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The 2015 Boyer Lectures

7 Dec 2015 11:02

This is the first in a series of posts marking the launch (tomorrow) of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Since his university days, Michael Fullilove has had two abiding interests: speechcraft and international affairs. This made him the perfect choice to deliver the first Boyer Lectures on foreign policy in over a decade. The talks are mercifully cliché free. They sparkle with pithy observations and choice anecdotes. The 2015 Boyers are a pleasure to consume, and I'm pleased to have been asked to offer some observations on them.

Reading Michael's four lectures prompted three responses. With a nod to the ongoing Paris climate talks, let me sum them up as liberty, equality and fraternity.

Liberté

Over recent decades, one of the hallmarks of Australian economic policy has been our commitment to openness. It meant cutting tariffs under Whitlam, strengthening immigration under Fraser, creating APEC under Hawke, floating the dollar under Keating, creating the G20 leaders' forum under Rudd, strengthening ties with China under Gillard and signing free-trade agreements under Abbott.

A middle power like Australia — whoops, thanks Michael, a 'significant power' like Australia — will be richer, happier and more interesting if we engage with the world than if we retreat from it. It is in our national interest to be open to the world and help shape the rules, norms and institutions that govern it.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that the head of Australia's leading foreign policy think-tank believes we need to grow our economy to order to improve our foreign policy. But in my view, it makes more sense to see things the other way around. We don't boost living standards so we can expand our diplomatic footprint. Rather, smart foreign policy is a means to improving the wellbeing of Australians. [fold]

Economists sometimes like to tease foreign policy boffins by saying that the purpose of foreign policy is to facilitate trade. It's an exaggeration, of course, but history has shown that foreign policy is a powerful tool for Australia's economic policy. Unfortunately, this is at risk of being eroded. As Michael Fullilove reminds us, Labor laid the groundwork for a brief moment in which Australia chaired both the G20 and the UN Security Council. Alas, Treasurer Morrison's refusal to attend any G20 meetings sends a disappointing signal to our trading partners and misunderstands how the global economy shapes ours at home. Similarly, Australia's sluggish response in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — signing on only after Britain had joined — sent mixed signals to our region.

Égalité

Bob Carr once recounted a meeting he had as Australian foreign minister with representatives from 14 Caribbean countries. As he tells it, those present liked our stance on climate change, arms control and protection of the marine environment. But they particularly singled out Australia's apology to the Stolen Generations.

The story reminds us that foreign policy is about values as well as interests. For Australia, one of our central values should be egalitarianism. Ours is a country where there aren't private areas on the beaches, where many of us sit in the front seat of the taxi, and in which audiences rarely stand for the prime minister. The gap between battlers and billionaires has grown considerably in recent decades, but most Australians pride ourselves on being the nation of 'mate' not 'sir'.

Egalitarianism can also be a vital part of our peacekeeping missions. When the UN intervened in Somalia in the 1990s, our troops were more inclined to go on foot patrols than the French and US forces, who tended to stay in jeeps and behind sandbags. As a result, our troops were more likely to listen to local townspeople rather than just hearing the views of tribal leaders. Egalitarianism should also lead us to value an effective aid program, not one where overseas aid has fallen from 0.36% to 0.22% of national income.

Fraternité

Many of Australia's greatest foreign policy moments have seen us strengthening the community of nations. As Michael notes, these included the negotiation of ANZUS, the Cambodian peace accord, the creation of the Cairns Group of agricultural free-trading nations, transforming APEC into a leaders' gathering and restoring order in the Solomon Islands.

Global challenges require acting in solidarity with like-minded nations. And yet I worry that the Liberal-National parties' approach in recent years has had more in common with what Manning Clark called the 'straighteners' rather than the 'enlargers'. Opposing Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat. Going backwards on climate change. Offending our Pacific neighbours with wisecracks about rising sea levels. In each case, the government presented a 'little Australia' view to the world. A great nation like Australia deserves leadership that projects confidence about our place in the world, rather than shrinking from global challenges.

Michael points out the oddity that some on the right want us to lead in the Middle East and free-ride on climate change; while some on the left want us to lead on climate change and free-ride in the Middle East. I agree with this assesment, and I cannot help noting that Labor is the only party in Australian politics that has consistently argued for Australia to play a role in bringing greater stability in the Middle East and addressing global warming.

