Strangled by cynicism and world-weariness

Australia’s responsiveness to global problems has slipped badly

Refugees fleeing war-ravaged Europe arrive by ship in Australia after World War II. PHOTO Keith Woodward/Australian National Maritime Museum

Refugees fleeing war-ravaged Europe arrive by ship in Australia after World War II. PHOTO Keith Woodward/Australian National Maritime Museum

Australia would rate pretty well as a citizen of the world if the sole measure of that was being open to the global market. With protectionism on the rise, fuelled by vanishing jobs and anger about the excesses of multinational corporations, Australia gets top marks for its open economy.

That’s the good news, but we’re dragging our heels against other measures of global citizenship, including our response to the principle of human rights, which dictates that everyone should be treated decently.

Human rights came under a spotlight this month when three investigations, by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Amnesty International and the ABC’s Four Corners, independently targeted the heartbreaking plight of around 50 child refugees on the island nation of Nauru.

They are among over 1200 asylum-seekers corralled there or on Manus Island (PNG) for trying to get to Australia by boat. They were then ungrateful enough to decline government requests that they resettle in Cambodia or return to the country they fled from.

Fifteen years of partisan one-upmanship have hardened the government authorities pulling the strings. They claim that the distressing reports coming out of these remote centres are nothing to do with them, then in the same breath argue that this is a small price to pay for stopping the boats.

Their continuing regime of secrecy, subterfuge and sleight-of-hand, with its bland indifference to the detainees’ nightmare of permanent uncertainty, is a deep and abiding shame for Australia.

We do a lot better with refugees arriving via “proper” UN channels, ranking third on resettlements per-capita behind Norway and Canada. But even there our standards are slipping. Refugees comprised above 5 per cent of total immigration in the 1990s; today they’re just 3.2 per cent.

The toughest of all measures of global citizenship is climate policy. Last year’s Paris Agreement calls on us and the other 190 signatory nations to achieve results not just for this generation, but for generations to come – decades and even centuries ahead. That takes real vision.

Australia is not short of people with vision, including some in government service. Over the past 10 years Australian diplomats and scholars have played a big part in the long, painstaking task of developing international carbon mitigation instruments.

One of these is Howard Bamsey, a Canberra-based academic and climate policy specialist, who has been co-chair of the UN’s Dialogue on Long-term Cooperative Action on Climate Change and Australia’s climate change envoy under Kevin Rudd.

A fortnight ago Bamsey landed one of the toughest gigs on the planet: executive director of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, based in South Korea. Next week the Paris Agreement enters into force, and this agency has a pivotal role in making it work.

Bamsey must ensure that richer countries honour their pledges to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate change. He also has to get money now available flowing into the 100-odd projects in the pipeline. So far the fund has disbursed just $5.4 million.

The EU, the US, China and 81 other countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, which means it becomes legally binding on Friday week. The whole process took less than 11 months – as against nearly eight years for the Kyoto Protocol. Australia, which hasn’t ratified, remains out in the cold.

Despite government claims, Australia’s 2030 emissions target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels is well below what multiple authorities, including the Climate Change Authority in 2015, contend would be a fair contribution to keeping the world below 2C.

For half a century Australia was a leading player in the UN. We strongly backed its conventions on human rights and refugees, we took in war refugees from Europe and Asia, and we were leading players in a succession of UN environmental and climate conventions.

But all that took a hit when John Howard rejected Afghan boat people and then refused to ratify the Kyoto climate protocol. His was a vote for world-weary, self-serving cynicism over youthful enthusiasm.

That narrow cynicism prevails, and it’s strangling the life out of our country.

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