I've just left the National Press Club in Canberra, where Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove delivered an address which argued that the shift in economic and strategic weight to the Asia Pacific demands a recalibration of Australia's place in the world. Australia is already a substantial international player, he argued, but it needs to move up a weight division through a bigger population, higher spending on defence and diplomacy, and an elevated national debate.
I won't summarise the speech in detail because a transcript is up on the Lowy Institute website, though I did want to mention one aspect which might get lost in the debate about how big Australia needs to be in population and weight of military power (more on that below), and that is his stark warning about the status of the US pivot. America's heart is not in the pivot, Michael said, and the initiative has 'gone off the boil' in Washington. Most direct was his judgment that the credibility of the pivot hangs on the success of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal: 'if TPP fails, it will prove the pivot has run out of puff.' As Stephen Grenville has argued, failure of the TPP is a distinct possibility.
It's fair to say that things got rather animated in the Q&A session, with a couple of journalists pressing Michael on the details of his proposal for a larger Australian population, and even requesting details on which domestic programs Michael would like to see cut to pay for higher defence spending.
When a speaker recommends higher population levels, it is of course entirely legitimate to ask what those levels ought to be. But the focus on budget specifics seemed to me to crowd out bigger questions about exactly what Australia ought to do with its larger population and bigger strategic weight. I'd also like to know more about the alternatives: what would be the consequences, for instance, of doing little or nothing of what Michael recommends for Australia's population, defence and foreign policies? These are issues I'd like to explore on these pages in the coming days.
Photo by Flickr user Matthewwu88.