Today the ABC broadcast the last of the four-part Boyer Lecture series by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove on A Larger Australia.
The Boyers are the flagship public lecture series of the ABC, our national broadcaster and one of Australia's most important national institutions. Michael has done the significance of the occasion justice through the ambitiousness of his theme: he calls for an Australia that is larger in all important respects. He wants Australians to think and dream bigger about their politics and place in the world, and for Australia to play a more significant role in world affairs.
Below, I've extracted some highlights from the series (chronologically; skip right to the bottom to read Michael's rousing finish). To hear more on the themes of the lectures, tune in the Q&A tomorrow night and listen to this interview with the ABC's Fran Kelly .
It is a recurring feature of international relations that established and rising powers often collide. But history is not made by vast impersonal forces. It is made by individuals in hugely consequential meetings just like the one taking place in Washington this week between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama.
In future years, will China be constructive or combative? In which position will its strategic metronome come to rest? Will the United States fall victim to Cold War thinking? Or might it instead pull back from Asia, leaving the field open for China to exercise its national power without restrictions? Will these two countries with their intertwined economies allow their present uneasy competition to slide into confrontation, with grim consequences for us all?
Or will they manage and contain their competition? Can they find a mode of co-existing in which each can achieve its objectives while also allowing other Asian countries to exercise their prerogatives? This last point is critical: the other countries in the region also deserve their own space. None of us wants to live in another’s shadow. We all have the right to make our own way.
Establishing this kind of Asian order will be hard. It will take restraint and wisdom, but also strength and will. There are few precedents on which to rely. It will not be achieved at the treaty table in some kind of seventeenth century grand bargain. It will only be achieved over time, as these two mighty powers test each other under the gaze of their neighbours. And those neighbours – including Australia – also have important parts to play.
There is an underlying continuity to the way Australians have perceived our national interests and worked to further them. We have always pursued a three-dimensional foreign policy as a means of keeping Australia prosperous and safe.
The three dimensions of which I speak are height, width and depth. Height refers to our practice of working with like-minded great powers – countries that occupy the summit of global politics. Width involves participating in the activities of international institutions. Depth means building strong relations with the countries around us, in Asia.
These three dimensions have remained present over the course of Australian history, although the balance between them has varied with different governments and changing circumstances. This three-dimensional approach is the most distinctive and interesting element of Australian strategy. It is a key source of strength for our country.
We need to turn our politics from a dispiriting conflict of personalities into a robust battle of ideas. We need to make our politics larger.
Ultimately this will take politicians who are game – leaders who possess imagination, courage, policy ambition, and the power of persuasion. It will take leaders who are prepared to do the hard things, because those are the things worth fighting for. It will take a government with the wherewithal to marshal its resources and promote a coherent agenda. It will take a prime minister who can carry the country.
But this is not all up to the politicians. It’s also up to the rest of us. We are not innocents in all this: we are accessories. We cannot escape culpability for the condition of our public life. As a people, we seem to have lost the patience required to engage on big topics, for example the fact that our health, education and welfare bills are projected to grow faster than government revenues. Perhaps a quarter-century of unbroken prosperity has distorted our expectations of what the government owes us.
Are we content to be a little nation, anxious about the world and disposed to erect barriers against it, with a negative political system and a meanness of spirit about the place? Do we want to be a nation with a limited diplomatic network, a modest defence force and a cramped vision of our future? Do we wish to be a people with a habit of talking ourselves down – who must look elsewhere for inspiration because we don’t believe we can fill our highest office from within our own ranks?
Or do we want to be larger than this – a big, confident country, open to the world and alive to the attractions of diversity; a nation with a reforming mindset, a generous debate and a serious public life; an ambitious country with the instruments that enable us to influence the balance of power in Asia; a people with enough confidence and self-belief to have our own head of state?