I don’t come to this series with any background in Law or International Relations, my interests are more in theoretical speculation of Philosophy rather than the practicability of the former. As such, this post which purports to discuss Australia from both its political and international politics may seem at times highly theoretical.
What I write today will consist of two separate but at the same time interrelated subjects. Firstly, I’ll discuss the domestic scene of Australian politics. I shall frame my comments around the impending Australian election, which is to occur on the 14th September, 2013. Secondly, I’ll seek to discuss Australia’s place within global politics. This is especially interesting given Australia’s recent acquiring of a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Before we begin, it must be pointed out that given my political leanings this post may seem overly critical of some aspects of both the domestic and international politics that Australia engages in, but I hope this does not turn people away.
The fall of John Howard, long awaited I might add, in 2007 presented an opportunity for Australia to remove itself from the neo-liberal agenda whose sway it had been under for more than a decade. John Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd, although self-described as a fiscal conservative, set about on a plan to improve education, welfare and the environmental standing of Australia. While this was happening, Kevin Rudd also embarked on a mission to improve relations with the Chinese Government. Sadly, I say sadly because I think Kevin Rudd was actually a fairly successful Prime Minister and achieved quite a lot, Rudd’s reign was not to last. In June 2010 Julia Gillard, the former deputy Prime Minster, led a dramatic political coup against Rudd leading to her becoming Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Setting aside all the political intrigue of this decision to dispose of Kevin Rudd, the rule of Julia Gillard has unfortunately been marred by heinous sexism and growing misogyny within Parliament as well as the general populous. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly depending on how close you follow Australian politics) it was the leader of the opposition Liberal-National coalition that led the vile sexist campaign against Julia Gillard. Why do we speak about such things that may not have to do with exact policies being introduced by the parties? This may be cynical of me to suggest, but elections have never really been about the policies, they have been about two things. People win elections by enticing fear in the populous (George W. Bush, Howard and the Tampa scandal), or encouraging change (Obama and Rudd). [Readers may remember the viral video of Gillard cutting down Abbot’s misogyny in 2012.]
I have spent a significant time introducing this historical outline of the last couple of years of Australian politics because it is what will garner the most headlines during an election year.
The election campaign, as all election campaigns, will be filled with promises to be broken, outlandish claims and probably, outright lies. Here I lay bare my own dislike of the Capitalo-parliamentary system (a title I borrow from French Marxist, Alain Badiou) as a system which allows the continuance of a status quo which has long outlived its prime. But rather than look at policies, the major political parties will be going to the heart of the matter. They will be trying to get the Australian public to make an emotional choice about who they want to lead the Government. The current opposition party have been hugely successful in framing the current government was unreliable, and even going so far as suggest that Julia Gillard has been a part of some criminal actions involving a hedge fund. The prime example of this ability to mislead has been the Peter Slipper scandal. Peter Slipper has been a major attraction of the media of late because of a variety of situations, which are not to be taken lightly. He has been accused both of sexual harassment in the workplace as well as the misuse of government funds. This isn’t what I want to focus on though. The opposition in all their unsophisticated bile has been able to turn Peter Slipper from a former Liberal-National member who became an independent, into the darling boy of the Labor Party. This is despite the fact that the only dealings Slipper had with the Labor party arise from when he became speaker of the house, a nomination which sparked furore within the Liberal Party. The skill of the Liberal Party in spreading lies must be acknowledged as a vast number of Australians will associate Peter Slipper and his incredulous behaviour with the Labor party, despite him being a member of the Liberal party for over a decade.
This speaks to a lot of the dishonesty of Australian politics, but dishonesty is a part of Australian politics and politics in general. Unfortunately, at least for me, it seems that dishonesty and distrust will be the name of the game. The overt sexism and misogyny of the Liberal party will continue as long as Julia Gillard is in power, and they will use the fact that she is a women against Australia’s overt masculinity; a land in which men are viewed as the be all and end all of organisation and leadership. On top of all this there are continuing rumours amongst the Labor Party that Kevin Rudd is planning another comeback. A failed attempt at securing the leadership in 2012 sent him to the backbench losing the Foreign Ministry, a job he was most adept at. This election year will indeed be interesting given the internal and external attacks on the Labor party.
Despite my dislike of the Labor party, it would be disastrous for Australia to elect a Liberal-National coalition.
Speaking on the idea of leadership and organisation brings us to a discussion of Australia’s role in international politics. In October 2012, the Australian government announced with much fanfare that it had successfully secured a seat on the UN Security Council. Putting a side what may be seen as the bigger issue, that is the actual viability of the Security Council (or even its political disingenuousness), I want to discuss what this seat may highlight, namely Australia’s place in the global community.
As many readers of this blog will already know the Security Council is comprised of fifteen members, five of these; China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States hold permanent positions. The remaining ten members are elected for two-year terms; five new members are elected each year. Currently, along with Australia, the non-permanent members are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Rwanda and Togo. There are many names include in the list that one does not think of when discussing International Relations, but it would be absurd to discuss just having a five super-power committee that runs the world (though this comes close to the veto-power that the five original members have). Many of course have spoken of the need to get read of the veto powers of the five original powers and in this writers mind, it isn’t a bad idea, but one couldn’t automatically switch to a veto-less Security Council, it would have to be transition phase.
