In this episode of COVIDcast, Hervé Lemahieu, Director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Program, sits down with Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, to discuss Australia’s role in shaping the post Covid-19 world.
The discussion began by noting Australia’s effective handling of the crisis, Wong commenting, “One of the hallmarks of the success of Australia’s response to Covid-19 has been bipartisan consensus predicated on expert advice”. In stark contrast, global cooperation in the management of the pandemic has been sadly lacking, Wong observing, “It is to the detriment of humanity that the pandemic, instead of enlivening co-operation, has hardened competition”.
Lemahieu asked the Senator how Australia should navigate a shrill Sino-American blame game and whether Canberra should do more to differentiate the objectives of its diplomatic efforts for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic from President Donald Trump’s disengagement and perceived scapegoating of the World Health Organisation. Wong said Australia requires:
an effective system of international co-operation. We have been and should continue to be strong multilateralists. In this our views differ… from those [of] … the current US administration.
Speculating on the lessons for Australia in the wake of this crisis, Lemahieu asked about the tensions inherent in doubling down on the primacy of the nation state – and the need to achieve greater self-reliance – as against the need to enhance multilateralism and the efficacy of global institutions. Wong responded that this wasn’t a simple binary:
We need not descend into isolationism, protectionism or even autarchy. We need to recognise that there is a lot of good that has been generated … by stronger global integration. But we also need to recognise in the face of this external shock, this pandemic, national resilience matters. We need to work out where on the continuum between openness and being closed do we want to our economy to be, and which are the strategic sectors where we need to prioritise resilience over efficiency.
While Australia stands a good chance of insulating itself from the worst effects of the health pandemic, it must still contend with the economic consequences of the global crisis. In particular, Lemahieu noted that migrant numbers to Australia are expected to fall dramatically as a result of the coronavirus. He asked the Senator whether there wasn’t a real risk that a drop in the migrant intake could undermine Australia’s relative strengths as a young and growing nation.
Wong noted the enormous contribution that migration had made to Australia but commented, ”there will be a national discussion about the composition and shape of the migration program … in a period where we would anticipate Australia’s international borders will be closed for some time.”
COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloud, Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.