Monday, November 2, 2015

Today by Richard Cooke

The small time
Thinking globally has to mean more than shipping refugees to Kyrgyzstan

Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull was inevitable. Business culture has permeated so deep inside the world of politics, especially conservative politics, that a prime minister who talks like a CEO is just the logical endpoint. Now it’s not the rhetoric of Australia Inc, either, but Australia 2.0.

In March, Turnbull trialled a beta version of this thinking at the Brisbane Club – “We’re creative, we’re innovative, and increasingly we think globally” – and he’s been returning to these themes ever since. Disruption, innovation, agility, being nimble. Australia is recast as a kind of startup – young, fresh, and manoeuvrable, with Malcolm as its Steve Jobs–like visionary.

But it turns out “thinking globally” also means thinking of Kyrgyzstan, and resettling refugees there. Not failed refugees, but successful ones, who are barred entry from Australia permanently. The former Soviet nation would join an uninspiring list of countries where Australia has tried to dump these unfortunates: Nauru, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Cambodia. All have been costly: financially, politically or diplomatically. None have been successful so far.

As usual, the ALP has continued its role of Reek to the Coalition’s Bastard of Bolton. Bill Shorten said the government should speak with other countries for a regional solution, but remove the "blanket of secrecy". Why public announcements of hypothetical plans would assist delicate diplomatic negotiations, or why this would somehow make the planning more moral or democratic was unclear. But it at least sounded like a good thing to ask for, if you didn’t think about it very hard.

In the response to the Kyrgyzstan solution, we again saw a familiar oddity of Australian asylum-seeker politics. For some reason, continuations of existing policies keep getting treated as escalations, or even new ideas, perhaps because people can’t quite believe this is really what we’re doing. The Greens Leader Richard Di Natale said the proposed Kyrgyzstan solution meant Australia’s asylum seeker policy was now verging on the ridiculous. But nothing about it is novel - it’s just a continuation of a policy at least five years old, applied to a place with a funny name. There aren’t many countries in the world poorer than Kyrgyzstan, and Australia has already sent refugees to three of them.

It’s the same with Tony Abbott’s speech last week, a little advertorial for his ‘stop the boats’ policy in Europe. This was treated as some kind of aberrational outrage, instead of a forceful iteration of a bipartisan system Australia has had in place for almost 20 years. It’s true Abbott has changed its rationale, from deaths at sea to maintenance of a national identity, but that change isn’t dramatic. After all, the policy predates most of the deaths, and something must have kept it going all that time.

That’s the problem with Turnbull’s vision of at the moment our “global integration” is centred on exporting coal to India, iron ore to China, and refugees to whichever benighted frontiers will take them. These fossilised remains of the 20th century nation-state are an unlikely foundation for agile innovative disruption. To borrow Turnbull’s phrase, our chief exports are more in the “cowed into fearful desperation” line. They seem unlikely to win this global competition we keep hearing about.

There was plenty to criticise in Abbott’s thesis on mass migration as a threat to shared European values. (To warm up: the fact that those “shared values” don’t exist even between Milan and Naples, let alone Milan and Minsk; that the unifying project of the Enlightenment kicked off with France fighting a century of wars against almost every other country in continent; that until 40 years ago “Judeo-Christian culture” somehow didn’t extend to golf clubhouses; that Europe traditionally hasn’t needed to import threats, and is perfectly capable of ruining things itself, thanks.) But unmentioned was this: there are no real-world examples of the kind of threat Abbott fears coming to pass.

It’s impossible to find any real recent cultures that have been destroyed by migrants. Ask a nativist conservative, and they’ll often reach back all the way to Ancient Rome (although of course their not-so-secret answer is really “Our culture – right now!”). The 20th century was partly a triumph of migration over chauvinistic nationalism, not just inside nations, but between them. The right side of politics loves talking about which cultures are successful. Which would you say was more successful: the United States or Nazi Germany? Singapore or North Korea? Canada or apartheid South Africa? At its extreme, the vision of racialised national culture Abbott is clinging to has not been a success, while nations that take in floods of immigrants have been buoyed up by them, not drowned.

George Megalogenis’s new book Australia's Second Chance: What our history tells us about our future is full of this kind of tension. There are really two Australias in it. One is an economic innovator powered by migrants. The other is a sclerotic, small-time place that shuts the door on migration when times get hard, leading to periods of stagnation. Turnbull might be talking up a new world of opportunity. But if a lonely Hazara gets off the plane in Bishkek airport, it will just be business as usual.


Today’s links

  • Knights and dames have been officially scrapped.
  • Government data will be made available to entrepreneurs crowdsourcing startup ideas. Or maybe startups crowdsourcing entrepreneurial ideas. Or crowdsourcers starting up incubators. It’s hard to say.
  • Perhaps letting media talk to the public service wouldn’t be a bad idea.
  • Both the Labor and Liberal parties are resisting internal reform.
  • Environment minister Greg Hunt says that farmers have a “moral right” to control what happens on their land, which should override any mere legal rights of miners.
  • Why do public service economists always propose the same reforms?

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 



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