Crest of the wave or dead in the water? Australian regional climate leadership

Toby Warden

Society and culture | Pacific


Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on 1st of June 2017 has lowered America into an enormous chasm of moral inferiority that Australia cannot afford to replicate for the sake of its Pacific neighbours.

Trump’s rationale is typical of his international relations psyche: overtly transactional and business-like. Any outcome in the international realm that doesn’t deliver fruitful benefits to the US economy is regarded with scepticism and deemed deleterious.

Pacific island nations do not carry economic importance to the United States but they do possess enormous strategic significance to Australia’s defence and security. The 2016 Defence White Paper includes that “we cannot effectively protect Australia if we do not have a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and South Pacific (comprising Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries). Australia must play a leadership role in our immediate neighbourhood”.

A secure Pacific island region is a core Australian national interest. Australia has a moral responsibility to be the guarantor and protector of Pacific security. Without American influence, the question of our regional leadership has become more important.

Worthy of greater alarm is the threat currently experienced by what Australia defines as crucial in the national security interest. Kiribati is now threatened by a predicted rise in sea levels over 6 feet by 2100 when the land itself only sits at 6 feet above water. A World Bank report found that the village of Bikenibeu, home to 6,500  could be submerged by 2050 with current rates of sea level rise. In 2015, Cyclone Pam affected 45% of Polynesia’s Tuvalu, displacing 10000 people.

An increase in global temperatures over 1.5 degrees would doom Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. As Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, emphatically put it: “As Pacific Islanders, we are fighting for our very survival…[our] existence as sovereign nations with land and coastlines hangs in the balance.”

This seemingly brings me to Australia’s highly politicised, yet rarely securitised, energy and economic policies. Australia is the largest exporter of coal. In 2015-16, Australia exported 388 million tonnes of coal, and contributed to a staggering 30% of the coal export markets, making Australia a global leader in emission fostering.

Coal proponents regularly prioritise the job creation, increased standards of living and strong and stable economic growth gained from this reliable commodity. Coal exports was largely Australia’s key to survival during the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and contributes to a resilient economy that hasn’t experienced a recession since 1991.

Canberra must remain vigilant to not develop the same psyche that pushed the US to withdraw from Paris. The domestic is undoubtedly important, but the regional, and international, is just as significant. Lowy fellow, Greg Colton argues that ‘no argument for domestic job creation carries much weight for island nations who are considering how to relocate their entire populations because of climate change. It is seen not only as a very selfish act from a supposed friend, but also ultimately foolish.’

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="The rising islands of Oceania"]

To become the regional leader that Canberra strives to be it will first need to adjust its solipsistic energy and commodity policies. The Pacific Islands Development Forum, a regional forum promoting sustainable development, urged for an international moratorium on the expansion of new fossil-fuel extraction industries. While this decision would adjust the economy to finally ascend renewable investment above coal and other fossil-fuel industries, this future looks bleak. Both major parties are backed by coal-based industries and there are continuing propositions for new mines, such as the Adani thermal coal mine in Queensland.

But if long-term energy solutions and altruistic concerns of humanity are not enough, this decision could improve Canberra’s diplomatic perception and influence. Wesley Morgan suggests that Pacific Islands are beginning to engage in a wider range of multilateral platforms (that do not include Australia) in order to pursue their survivalist interests. The extent to which Canberra’s voice will retain projection, reputation and influence is at risk if its priorities in the Pacific are not properly addressed.

Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji at July’s Climate Action Pacific Partnership Event stated “to allow sovereign nations to slip beneath the rising seas altogether to preserve the economies and lifestyles of others would be an act of unparalleled selfishness and injustice. And any global citizen who believes in justice has no moral choice other than to side with you in your struggle.”

The Pacific nations are watching Australia’s every move. Malcolm Turnbull had the opportunity to champion climate change as a security issue at the past G20 leaders’ meeting. The next opportunity to convey Canberra’s selflessness and supposedly espoused justice will with the Adani coal mine. We cannot rely on the United States when it comes to this national security concern. In order to secure the national interest and pursue the moralism embedded in Australian values, Canberra cannot be like Trump.

