Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:46 | SYDNEY
Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:46 | SYDNEY

Shutting out the world as we vote


Graeme Dobell

19 August 2010 13:17

Happy is the country that can shut out the rest of the world as it decides its future. The lucky country is so lucky that the polity doesn't have to worry the voters too much about high diplomacy or the harsh facts of military might.

The lack of almost any foreign policy or defence debate in the election worries wonks, specialists and internationalists. Taking a cue from both sides of politics, though, let's impart the positive spin. It has been a most unusual election, but this may be the new normal. Or perhaps just a reach towards an even more determinedly domestic form of normal.

The final election of the first decade of the 21st century is being fought by two leaders who both won their spurs – in government and opposition — in education, employment and health. During the era of significant economic reforms from the 1980s on, it was always Treasurers who stepped up to the top job. But with Canberra seizing ever more control of the traditional state responsibilities of health and education, it is no longer necessary to be the Treasurer to have a shot at being Prime Minister.

Maybe Australia is heading towards the Malaysian model: the leadership aspirant must have performed as education minister.

The previous column lamented the lack of campaign discussion of the Afghanistan war. It's not a claim that could be made of the previous three federal elections, which each had significant international elements, even tinges of khaki. In 2001, the Howard Government surged to victory in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the Tampa crisis. In 2004, the Government again did well out of the alliance, attacking Mark Latham for his promise to have the troops home from Iraq by Christmas. By 2007, Iraq was part of the lead weighing down Howard and lifting Labor to victory.

You have to go back to the Vietnam era to get a similar international/khaki trifecta: 1966 was the big alliance-flavoured victory for the Coalition; by 1969 the anti-Vietnam tide helped deliver a big swing to Labor; and in 1972, the Vietnam failure was part of the It's Time sentiment that gave victory to Labor.

Such history offers the serious side to the throwaway thought about the fortunate fate of a nation that doesn't have to think too far beyond its own suburbs. The intrusions from the outside world in the election have come from areas not always taught in the international relations canon: border protection and population.

The two issues have morphed into a strange concoction. The scene was well set back in July when Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, spilled his thoughts on the 'toxic' nature of the immigration debate, which was 'killing the government'.

It is simplifying a complex mixture to see this merely as an expression of a dark space in the soul of Oz. This column is looking on the bright side, so instead, call it the electorate playing back distorted echoes of the messages it is getting from its leaders and the national security complex.

For a discussion of the growth of 'border protection', consider this piece by Peter Chambers on the complex effects of Australia's efforts, many of them unanticipated. Chambers suggests that Australia's interdiction policy can actually generate more boat people. He argues that interdiction almost guarantees safe passage to detention and is thus a strong selling point for those running the trade:

Formerly, smugglers required older, experienced fishermen with extensive knowledge of the waters, currents and other hazards between Java and north-western Australia, on the presumption that any boat that departed Indonesia would, plausibly, make it all the way to Christmas Island or even the north-west coast of the Australian mainland. But, in practice, with interdiction undertaken from the moment a vessel suspected of carrying people suspected of not having visas enters the Exclusive Economic Zone, passengers and pilot and crew can reasonably assume that they will be picked up long before they get into serious trouble on the high seas.

Too much complexity there for poor pols out tramping the streets and tripping over TV cables in shopping centres.

Photo by Flickr user wollongonger, used under a Creative Commons license.