Thursday 19 Apr 2018 | 21:34 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Apr 2018 | 21:34 | SYDNEY
Debates

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.

This has been a sorry phase in Australian politics. As I argue in The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a Great Nation Lost Its Way, the 'political parochialism' of its blinkered leaders is partly the reason why: 'At the very moment when the rest of the world has shown more interest in Australia, the present crop of Australian leaders has displayed a bewildering indifference to the rest of the world.'

During this ugly era, Peter Hartcher has ploughed a lonely furrow as one of the few commentators to regularly view domestic politics through the prism of world events.

Occupying a dual role as the Political and International Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, he has never looked on these posts as the journalistic equivalent of raising twins with markedly different personalities. Rather, he looks for the common traits in both. No one writes about Canberra in a more worldly way. So when Hartcher argues that 'Australia is seriously underperforming and it is underperforming because of the pathology of parochialism,' people should take note.

What makes this parochialism all the more inexplicable is the frequency with which external events have impacted upon domestic politics. [fold]

Ahead of the 2001 election, it was the 11 September attacks and the Tampa controversy that changed the dynamic of the race. In 2007, John Howard suffered from the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, his refusal to ratify Kyoto and the incarceration of David Hicks. In 2010, the failure of the Copenhagen global warming summit set in motion a chain of events that led to the ouster of Kevin Rudd.

As Peter Hartcher deftly chronicles, two dramatic external events, the shooting down of MH17 and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq, have transformed Tony Abbott's prime ministership. Hamstrung by the provincial reflex, he started off arguing that Australia should not have 'ideas above our station.' His response to MH17 in particular turned him into a more noticeable figure on the world stage and heightened his international impulses.

Abbott has ended up making just as many foreign trips in his first year as Kevin '747' Rudd – eleven. As Hartcher notes, he also realised Australia had important diplomatic tools at its disposal: chairmanship of the G20 and membership of the UN Security Council. 'In the course of a year, Abbott has been transformed,' Hartcher concludes. 'His provincial reflex has been replaced by an international inclination.'

What's striking about Hartcher's book, however, is the strength with which Abbott refutes the idea of a makeover. 'He resists the idea he has changed in any way,' notes Hartcher, who then quotes from an interview with the Prime Minister. 'The point I keep making today,' Abbott says, 'is that Australia can't change the world singlehandedly, and we shouldn't try.'

Abbott's speech to the UN General Assembly in September was punctuated by the same spasms of the provincial reflex. For a start, he trotted out the same line: 'We have never believed that we can save the world single-handedly.' But he added 'nor have we shrunk from shouldering our responsibilities.'

He also came up with what struck me as an ambitionless assertion of Australia's influence. 'We're strong enough to be useful but pragmatic enough to know our limits.' Should not Australia aspire to be something more than useful?

There were also lines in the speech, such as his celebration of the abolition of the carbon tax, that seemed aimed at a domestic audience. And the timing of Abbott's arrival in New York was telling. It came a day after more than 120 heads of government, including Barack Obama, had attended a UN climate change summit.

Abbott took no credit for the impressive work of the Australian mission in New York, a ripe example of Aussie internationalism. No one has worked harder to push humanitarian resolutions on Syria through the council than Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, but the Prime Minister did not even mention of his efforts. Overall, it felt like a Small Australia speech.

My sense is that in the aftermath of MH17, Abbott had the chance to recast his global image, and in some ways he did. Here in New York, many diplomats admired his scolding remarks directed towards Vladimir Putin. Also impressive was the speed with which Australia moved in the Security Council to set up an international investigation.

But what we have seen in recent weeks sounds like a retrenchment. His absence from the climate change summit did not go down well in New York. Nor did his recent remarks that 'coal is good for humanity.' As for his comments about 'shirtfronting' Putin in Brisbane, even Australia's closest diplomatic friends thought they were hilarious. After the statesmanship displayed in the aftermath of MH17, he sounds again like a backwoodsman.

Much of this political provincialism stems from the mistaken belief that Australian voters are themselves parochial. In the same vein, politicians also exaggerate levels of xenophobia and racism of the Australian electorate. But there is an internationalist stream that prime ministers could tap. Just witness the wanderlust of young Australians, who roam the planet with their rucksacks embroidered with Australian flags, or the million-strong rolling Australian diaspora that Michael Fullilove spoke of in a previous Lowy Institute paper. Australia, with its polyglot population, is also one of the world's most successfully multicultural countries, which automatically gives it an international outlook.

