Opinion

John Hewson
False sense of security

I am finding it difficult to accept that Scott Morrison is now so desperate to win a second term he is prepared to run a scare campaign in an attempt to frighten voters on national security, clearly against reason, hoping to wedge Anthony Albanese and the opposition. This is reckless, the worst sort of opportunism, placing his personal interests ahead of our nation at a time of such significant uncertainty here and globally, and perhaps doing irreparable damage in the longer term.

Looking globally, it is a sad state of affairs. America’s former president, Donald Trump, has initially referred to Vladimir Putin as a “genius” for the way he manufactured his case for invading Ukraine. The statement is worse when you consider this very occurrence is the outcome of a monumental failure of United States foreign policy. One of Trump’s biographers noted Trump has always admired so-called “strong men” – be it Mafia bosses at the New York baseball or political leaders.

How is it, you might reasonably ask, that Putin has been able to sustain his bad behaviour, unchecked by global outrage, for so long? Trump can’t be absolved of some responsibility here, fiddling around with Putin and simply giving him status and encouragement, as well as undermining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and various other alliances. Is it reasonable to imagine that even a tough global response via tough sanctions and military hardware support for Ukraine will be an adequate response in the sense of getting Putin to back off?

The answer is no. Although the response so far has obviously annoyed Putin to the point where he has been prepared to threaten to play the nuclear card, and he also obviously underestimated the strength of the response from Ukraine, he is still not backing down. How embarrassing for Putin to see the unexpected passion and might of the Ukrainian women launching their homemade Molotov cocktails, demeaning his military might. The resistance is clearly stronger than he had anticipated – and he is certainly being somewhat counterproductive to his objectives. There is that lasting image of Putin sitting at one end of a very long white table with a couple of his unidentified advisers, presumably generals, down the other end looking bewildered, like the rest of the Russian people, wondering how it ever came to this.

Major countries, both unilaterally and collectively, have announced a suite of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions basically designed to isolate the Russian economy, as well as sanctions against Putin and his cronies personally in relation to their asset holdings, travel and business activities. The correct aim is to isolate Putin.

However, to be clear, once again the world is facing a crisis the likes of which has not been seen since World War II. Like all schoolyard bullies, Putin and the problem he has created will not be fixed by a stint in the “naughty corner”. This dictator must be dealt with fundamentally and decisively on all fronts. Peace in Europe and perhaps the rest of the world will depend on it.

Even though the sanctions are substantive, it is hard to find an example of where sanctions have ever changed the course of a war once started. Instead, there could be very significant consequences for the Russian and global economies and global financial markets. An energy crisis seems inevitable, which may see petrol and gas prices increase significantly, slowing global growth and further stimulating inflation. Much will depend on how monetary authorities respond. The sanctions restricting access of certain Russian banks to SWIFT messaging could have destabilising effects on financial markets. The Germans and others were apparently reluctant initially to sign off on this sanction, as they feared that it would affect the capacity of Russia to service its debts.

The most powerful of the sanctions is the restriction on the Russian central bank to access its foreign exchange reserves, making it almost impossible to defend the rouble as much as they would like. In response, the central bank has effectively been forced to double interest rates in an attempt to support the currency.

As well as a weak currency, the broad impact on the Russian economy could be severe. Despite the pain this would involve for the Russian citizenry, it would be unlikely to be enough for a domestic public movement against Putin to be successful, although those closest to him could start to move against him. Some have suggested that the results might include a run on the banks, hyperinflation and a recession in Russia.

Given Morrison’s election strategy, based on national security, it was to be expected that he would seize the opportunity to back other countries in imposing sanctions. It will not be without its economic consequences for us, however – some may be favourable in terms of increases in some export prices; others will definitely be unfavourable, such as petrol prices and inflation. More than that, it is disappointing that he has also used the circumstances to again poke the dragon with negative comments about China’s likely reaction.

Surely we need a more nuanced approach to our foreign policy? Rather than just attacking the Chinese at every opportunity, why not acknowledge their success in emerging as a global economic superpower and for having lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty? The Chinese want respect, recognition and understanding as the basis for re-establishing an effective working relationship, not just criticism.

The hypocrisy in Morrison’s use of national security as a defining issue for the election is staggering, especially when climate change is the major national and international security issue and Morrison is seen globally to have the most inadequate climate policy among developed countries. The message is clear from the release this week of the Australia and New Zealand chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report: “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. “As climate change intensifies, we are now seeing cascading and compounding impacts and risks including where extreme events coincide,” the report states. “These are placing even greater pressure on our ability to respond. While the work of adaptation has begun, we have found the progress is uneven and insufficient, given the risks we face.”

The cascading effect is evident from our recent experience. Take the 2019-20 bushfires as an example. “Climate change exacerbated drought and heatwaves, which generated catastrophic fire conditions causing over 18 million hectares to burn. The drought also reduced water availability for firefighting; the heat exhausted the firefighters in their protective clothing; and the fires generated their own fire weather, spreading the fire faster while also disrupting communications, power networks, and fuel and banking systems – all of which severely hampered the disaster response. The fires also released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to warming and future fire risk.”

Morrison has boasted that his response to the Covid-19 pandemic was driven by medical science, yet he happily ignores the much more substantive body of climate science. This report represents the efforts of some 270 climate change experts, reviewing and synthesising the latest information. They collectively examined more than 34,000 peer-reviewed publications.

The report warns that “this decade is critical for adapting to inevitable climate change impacts and rising costs”. But adaptation alone is insufficient. We need significant reductions in emissions. In the context of the current floods in Queensland and New South Wales, one finding of the report is worth noting: one of the clear projections is an increase in the intensity of heavy rainfall events, basically due to the warmer atmosphere and its ability to hold more moisture.

Overall, the report offers hope. Our best chance of keeping global warming to 1.5-2 degrees and to reduce the challenges of adaptation is to meet the need for “robust, timely adaptation and deep cuts to emissions”. As the report says, “Although the climate impacts and risks we face are increasingly severe, it is by no means too late to avert the worst outcomes. It is still possible to move to a pathway of ‘climate resilient development’ in which we work together to rapidly contain global warming, adapt effectively and help secure a better future for all.”

That is, assuming the political will to do so is there for Morrison. To this point, he is more interested in the mileage he might get from Putin’s unjustified war on Ukraine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "False sense of security".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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