*

In his lectures, Michael argues for a three-dimensional foreign policy, which emphasises depth (Asian engagement), height (alliance management) and width (multilateral diplomacy). To this most useful metaphor, I'd argue that our depth should be informed by economic openness, our height by the value of egalitarianism, and our width by a commitment to the community of nations. In short, liberty, equality and fraternity can teach us something about our place in the globe.

COMMENTS

8 Dec 2015 15:47

This is the second in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Michael Fullilove challenges us to seek a 'larger Australia' during his Boyer Lectures, and modeled the point by delivering one of the lectures in China. That was a moment to applaud.

In his third lecture, Fullilove is riffing off the Richard Haass quote that 'foreign policy begins at home', noting 'Australia's reputation and influence overseas are underpinned by the quality of our society and our economy'. He identifies political leadership churn, lack of reform and the low quality of public political debate as hampering our position on the world stage.

He argues that to be 'bold in the world' we need more boldness at home, and singles out our approach to 'economic reform, climate, education and immigration, and on reconciliation and the republic'. I agree whole-heartedly with the proposition that Australians should 'develop a larger sense of ourselves' as Fullilove states. Our policies on climate, asylum and the rights and status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been disastrous in human costs, ruinous of our international reputation and ultimately self-defeating.  

I would extend Fullilove's proposition one step further. He points out that the 'single biggest contributor to a nation's power and influence is the strength of its economy'. Just as our domestic economy, as the 13th largest in the world, underwrites our diplomatic status, I want to strongly assert that the reverse effect is also true. In other words, our domestic economy is shaped and buffeted by forces beyond our borders. As a leading economic power, we are expected to step up into the leadership space.

The European financial crisis, US quantitative easing policy, infrastructure investment debates, commodity prices, Chinese investment, foreign exchange rates: yes, most Australians know these things affect us. But economic debate in Australia does not properly canvas the geopolitical shifts bringing these impacts to our shores. And so, every year, the Federal Budget plays out like a cosy piece of  theatre, with the Treasurer apparently in control of Australia's destiny. In a globalised economy, economic debate must also be globalised. [fold]

Even when Australia was hosting the premier economic forum, the G20 Summit in Brisbane in 2014, there was precious little impact on the debate here in Australia. This was a chance to bring home the macroeconomic debates that will shape our kids' futures. Instead, we focused on the personalities and then forgot about it as soon as the leaders left (readers are directed to Michelle Grattan's excellent chapter in The G20 and The Future of International Economic Governance). But some of most crucial issues of our times were raised at that meeting, and again at the 2015 G-20 Antalya Summit. They deserve our attention.

Here are some of the questions we should all be thinking about:

  • How are we going to stop the big banks failing again?
  • How will we regulate banks if they adopt the new block-chain technology?
  • How are we going to price fossil fuels that are more valuable to us if they stay in the ground?
  • How are we going to plug the infrastructure gap, address corruption and how can public-private partnerships in infrastructure work in the public interest?
  • What would decent work look like in the knowledge economy, how are we going to skill citizens to get that kind of work and what kinds of mobility across borders should they have?
  • How are the G20 countries going to implement their growth strategies without deepening inequality inside and outside their borders?
  • What rates of growth do citizens want, who wins and loses from structural reforms, and what can the planet bear?
  • How are our global economic institutions going to reform to take into account Asia's rise?
  • What kinds of trade deals will be needed in a world of global value chains and 3D printing?
  • How are parliaments going to coordinate to cope with base erosion and profit shifting from multinational corporations?
  • What is the duty of the richest nations to the poorest, when their economies are linked to each other in complex ways?

These issues can seem remote, abstract and technical, but they will affect all our livelihoods and all of our families.  This comes through clearly in the excellent books by George Megalogenis. We should follow G20 meetings the way we listen to Reserve Bank pronouncements and the Treasurer's budget speech. No single country can solve these questions on their own. Economic megatrends should be debated in Australian politics, because only a larger frame tells the true story of our economic future. Without this debate we cannot play the leadership role the world is expecting. We are not a small player in economic diplomacy. We are the 13th largest economy in the world. Out of 193 nations. That is not the middle.

