Why the PM can’t ignore global affairs

dennis-altman-big Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Age on 15 February, 2011.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Prime Minister and I were both members of Socialist Forum, some of us were asked to suggest a speech we would like then prime minister Bob Hawke to deliver. Maybe it is time to do the same for Julia Gillard.

Neither she nor I came to the forum as disillusioned communists, unlike several forum members. We were on the left but not attracted to Marxist doctrines, and whatever views Gillard then held she has clearly moved steadily towards a more mainstream liberalism. But she had a strong commitment to equality of opportunity and social justice, which she needs to re-emphasise.

Nowhere is this more important than in addressing Australia's place in the world. Compared with Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating and even John Howard, the current leaders in Australian politics seem largely disinterested in foreign affairs. Gillard made this clear in her unfortunate admission last year that she would rather be reading to kids than attending a foreign summit. Tony Abbott, meanwhile, has been calling for cuts in the overseas aid budget.

In the contemporary world, a national leader is also an international player, and no one who is unwilling to take on that responsibility should aspire to the prime ministership. Given her ambitious and hyper-energetic Foreign Minister, there is a particular need for Gillard to articulate her own vision of Australia's place in the world.

Few of the domestic issues confronting her can be dealt with in national isolation. The flow of asylum seekers, the problems of climate change, the existence of terrorist threats are all inextricably bound up with global developments. Yet, so far, Gillard has rarely addressed the larger world, and when she has it is in very limited terms.

In last week's Four Corners interview, the two countries she spoke of were Israel and the United States. It is unfortunate that she was not pressed further to explain why she is so staunch a defender of the current Israeli government, nor how she would deal with potential tension between the US and China.

But beyond such foreign policy issues, Gillard should speak of the changing global environment and how she sees Australia adjusting to rapid changes in the global balance of power. The rising significance of China, India and several of other states - Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, etc - means that it is no longer possible for Australia to assume its foreign policy is solved by firm friendship with the US.

The American alliance is less problematic precisely because the US is less likely than in the past to engage in dangerous military adventurism. But even if the alliance remains central to Australian defence policy, our engagement with the world cannot depend upon it.

Rudd as prime minister grasped this, and sought a solution in grand gestures, seeking a new institutional structure for the major powers of the Asia-Pacific region and a seat on the UN Security Council. Gillard has remained quiet on both initiatives, but she has the opportunity to carve out a rather different approach to the world.

Indeed, that opportunity was handed to her last week when the opposition split over attitudes to foreign development assistance. As Julie Bishop understands, foreign aid is a vital part of global citizenship, but it is also an important step towards guaranteeing regional stability. Australia is geographically closer to countries of potential instability than is any other major Western donor, and our stake in global development is proportionately higher.

There are meaningful moral reasons for a rich country with huge natural resources and a small population to seek a more equitable global order.

Environmental disasters and the failure of governance directly affects upon our future, and Australia's security will rest far more upon economic growth and good governance in the Pacific, south-east Asia and Africa than upon an expanded defence force.

The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is a reminder that stability is rarely built on oppression and inequality. This is the time for the Prime Minister to articulate a vision of Australian commitment to a more just world, and to explain that in foreign policy, altruism and self-interest coincide.

Dennis Altman is director of the Institute for Human Security at LaTrobe University.