Cover of book: The Adolescent Country

Peter Hartcher
The Adolescent Country

In late 2012, when Wayne Swan was acting prime minister, he put a national security committee meeting on an especially tight schedule. He had to be out of there in an hour to get to a Labor Party fundraiser.

Tony Abbott and his proxies in the tabloid press, meanwhile, were tallying up the overseas travel expenses of Gillard and Rudd, implying that two jetsetting Labor leaders preferred Geneva to Geelong.

These are small instances in our national politics but Peter Hartcher sees them as revealing: “High policy must compete for time and attention with low politics. The big matters are crowded out by the small. International policy is used for domestic point scoring.”

Hartcher, international editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, is one of the most formidable intellects in journalism. His commentary soars above that of his rival at The Australian largely because he writes more about his subjects than himself. But he still enjoys access to the elite salons in government, foreign affairs and business – this book is co-published by the Lowy Institute – and that colours his worldview.

While he is right to slam the Abbott government for playing domestic politics with Indonesia over asylum-seeker boats, he doesn’t see where local concerns can impinge legitimately on foreign policy. You don’t have to embrace tariffs and protectionism to worry about free-trade agreements, for example, undermining national sovereignty in healthcare, labour protections and agriculture.

The stark contrast between the starving North Korea, ruled by tyrants, and bountiful, democratic South Korea illustrates perfectly for Hartcher the differences between a closed and open economy. But South Korea has not always been a democracy and has long benefited from government policy that encourages industrial development and narrows the income gap – a more “closed economy” compared with the US or China.

He is also perhaps a little too enamoured of what Paul Keating called “the architecture” of the region’s economy: APEC, AUSMIN, AUKMIN, the G20. Hartcher gets very excited about meetings.

That said, he makes an irrefutable case that Australia cannot confront the serious threat of Islamist terror – and the possibility of domestic attacks – without durable alliances built on trust. “Because Australia needs the world, foreign policy matters.”  PT

Penguin, 128pp, $9.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 8, 2014 as "Peter Hartcher, The Adolescent Country ".

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Reviewer: PT

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