Reading New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's comment in Friday's The Age comparing US and Australian politics, I thought of poet Robert Burns' words, 'O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!' Only in this case, the mirror Friedman holds up makes Australia look pretty good.
Friedman contrasts the Australian consensus on the threat of carbon emissions - though with sharp debate on how to respond - with the US scene, where Republicans see it as 'political suicide to take climate change seriously' and where 'we've lost our ability to do big, hard things together'. He cites Malcolm Turnbull's comment that compulsory voting leads Australian politicians to 'target the middle ground' rather than appealing to the party base, as happens in America. He also alludes to Australian campaign finance restrictions (Swinburne's Brian Costar has written on this topic) as a tempering political force.
I met Friedman a couple of decades ago when I was working at the State Department's Japan Desk. It was a time when Japan, not China, was perceived to be '10 feet tall' and an economic threat. I've always found him an astute observer of the US, the Middle East and Asia. It seems to me that his judgment about Australia, informed by a visit here, is equally astute. Juxtaposed with Tony Abbott's comment in Friday's The Australian pledging the Coalition to 'work constructively with Labor' to implement a National Disability Insurance Scheme, Friedman's piece seems all the more compelling.
I recall that in the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democratic stalwart, teamed up with President Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon, to push through a historic rise in the minimum age for pension benefits that rescued Social Security. Last year, partisan squabbling over raising the debt ceiling - a routine action in years past - prompted an unprecedented downgrade in the US government credit rating.
This is not to say that partisan wrangling in Australia is not a danger - only to say that it currently is nowhere near as detrimental to the national interest as in the US. But if strong leadership is the analytic capacity to discern the steps needed for the common good, the courage to take those steps, and the persuasive ability to enlist constituent support, it's important that Australian political leaders exercise those capabilities and avoid the slippery slope from partisan debate on the national interest to partisan gridlock corrosive to that interest. Revisiting the issue of asylum policy on which Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Shadow Minister Scott Morrison were reaching out toward agreement a few months ago might be a good place to start.
It is imperative that our leaders, now and into the future, be courageous and collaborative in tackling global challenges like forced migration and climate change. The role of Swinburne Leadership Institute, to be launched on April 19, is to encourage strong leadership through public diplomacy, interdisciplinary research and teaching. This post begins our effort to promote rigorous discussion and debate on issues of leadership in Australia and its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.
I welcome your thoughts about this post and your contributions to the discussion.
Professor of Asian Policy
Executive Director, Swinburne Leadership Institute
Related reading: Swinburne Magazine: Democracy watchdog not alarmed but still alert