Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Parochial Australia needs to grow up


Young boy and young girl in Australian flag T-shirtsWith only weeks left until the elections, it is clear that the campaign will be fought solely on domestic issues such as economic management. It is not unusual; perhaps it is even appropriate. But one can't help feel poorer from another contest mostly devoid of international context. What passes for foreign policy thus far is 'stop the boats', 'you will not be settled in Australia' and 'aid for trade'.

It is reminiscent in its parochialism to the previous election. As visiting Harvard University academic Niall Ferguson then observed: 'One listens to the contenders for the Australian premiership discussing in the most oblique and mealy-mouthed way issues about immigration and infrastructure that really, you know, sound more like Strathclyde Regional Council than a debate for the leadership of a major power in Asia-Pacific.'

Dr Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, recently took up this point. 'Australia is not a small, isolated country. We should not conduct our election campaigns as though we are.' He emphasises that we are the 13th largest economy with a seat at two of the most important international forums, the G20 and the UN Security Council. We are definitely at the big people's table, but we don't seem to have worked out what that means.

In this respect, there is something to be envied in United States election campaigns, where foreign policy is treated as a set of topics in its own right. At least one election debate is devoted to it. It is an area that is taken so seriously that it has left many gaffe-prone candidates, including Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, in the dust.

While this does not mean that Americans are necessarily less insular than Australians, they are at least far more self-conscious of their place in the world. Questions regarding US relations with other countries such as Israel, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, China and Russia often serve as the litmus test for savvy, however 'savvy' is interpreted by voters. For Americans and even for us, the US presidency does not exist in a localised vacuum.

It is time we position the prime ministerial office in the same way — as being more than just housekeeping. This is not only about maturity but perspective. Hot-button topics such as economic management and asylum seekers are best seen from a wide lens, yet we seem determined to keep the rest of the world out of the frame.

It is a sea-girt mentality that our politicians don't care to take apart because it is too hard to convince the average voter that there are in fact other people on the planet. Acknowledging this reality demands a lot from voters, perhaps more than they're willing to allow, and they fear it. We all prefer to think that we're completely in control of the things that affect our lives.

Such denialism will inevitably leave us ill-prepared for significant challenges. It is disturbing, for instance, how peripheral an election issue climate change is, once we cut through the bulldust around the carbon emissions price. It is in fact a significant foreign policy issue because it is also a security issue; the resulting intensity of migration, food insecurity and frequency of national disasters will act, according to the US Defence Department, as 'an accelerant of instability and conflict'.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, between 2009 and 2011, more than 40 million people in the Asia-Pacific were displaced by climate-related and extreme weather events. If thousands of asylum seekers are enough to create a moral panic, how will we respond to tens of millions of environmental refugees by 2050?

Our complicity in US security instruments such as NSA surveillance and the drones program should also be an election issue. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed American global surveillance, revealed four Australian facilities that contribute to the interception of telecommunications and internet traffic worldwide. This includes the US Australian Joint Defence facility at Pine Gap, which also assists in drone strikes.

Our involvement in these two programs raises important questions around sovereignty, transparency and accountability. Australians deserve to hear them answered. Yet few of them are probably even aware of these links, much less realise what the implications are for their privacy and security.

The point is that there are other things going on. Bigger things. Yet we seem trapped in insular political squabbles over who can maintain our lifestyle and preserve our borders. The only way we can mature as a democracy is by shedding our provincial outlook. Our political leaders need to show the way. Right now they are holding us back.

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She tweets as @foomeister.

Aussie kids image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, foreign policy, America, election 2013



submit a comment

Existing comments

Fatima, I couldn't agree with you more.

Bernstein | 16 August 2013  

I endorse Fatima's view of Australia's parochialism. Therefore, I suggest we adopt a more international-style national anthem. An adaptation of Cole Porter's "You're The Top" (from the musical "Anything Goes") should do nicely: "We're the top!/We're the Colosseum/We're the top!/We're the Louvre Museum/We're a melody from a symphony by Strauss/We're a Bendel bonnet,/A Shakespeare sonnet/We're Mickey Mouse,/We're the Nile,/We're the Tower of Pisa." Etcetera.

Pam | 16 August 2013  

I couldn't agree more Fatima. We talked about "girt by sea" thinking in our June Columban Connections http://www.columban.org.au/publications/connections/connections-latest-edition/ It seems Aussies are happy to be part of the global economic system without questioning or taking responsibility for the social, environmental and military aspects that go with globalisation.

Anne Lanyon | 16 August 2013  

It seems to me that a further strand in Australian parochialism centres on our continuing international 'nanny' dependency on the Imperial whether it be the anachronistic UK version or the US. This country will lack the gumption to stand up as an independent entity until we finally get around to cutting the apron strings that seem underpin both domestic and so-called foreign policy.

Brian Larsson | 16 August 2013  

An excellent article, Fatima; but don't hold your breath waiting for change. Apart from the need for a broader world perspective, we also need a more mature political discussion on domestic matters. All politicians and, with a few exceptions, most media outlets, pitch their comments for a junior high-school level of awareness and capacity for critical analysis.

