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Jakarta Post

To build Australia's future anew

Canberra   /   Wed, May 11, 2016   /  09:00 am
To build Australia's future anew Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (lef), listens to Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt, as they attend a press conference in Sydney, March 23. (AP/Rick Rycroft)

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said it is a great and exciting time for Australia. Indeed, it is a time of great opportunity for the Australian government elected later this year to take bold action which will transform Australia into an updated, modern member of the Asian and South West Pacific region.

To achieve this transition we must have statesmen and stateswomen, rather than populist political leaders to which we have become accustomed.

After World War II the US wanted to implement ideals and practices it believed should be applied throughout the world. The spread of democracy was the overarching goal. 

Now, however, the US, fatigued by unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces the rise of States with greater economic growth rates and rapidly expanding middle classes, such as China, India and Indonesia, in our own region, a more assertive Russia, which regards itself as both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, as well as countries such as Brazil and Mexico in South America.

The years 1948 to 2000 will probably be seen as a brief period of history when global order was based on American idealism and traditional concepts of the balance of power.

The US wanted to expand a cooperative international order of countries following common rules which included liberal economic systems, respect for national sovereignty and the general adoption of democratic systems of governance.

The evolution of a new order is now the greatest international problem facing all countries. The belief that the spread of democracy and free markets would automatically create a just, peaceful and inclusive world has come to an end.

The goal for leaders in our region — Asia and the South West Pacific — must be to build a regional community which will reflect the world ahead.

Henry Kissinger wrote in his recent book World Order that “a reconstitution of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time”. He also argued “the domination of a region by one country military [...] could produce a crisis in the rest of the world”. Clearly, Kissinger was thinking of the possible roles of the US, China and India and, possibly, Indonesia in relation to ASEAN, and Russia.

On the basis of more than 60 years of experience, including special envoy roles for both Coalition and ALP Prime Ministers, I would strongly recommend that the incoming government after our general election demonstrates the agility and forward-looking approach to respond to change. This is, as I have noted, an overdue and historic opportunity for a newly elected Australian government.

Such changes will be resisted by yesterday’s political leaders including, in particular, Abbott, Andrews and others on the far right of the Coalition and even some ALP politicians, including Stephen Conroy, the Shadow Minister for Defense. To maintain policies rooted in the past will undermine our ability to determine what Australia’s real national interests are.

The first priority in updating Australian trade and security policy is to focus on Asia and the South West Pacific Regions. In what is now generally called the Asian century we should focus on our own region.

Former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Sabam Siagian, and now senior editor of The Jakarta Post, wrote last year when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister “Australia is still stuck in 20th century mode. It is a monarchy, with a head of state in London and security arrangements that are largely Cold War relics [...] Australia is out of sync with the emerging geopolitical environment of Asia today”.

This is a very strong statement by Siagian but I consider Australia does need a fundamental change of our national psyche focused more on Asia and the South West Pacific than on our well established, traditional links with the US, UK, Canada, NZ and Europe. Australia should have much more regular and sustained discussions with our neighboring countries, including New Zealand.

Secondly, the government should look discretely towards the evolution of an Asia Pacific community. Meanwhile, we should use existing organizations that do meet at head of government level, such as the G20, APEC ( although it does not include India ), the East Asian Summit ( which now includes both the US and Russia ), the UN Leaders Week in New York, and the Commonwealth Head of Government Meetings ( although they are a relic of British colonialism, some Asian leaders attend and discuss regional issues ).

Thirdly, the above policy will require an updated and more balanced Australian approach to the relationship between the US and China. There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China, based on mainly Japanese policies, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The present debate on China seems mainly to assume that Australia has no choice but support American primacy in Asia against what is perceived as a rising Chinese hegemony.

This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, the late Malcolm Fraser and most of our former ambassadors to China as well as a number of academics. While China can be expected to resist American hegemony in the Asian region, it does accept a continuing and constructive US role in Asia.

Fourthly, Australia should not take sides on China-Japan or Vietnamese, Malaysian and Philippine disputes within ASEAN, on rival territorial claims, as the US has done. Australia’s focus should be on unimpeded passage to China through waters in the South China Sea.