That 'shirtfront' moment was telling. An Australian leader seemed to be speaking to Australia in fluent Australian, when in the run-up to the G20 he could have been addressing the world.

COMMENTS

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.)

First, although Peter finds much that is wrong with the way Australia approaches foreign policy, he tends not to blame governments for that. Mostly – there are a few exceptions – he argues that successive governments in recent years have got things right and that it is the media, successive oppositions and the wider public who fail to understand how important their work is, and sometimes get in the way. The key message seems to be that all would be well if the media and the public would only take what their governments are doing more seriously.

Second, Peter seems broadly confident that good solutions to Australia's foreign-policy challenges are going to be relatively easy to find. His shares Julie Bishop's conviction that Australia is and will remain a 'top 20' power, and that as such we will be able to shape the international system to preserve our prosperity and security without having to make too many uncomfortable choices.

Alas, I'm not sure it's that easy. [fold]

First, how should we score recent governments' foreign policies? Peter gives high marks for Rudd's G20 initiative and UN Security Council bid, for Gillard's support for Obama's Pivot, and for the Abbott Government's responses to MH17, ISIS and Abe's changes to Japan's defence posture. This is not the place to argue the toss about all these policies, but there are solid arguments that each of them was either largely irrelevant or actually damaging to Australia's core interests. The more of those arguments one accepts, the weaker our governments' recent performances look.

These examples also cast some doubt on Peter's diagnosis of the problem with our foreign policy. The media warmly applauded each of these policies, and those in opposition only overtly criticised one of them. A more critical observer might therefore argue that our media and opposition are too lenient on governments rather that too tough on them. More stringent scrutiny might produce better outcomes.

Second, I think we have to be a little more cautious about the seriousness of the problems we face and the choices they will impose on us. Peter's book discusses the strategic shifts in Asia and the need to respond to them, quoting with approval Michael Thawley's view that Australia has to 'take the lead in creating an agenda'. But he does not discuss in any systematic way what our response should actually be.

In fact Peter seems to accept the widely shared assumption that these responses need not involve any very hard choices for Australia, because US leadership will continue to provide the foundation of regional order. But that is not something we can simply assume, and one might argue that the real weakness in Australian foreign policy is that so few in government, the opposition or the media and commentariat are willing seriously to debate it.

COMMENTS

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.

This creates the 'predicament of proximity', Michael Fullilove's phrase which Hartcher adopts in The Adolescent Country. He is right in saying that Australia has credibility with both Washington and Beijing. To maintain this credibility, Hartcher has wisely advised his fellow Australians to get out of the 'followership' of America and exercise 'independent judgement'.

Sadly, the Australian Government has not heeded Hartcher's advice. Indeed it is doing the opposite.

Recently, when China announced its initiative for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Washington DC responded by campaigning ferociously against it. It would clearly serve Australia's national interests to see the AIIB succeed, as regional cooperation in Asia would create a more stable geopolitical environment in its 'proximity'. In addition, the massive infrastructure projects funded by the AIIB would enhance Australian exports. Instead of exercising wise independent judgement as suggested by Hartcher, Australia crouched into its usual position of 'followership' and succumbed to American pressure. [fold]

This traditional Australian supplicant position towards Washington is not the only handicap Australia faces in its foreign policy. As Hartcher documents fully, Australia is also handicapped by a 'provincial reflex' which contributes to a 'pathology of parochialism'. Hartcher is right in pointing out that this has contributed to Australia's failure to develop deep and mature relations with its Asian neighbours, particularly Indonesia.

Clearly it is unwise for a scarcely populated country of 24 million Westerners to alienate a country of 250 million Indonesians, most of whom are Muslim. The US can afford to alienate the Islamic world because it is 'over there'. Australia cannot afford to do so because it is 'over here'. Yet despite the obvious need to develop deep and meaningful ties with Indonesia, Australia keeps shooting itself in the foot. As Hartcher relates, Abbott's insensitive comments and actions on refugee boats and his remarks on Snowden and SBY give Australia a particularly bad record in its handling of relations with Indonesia.

