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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 18:20 | SYDNEY

The Adolescent Country

5 Nov 2014 10:09

'The provincial reflex', Peter Hartcher's coinage in The Adolescent Country, a Lowy Institute Paper released today, is a neat way of describing the chronic parochialism that has infected Australia public life for much of the past decade.

It is a period, paradoxically, when the shift in global economic activity has made Australia more central to the world. Yet an inward-looking parliament has taken the maxim 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity. The party room has trumped the halls of international summitry. In setting national priorities, the latest polling from the western suburbs of Sydney appears to hold sway over diplomatic dispatches from Washington or Beijing.

Foreign policy has been subjugated to domestic politics. Just witness the unseemly search for a 'Malaysia Solution,' an 'East Timor Solution' or a 'Cambodia Solution' to staunch the flow of asylum seekers. All were intended to find a political solution, more so than a practical one, whatever the diplomatic fall-out.


7 Nov 2014 11:59

As power shifts in Asia, Australia faces big new foreign policy challenges. Getting them right is vital to Australia's future security and prosperity. But the way we do foreign policy in Australia these days is not up to the task. We have to do foreign policy better.

This is the central argument of Peter Hartcher's new book, The Adolescent Country, which gives a fresh and well-framed take on the way Australia tries to position itself in the world. Peter is an indefatigable reporter, and he has garnered many interesting and important views from many interesting and important people. He is also an accomplished author who assembles his material into a fluent and accessible story.

It is also, at heart, a distinctly optimistic book, for two reasons.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. (Flickr/CSIS.)


13 Nov 2014 09:18

Is culture destiny? Or is geography destiny? These are the existential questions Australians have to grapple with as they ponder their future in the Asian century. As they think over these questions, they would do well to plunge into Peter Hartcher's new Lowy Institute Paper The Adolescent Country.

Hartcher does not address these existential questions directly. But they form the sub-text of much of what he talks about on Australia's future. Like many other leading Australian public intellectuals, he worries about the impact of any rivalry between China and US on Australia. In theory, as a staunch American ally, Australia should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US. In practice, Australian economic interests would be badly damaged if it gets into any confrontation with China.

Australians will soon calculate, as many Asians already have done, that while America may be around for another hundred years, China will be around for the next thousand.


19 Nov 2014 14:32

In his new Lowy Institute Paper, Peter Hartcher is correct when he writes that Australia is an adolescent country. However, I believe the roots of our adolescent behaviour lie deep in the lack of maturity of our national consciousness.

The juvenile language of our leaders, our false bravado, and our burning need to constantly prove ourselves on the sporting world stage all reflect the characteristics of an adolescent: insecure, uncertain of their place in the world, reluctant to come of age and enter adulthood. 

Speaking of ourselves as a 'middle power', boasting how we 'punch above our weight', saying we are the 'best in the southern hemisphere', is immature — this is Australia.

When watching the 1972 Olympic Games, I clearly recall Shane Gould receiving her three gold medals to a rendition of God Save the Queen; the anthem of Great Britain was also our national anthem at the time. Today very few would consider that appropriate and many would cringe, but back then few thought anything of it. Our nation eventually decided to change its anthem to reflect a maturing nation.

Today, several more things will need to change before we as a nation will fully mature.


8 Dec 2014 13:18

Australia had a prime chance to demonstrate its adult status in chairing the G20 Summit this year. What did it do with the opportunity?

It showcased some of the characteristic behaviours of an adolescent country, my term for Australia in a new Lowy Institute Paper. Tantalisingly, it also showed glimpses of real leadership, the potential to improve itself and the world at the same time.

It was, of course, the adolescent huffs and squalls that got most of the publicity. First was the Prime Minister's grudging refusal to admit publicly that he would allow the topic of climate change on to the agenda. Like a kid insisting he will allow only his favourite games at his birthday party, Abbott appeared to spend months refusing to countenance any other country's view.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, describes climate change as 'the defining issue of our time.' But the Australian Prime Minister said it was not to be a priority. By his wilful determination to shut down the subject, he made it the dominant one. Like attempting censorship in an open society, the attempt to suppress it only gave it greater topicality. 


10 Dec 2014 16:31

Peter Hartcher's The Adolescent Country is centred on the claim that Australia suffers from a provincial reflex that demotes international affairs to a subset of domestic politics and prevents our leaders from embracing a more ambitious and expansive view of Australia's role in the world. Peter goes on to argue that Australia must overcome this tendency in order to thrive as Asia rises to become the global centre of gravity.

It's true that, as a nation, we seem somewhat insouciant about the once-in-a-century shift happening to our north, so I share some of Peter Hartcher's frustration and impatience. But there are good reasons why our national debate is less elevated than us policy specialists would like, and I'm not convinced Peter's 'provincial reflex' diagnoses the problem correctly.