Disarming the lifeboat – Australia’s place in the world

I recognise that election campaigns are mostly
argued on the basis of local issues that have direct impacts on our community, such that
the phrase ‘all politics is local’ is considered self-evident. But some things are missed in our helter-skelter
three-year electoral cycle. The biggest gap in our national conversation is the place
of Australia in the world. Foreign policy takes a back seat during an election and,
if it presents at all, it is as caricature—foreign wars, the nameless families who flee from
them or massive defence procurements to meet undefined future threats. The rest of the
planet is meant to form a sort of one-dimensional backdrop to our domestic drama. Whether we like it or not, this is all going
to change. Australia remains an island in geographical name only. In terms of culture,
economics, security and, yes, even the weather patterns that threaten our homes or ruin our
crops, our lives are bound up now with people all over the world who are also trying to
build safe and prosperous lives for themselves and for their families. The Greens understand that UN Security Council
reform, or torture in West Papua or the bitter, endless siege of Gaza, are subjects unlikely
to make it onto talkback radio or into the election coverage over the next few fevered
weeks. Tragedies like the Syrian civil war may seem incomprehensible from this distance.
They probably seemed incomprehensible to people watching from Calais or Lesbos as well, until
suddenly there were tent cities and families piled up against barbed wire fences, and children
washed up on beaches. Here in Australia the razor wire contains those fleeing the disintegration
of Afghanistan or the unspeakable aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war—but nonetheless,
the stories must be the same. How we respond to those seeking safe harbour
from collapse will ultimately bear directly on our own survival. As hard as it seems,
we must leave behind the comfortable illusion that we are somehow separate; that we can
remain insulated from the tides of nationalism and extremism rising around the world, or
from the shock waves from wars our own government helped to start or from the collaborations
of quiet convenience with authoritarian regimes who serve some temporary commercial end dressed
up as the national interest. Right now, the world is engaged in multiple
arms races; from the military build-up in the South China Sea to the modernisation of
nuclear weapons arsenals still deployed by a handful of countries in defiance of the
overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples. On a troubled, overcrowded and rapidly-overheating
planet, these are arms races that our human family can no longer afford—money and expertise
squandered on another generation of weapons whose use cannot even be contemplated. The
real reason that we have to bring foreign policy into the heart of our political conversation
is because the present generation of leaders are carrying us, seemingly helplessly, into
a world in which there will no longer be anywhere for refugees to run. In 2011, researcher Christian Parenti published
a work titled Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence in which
he visited failed and failing post-colonial states and war zones around the world’s equatorial
regions from Mexico to East Africa to the Golden Crescent. Underlying these widely dispersed
conflicts and regional traumas and fragilities, he discovers the unmistakeable signature of
climate change. It expresses not as a primary cause but as a forcing agent—a blowtorch
of drought or flood or crop failure—held to fragile regimes and bureaucracies, edging
them towards collapse. In a dynamic that will be familiar to anyone
who has come across The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Canadian author
Naomi Klein, he also found the militaries of the world’s most powerful advanced nations
exploiting this instability for wider political and economic ends. It is no coincidence that
the United States—which accounts for one-third of the whole world’s military spending and
has an unmatched, unparalleled overseas basing footprint—also has the most advanced and
carefully considered scenario planning for when the ‘Tropic of Chaos’ spills across the
border. Parenti terms this near-future scenario ‘the armed lifeboat’. In the armed lifeboat
world, the pinch points and edge places of global inequality are places of intense misery
and perpetual conflict. Whether in occupied Palestine, in occupied Tibet, on the Mexican
border with the United States or in our own benighted prison islands, nobody is really
spared in this scenario. As the front-line diffuses and washes back into those places
of privilege from where these armed lifeboats are piloted, mass surveillance of domestic
populations morphs into soft authoritarianism, erosion of the rule of law and the kind of
cultivated paranoia and division that accompanies the militarisation of civil society. That is the world into which we are being
led by those same leaders who violated the founding principles of the United Nations
in their rush to unleash the invasion of Iraq, those same leaders who brought regime change
