This week we kicked off a debate on a 'larger Australia.' This comes off the back of Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove's 'Larger Australia' speech to the National Press Club on 12 March.

Stephen Grenville kicked off the responses, suggesting that one way Australia could get 'larger' would be by uniting with New Zealand:

Of course, a union wouldn't be easy or quick. For a start, New Zealand is significantly poorer than Australia, and many Australians would fear that New Zealand would be a larger version of mendicant Tasmania. On top of this, amalgamations always produce redundancies, most notably in this case a whole parliament, though New Zealand might be content to make its Beehive the equivalent of a state parliament. 

Despite the compelling logic, neither side shows the slightest enthusiasm for union. The 2012 Lowy Institute Pollshowed that most Australians are against it and almost as many New Zealanders agree with them.

The key is to see this as an evolutionary process rather than a revolution. And the way to maintain progress is to be ready when opportunity presents itself.

Here's an example: unifying the currency would be a huge step, unlikely to be taken under normal circumstances and not being recommended by anyone. But in a real crisis (the Kiwi dollar going well over parity?), it might well be seen as sensible.  In 1997, when the Reserve Bank of New Zealand handled the Asian crisis with less finesse than its Aussie counterpart, there was a strong interest among New Zealand businesses in linking the currencies. Our then Treasurer, Peter Costello, told them they could adopt the Aussie dollar but an Anzac currency was not on.  

To build a Larger Australia, why not start by declaring a contest for the new currency design, drawing on icons of shared heritage to decorate the new notes? The list is endless: Phar Lap, Russell Crowe, Crowded House and the pavlova for a start.

Kiwi Robert Ayson responded by suggesting that the 'annexation' of New Zealand probably wouldn't help Australia very much:

This is annexation season further afield, but I am confident the Crimea option is not what Grenville has in mind. Instead, his argument potentially answers a perennial Australian question: New Zealand, just what are you good for?

But the answer is unlikely to be much extra size or heft. An extra four million people would be hardly noticeable unless they all crossed the Tasman and started demanding social payments. The two economies are already significantly (although not completely) integrated, and their Closer Economic Relations already acts as a stepping stone for broader regional cooperation (including CER-ASEAN).

And if Australia's foreign service is too small for the country's size and ambitions, as Fullilove suggests, then the addition of New Zealand's streamlined diplomatic corps would hardly overturn that numerical problem. Canberra may actually find the removal of a separate international vote for Wellington (in the Pacific Islands Forum, the East Asia Summit, and at the UN) a move backwards. Despite differences on some issues, two neighbours occasionally even find themselves in agreement.

And despite its obvious qualities, I don't think the New Zealand Defence Force is quite the answer to Fullilovian concerns that Australia is falling behind in Asia's strategic balance. We might bring some uncomfortably different views on China and the US too.

I chimed in, looking at the broader strategic context of a larger Australian defence budget:

Don't forget that a favourable balance of power in our more immediate region is no long-term certainty. Indonesia's economy is already larger than our own, but burdened by poor governance, Indonesia has a weak state sector and thus an underfunded and corrupt military. But those are eminently fixable problems, and in fact Indonesia has made quite a show of fixing many of its political problems since Suharto fell. Yes, reform has stagnated, but who is to say we aren't on the cusp of a second wave of reforms that further strengthens Indonesia? We can't expect Indonesia's power projection capabilities to remain indefinitely weak, and when that situation changes, the need to influence the balance of power with China will start to look like a more distant concern.

There are other questions raised by the promise of a bigger defence capability: would we use it to buttress America's slowly eroding regional hegemony? If so, won't that generate the kind of friction with China we would like to avoid? Or are we developing a more independent national strategy on the premise that American security guarantees will be less reassuring than they used to be? And are we pursuing a truly defensive (or 'non-offensive') capability that merely aims to deny an adversary the ability to coerce us, or do we want the ability to 'rip an arm off' an adversary?

 Former BBC Australia correspondent Nick Bryant , who is writing a book on the Rise and Fall of Australia, took aim at the complacency inherent in phrases like 'punching above our weight', 'down under' and 'the lucky country':

In politics, the turning point — or pivot, to use the fashionable diplo-speak of the day – was the 2010 federal election, which followed the ouster of Kevin Rudd. For him, personal and national ambition were entwined, and both extended far beyond Australia's borders. Julia Gillard's aspirations were more easily accommodated at home. At the outset of the campaign, in a strategically placed story on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph, she signaled her preference for a Small Australia. This policy announcement, aimed squarely at Sydney's western suburbs, married with her comments on The 7.30 Report during her first overseas trip as prime minister, when she admitted she felt more comfortable in Australian classrooms than international summits. In distancing herself from Kevin Rudd, she distanced Australia from the rest of the world.

With the then opposition leader Tony Abbott also indicating that he preferred to be a stay-at-home prime minister, the 2010 campaign had a distinctly municipal feel. It was as if Gillard and Abbott were competing to become the mayor of a medium-sized city rather than contesting the leadership of an ever more thrusting and consequential nation.