There is one big item missing in Hartcher's book – some 'big ideas' on how to overcome this 'pathology of parochialism'. Let me suggest one.

In his book, Hartcher quotes Ambassador Chan Heng Chee from Singapore on Australia's role in APEC. Ambassador Chan is right in saying that APEC came into being only because it was proposed by Australia, whereas other similar ventures had been rejected by ASEAN in the past when proposed by powers like the USSR and Japan. Ambassador Chan also argued that Singapore is a similar country to Australia – one that can produce practical ideas that can win broad support. 

Ambassador Chan is providing a valuable insight that Australians should reflect on. There are Asian countries that share Australia's global outlook. Hence, the best way for Australia to start preparing for its role in the Asian century is to look for Asian countries with whom it can develop deep and meaningful relationships. The obvious candidate is Singapore. It is true that Australia has good relations with Singapore. But they are not deep and meaningful because Australia as a 'middle power' is not able to treat Singapore, a small state, as its political equal. This 'middle power' complex is another handicap that Australia has to overcome.

The big message of Hartcher's book is one that Australia cannot afford to ignore. As American power gradually recedes from the Asia Pacific, Australia can no longer rely on a strong 'parent' to protect its interests. The time has come for Australia to grow out of its adolescence and become a mature and responsible player. Hartcher is doing his fellow Australians a big favour by producing this timely book. Many Asians hope that his message will be heeded by Australian leaders and public intellectuals.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Ward.

COMMENTS

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. [fold]

First, we need our own truly Australian flag. Our current national flag is clearly a remnant of our colonial past. To have the flag of another nation on our national flag is as inappropriate as having the national anthem of another nation as our own.

Second, we need to become a republic. To have our head of state not one of us but a monarch from another nation is similarly inappropriate for a truly independent nation.

Third, we need to fully come to terms with our treatment of the original inhabitants of this land, our indigenous people. A mature nation would take complete responsibility for its often shameful history and embrace indigenous culture as central to the country and its future.

Fourth, we need to fully embrace the participation of women in the stewardship of the nation, politically and commercially. To have a federal cabinet that consists of 18 men and one woman, and to have only three women as chief executive officers of the top 50 ASX-listed companies (two when Gail Kelly of Westpac steps down), is an indictment on our society and not befitting a mature nation.

Fifth, we need to accept that since 1788 we have been an immigrant nation, full of people from all over the world, arriving in all types of circumstances. A mature nation, with this sort of understanding, would not tie itself in ridiculous knots over asylum seekers. 

Sixth, we need to accept that we are well and truly part of Asia and not a satellite of Europe. The sooner we are able to do this (and it entails more than just trade links), the sooner we will enter international adulthood.

With the right leadership all this will be possible for Australia, but unless and until these issues are dealt with, we will remain adolescent.

Imagine this one day: a national president who was originally an Afghan refugee opens our national parliament. The president swears into office our prime minister, an indigenous woman. The cabinet and parliament of the day reflect the gender and racial make up of our society. Flying above Parliament House is the Australian flag, without the Union Jack.

One might think that when all this happens the nation will have come of age, but that is only partly right; Australia will have fully come of age when everyone thinks this is normal.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Maarten Thewissen.

COMMENTS

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. 

Abbott said that the G20 was an economic forum and he wanted to restrict the agenda to economic issues. But, in reality, his reasoning was based on provincial politics. He had risen to the leadership of his party, and later his country, by campaigning against carbon pricing policies. It was a point of political vanity that he would now turn his back on climate change. He would not allow his Labor opposition the satisfaction of shining a global limelight on an issue seen to be a Labor one. [fold]

A rising international indignation towered over the prelude to the Summit. In the event, it almost completely swallowed it. The climactic moment was the US President's speech on the campus of University of Queensland halfway through the summit. Barack Obama was flush with the success of his announcement about new US carbon curbs during an appearance with China's president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing the week before.

American presidents pioneered the use of props in their speechcraft, and Obama is no different. After taking advantage of the Chinese President for one announcement, he then took advantage of Queensland's most famous landmark to make another. 'The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened,' Obama declared. He wanted to return to Australia to visit the reef with his daughters when he had more time. 'And I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit and I want that there 50 years from now.' He then announced a US$3 billion contribution to the UN Green Climate Fund.