to Libya but did not stick around to prevent its collapse into a failed state, the same
leaders who assure us that all we need for our own national security is a massive investment
in new military hardware and a tightening net of driftnet surveillance to distinguish
ordinary Australians from enemy combatants who suddenly arise in our midst. We cannot
seriously believe that the struggling fragile states around the ‘Tropic of Chaos’, and elsewhere
in the global south, will collapse politely without consequence to the rest of us. Jared
Diamond describes it in the closing chapters of his book Collapse: How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed. The way he phrases it is that ‘the rich world simply buys itself
the privilege of being the last to starve’. We are all in this together and, in our interconnected
age, we stand or fall together as a global community. The tropical cyclone that hammered Fiji this
February was the most powerful to ever make landfall in that part of the world. Australia,
as a regional first responder, sent an Australian Medical Assistance Team, including 21 doctors,
nurses and medics, who provided emergency medical care for more than 1,700 people. HMAS
Canberra landed 60 tonnes of emergency relief and humanitarian supplies, helicopters and
approximately 760 personnel, including engineers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. These
are our neighbours and, when we were needed, we were there. In the aftermath of the great
Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdowns, emergency services personnel from across Australia
were among the first on the ground to join their Japanese counterparts in combing the
wreckage for survivors. When we were needed, we were there. Our overseas development aid budget, the softest
target of all for lazy treasurers, is responsible for reducing infant mortality in our near
region, for helping to conduct an election in Myanmar and for providing primary health
care in Tibet. This is what global citizenship looks like. Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s response
to the Tiananmen Square massacre enabled 42,000 Chinese students to remain in Australia advocating
strongly against the ‘systematic repression of legitimate democratic aspirations’ in China.
His immediate predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, wrote the template for bipartisan consensus
on raising the humanitarian intake to give safe harbour to those fleeing the war in Indochina.
These isolated examples, rare but powerful, speak to the possibility of a new kind of
international accord in which we agree, collectively, not to arm the lifeboats. Close to home, we
all have local examples of solidarity and heroism in the face of disaster, whether in
the midst of the Brisbane floods or the Victorian fires, when communities showed their true
strength in defence of the collective. Anthony Banbury was a UN assistant secretary
general—a fierce defender of the organisation who also spares it no honest criticism. In
a recent piece he wrote for The New York Times titled ‘I love the UN but it is failing’,
he describes the organisation as ‘a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world’. He then
runs through a forbidding list of failures and breakdowns that hint at an institution
that may no longer be fit for purpose. He said: … these criticisms come from people who
think the United Nations is doomed to fail. I come at it from a different angle: I believe
that for the world’s sake we must make the United Nations succeed.
And so, in the teeth of an election campaign in which these issues are almost certain to
be subsumed beneath more immediate concerns, we will be trying to provoke a discussion
about UN Security Council reform. It is time we loosened the 1945-era stranglehold of the
nuclear armed powers, whose lock on that institution now threatens their own collective survival.
We will be making the case that human rights should stand front and centre in our foreign
policy instead of being trampled under the imperative to remove the remaining democratic
constraints on global commerce. We will be making the case that mass surveillance and
global militarism are two sides of the same coin and that no-one survives if the lifeboats
are armed. Tonight, we are mourning the death of a young
man who sought safe harbour from the tragedies that are overwhelming less fortunate parts
of the world. We met him with despair and, as a nation, we failed him. Tonight, we are
breathing in hope for the survival of a young woman who sought safe harbour in this country
and met only despair—as a nation, we failed her. Imagine if we recognised these young
people as family—not as metaphor but in truth. They are part of the global family
in an age where there is no place anymore for foreign policy because we can no longer
afford the delusion that anyone is so foreign to us that we would let them die when all
they sought was safety. In the age of the ‘Tropic of Chaos’, as we decide whether or
not to step irreversibly into the armed lifeboat, we must recall that we are all in this together;
and it is time that we grew up as a species and started behaving like it.

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