Ian Fraser | 16 August 2013  

You are quite right Fatima, but this problem is the price we pay in Australia for compulsory voting and very high voter turnouts. The election is decided not by those with interest in politics (and some sophistication about it) but by the red-necks who in other places just don`t bother to turn up to vote: so the people that the pollies here need to connect with are quite different to those in the UK,USA etc. Add to that the importance of marginal constituencies which are usually in the rather run-down , deprived, poorly educated etc etc out suburbs and the problem is even more exaggerated. This is a big price indeed, but overall and having lived in several other countries with less inclusive systems, i would not change it, warts and all. It`s the Aussie way!

Eugene | 16 August 2013  

Waltzing Matilda still remains the stirring favourite as unofficial anthem. "We are one, but we are many" might be better on the official stage - and it also gives us something to aspire for.

AURELIUS | 16 August 2013  

Well said, Fatima! As we head toward the election, the level of debate on many important issues is embarrassingly low. As a nation, we tend to spend more time worrying about maintaining our "lifestyle" but spend little time pondering that much of this lifestyle is maintained at the expense of the environment and is part of the cause of poverty and conflict in nations from which many of the asylum seekers are fleeing. As a nation we need to be a little less "football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars" and a lot more worldly in our outlook.

Tony Borger | 16 August 2013  

A very well written succinct article !!! Well done!

Elizabeth Mcalpine | 16 August 2013  

Well said! In addition, Aussie politicians are only concerned about one election to the next. I patiently listen to what they have to say and I go away feeling depressed rather than hopeful about the future of the country. At the end of the day, its all about grandstanding and posturing. We still need to see a candidate, who can rise above party politics, and share a vision of where he sees Australia way beyond their three year term. More importantly and ideally get the people behind this vision. How and where do we begin to shed our provincial outlook and go beyond AFL, NRL, the Ashes, X-factor and big brother. So you think we will mature or are we a lost cause that goes through life from season to season, and I do not even refer to the weather.

Jan | 17 August 2013  

We are living in a "Fortress Australia" mentality. this can be seen in the Automobile Industry which is international in nature but subsidised by government even in the U.S.A. if we stop subsidising it here in Australia it will close down with disastrous results to the whole economy and employment. However it has to be efficient and have good management which it has not been in the past.

John ozanne | 17 August 2013  

Well done, Fatima! Now, are you running for parliament? If so, I'd have someone with a brain and savvy to vote for! I am dismayed with and ashamed of the woeful political 'leaders' in the running. Aussies typically resist change, otherness and too lazy to learn about the rest of the world. Shameful isolationism. Your article is refreshing and speaks to all my concerns. Thank you. Keep writing. xPB Aussie's resist change, demean difference, csn't

Patricia Bouma | 17 August 2013  

You make some good points Fatima but I think you, as many of the opinionati, do not realize, or, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, do not acknowledge that there are, in fact, proportionally as many Australians interested in wider ranging politics than the 24/7 news cycle and twitterati suggest as there are Americans of similar bent. US politics, by and large, seem to be far more simplistic than ours. Certainly the Greens seem to have their finger on the pulse as far as some of the important issues, such as climate change, go. Des Ball of the ANU has, over the last twenty or thirty years been raising the issue of Pine Gap et sim and what it does/they do. Interesting, in Niall Ferguson's own country of Scotland they seem very interested in local issues, including breaking away from the Auld Foe, England, without looking at the economic (debt) or defence consequences. Despite its many faults I think this country is still a far better place and in far better condition than the UK or USA and I have extremely successful tertiary educated middle class relatives in both. To have the political sophistication and wisdom that some of the Scandinavian countries and Germany seem to have may take us some time to develop. I think we can achieve them both.

Edward F | 17 August 2013  

You are so right, Fatima. Too many of my fellow Australians disgust me, with their shameful insular selfishness. Most don't understand heat being a wealthy nation means, nir do they care. In my view, it is not just fault of the political leaders. The Murdoch Press pushes this view of the world, and Australia's place in it, these days. The two major parties just follow what the Murdoch Press wants. It's unbelievable. We cannot kern this appalling attitude up. The world - our region in particular - is rapidly moving on, changing, and if we don't go with it, we are stuffed. Very sad.

Louw | 18 August 2013  

All so true. Heartened today by article in SMH about three SIC, Riverview students calling for "former" Jesuit educated "leaders" to be bigger in their compassion for the less fortunate and challenging their stance on refugees and asylum-seekers, quoting Jesus "I was a stanger and you welcomed me". Thought I would never hear myself thinking / saying "Go Riverview!!!"

Joeys supporter | 22 August 2013  

Similar Articles

Two bulls in the election ring

  • Moira Rayner
  • 23 August 2013

Abbott successfully damped down his glee in the taunting and negativity which he aimed so cruelly at the first woman prime minister, when she withdrew from the internal stoush she couldn't win. In the first round both he and Rudd offered the most boring, stagey and value-free 'debate' we have witnessed since the days of Billy McMahon. But the blokes got aggro and personal in the second.


How to disagree without hurting

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 22 August 2013

Reflecting on his participation in an SBS TV marriage equality discussion, Ben felt judged and humiliated by many who responded to him. Must determining what is right and wrong for a society be bound up with judging people? Or can we listen to our conversation partners, reach for a language that is shared and leave room for our opinions to be changed? Pope Francis showed the way when he said: ‘If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?’