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.

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.