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The strange invisibility of Australian aid

Elizabeth Underwood

International relations | Pacific


Australian aid is a heavily debated topic. How much should we give? Who decides? How do we decide?

In his most recent book, The Foreign Dilemma of Aid, Jack Corbett explores the history of foreign aid given by Australia, and looks at reasons why it’s changed.

“When Australians are asked, “Should we give aid?” the answer is almost always a resounding “Yes”. But, when asked, “How much do we give?” the answer is often “too much.” There is no question that Australians are supportive of foreign aid. However, this support is shallow”, Corbett states.

How much aid Australia gives fluctuates depending on government. We had cuts under Fraser and under Hawke-Keating with a huge rise in aid under Howard, and no real change under Rudd. Now again, we see more cuts.

It is important to acknowledge, as Corbett says, that “aid does not exist in a vacuum”.

Factors contributing to fluctuations of aid decided by expert policy makers include the absence of the Australian population holding the government accountable, and the personality and interests of the ministers in government, which Corbett refers to as “court politics”. To say that one party favors foreign aid more than the other would be incorrect. Both parties have increased and decreased the aid budget. Aid is often vulnerable to huge gestures. In cases of natural disasters, public interest is high and while major cuts are made often for internal political agendas.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="How the US is upsetting the Asia-Pacific regional order"]

“Australians care, when they see images of natural disaster on the news they add appeals for support. But they don’t care enough for aid to be something that decides elections.”

Corbett spoke of three forms of legitimacy that ministers have aimed for in the past. The first was policy legitimacy. Aid can be used for multiple policy purposes, which means it can be used for political agendas. Corbett observed a pattern for new governments to cut aid when elected, and then later expand its budget the more time they spend in office.

Second is technical legitimacy, which emerged because of the belief that aid policy needs expert knowledge to be done well. Professionals crafting policy increases this legitimacy, but it also means that only a limited few have control of aid distribution. Because the budget is only controlled by a few and usually grows with more time the government spends in office, the budget is often considered too large and trust in the expert policy makers decreases over time.

The third form of legitimacy explained by Corbett was administrative legitimacy. This involves both policy development and program delivery. Both of these are pulled in opposite directions, as policy development is criticized from the outside, and program delivery challenges come from inside the government. When the two are balanced, the minister and government’s reputations are protected, and administrative legitimacy is achieved.

While identifying these three forms of legitimacy, Corbett also states that “I’m not saying you can look at policy in different points in time and say “at this time there was technical legitimacy, and this one shows policy legitimacy”and so on. At each point in time, aid will reflect a mixture of all. Legitimacy is a trajectory, which can explain the past, and influence how we think about aid in future.”

Corbett’s study of the history of Australian aid has shown that legitimate aid policy is almost impossible to achieve without participation from the Australian public. Balancing all three forms of legitimacy, each with their own aims and interests, has proved close to impossible. Australian aid is therefore passive to its fate of constant instability.

Shallow engagement of the Australian public is a key reason why aid is able to fluctuate with differing governments. A key question we can ask is “Would increased Australian public engagement stabilise aid?”. In question time, Corbett noted that this would be unlikely, and that instead, a holistic understanding how ‘court politics’, individual governments and domestic political contexts contribute to aid policy is more beneficial.  

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Interview with Professor Michael Wesley

Society and culture | Asia


Interview conducted by Catia Rizio and Mish Khan, written by Reza Mazumder. 

Michael Wesley is Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) and Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Wesley gained his PhD from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and his BA (Honours) from the University of Queensland. He was Assistant Director-General for Transnational Issues at the Office of National Assessments (Australia’s peak intelligence agency), from 2003 to 2003, Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University from 2004 to 2009, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy from 2009 to 2012. He took up the position of Dean at ANU in 2013.

Here at The Monsoon Project, we sat down with Professor Wesley to talk about his experiences as an academic and as Dean of CAP.


The Monsoon Project: What is your role as the Dean of the ANU College of the Asia-Pacific?