So I join Michael Fullilove's plea for a larger Australia. A bolder foreign policy would better reflect the reality of our globalised and exposed economy.  It would also acknowledge the fact that we have a clear duty to lead. 

COMMENTS

9 Dec 2015 08:05

This is the third in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

In his final Boyer Lecture 'The Birthplace of the Fortunate', Michael Fullilove advocates for a more capable and muscular Australian Defence Force (ADF). What could this look like and how likely is it?

He asserts upfront that the foreign policy debate in Australia is too important to be left to the foreign policy establishment. It strikes me the same could be said of defence, where the expert discourse is over-personalised, and the political debate is strategically under-informed and easily swayed by special interests, above all the defence industry. Michael's contribution is therefore timely and welcome. 

Fullilove argues that we need to beef up the ADF to 'better enable us to protect our territory and our citizens', as a hedge against the strategic shocks outlined in 'Present at the Destruction'. A more capable ADF would improve Australia's security by deterring potential adversaries, but also earn us influence 'in the minds of friends and allies'. 

Deterrence, of course, is a narrowly defined kind of influence. But, to me, the internationalist emphasis that runs through the 2015 Boyer Lectures primarily suggests an enhanced set of military capabilities in service of Australia's values and interests on the world stage. Fullilove posits that because Australia is a beneficiary of the liberal international order, we should be prepared to 'serve in its bodyguard.' A proponent of ANZUS, he sees a more capable defence force contributing to Canberra's credibility with Washington, but also building influence with partners in the region. 

This is not a treatise for armed neutrality or 'fortress Australia' ensconced behind its sea-air moat. Fullilove equates that with being 'a little nation, anxious about the world and disposed to erect barriers against it'. We should not forget either that it would cost much more than 2% of GDP to create a truly independent defence force. [fold]

It follows that a generous slice of the enhanced defence resources that Michael argues for would be directed towards 'engagement' and mobility. Recent acquisitions have already delivered a major boost to sea-and airlift capabilities, which, in conjunction with the Army's embrace of the amphibious force concept, point to an expeditionary orientation for the ADF. Expeditionary, with its imperial connotations, is a loaded term but preferable to 'power projection', capturing a broader spectrum of defence contingencies from stabilisation and humanitarian mission to coalition operations. I believe that regional countries will wear this augmentation of the ADF's deployability without too much angst. Some may welcome it.

Against more capable adversaries (ie China), the key platform in the ADF's future inventory for supplying a heftier, solo punch is likely to be the replacement to the Collins submarine. This is where the divide between engagement and deterrence is keenest, since the submarine's bottom-line purpose is to be an autonomous, stealthy strike platform, much less useful for naval diplomacy than, say, a frigate. Even with a rising budget, the ADF faces trade-offs between deterrence and engagement, given the stratospheric price tag of submarines and other strike assets like the F-35.

Fullilove is not specific about the military means, ie force structure, required to achieve a 'larger Australia'. He concentrates on the political commitment to increase funding for defence, supporting the Coalition's declared aim of boosting defence expenditure to the equivalent of 2% of GDP within a decade. Setting defence spending as a percentage of GDP has widespread appeal because it appears to signal strategic commitment proportional to the funding base. As with overseas aid, the downside to such targets is that they risk becoming ends in themselves, disconnected from any supporting strategic rationale. In practice, even large government departments like Defence struggle to acquit windfall budgets.

Defence has emerged from the First Principles Review and, after a delay necessitated by September's leadership spill and ministerial reshuffle, the Turnbull Government looks set to finalise the defence White Paper (DWP) for release in 2016. Well before Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, the Coalition said it would not repeat the mistake of past DWPs by issuing a document long on strategic ambition but bereft of funding commitments. This time, the White Paper is supposed to be fully costed and will be followed by a 10-year defence capability plan and defence industry policy statement to provide 'greater certainty about the Government's key priorities and timeframes'. 

That could be counted as progress towards the 'properly resourced' defence policy that Michael argues for, although the continuing political commitment to concentrate warship and submarine building in Australia is likely to exact a costly premium based on past experience. However, the willingness of the Turnbull Government to commit to the 2% of GDP defence-spending target, in face of an uncertain fiscal and growth climate, is open to question. 

