A lonely place

In the ministerial briefing papers, they are described as “the most consequential changes in the global environment since WWII”.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs “blue book” – given to the Morrison government after the election – the threat of “populism, nationalism and authoritarianism” is only growing in the region.

“We need to work hard to respond to the challenges,” the document warns, “enhancing global co-operation and limiting coercive power.”

Largely redacted, the briefing was released to The Age under freedom of information laws. The world it describes is a troubled one. Tensions are rising. Orthodoxies are breaking down.

“Increasing illiberalism, including rising human rights abuses, democratic backsliding and closing space for civil society risk impacting on the prosperity and stability of states in the region.”

These are bleak words for the foreign minister, but they are not surprising. Since winning office in 2013, this government has turned in from the world. Foreign aid has been cut. Neighbouring countries have been treated with cynicism.

Where they have helped cover our own excesses – Papua New Guinea and Nauru – the tradeoff has been to ignore corruption or the faltering of democracy. Where they were not thought useful – the smaller Pacific nations, for instance – the approach has been indifference.

First speeches have a way of saving up humiliations. In Scott Morrison’s, he quoted Bono and called for an increase to Australia’s foreign aid budget. He said the humanitarian tragedy in Africa was a moral crisis that eclipsed all others, and that more money was needed.

“The new government has committed to continue to increase this investment and I commend it for doing so,” he said. “However, we still must go further. If we doubt the need, let us note that in 2007 the total world budget for global aid accounted for only one-third of basic global needs in areas such as education, general health, HIV/AIDS, water treatment and sanitation. This leaves a sizeable gap. The need is not diminishing, nor can our support. It is the Australian thing to do.”

Like Morrison’s aspiration, Australia’s position in the world is an embarrassed one. Our inaction on climate change will destroy our near neighbours. Our outlook is consistently insular and selfish. Our relationship with China is irresolved and inconsistent.

People call Scott Morrison a marketer, but in truth he is more like a travel agent. He hired marketers to work for tourism bodies. He views the rest of the world as a place you might visit – for a week, maybe two. He talks to Fijians about rugby rather than sea-level rises. He says they like that.

This week the governor of Sweden’s central bank explained that he had sold off bonds issued by Australian states because of our sorry record on climate action. American newspapers criticised our carbon emissions and our inability to accept bushfires as a symptom of global heating. The International Energy Agency announced Australia was one of only a few major exporters of coal expected to increase production in the next decades.

Slowly, the world becomes smaller and we become more alone. Slowly, the people who lead us look less like they should. We face the most consequential changes since World War II, met by some of the least consequential people ever to hold high office in this country. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 16, 2019 as "A lonely place".

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