals.

Ambivalence too, because while the thrust of our policies may be sound, I have never seen Australians seem so fearful and insular. Our world view seems increasingly contorted and reductive.

Strong public support for the “Fortress Australia” policy is understandable – particularly when early moves to shut the borders worked so well in comparison with countries with far more complacent initial approaches to the pandemic.

But the dismal binary of being isolated and protected, or open and exposed need not be our only choice. What we need now is not rushed border openings, but a measured plan, sensible risk thresholds, and a clear intention to pull Australia back into the world.

Similarly, the broad parameters of Australia’s China reset are sound. We have made cogent and necessary policy adjustments to the realities of Xi Jinping’s China. This includes a judicious domestic and international pushback against Beijing’s “grey zone” tactics.

But any policy recalibration also entails the risk of overcorrection. A sense of inevitability about marching to war misses the point that our strategic circumstances, while critical, are also dynamic. As Labor’s Penny Wong and others have noted, crying wolf will not help Taiwan, much less ourselves.

The upshot, at a time when the relationship with Beijing seems immovable, is that Australia would do better to move the needle on deepening ties with the rest of the region and invest in our own core strengths.

Our migration intake has declined to negative levels for the first time since World War II. That will have an impact on Australia’s fundamentals as a young and growing middle power. The failure to reverse this trend in coming years would result in a smaller, poorer, less secure nation – more estranged from the Indo-Pacific region.

The intangible, but no less real, consequence of prolonged border closures may well be the impact on our national psyche. An extended retreat from the world clashes with the strategic reasons to be outward looking.

Pessimism and alarm are nothing new for Australia. Go back to Donald Horne’s 1964 classic The Lucky Country to realise how old arguments that Australia “now exists in a new and dangerous power situation” really are. But the art has always been in reconciling the demand for security with the benefits of openness.

In the words of Brendan Sergeant at the Australian National University, “a country’s strategic imagination may be judged by how it responds to the world – the space it creates for action”.

Fear of the world around us can be a powerful spur to action. But it must be backed up by engagement and a sensible grasp of reality. Australia with the drawbridge pulled up deprives of both. It can only limit our collective imagination.