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The Australian Teenager

A few years ago, I was on playground duty and a charming 17-year-old threw some of his rubbish on the ground. When I told him to sort it out his retort was 'I'm making sure the cleaners have a job'. And this is true, just as if you go and break windows it'll help your local glass company, but. you need to think a bit deeper, right?

This kind of immature behaviour reminds me a lot of how Australia interacts with the world, roughly summarised as "do whatever we feel like, as long as we can find some excuse and it might be ok for the economy". After all, we're only one little country anyway, so whatever we do doesn't really matter for the world. Our government is usually just like that 17-year-old: morally vacuous.

Obviously, if you're going to harangue politicans for short-sightedness, it's hard to go past climate change. Yes, it's true that Australia contributes a relatively small proportion of the world's emissions, but as a rich country blessed with renewable energy potential we could be leading by example rather than reluctantly bringing up the rear on emissions reduction, bolstered by dodgy numbers. Our leaders should be explaining that a small amount of economic pain is necessary, rather than exaggerating its possible effects for political gain.

I suppose I should have some sympathy for Coalition governments here: when a large proportion of your members and supporters don't actually believe in climate change it makes sense to pay lip-service to actually doing anything, even if that lip-service involves billions of dollars on hand-picked schemes and subsidies from the 'fiscally responsible' Abbott (carbon pricing market-based - the Liberal Party should surely agree it's the most efficient mechanism!). I find it much harder to forgive their sudden largess when confronted with a pandemic after excoriating Labor for spending during the global financial crisis, followed up by monetary handouts at election when faced with an increasing structural deficit. Apparently the key principle of the Liberal Party is to retain power; for the Morrison government at least, financial rectitude is a fig-leaf to be donned whenever it might win votes. In practice, it means that they manage to spend billions haphazardly, weakening their ability to budget for and deliver long term reforms.

Image shows atmospheric pollution caused by uncontrolled industrial emissions

Let's take something that's slightly less obvious and left-leaning: debates over immigration. We hear a lot of noise from both major parties about the economic effects of migration and the importance of competing for skilled workers, or even how we really need seasonal labour from the Pacific islands. Even debates about multiculturalism are rooted in how good it is for us: do ghettos damage the social fabric, are we a richer society for interacting with other cultures, and so on. What we hear very little about is its effect on the world: by competing for global talent, are we 'stealing' the benefits of others' education systems? Would it be more equitable to have a lottery like the US green card system for some immigrants? Would striving to achieve a more diverse pool of immigrants from poorer countries lead to a better global outcome, via both cash transfers back to their home countries and global understanding of a stable modern democracy?

The sense that the Australian government simply has little time for the rest of the world is reinforced by the embarrassingly small proportion of our budget allocated to foreign aid. The internationally agreed target of a whole 0.7% of income was first agreed to in 1970; since then, we've dropped from around 0.5% to just over 0.2%, despite repeated government commitments on both sides. It appears when push comes to shove, the reaction of Australian politicians is to ignore global good in favour of local political interests, again and again and again. But I don't blame the people; there's simply a lack of information and political will. If this is the best we can do as the 'lucky' country, what hope of expecting better behaviour from others?

I'm not saying 'forget about Australia' - it's the Australian government's job to focus on this. But when foreign aid is first on the chopping block, when we happily cut ABC funding and force the degradation of services like Radio Australia, when instead of helping East Timor with their natural resources we illegally spy on them to gain the upper hand, when climate discussions are so firmly rooted in national advantage for what is so clearly a world issue, well... Australia needs to grow up, and think of itself as a productive citizen of the world instead of a nation out for a good resource-fuelled night on the town.