We will have a better sense whether the Government shares Fullilove's ambition for an up-scaled ADF when the DWP is released. But Turnbull's inclination to use the military, as a tool of policy (or politics), appears cooler than his predecessor. Turnbull has not reversed Abbot's commitment to bombing ISIS targets in Syria. But his administration opposes ADF 'boots on the ground'. Unless a new crisis erupts in Australia's region or our GDP falls precipitously, the 2%GDP goal could prove elusive. 

Michael Fullilove asserts:

'Our voice will only command weight and authority if we accompany it with action. That means working with the US and like-minded countries to support the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region, and to discourage coercion and intimidation.'

This proposition is now being stress-tested in the South China Sea, where Canberra has so far largely restricted itself to verbal support for the US.

The ADF will no doubt continue to be deployed in niche coalition and peacekeeping roles globally. However, the regional stage is the defining one for our future. For that, the ADF needs to be resourced sufficiently to maintain conventional deterrence and high-end war-fighting skills to operate alongside the bigger players, but not so concentrated that this comes at the cost of presence and engagement across Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

If that means larger, so be it.

COMMENTS

9 Dec 2015 15:00

This is the fourth in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Among some of the intriguing ideas in Michael Fullilove's 2015 Boyer Lectures is the proposal for a global network of Australia Centres. As Michael argues in his final lecture, 'The Birthplace of the Fortunate':

Increasingly, everything we do as a country will be touched in some way by developments in Asia. We need to redouble our efforts to understand Asia - and to project Australian voices into Asia. In addition to expanding our diplomatic network, Australia should establish cultural and educational centres in key Asian capitals, modelled on the UK's British Council, Germany's Goethe Institut, China's Confucious Institute and the Japan Foundation.

Australia's own 'Goethe Institut' would project a confident, self-assured nation to the world. Michael concludes: 

The Australia Centres would be vehicles to promote Australian ideas, culture and services in Asia. They would host exhibitions and festivals, promote Australian education, arts, science, and sport; provide language teaching, act as hubs for existing programs such as the New Colombo Plan, and connect Australians with their Asian counterparts. They would boost our profile and complement our bilateral diplomacy.

This is an idea worth sustained discussion. Armed with professional skills, Australians are already a quiet force in global affairs. Michael Fullilove talks of a diaspora one million strong, 'our own world wide web of ideas and influence.'

Alongside the Australian diaspora, there are perhaps two million alumni of Australian universities now back home working in Asia. These are students who first came to Australia for their professional education, and return with a rich Australian experience. Many retain contacts and warm memories of their Australian connection.

When in December 2009 senior Australian officials met with members of the Malaysian cabinet to discuss education policy, the meeting began with a roll-call of where ministers were educated. A majority nominated Australian universities.

The sheer reach and extent of Australian alumni is little discussed in Australia, where international education is described as an export industry rather than a way to integrate this nation with its wider region. Yet with nearly 600,000 annual international enrolments in Australian schools, universities and vocational institutions, most returning to their country of origin to begin professional careers, this nation has a superb foundation for connectivity across Asia. Formative educational experiences create lasting personal links.

As Michael Fullilove observed in his fourth Boyer lecture, national strategy depends on a wider set of considerations than export revenue alone. As a nation wedded to the international liberal order, we also face key questions of persuasion, influence and culture — Joseph Nye's 'soft power' — as an important counterbalance to the traditional manifestations of economic and military power. [fold]

From this perspective, the history of Australia's Asia engagement since the original Colombo Plan of the 1950s is important. The Colombo Plan brought future leaders from many Asia Pacific nations onto an Australian campus and into direct contact with Australians. The many positive experiences on both sides helped, among other consequences, to hasten the end of the White Australia Policy.

Later initiatives such as Asialink, supported since 1990 by the Myer Foundation and the University of Melbourne, continue to enrich and deepen relationships between Australia and Asia. The recently implemented New Colombo Plan does important work encouraging young Australians to study in the region, and so participate in the regular flow of ideas and people between nations.

Such independent initiatives can work effectively in tandem with the Australian Government on Asian engagement as a key national goal. Australia Centres through Asia could work with arts, philanthropy, university, business and community groups to highlight bilateral links. As with the British Council, they could organise and support links by touring cultural productions, support language acquisition as do the Alliance Française, Dante Alighieri Society and Geothe Instits, and develop local bodies of specialist exchange as pioneered by the Confucius Institute network.