The Harvard academic Niall Fergusson, who happened to be visiting Australia at the time, could scarcely believe his ears. 'It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up,' he told the ABC's Mark Colvin. Crikey's Bernard Keane called it the 'little Australia' campaign.

The 2013 campaign was not much better. 'I don't think we should be getting above ourselves here,' said Tony Abbott during another ABC interview, when asked if Australia should support American airstrikes against the Assad regime. 'We are a significant middle power but no more.'

Gillard and Abbott, who tended to bring out the worst in each other, took the old maxim that 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity.

It is time have a national debate of a quality, scope and ambition that is not constrained by the supposed small-mindedness of the electorate — a small-mindedness, I would argue strongly, that is overstated.

Stay tuned for more on this debate.

Of course, we covered a heap of other topics on The Interpreter this week. Last Saturday Jokowi was nominated at the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle's presidential candidate for 2014. On Saturday, Catriona Croft-Cusworth gave us the details of the nomination:

The party announced the nomination over Twitter via its account @PDI_Perjuangan, and soon after launched a logo for Jokowi's campaign, fitted with an abbreviation ready for hashtagging: JKW4P, Jokowi for president.

The night before in Jakarta's Old Town, the previously neglected Dutch-era buildings in Fatahillah Square were lit up with coloured floodlights on their freshly painted facades. Visitors who arrived on public transport cut quickly through peak hour traffic, thanks to a months-long campaign to keep the TransJakarta busway lane clear. The square itself was filled with a gourmet food festival, multiple performance stages and thousands of Jakartans enjoying an open public event.

Here's Peter McCawley on what Jokowi might stand for:

So far, he has managed to avoid commenting on almost all matters of national policy by adopting a 'shucks, why ask me? I'm just the Governor of Jakarta' line in response to any ticklish issues. Thus very little is known about Jokowi's views on such matters as national economic priorities or international affairs.

To the extent Jokowi has favoured any particular national philosophy, he seems to be sympathetic to the 'Marhaenism' (sometimes translated as 'proletarian nationalism') espoused by former president Sukarno. Marhaenism is an eclectic set of ideas which stresses national unity and national culture along with 'pro-people' collectivist economic ideas. It is often unsympathetic to liberalism and sharp individualism, regarding them as undesirable features of capitalism. But quite what the implications might be for economic and international policies under a Jokowi presidency are unclear.

 And to round things off, Wawan Mas'udi from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta looked back on Jokowi's start in politics:

Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is the man of the moment in Indonesian politics. A furniture retailer by trade, two years ago he was a little known small town mayor in central Java. Today he is streets ahead of his nearest competitor in the opinion polls for July's presidential election. To understand Jokowi's meteoric rise, we need to go back to his early days in politics.

There was little hint of Jokowi's future trajectory in his first foray into politics, when he was elected mayor of Solo in 2005 with 37% of the vote. At the time, Jokowi was a political unknown compared to his running mate FX Hadi Rudyatmo, who was a local patron of the Democratic party of Struggle (PDI-P). Five years later, Jokowi won re-election with 90% of the vote, an eye catching result that helped him gain the PDI-P nomination for governorship of Jakarta.

Three factors account for Jokowi's extraordinary popularity in Solo.

First, he introduced health care and education schemes that catered to Solo's poor. After becoming mayor, Jokowi received many requests from constituents for help with their medical bills. At first he paid these bills using his discretionary funds as mayor, but over time realised this approach was unsustainable. Instead in 2008 he introduced a health insurance scheme for uninsured residents. Two years later, Jokowi introduced financial assistance for poor families to access education, as well as establishing fully funded government schools for the children of extremely poor families.

Take-up of both schemes was high: by 2011 each covered around half of Solo's residents. Each scheme was funded primarily from central government transfers to Solo under Indonesia's decentralisation arrangements. Jokowi made sure he gained credit for the programs, attending the launch of the healthcare and education financial assistance scheme and personally handing out membership cards.

Finally, Elliot Brennan looked at the diplomatic fallout from MH370, arguing that the incident will impact on territorial disputes in the South China Sea:

Claimants in the South China Sea's territorial disputes, such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia, have participated in the search. But adding to public frustration and to a perception of poor cooperation and information-sharing in the region, Thailand yesterday announced that its military radars may have picked up MH370 last week, information that was not passed on to Malaysia.

The implications will not be lost on China. If, as many analysts believe, China this year tries to extend an Air Defence Identification Zone further into the South China Sea, there will be a renewed pressure in the region to improve air and maritime awareness and information-sharing. 

For Malaysia, the criticisms of its handling of the incident overshadows recent triumphs in international relations, including negotiating a ceasefire between the Philippines Government and southern MILF rebels; a peace accord is due to be signed on 27 March. Malaysia's handling of the MH370 incident may also tarnish its holding of the ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting on the South China Sea on 25 March.

The diplomatic fallout of the mismanagement of the MH370 incident could be significant. Indeed the diplomatic mess that has already ensued will have a lasting effect, most notably on relations between China and Malaysia. It also demonstrates the need for improved cooperation, information-sharing and confidence-building in the region. Despite years of improved cooperation, the region is still a long way off where it needs to be.

Photo by Flickr user Veronica Belmont.