By Tait Foster
Though no country is without its stereotypes, Australia has cultivated a jocular image abroad. Searching “Australians” on Wikipedia, one finds an immediately recognizable tableau of “Aussie” faces: Hugh Jackman, Steve Irwin, Geoffrey Rush, Ian Thorpe and Kylie Minogue. Each figure personifies global impressions of typical Australian traits: good humor, friendliness, kindness, and—almost naively—sincerity.
In contrast, from a geopolitical lens, Australia finds itself on the other end of the global economic recession and is ahead of most of the Western World. The United States National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends—2030” notes that, “Total debt has actually grown for most major Western economies with the exception of the U.S., Australia, and South Korea, where the ratio of total debt to GDP has declined.” With an economy better than most, Australia’s international image might be changing as the nation confidently strides into the 21st century.
Sitting close to a potentially precarious region of the world, Australia, like the United States, is protected by its surrounding geography. Thousands of miles of ocean remove the threat of fallout from potential cataclysm between India and Pakistan’s nuclear rivalry. To the north, Southeast Asia’s peninsulas and archipelagos act as a naval buffer against rising territorial disputes between China and Japan and provide Australia a collection of fastidiously growing economies and expanding markets with which to trade.
A Pacific nation, Australia finds itself stuck between the rise of China, a possible rival superpower, and the global repositioning of the United States. “Global Trends—2030” states: “Since 1995, Asian powers — including Japan, Korea, Australia, and India—have gradually swapped the United States for China as their top trading partner but have coupled growing economic interdependence with the continued ‘insurance’ of close US security ties.” James R. Clapper, director of the organization that wrote “Global Trends—2030,” noted in his testimony before the Senate that Australia is “poised to become a top liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter…” and mines for critical rare earth elements (REE), “are expected to be operational in less than five years.” Though China currently dominates the REE market, Western Australia possesses an enormous concentration of “‘microplaty hematite. Up to sixty-five percent iron,’” of which, “‘every ton of high-grade yields six hundred kilos of steel.’” Given its geographical advantages, President Obama announced the expansion of a Marine base in Australia’s northern City of Darwin. Speaking at the joint announcement, Obama stated strongly that, “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”
So why is there still no ado about Australia?
Perhaps because Australia’s main concern rests within the domestic sphere. The discovery and excavation of Australia’s mineral and gas resources created an exponentially growing class of supremely wealthy miners. Addressing the rise of inequality, William Finnegan writes, “The share of income going to the top one percent in Australia has doubled since 1979.” The reaction to this sudden boon of wealth and its impact on inequality in Australia has led to a debate concerning how to tax without strangling the private sector. Norway offers a poignant counterexample:
Norway, with a population of five million, has taxed the major oil companies heavily and created the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, now worth more than seven hundred billion dollars, insuring the prosperity of future generations. Australia is doing nothing comparable with a boom…describe[d] as a ‘once-in-a-century opportunity.’
Australian miners balk at Norway, claiming this model would hinder and destabilize businesses already beholden to bureaucratic red tape and the cruel ebb and flow of global commodity markets. Concerns with what to do with this new wealth have become entangled with fears over “Americanization.”
Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan warns Australians, “Don’t let Australia become a Down Under version of New Jersey, where the people and the communities whose skills are no longer in demand get thrown on the scrap heap of life.”Australians are thus embroiled in an internal debate that is as much cultural as it is political. A deeper challenge, however, lurks beneath the surface.
Confronted with retaining a quintessential Australian identity, as the nation assumes a larger role within the geopolitical realm, Australians certainly face one of the most critical chapters in their history.
Tait Foster is the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff, working out of EWI’s New York center.