Australia's founding governor, Arthur Philip, expected the settlement he led would in time become 'the Empire of the East'.
In his important and timely National Press Club address, Michael Fullilove is more modest but he makes a powerful case for a national conversation on whether Australia should seek to become a much larger country – a big, confident country with a bigger tool chest, including an extensive diplomatic network and a stronger military, and eventually 'an ability to influence the balance of power in Asia'. Fullilove supports his view with cogent strategic, political and economic argument.
There is good reason for believing that within the new government there is the confidence to be receptive to this longer term thinking. Senior ministers such as Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb seem to support Australia's potential for strong growth. Treasurer Joe Hockey seems well disposed, as are leading members of generation next, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenburg.
There are constraints on and risks for politicians, however supportive, about publicly articulating such grand vision unless there is significant community support, including from business, mining and agricultural interests, professional legal and medical bodies, the media, think tanks and universities, and the Australian diaspora. Legitimate and complex concerns about water, the environment more generally, infrastructure, urban comfort, integration of migrants and state government skills raise many problems. The greater problems are a failure of imagination, a failure of strategic vision and a failure by too many to appreciate just how successful, in global and national terms, Australia has been in growing from 7 to 23 million without serious disharmony.
Already Bishop's bold decision to integrate DFAT and AusAID offers the real prospect of starting the process of rebuilding Australia's diplomatic strength. The much more complex task of growing the defence budget turns on the broader question of growing the economy. Some will cavil about the possibility of 'an ability to influence the balance of power in Asia'. With around 50 million by the end of the century Australia may not be able to influence the balance of power but we will be a more decisive contributor to our national security.
Fullilove is right to call for a national conversation. For too long the 'frightened' people, to use Renouf's term, have usurped debate. Prime Minister Abbott needs to ensure that while their views are respected they do not dominate.
Photo by Flickr user Alex Proimos.