If nothing else, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to the United States last week — his first as Prime Minister — served to highlight a simple fact: Australia matters.
Long gone are the days when it took Sonia McMahon, wife of former Prime Minister William McMahon, to wear a controversial, flesh-revealing dress for Australia to be noticed. The dress, worn to a dinner hosted by President Nixon at the White House in 1971, both wowed and scandalised — in Sonia’s words: “It certainly made an impact. Suddenly the world knew where Australia was.”
Fast forward to 2016 and the world’s most powerful country is taking notice of what Australia has to say about the great challenges facing humanity. An overcrowded room awaited an address by Turnbull at Washington DC’s prestigious Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). One CSIS official described the turnout, the largest he had ever seen, as “remarkable” given it was a public holiday and below freezing outside. Referencing the audience, the centre’s President John J. Hamre, remarked: “I don’t think this would have happened with anyone else.”
Australians should not be surprised that the great powers are interested in what we have to say. We boast the 13th largest economy in the world, hold membership in the exclusive G20 club and are uniquely positioned in one of the world’s most dynamic regions.
And yet, with a couple of notable exceptions, few Australian politicians in recent memory have fully grasped this reality, much less done anything with it. Some don’t bother to show up at all, such as when former Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, failed to front his own press conference at the 2013 G20 Summit even though Australia was the incoming Chair. Those that do engage on foreign policy often do so cynically to score cheap political points, such as the Coalition’s opposition to Labor’s UN Security Council bid.
Not so for Turnbull. In a parting shot to the forces of parochialism and isolationism, Turnbull used his remarks in DC to declare that “nowhere is a long way from Australia in 2016”, before proceeding to provide opinions on everything ranging from the South China Sea, to the Middle East, to cyber warfare. Recounting how he met the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, the President of Afghanistan and Prime Minister of Iraq over the days immediately prior to arriving in Washington, Turnbull was implicit that foreign policy is a core national interest.
Yet, if Turnbull gets full marks for embracing the global platform afforded to Australia, his government gets half marks at best for its ability to act commensurate with, let alone punch above, our weight when it comes to promoting the global public good. Our contribution to poverty alleviation efforts, for instance, remains woefully inadequate following the savage cuts to our aid program made by Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott. And we are all the poorer for it.
Supporting efforts that reduce poverty, raise healthcare standards and provide access to education are in Australia’s national interests. Over the past decade, for instance, Australia has deployed $300 million per year to Indonesia to build schools. Through addressing some of the underlying conditions that promote the emergence of terrorism, such investments have produced immeasurable benefits in remote communities that are often the breeding grounds for extremism. Education, after all, develops individual capacity for critical thinking, contributing to stronger democratic institutions, community resilience to violent extremism and better health.
Supporting global citizen-esque agendas such as poverty alleviation also helps lay the foundations for international trade — crucial to an export-driven economy such as Australia’s. Providing life-saving vaccines contributes to children growing up healthy and becoming productive participants in their nation’s growth, thereby becoming potential consumers of Australian goods and services.
Turnbull already understands all of this. In recent remarks, he was clear that military solutions alone will not solve the world’s problems, and his appointment of Steven Ciobo as a dedicated Minister of International Development is a critical step in the right direction. Turnbull’s efforts to promote the eradication of polio globally, and of malaria in the Asia-Pacific, have also been very welcome. But more is needed, including a reversal of the decline in foreign aid set under Abbott, if we are to live up to what is expected of a country our size and wealth.
Robert Menzies once characterised Australian Foreign Policy as consisting simply of “[saying] useful things at the right time to the Government of the United Kingdom.” Those days are long gone.
Today, when the Prime Minister of Australia speaks, other world leaders listen, and Turnbull knows this. Exploiting the ready-made audience before him, he should move to ensure that Australia, now a power in its own right, contributes its fair share to the global good. In doing so we would have helped achieve something that really does matter: a safer, more prosperous world for us all to live in.
Michael Sheldrick is the Director of Global Policy and Advocacy with the Global Poverty Project and a former Young Western Australian of the Year. He is currently based in New York.
First published in The Huffington Post.