When the G20 communique was issued the next day, it contained a paragraph on climate change. 'Abbott was on the wrong side of the carbon debate throughout the summit, with his government trying to keep it off the official agenda,' said CNN's Andrew Stevens. 'But, reportedly under strong pressure from both Europe and the US, carbon emissions were part of the official final statement.'

The Los Angeles Times' reporters, Christi Parsons and Don Lee, likewise rated it a triumph for the US:

Obama's influence at the summit also was seen in the final communique's inclusion of statements on climate change, an issue that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott sought vigorously to keep off the agenda.

But beyond the political posturing, in the official working groups, it had been a faux contest. Even as Abbott posed publicly against the idea, his officials quietly added it to the draft communiqués. As Abbott himself disclosed at the Chairman's closing press conference of the G20:

The very first draft of the communique, which Australia prepared, talked about climate change. All the way through, we've been talking about energy efficiency and climate change... All of us want to take strong and effective action against climate change.

In the drafting, the clash had been nothing more than a debate over whether to give climate change its own subject heading. Or not. In the event, there was a paragraph on climate change, and it was included under the heading of energy efficiency.

Yet on the surface, it looked like a triumph for Obama. And it is surface looks like that usually decide opinion. 'It's been a good week for American leadership,' said Obama. It looked to be an embarrassment for Abbott. And it seemed the Australian leader was smarting. A string of Abbott proxies — two ministers and The Australian's Greg Sheridan — went public to grumble and gripe about Obama's speech. This went on for a week. But the simple fact is that Abbot had been caught indulging the provincial reflex in the middle of a global gathering.

The result? The economic agenda that Abbott most wanted to discuss was largely overshadowed by an artificial argument on climate change, the very subject he wanted to avoid.

The other dominant media theme at the G20 was President Vladimir Putin's interventions into Ukraine and his alleged culpability for the deaths of 298 civilians aboard MH17. Abbott had threatened to 'shirtfront' Putin when he visited Brisbane. This set up a confrontation, one the global media eagerly awaited.

Abbott's anger over MH17 was real, but his promised confrontation was also designed to display his toughness to the electorate. Yet after Abbott welcomed him to Brisbane, Putin took great pleasure in exposing the Australian leader's threat as hollow. The Russian state-owned ITAR TASS news service reported Putin's press conference:

I know the way it was covered in the media, I heard the echo. I've seen statements by my Australian counterpart. I would like to say that in practice there had been nothing of the sort. The Australian partners created an extremely friendly environment for work. Cordial, I should say, and very good for the search for solutions to the problems the world economy is faced with.

There was also much media attention to the three Russian naval ships that appeared in Australia's northern approaches during the Summit. The Russian Pacific fleet is aging, but still potentially nuclear armed. 'It can't be coincidence,' said ANU professor emeritus Paul Dibb. Who was shirtfronting whom?

The third much-reported outbreak of the provincial reflex was the Australian Prime Minister's opening remarks to the assembled G20 leaders. These were the remarks where Abbott confided that he was finding it 'massively difficult' to get signature budget proposals through the Senate. 

After requesting that all leaders keep their opening presentation to a five-minute maximum, Abbott spent about half his time explaining, ostensibly to the presidents and prime ministers of the countries accounting for 85% of the global economy, the benefits of deregulated universities and a $7 GP co-payment. Among his critics was Bill Shorten, who talked of Abbott's 'eight excruciating minutes' where he 'delivered a weird, cringe-worthy, "little Australia" lecture to the global community.'

Once again, Abbott was using a high-level global meeting to address a domestic audience, and once again it flopped. If he had taken the opportunity seriously as an event in itself, he might have enjoyed happier results.

All of these misjudgments were assailed from afar by the Los Angeles Times' journalist Robyn Dixon by recourse to my thesis of Australia as The Adolescent Country. The G20 Summit had been 'a classic example' of the syndrome, the expat Australian wrote

Yet there was an underlying substance to Australia's year as chair as well. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, developed a growth target for the G20 of adding an extra 2 percentage points of global GDP over five years. The member countries submitted some 800 policies which, combined, would add 2.1%, according to the IMF and OECD. It was the right measure for a faltering global economy. Of course, implementation is all-important. The leaders agreed to a review mechanism, but in the end it will be a discretionary matter for each. Still, this is as good as it gets in international summitry.