Prof. Wesley: I’m responsible for the community of scholars that occupies this college. I look on it as being the temporary custodian of a very proud history - the antecedence of the College of Asia and the Pacific’s stretch back to 1946. Generations of scholars and students have created what I think is a national and international treasure of resource. I see myself as being the custodian of that really important legacy and hopefully setting it up for another proud seventy years and beyond.”

TMP: Why did you come to work at ANU?

Michael Wesley:  After I started at the University of Queensland, ANU became a very big part of my life. Many of the books, articles and scholars discussed in my studies of government, international relations and Asian studies had come from the ANU. From then on, I always harboured a desire to end up at the ANU and did so in 2013.

TMP: Why did you become an academic?

Prof. Wesley: I came to university because I wanted to become a diplomat. The time I started at university was pretty exciting – it was a period in which the Cold War was getting really interesting.  In my second year I studied a course on Soviet Politics. It was at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power and the Soviet Union was instituting significant reforms.  You felt like you were studying politics as it unfolded.

In 1989, during my third undergraduate year, there was the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests. I still remember those days very clearly and events like this made my academic journey more concrete and real. By the time I got into my honours year, I didn’t really want to be a diplomat anymore since I really liked the research side of things.

TMP: In terms of your research, what sorts of recent developments do you find the most interesting?

Prof. Wesley: I think the big story of our lifetime is the re-emergence of Asia as the world’s centre of gravity- strategically, economically and politically. You get up, you read and listen to the news and there’s stuff happening that you people will look back on and study as a significant period that reshaped the world for us and our kids.

TMP: What do you find most rewarding in your field?

Prof. Wesley: Coming up against how little I know about the Asia-Pacific and how complex its history, society and cultures can be. The potential for it to surprise you constantly is always there. Who would have predicted Duterte and the way in which he conducts politics? Or how Philippine society and regional Asia is responding to his presidency? It’s something fascinating to watch. That’s just in Southeast Asia - you can look further to the phenomenon that is Xi Jingping in China.  It’s a challenge trying to find an intellectual construct to understand what all this means for the rest of the world.”

TMP: Speaking about challenges, how do you handle criticism as an academic?

Prof. Wesley:  If you’re not prepared to have people criticise or disagree with you, you don’t really have any business becoming an academic. I quite like people disagreeing with me because if it’s in the spirit of academic inquiry it provides for some of the most productive thinking you can do. If you have to defend a position from someone who has a genuine disagreement with what you’ve said or what you’ve done, then that’s a growing experience. It makes you think clearly in justifying what you say. It may even point out something you haven’t thought of.

TMP: What’s your favourite part about living in Canberra?

Prof. Wesley: I love the sheer natural and physical beauty of Canberra. Its sense of intellectual space and absence of pretension. I think Canberra is an open-minded city in ways in which other cities would think they are but really aren’t.

TMP: What do you see is the future of CAP?

Prof. Wesley:  The changing meaning of Asia-Pacific studies is most significant. Before, it was generally accepted that if you studied Western topics you were a generalist, but studying the Asia-Pacific was more of a niche topic. Today, Asia-Pacific studies are increasingly becoming the mainstream. This is exciting, as it means we will need to reconceive the way we see ourselves, making the case to the rest of the world that this sort of scholarship is path-breaking in understanding what the world’s future will be.

TMP: Finally, what’s an interesting fact about you that students might not know?

Prof. Wesley: I failed to learn Chinese twice. I first took night classes at UNSW but got too busy to keep up. My second time was when I was in Hong Kong with my family - my wife was on a diplomatic posting - but again I was too busy to continue my studies when I moved back to Australia. My wife actually studied Chinese at university and while on exchange at Fudan University for a year. My two boys are also learning it. I may soon have to face the fact that I’m the only person in the family who can’t speak Chinese.


We'd like to thank Professor Wesley for taking the time to speak with us. If you're interested, you can take a look some of Professor Wesley's publications here.

Image taken from the Annual Asia Pacific Year in Focus Lecture - listen to the podcast here.

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