Whether attached to embassies or nurtured by other partner institutions such as the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at Kings College London, Australia Centres could encourage a flow of speakers and artists to Asia, provide support for touring exhibitions and nourish chambers of commerce. Above all they would reach out to the Australian diaspora, by birth or education, and link them to Australian activities. Here is a simple proposal that adds to Australian voices already living and working across Asia, and encourages this nation to find its place in the world.

COMMENTS

10 Dec 2015 08:25

This is the fifth in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Australians have never really come to terms with the fact that we are the world's only continental nation. The vastness of our landscape, the distances between settlements, the smallness of our population and our isolation from the world's centres of power go some way towards explaining our lack of confidence on the world stage and our national habit of apologising for our good fortune. It may also explain the extraordinary pettiness with which we conduct our national politics.

While Malcolm Turnbull has brought a new tone of ambition, confidence and optimism to public policy, he still has among his followers the small-minded cynics who spent the last eight years talking down the economy and deriding those who wanted a more assertive Australia to play its role in the conduct of world affairs.

Both Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, in opposition, mocked Kevin Rudd's efforts to secure Australia a seat on the UN Security Council as some kind of self-indulgent vainglory, yet were the principal beneficiaries of his success. Overseas travel by prime ministers, ministers and senior officials continues to be lampooned as boondoggling at a time when connectivity and representation are critical components of national prosperity.

The fact is that continued economic growth and long-term security depend on our ability to realise the potential that Australia's continental size affords us. This means that we need to be more engaged globally, and to do that we need to be bigger in every sense – bigger in mind, bigger in heart, bigger in aspiration, bigger in generosity and bigger in population. Strategically, size matters.

Stalin might have been right when he said that quantity has a quality all of its own, at least as far as rolling back the Wehrmacht was concerned. For Australia, however, quality and quantity are not polar opposites but facets of the same thing – size. And size is not a question of mass, but rather of weight, requiring us to think seriously about how we acquire it, how we sustain it and how we use it. [fold]

Australia's post-WW2 economic growth occurred on the back of a robust immigration policy and social policies that promoted the health and educational opportunities of the baby-boomers. While many look to the Snowy Mountains Scheme as the enduring symbol of an expansionary immigration program, the fact is that Australia's industrial development was probably the most enduring artifact of the flood of immigrants who brought with them skills and an appetite for hard work.

Yet there is a palpable reluctance among governments of all political hues to see a strong immigration program as a key driver of our national strength, wealth and resilience. The merging of the immigration and customs portfolios into a single entity – the Department of Immigration and Border Protection – with a concomitant shift of policy emphasis to border protection and a harsh refugee management policy, illustrates just how introspective and defensive we have become as a migrant nation.

To achieve Prime Minister Turnbull's aspirations for an innovative and thriving post-industrial economy, we need both to release the talent of young Australians through our tertiary education sector and to supplement that talent by encouraging young, educated people from around the world to make their homes here. With an enduring recession in Europe, a loss of confidence in the Americas and brakes on economic growth in Asia, the opportunity to bring in young professionals is unparalleled.

On current trends, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates a doubling of the population to 46 million by 2075. This is by no means a large population, especially considering the startling increases in longevity. Australia needs a progressive population policy that could plan for a population of say, 60 million, by 2075. A relatively small increase in net overseas migration would both mitigate the effects of a relatively low birthrate and reduce the average age.

There are, of course, many who point to the dryness of our continent and the size of our major cities as constraints on expanding our population. Yet advances in water recycling and water management, solar-powered desalination, improved agronomy and pasture management, along with enhanced urban design and the decentralisation of post-industrial employment would all serve to accommodate a larger and younger population.

Whatever strategic issues the 21st century generates, we can be sure that they will be multi-dimensional, multi-factorial, more multi-faceted and probably more intractable than anything we have experienced hitherto. A larger and stronger population would not only provide additional resources for national security – the result of a bigger economy – but would also provide the additional skilled personnel that will form the backbone of Australia's future defence industry and defence force.

Protecting and promoting Australia's strategic interests demand a continental perspective. While sound alliances are critical components of our national security policy, they only make sense to the extent that we maintain and sustain high levels of self-reliance that enable a serious contribution to both the durability and reliability of our strategic interdependence with allies.

