The Week The News Went Global


It’s not very often that foreign policy breaks through the carapace of insularity in Australian media. For most of the year, the journalists who cover Australian politics stay focused on the intrigues of parliamentary politics.

But every so often, something obviously important happens in the world — important enough to jolt news editors away from their default preoccupations with leadership intrigue and opinion polls. It could be a gathering of international leaders, a visit from a foreign power, or an opportunity to hop on a plane to somewhere that isn’t Canberra.

This week’s political agenda involves all three: the APEC leaders forum, just concluded in Honolulu, followed by the visit of US President Barack Obama to Australia. No wonder the media corps is salivating. As The Australian’s Peter Brent noted today, "few things excite Australian journalists more than a photo op between the Prez and our Prime Minister."

And, sure enough, the APEC meeting and the Obama visit have generated media discussion of foreign policy and international relations — essentially for the first time this year. The small band of professional foreign policy analysts who get a look in when it comes to foreign policy commentary in the Australian media have been appearing on our television screens: Hugh White, Geoffrey Garrett, Michael Fullilove.

There has even been some debate of the actual issues: the "trans-Pacific partnership", the announcement of an ongoing US Marine Corps presence in Darwin, and the future of Australia’s relationships with the United States and China generally.

Mind you, it’s not as though the media did a very good job of it. As the University of Sydney’s Richard Stanton points out, the trans-Pacific partnership has been in negotiation since 2005 and won’t be finalised until late in 2012, if then. Many in the media seem to think it is a new announcement. Stanton calls the media’s coverage of the trans-Pacific partnership "fabricated, lightweight and embarrassingly inaccurate".

But that’s par for the course when a US president comes to town.

Nothing is going to stop the media writing stories about the "special relationship" and "enduring friendship" enjoyed by Australia and America. It certainly helps that Barack Obama looks like he gets on well with Julia Gillard, at least on camera. But the truth is that the Australian political system — and its associated elites in the foreign policy and defence establishments, as well as in the media — is so invested in the US relationship that even a diffident and uncomfortable US visit would still be written up as a prodigal reunion of unprecedented amity and joy.

Consequently, the political optics are finally skewing the Government’s way. For a beleaguered Labor Prime Minister, the Obama visit is a gift from the gods. Gillard has long struggled to convince voters of her legitimacy in the office of PM, so television coverage of her convening with world leaders is doubly valuable. Those shots of the US President smiling and joking with the Prime Minister must be worth a couple of percentage points in the preferred prime minister polls all on their own.

It’s not just that she gets to look prime ministerial. The added bonus of the Obama visit is that it removes attention from domestic political issues, including from Tony Abbott and the Opposition. Labor has been presented with more than a week of that most precious of political commodities: "clean air".

What about the substance of recent events? The details have been much more prosaic. The proposed trans-Pacific trade pact may eventually boost trade between the various signatories, but there is a long way to go before the details are negotiated. Australia already has relatively low tariffs, so consumers here will barely notice any improvements in the flow of foreign imports. Meanwhile, our exporters will benefit far more from a cheaper Australian dollar than from any far-off and piecemeal trade liberalisation.

The APEC announcement regarding greenhouse gas emissions is another well-meaning but ultimately insubstantial announcement. APEC’s communique states that the leaders have signed up to a non-binding commitment to reduce the energy intensity of their economies by 45 per cent on 2005 levels out to 2035.

Energy intensity is an important issue — Australia, after all, has one of the dirtiest economies in the rich world — but it’s a poor substitute for what is really required: binding commitments to reduce overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The world continues to sleepwalk towards climate catastrophe, even as many speculate whether the capital of Thailand may have to be moved in future decades as rising sea levels slowly submerge most of Bangkok.

The APEC statement also included an agreement to "rationalise and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption". Australia’s fossil fuel lobby will be quite surprised to hear about this one, given that the federal budget still contains many examples of such subsidies, such as the diesel fuel rebate. It will be interesting to see whether the Government moves to cut such subsidies in the next budget, given that it needs to find several billion dollars to deliver its precious 2012-13 surplus.

The big picture issue is of course the future of Australia’ strategic relationships with the US and China. Simply put, Australia needs to stay friends with both nations, and keep them engaged with each other at all costs. The alternative — a cold war between the two superpowers that represent Australia’s largest trading partner and closest military ally — is such an unimaginably awful outcome for this country that it bears little contemplation.

And yet, the content of Australia’s key strategic policy document for this century, our Defence White Paper, takes increasing military competition with China as the starting point for its considerations. Ultimately, as I have long argued, the real threat to Australia’s national security from China comes from the fossil fuels it is emitting, not the navy it is building. Solving that problem requires engagement, rather than confrontation.

In that respect, serious action from the United States on climate would provide far more value to Australia’s future national security than any number of marines in the Northern Territory.

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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.