Australians like to think of ourselves as world beaters. Surely five Prime Ministers in five years must be close to a Guinness World Records entry? We punch above our weight in sport, we have some of the best coffee in the world, and the Oscars lists are littered with Aussie names.
But in reality when it comes to global responsibility, we’re right at the back of the field – we’ve become a nation that consistently shirks its responsibility to humanity.
Last week when the now former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was talking of taking more Syrian refugees, he said that “as always Australia will step up to the plate. We have never let the world down and we’re certainly not going to start now”,
But, truth be told, in the areas that truly matter on the international stage, stepping up to the plate has been painfully slow or avoided at all costs. As a nation we’d hope the newest recruit to the top job, Malcom Turnbull, does everything he can to shake off our growing reputation as world-class shirkers.
Unfortunately the early signs are not good.
To date Turnbull has endorsed the Coalition’s policy on refugees. While the announcement that Australia will accept an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees is a very welcome step, it’s also important to remember that we still have a long way to go when it comes to stepping up to our broader responsibilities in the permanent resettlement of refugees.
Former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone and others may rebut claims of Australia’s mean-spiritedness, pointing to the fact that we’re in the top three nations for permanent resettlement of refugees, but ‘permanent resettlement’ specifically refers to refugees who’ve sought asylum in one country and have later been permanently accepted by another country. This makes up only a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees – in fact, just three per cent of the refugees that were recognised in 2014 were resettlement arrivals.
By any other measure – number of refugees hosted, number of refugees compared to population, number of refugees compared to per capita GDP – Australia doesn’t step up to the plate.
The Abbott-led government had form in avoiding responsibility to stateless people. For too long we've been shirking our responsibilities to refugees and stateless asylum seekers, too.
We’re turning back boats to Indonesia, imperiling lives: in June, Indonesia reported 65 asylum seekers had crashed onto a reef after being turned back by Australian authorities.
We’re sending refugees elsewhere, paying 40 million dollars to one of the world’s poorest countries – Cambodia – to take four refugees that we're holding in Nauru. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to not stepping up to the plate.
Tony Abbott and his Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, wanted to shirk our responsibility to our citizens, and to the world at large, by removing Australian citizenship from terrorism suspects with dual citizenship. No assembling of evidence required, no trial needed, no legal process. The proposal makes our citizens another country’s problem and mocks our commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which we are a fully signed-up nation. The test for Turnbull is whether he will make any change to this at all.
We have steadfastly refused to step up to the plate on the environment. Tony Abbott’s recently released greenhouse emissions target showed just how we have failed to step up to the plate on the environment. The proposed reduction of 26 to 28 per cent of 2005 by 2030 is well below the figures recommended by climate change scientists to avoid the worst effects on global warming, and leaves Australia with one of the lowest emissions targets in the developed world. This is despite the fact that we have one of the highest per capita CO2 emissions of any country.
Lamentably, Turnbull has immediately endorsed Abbott’s climate change policy.
The May budget was another example of failure to step up the plate. There was no attempt to deal with income inequality and no new attempt to deal with climate change. There was also no new aid funding, even though our aid levels relative to the size of our economy are set to plummet to their lowest ever levels, according to analysis by Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Centre at the ANU. We’ll soon be sharing just 0.22 per cent of our GNI (Gross National Index) with the world’s poorest countries. This wasn't a meaningful budget. It was an election budget, an attempt to win votes. It was also a budget completely endorsed by Malcolm Turnbull.
Back in 2014, when Joe Hockey released an even more punitive budget, also endorsed by Turnbull, he finished his budget night speech with a flourish, describing Australia as “a nation of lifters, not leaners”. It was an echo of the words of Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People speech, which praised the nation’s “strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones”. We are a great nation, and we are a great people – there's no doubt about that. But lately we’ve become a nation that’s leaning, not lifting. A nation that doesn’t step up to the plate when it matters.
We pride ourselves on producing the world’s best in fields such as sport, but it seems we’ve forgotten how to also be among the world’s fairest. This new PM might make a difference but he will have to significantly lift the policies of his government rather than simply push the same shortfalls in a more eloquent way.
Giri Sivaraman is a Principal in Employment and Industrial Law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.