My last underlying theme revolves around an issue that underpins a lot of what our politics is about, but is hardly ever spoken about directly. We are told that our world is global now, and that what happens here is secondary. The Global Financial Crisis affected us all, though our relative lack of debt saved us from the worst of it. The whole ‘climate change’ scare was said to be global in its ramifications, and of course the proposed approach to dealing with it required the nations of the world to come to an historic agreement — which so far they have been reluctant to do. What happens in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tuvalu, Iceland — you name it — appears on our TV news and affects people in Australia. So does what happens to other people’s economies. We can seem powerless in the face of what is happening elsewhere.
I think a lot of this is a distraction from the central issue of our politics, which is improving Australia — making it a better society for those who live in it, improving their standard of living, their education, their health and their prospects. That’s what nation states are for. They are only a couple of hundred years old, but they remain the best system humanity has ever devised for ensuring that a large number of people have a decently agreeable life. It is not enough just to be a nation state. What we know says that the nation states that do this best are those that have a robust democracy. Democracies rarely go to war with one another, so that makes them safer to live in, too.
All this makes me a ‘nation-statist’ rather than an ‘internationalist’. I recognise that there is a world of nation states, and that Australia is one of them, and that the United Nations, or something like it, is necessary. I don’t think it works very well, but it is an improvement on the League of Nations created after the First World War that failed utterly to prevent the second such war twenty years later. But it seems to me that the Australian Government, whichever party is in control of it for the moment, should be trying to play a minimal rather than a maximal role in it.
The ‘climate change’ issue is such a good example. An Australian Government that was interested in its primary responsibility of developing the nation state would have taken an extremely conservative view about the proposed ‘crisis’. It would have been kept asking for really good evidence. Actually, John Howard was sceptical from the beginning, and only caved in when he realised that Kevin 07 had caught a wave, and needed to be countered. It was too late then. And a lot of what we have heard over the last six years has been preposterous talk, about Australia’s having to show the way, about our international responsibility (utterly hypocritical if we at the same time kept exporting coal to China and India), and about our need to be at these climate talkfests (we had one of the largest delegations at Copenhagen in 2009 — well more than a hundred people).
While ‘climate change’ is the outstanding example of the internationalist fatuity, you can see its effects in other areas of policy. In education we re told that the Gonski reforms will also improve our competitiveness internationally. But what evidence we have is that our education system performs pretty well ‘internationally’ (it’s not part of any Olympic games system), and I wrote about that a few months ago. What is important is that we try to reduce to a minimum the numbers who drop out of the schools, because those who do are more likely to be a burden on the rest of the society, in a variety of ways. Investing in preparing every child properly for its future is cheaper and much more sensible than trying to repair the damage later.
In the old days we had a Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade who did the foreign representation job. Today the Prime Minister is often about at these meetings, on the grounds, presumably, that other Prime Ministers and Presidents are there too. The ruling question ought to be: will my attendance lead to a better outcome for the people of Australia? I don’t think it’s ever asked.
I’m not much taken by the notion that we have to show that we are a good international citizen. But if we must engage in foreign aid, then let us try to assist countries to become democratic nation states that function effectively for their citizens. That’s not easy, but at least it provides an understandable goal. And while we’re doing it, the Australian Government should keep remembering that charity begins at home: do we offer a really good example of a democratic nation state? More attention to the shape of Australian democracy, and less international posturing, would seem the right way to go.