As we approach another election and the debate heats up, many Australians despair of our future, with good reason. Research shows that we are distressingly distrustful of one another, of our once-revered institutions, and of governments and politicians in particular. Furthermore, we are polarised as perhaps never before as social activists, infused across our society, dominate much of today’s divisive public discourse. The advent of social media has provided a rudimentary global public square, which Australians have taken to using with enthusiasm. However, the level of abuse, emotion, hatred and splintering that it is producing has led economic historian Niall Ferguson to observe that it is so destabilising it may yet render our societies ungovernable.
Yet there is little narrative around the major and very threatening challenges confronting us. Economic and geopolitical, these are largely external to our country, but the threats are real and blind to our tribalism. They demand a recognition of our shared interests, and national unity, if our complacency in confronting them is not to destroy our cherished freedom, harmony and prosperity. Only when we identify the serious need for a national response to the challenges will we be able to leave behind the attacks we seem to be conducting on one another.
The first challenge is the inevitable global economic downturn, next time Australia will not be immune. The debt crisis that went within an ace of collapsing the global economy a decade ago has not been resolved. It has been kicked down the road by vast new levels of public debt, running at unprecedented levels in the West. We sailed through the past event because of extraordinarily sound public finances, care of the Coalition government, and because China, relatively unaffected at that time, continued buying many of its raw materials from us.
Although significant progress has been made by this government in winding back our annual deficits, we have a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 30 per cent in net terms, not comparable to the horrific debt problems of the US and Europe but fast approaching the point at which they lost control of their economies a decade ago. Therefore, economic management is an absolute priority. We want the strongest and most resilient economy we can manage, securing jobs and opportunities, and able to pay for the services and infrastructure that we expect.
Another challenge, and increasing the likelihood of economic trauma, is our move to a completely new global power setting. We complacently believe the dominance of the West, and in particular its leadership, both economic and military, by the US, will secure our stability and safety. For the first time we no longer can take for granted that the most powerful nation will necessarily be able to come to our aid, or maintain global order in the event of adventurism by one or more of the new troublesome power centres such as Russia, Iran or North Korea. Nor can we take lightly the possibility of miscalculation between the reigning superpower and the rising superpower.
It is high time we found a deep sense of national unity and common purpose for the sake of peaceful harmony and co-operation as a people. Although it has been hardly reported or analysed in Australia, the Americans have effectively signalled a new cold war with China. Their trade war with China is under way but this is about a great deal more than the belief, both by Republicans and Democrats, that the Chinese are not trading fairly.
Vice-President Mike Pence has charged China with stealing US commercial secrets on an industrial scale, meddling in US politics, seeking influence in US institutions such as universities and engaging in debt-trap diplomacy with the Third World to gain global influence and displace America, particularly from the western Pacific.
We simply are not prepared to cope with these extraordinary new dynamics.
Every major country in the region, including Australia, does more trade with China than it does with the US, and that trade is critically important to global prosperity, including our own. Yet, strategically, China is boldly flexing its muscle, including in the South China Sea, where it has built military bases in contested waters aimed at controlling the world’s most important sea lanes, and key western approaches to Taiwan, Japan and Korea. It is plainly seeking to displace the US, with which we are so aligned, as our region’s major power.
This is not just a change in the “software” of international trade and relations in our area, it is a change in the “operating system”. It poses enormous challenges, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1940s. If we get this wrong, we will end up poorer, weaker, fragile and more vulnerable. In the face of this, we need to have a sober, mature and foresighted debate about what is truly important to us, about what makes us different and sets us apart. In any contest, you need to know what you mean to keep; what’s not negotiable. But we’re not having that debate; instead, we’re pretending that everything will go on as usual.
This complacency is evident in the decade spent struggling to sign contracts for 12 submarines that we are told are such a vital deterrent. At the earliest, the first may reach us by the middle of the 2030s, the last perhaps in the 2050s. It was seen as a priority in 2009, making it all the more staggering that there has not been greater urgency recently, given the dramatic change in our strategic environment. Perhaps an even more frightening reflection of our complacency is that we have not built the strategic fuel reserves that we committed to having in place under the terms of the International Energy Agency.
We have little liquid fuel self-sufficiency any more, and 40 to 45 ships are heading towards Australia at any given time carrying the vital fuel supplies that are absolutely critical to the functioning of our economy. Many of those ships pass near the southern end of the South China Sea, where the potential for miscalculation, or worse, cannot be discounted, with an interruption to shipping leaving Australia almost crippled within a matter of days. It is high time we found a deep sense of national unity and common purpose for the sake of peaceful harmony and co-operation as a people.
It also happens to be the case that these great issues before us must be, and can be, the clarion call for the redevelopment of a commitment to the common good, and the restoration of our trust in and regard for our freedoms, and the institutions that underpin them. I believe thinking Australians would agree that these are the most pressing issues to address at the next federal election.
Source: John Anderson former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Nationals from 1999 to 2005. His Conversations series, made up of video discussions about pressing issues, with opinion leaders from Australia and abroad, can be found at www.johnanderson.net.au