Fifthly,and importantly, in readjusting the main focus of Australian policies, we should withdraw our forces from Iraq and Syria. Our presence in the Middle East will not contribute meaningfully to defeating ISIS or to securing stable, democratic, corruption-free governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our involvement was in support of the American alliance, although US policies appear to be failing. The reality is that our participation is peripheral and symbolic.

We should move out of this very complex, changing kaleidoscope of warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurd religious factions and involve countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. 

We should not pretend to ourselves that we can really influence an outcome, which may be years away. The considerable financial savings could be much better used in shaping our next budget, including on defense ( submarines ), health and education.


Sixth, we should withdraw our remaining troops in Afghanistan. While there were reasons for joining the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, 14 years later, there have been 40 Australians killed, more than US$550 billion spent and more than 13,000 Afghan civilians left dead. 

Objectives once deemed as indispensable, such as nation building and effective counter-insurgency, have been downgraded or abandoned because there are no longer adequate resources, time or a publicly supported US to achieve them.

Seventh, we should avoid reference to the Islamic State ( IS ), suggesting that it is a state. It is not a state. It has no air force or navy, and even the territory it controls in Iraq and in Syria is relatively limited. 

There is a tendency to regard all terrorist activities as being conducted by IS. In fact, al-Qaeda, the Kurds and Boko Haram in Africa and other groups have been responsible for a number of recent terrorist activities. IS probably welcomes this insofar as it is Western intervention in the Middle East that it believes has led to an increase in terrorism, rather than a lessening of it.

Eighth, a very important policy priority for Australia is to give greater priority to Indonesia. In the long term, no bilateral relationship will be more important to Australia than that with Indonesia. 

The stability, unity and economic growth of a peaceful, predominantly moderate Muslim ( 81 percent ) nation of 250 million people, at our north, a distance from Broome to Christchurch in New Zealand, is vital to Australia. 

The empathy toward Australia as evident in the 1980s and early 1990s needs to be rebuilt, especially with the relatively new Indonesian President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Ninth, the incoming government should abandon the present cruel, costly and failed policy of sending asylum seekers, who arrive by boat, to Nauru, Manus Island, Cambodia or back to where they came from. 

All those who have arrived in the last decade by boat, except for persons with criminal records who should be deported, would barely fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Tenth, the elected Australian government should place the republic back on the front burner. An Australian republic will increase Australia’s international standing as a more independent nation. 

Continuing foreign perceptions of Australia as a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is the queen of England ( quaintly called here the queen of Australia ) and whose flag is dominated by the Union Jack are anachronisms is the 21st century. 

The establishment of the Republic of Australia will be like a federation — a defining moment in the history of our country. This is not simply a symbolic issue. It lies at the core of our national and international identity.

Eleventh, and in the same context, we should call our high commissioners ambassadors and our high commissions embassies, which is what they really are. Also, at the United Nations we are a member of the Western European and Others Group ( WEOG ). We are one of the “Others”. 

This is ignominious. We should seek to move to the Asian group or a Southeast Asian and West Pacific group when the UN group system is reviewed.

Twelfth, our elected government will need to participate more fully in the information revolution and embrace the new related technologies. 

The number of personal computers connected to the internet per household could become a future measure of a country’s influence.

Thirteenth, in the years ahead Australia should also reopen itself to large-scale immigration to stimulate our culture evolution and economic growth and prosperity.

Fourteenth, the government and the opposition, both of which have publicly and strongly supported, at the request of the US, the Trans Pacific Partnership launched in 2005 by New Zealand, Brunei, Chile and Singapore, need to recognize that it may not be adopted now by the US Congress.

To conclude, Australian attitudes must reject and suppress religious intolerance, bigotry, latent racism, insularity and self-satisfaction.

The Australian government, to be elected later this year, should seize the opportunity to embrace the changes outlined above — major, and as difficult politically as they will be. If it does, Australia will be a more secure, prosperous and outward-looking modern nation, genuinely more welcomed in our region of the world and internationally.

If we do not make these bold policy changes, we may find Australia left behind and wallowing in a bog of lost opportunities.



The writer is a seasoned Australian diplomat who has served in many postings, among them in Jakarta and in New York as Australia’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He has also served as secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra. This article is written in anticipation of Australia’s upcoming general election.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.