After Australia had ‘won’ its seat, beating out Luxembourg and Finland in the first round of voting, Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr commented that ‘it’s a wonderful heart-warming endorsement of Australia as a good local citizen’ and also that ‘It’s countries saying ‘We like Australia. We think Australia’s role is good and positive and we want to see Australia provide leadership’. Bob Carr’s comments create two different positions which seem, at least to me, to be mutually exclusive of each other. The first is to describe Australia as a ‘good local citizen’ and the other is that the global community wants to see Australia ‘provide leadership’. Now it is difficult to ascertain what form of citizenship Carr is actually invoking in this instance, but if the reader will forgive me, we may assume that he is just talking about the civic responsibility of Australia as a citizen of the world.
Despite the obvious popularity contest that the UN Security Council elections seem to invoke, these comments seem to also endorse an idea endemic in the psyche of Australians: the notion of punching above one’s weight. There is an interesting premise that given Australia’s population and isolated position we have achieved some remarkable objectives. Though this also just gives us an added excuse for when we fail to achieve the grand idea that we set ourselves.
Some have applauded this position on the Security Council as a way to gain support against what they see as a rising tide of Militarism in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the fact that Australia tends to be one of the more militarised countries with a defence budget of more than twenty-four billion dollars.
The awarding of a seat on the Security Council seems to do nothing but suggest that it is our turn to sit at the adult table. Australia’s place in the global community seems to be nothing more than to back up our largest ally, the United States, all the while trying not to cross a line that could alienate our trading partner, China. Indeed Australia is trapped, and digging itself into a deeper hole, over this opposition between the US and China. There exists a mentality that we can have our cake and eat it too in regards to regional and international relations. We want to hold on to the ‘Anglo-sphere’ while trying to build trading partnerships with Asian nations. Now it is this tension that will make our place on the Security Council extremely interesting as we try to balance between political alliances and economic alliances.
This tension between the political and economic filters down into domestic politics with Tony Abbot issuing a direct challenge to China about its market economy. Dr Lee John of Sydney University has echoed Abbot’s worries about China’s economic policies and has argued that Australia should look towards Japan as a economic trading partner. Whether China is running a free market or not is not necessarily beneficial to Australia, as can be seen in the free trade agreements with the USA. The election of Shinzo Abe presents the region with an interesting dilemma. While publicly announcing the need to improve relations with China (when first elected), his right-wing nationalism seems fundamentally opposed to any plans for political relations. Indeed as the response to the Falklands-like dispute over the Daioyu/Senkaku islands, such a political relationship as has been called for may be delayed for a number of years. It would be my assumption that the increased military aggression by both countries, physical in terms of China’s response, economic military aggression in terms of Japan’s response will have ramifications for both countries. We can already see that the increased spending on Japan’s military as well as fall of China as a trading partner of had economic problems for Japan.
Add the United States into this equation and I think you have something quite interesting. Over the years of the Obama administration there has been a renewed interest in the place of the US within Asia (both politically and economically) and while I think it seems obvious that the US should engage in stronger political ties with Japan, it does not seem so obvious that Japan should engage in a stronger political relationship with the US. The threat of China is always remarked to be greater then it actually is, and I think this is a case in point. Japan marks China as a gigantic threat and its main opposition in the region, when I think China could care less what is going on in Asia as it tries to solidify relations with Europe and African Nations.
Thinking in terms of global political structures, there is in my opinion (and you may possibly disagree), a movement away from traditional, and I would argue outdated, models of nation-states. Instead, we head towards Supranational unions. In some respects the EU and AU are beginning models of this type of structure. Should a group like ASEAN take the unlikely steps towards a supranational unionism it would perhaps be more intelligent for Japan to side with them rather than the US. I also think this of Australia, and it does seem like China is ahead of the game on this as it is increasingly turning to the EU and the AU to develop political relations.
Let me begin to tie up all these somewhat divergent threads. Australia’s policies in both its domestic and International contingents can be understood through the tension between the political and the economic. Unless this tension is resolved Australia will be stuck in a limbo of political atmosphere. Both economic and the political shape Australia’s political terrain in the International forum, we are constantly trying to improve economic relations in the east while maintain political relations in the west. A focus on improving economic and political relations in the east would help resolve this tension at the International level, the domestic level is a different matter and it isn’t exactly clear how the domestic tension may be resolved.
William Hebblewhite is currently a MA student studying at La Trobe University working in the Philosophy Department. His Thesis ‘Althusser and Contemporary Socialist Studies’ explores the work of Louis Althusser in the context of recent attempts to move past traditional variations of Marxian theory. He has spoken at several conferences on Marxist theory and has been a member of several far left organisations. He is an avid reader and gamer.
Stateless Diplomat is grateful to William for contributing his views and kicking off our fortnight of guest contributors. If you’d like to respond to Will, drop us a line at email@example.com to either pass on comments or to get involved and write a guest contribution of your own. SD
More in this series: Colombia, USA, South Africa, Spain