Hockey led the group in working on other important initiatives, too, including measures to begin reining in multinational corporations' global pea-and-thimble tax minimisation tricks.

Australian showed 'adolescent country' impulses even as it led the world towards some serious work on some grown-up business. The adolescent behaviours were such a resounding failure, and the serious business such a success, that we can only trust that our leaders will conclude it's time to grow up.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.

COMMENTS

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.

This is not to say the 'provincial reflex' is an invention. Our media and our opposition parties do have a 'little Australia' instinct, and they do exploit opportunities to criticise governments over alleged largesse when it comes to foreign travel. As Michael Fullilove has pointed out, whereas in Australia a foreign minister can be excoriated by the tabloids for his travel bill, in the US the air miles traveled by the Secretary of State are a proud feature of the State Department website. This provincialism is an ugly and insular feature of our political culture.

But it's worth remembering that the media and political parties also punish our political leaders when they become too provincial.

Julia Gillard, after all, was roundly criticised for admitting, while at a conference in Europe during the early months of her prime ministership, that 'I'd probably be more (comfortable) in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings.' More recently, the Opposition has made the Abbott Government's allegedly slow response to the Ebola epidemic into an effective line of criticism. In this case, it seems the Opposition has tapped a well of feeling in the community that Australia needs to be more internationally engaged, not less. In fact, when Australian governments do make major decisions about involvement in a foreign crisis, the provincial reflex rarely kicks in. If anything, the media and Opposition tend to be too eager to rally around the flag when governments decide to send our military forces abroad.

Perhaps the provincial reflex might be better described as a tabloid reflex. It is an easy and time-tested way for the media and opposition parties to generate short-term public outrage, but its not clear that it has any lasting policy consequences.

Nevertheless, it's true that the policy debate is narrower than many of us would like, and that it is difficult to get Australian politicians and the media to set their sights a little higher rather than knocking down those who do have an international focus. But there are good reasons for this which will be very difficult to ever fix. [fold]

For one thing, we're up against the media's tendency to focus on events. Although the rise of Asia is the most important thing to happen in Australian foreign policy in several generation, it is a process rather than an event. By historical standards, Asia's growth has happened at breakneck speed, but its not nearly quick enough for the 24-hour media cycle. So the only time this hugely important historical trend breaks into the mainstream news cycle is when it is marked by events such as the recent G20 Summit in Brisbane or the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Outside those occasions, it is easy for the media and the political opposition to brand Australia's involvement in world affairs as an indulgence, because these affairs seem so divorced from everyday Australian problems.

Secondly, the public debate is narrow because most people have no say and little direct stake in the huge economic and strategic shifts happening in our region. It makes perfect sense for voters to be 'rationally ignorant' of these events because voters have so little hope of influencing those events. We all lead complex and busy lives, and we tend to apportion our attention to things we can directly influence (for most of us, that means our families and jobs). That doesn't mean we don't care about what's going on in the world; it just means we're being sensible about managing our time. And if voters are making a reasonable choice not to pay much attention to world affairs, it follows that politicians and the media will respond to those preferences. (If I'm right, then we may in fact see Australian popular interest in world affairs decline because Australia is slowly becoming a less influential player as our Asian neighbours rise.)

But all of this presumes a fairly passive view of Australia's role in the world. Maybe Australians would be more engaged in such matters if their leaders were inclined to lead on the world stage rather than just follow or react to events. In the middle section of The Adolescent Country, Peter Hartcher describes several Australian diplomatic initiatives that gave us 'pivotal influence in world affairs', and then bemoans the fact that these initiatives...

...are exceptions rather than the rule. Australia's default stance in its dealings with the world is not one of leadership. More often, it is derivative and responsive. It usually takes its lead from the United States when it can and deals with crises when it must.

Hartcher is right, but the problem he is describing here is not provincialism; it is conformism. I have argued before that conformity is an important part of the Australian character. It might even be a beneficial one. But conformity also exacts a price, and one is that it breeds a reluctance to innovate and to lead. It is something Australia will need to overcome if it wishes to be more than a bystander in the Asian century.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

COMMENTS