To that end, size does matter.

COMMENTS

11 Dec 2015 12:00

This is the sixth in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures exhort Australians to think big and not shrink from their historical involvement in the big struggles of the world because of a necessary focus on the Asia Pacific.

He makes the valid point that getting Australia's house in order, including indigenous peoples in the national charter, switching from the imperial monarchy to an Australian head of state, fostering inclusion of diverse immigrants and making wise investments for a larger population will lay the foundations for external influence.

This expansive vision overlooks the immediate neighbourhood, however. There's only a paragraph about the circle of island nations to Australia's north and northeast, from Timor-Leste through the Melanesian states to Fiji and Tonga, and, while acknowledging its strategic importance, not much about developing true closeness with Indonesia.

Certainly, after turbulence around the turn of the century, what was then often called the 'arc of instability' is a lot calmer, better governed and less worrisome at the moment. But it still holds many strategic risks as well as opportunities for Australia to augment its global influence.

First the risks. Many of the inner circle nations have explosive rates of population growth, straining efforts to lift living standards, maintain food supplies and preserve the environment. [fold]

Papua New Guinea is projected to grow from its present 7.6 million people to more than 13 million by mid-century, the Solomon Islands from 611,000 to nearly1.1 million,  and Vanuatu from 271,000 to 483,000. Timor-Leste has the fastest growth of all. Its population has already risen from about 850,000 at the end of the Indonesian occupation in 1999 to an estimated 1.283 million, and on present trends could get to 2 million by 2030 or even before.

Among many of the smaller island states, high natural birth rates are offset by high emigration, but in some cases climate change and rising sea levels are making homelands less hospitable even for existing populations.

That high emigration, meanwhile, creates diaspora communities in the 'metropolitan' countries around the Pacific. Through remittances and skill acquisition this is an economic lifeline for the homelands, but high rates of crime, domestic violence and unemployment show the difficulties of settlement.

Indonesia is already well into a demographic transition that will see its population stabilise at around 300 million this century, but it has daunting challenges in avoiding urban nightmares and large-scale environmental degradation, as this year's region-wide 'haze' from forest and peatland fires warns us. Its democracy and educated discourse are threatened by corruption, militarism and religious intolerance.

Youthful, unemployed and mobile populations exposed to globalised popular culture already give us a taste of Caribbean/South American dystopias in fast-growing cities like Port Moresby, Lae, Honiara and Dili. Drug and gun running, drug-resistant TB, human trafficking and fishing boat slavery are starting to show up around our borders. Some of the region's political figures have contact with transnational organised crime. Political elites falling into self-enrichment at the expense of their populations can also be open to capture by ambitious new powers or commercial interests.

Yet these dangers shouldn't lead us to pull back behind our maritime moat (only 4km wide in the case of PNG). It calls on us to engage more deeply and invest more in the human development of the nations around us through aid, investment, organisational and professional exchanges, a vastly bigger seasonal and temporary worker scheme and frequent political contact.

For Australia, the region can be a source of young workers, a wider market, a fountain of art, a place of exploration and self-challenge.

To dispel the image of a country with self-interest lurking not far below its aid and cooperation, we could think of resetting our relationships by reviewing the maritime border arrangements made with newly emerged and shaky governments in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and PNG. Australia is not short of natural gas and fisheries. 

With Indonesia, the great symbolic statement and long-term investment about our place in this region would be agreement by our federal and state governments to make Bahasa Indonesia a compulsory subject in our primary and lower-secondary curriculums, kicked off with a teacher exchange until our near-retirement cohort of existing teachers is replenished.

Investment in knowledge to deal with the problems and conflicts of the Melanesian arc can't be as grandly simple as that, but it is vital too, at a higher level. Pacific expertise in our universities is shrinking fast. The current UN climate change conference in Paris has shown how the reproaches of the smallest island states around us can damage our standing in world diplomacy.

To be fair, both sides of politics grasp this. As Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has shown strong interest in the immediate region (the recent involvement of China in a joint anti-malaria campaign in PNG is a breakthrough) and Labor's Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek toured Pacific island states ahead of the Paris conference. 

To be a bigger country, we need to enhance our role as a 'mother ship' (along with New Zealand) supporting the more fragile vessels in the seas around us. The inner circle is where we belong.

COMMENTS