Small island mentality

Originally published on 

Australia is sometimes criticised as having a “small island” mentality; despite spanning over 7 million kilometres and hosting a population of over 22 million people. Australian politics since the Howard era has been characterised by a reluctance to embrace change, a fear of Australia’s ever-vulnerable borders being breached and a reluctance to let go of the coal-mining, land-dependent image of the Aussie battler.

Despite students and the unemployed emerging from the Global Financial Crisis with $900 worth of stimulating spending money and the rest of the continent left relatively unscathed, Australia hangs on to the “times are tough” mentality – responding with hysteria to pricing carbon, hysteria to asylum seekers travelling by boat and slowly shifting denial to the realities of climate change.

Globally, Australia is comparatively doing fine. We don’t have thousands packed in protest in one of our busiest streets. Nor do we have unemployment at a devastating 9%. We don’t have widespread unease and violence, nor do we have an immanent fresh water crisis with no long term solution.

But, our small island mentality, compassionless politics and aversion to change may lead us head first into runaway climate change and all the humanitarian, social and economic problems it poses if we don’t pull our head out of the sand and recognise our global responsibilities.

Loose money, inflation and government debt have been the buzz-words of the late 2000s. But, whilst Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Britain, the US, Greece and Portugal have been classified as ‘crisis-countries,’ Australia “was singular amongst developed countries to avoid the global recession, which allowed the country a continued run on its record 17 years of consecutive economic growth,” according to the Australian Business Journal.

Despite this apparent prosperity, the biggest news story to date has been the cataclysmic potential for the Clean Energy Future Package (so called “carbon tax”) to sabotage Australia’s economy, impoverish Australian families and destroy the Australian resource industries – if you were to believe the Murdoch Press. Until two weeks ago when the Clean Energy Future Package passed through the Senate and became law, the mainstream media was dominated by the likes of radio shock jock Allan Jones’ climate-science denial and dubious political commentary.

Sheer political perseverance, and one can only assume a sprinkle of common sense saw the legislation pass through the Senate and become enacted into law. The sky didn’t cave in, and no one has had to say “bye bye Australia” as ‘Lord’ Moncton predicted.

Amidst the hyperbole and sometimes-outright lies of the mainstream media, community groups, students, businesses, economists, doctors and teachers came together in support of positive change in Australia. Rallies of collectively 40 000 people and a year long community campaign in support of pricing pollution and transitioning towards renewables took place under the banner of Say Yes Australia. Despite the historical resistance to change and the fear-mongering generated by the Opposition and by vested-interest groups, this positive movement for progress and transformation gives hope that Australia might not go under with its heels dug in. But is it too little, too late?

The latest scientific research released by the International Energy Agency says we have only 5 years to avoid global temperature increases of 2 degrees, which would trigger unprecedented extreme weather events and volatility. Business as usual would result in warming of over 6 degrees – locking in dangerous climate change with no opportunity for mitigation.

It’s not too late, but there is more to be done. Australia is in an ideal position to shake off the small-island mentality and to embrace a transition to a renewable energy economy. The first step has already been taken – the pricing pollution legislation will incentivise big businesses to cut down their pollution, whilst proceeds made from the scheme can be invested in renewable industries to cut the cost of clean energy alternatives.

This first step, however, needs to be scaled up dramatically if run away climate change is to be avoided. Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions, to avoid dangerous climate change, Australia should be moving to a 100 per cent renewable energy economy as fast as possible.” Not only does it make sense, as one of the sunniest and windiest countries in the world, to capitalise on our natural energy resources, but as we run out of the finite reserves of coal at some point within the next few decades, we’re not going to have any coal left to burn – irrespective of climate change!

The second political hot topic this year was the age old refugee debate. The familiar cries of border security, people smugglers and queue jumpers reared its ugly head earlier this year when PM Gillard announced the ‘Malaysia Solution.’ Under the Government’s proposed scheme, Australia would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and in return, receive 4000 people already assessed to be refugees, over the next four years. This is problematic, as the proposal itself was found invalid by the High Court under Australia’s Migration Act 1958 (Cth).

What is perhaps more shocking than the simple illegality of the plan, are the questions of international obligations, common humanity, basic economics and a seeming lack of any sort of long-term planning. Australia cannot bury its head in the sand and pretend that because it’s not sandwiched between 7 other countries it operates outside the global community.

We participate in trade relations, international negotiations, have economies that are clearly inter-dependent and regularly allow citizens to drift back and forth between different countries to pursue leisurely and business ventures. We are relatively happy to allow nearly 60 000 foreign citizens to fly into Australia and stay here illegally. Yet we persecute relentlessly the mere 4,695 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat in 2010 -2011 – who we have a legal obligation under the Refugee Convention to assess and process. The inconsistency is startling.

Our small island mentality allowed our Government to think it could get away with sending 400 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has a well-documented history of mistreating asylum seekers. Our small island mentality allowed our Government to think that it would win political points by “sending a signal to voters that the government was getting tough.” Getting tough on what? On the most vulnerable and terrified? On those risking their lives by fleeing for safety?

With the effects of climate change already being felt by Australia’s closest Pacific island neighbours, like Tuvalu, Australia needs to reassess its treatment of asylum seekers. Australia’s archaic and inhumane offshore processing systems and indefinite detention are not only of questionable legality, but will not provide a practical solution to the probably inevitableinflux of environmental refugees that countries like Australia will be faced with in the foreseeable future.

Transnational issues like climate change, have international consequences. Australia has to face up to its responsibilities and begin the process of preparing for change, and mitigating potential damage.

Australia has escaped some of the economic trauma many other countries have suffered in the last few years. But that is not license to perpetuate insular and narrow-minded attitudes, or to allow short-term, short-sighted decision making by our leaders.

We have an opportunity, as a country that is prosperous and not densely populated, as a country that is plentiful in natural resources and in solar and wind power, to transition Australia towards a safer and more sustainable future. That means pulling our heads out of the sand, letting go of our irrational fear of vulnerable people in boats and forgoing our dependency on finite, polluting energy sources for clean, renewable options.

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