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Disarming the lifeboat - Australia's place in the world

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 4 May 2016

I recognise that election campaigns are mostly argued on the basis of local issues that have direct impacts on our community, such that the phrase 'all politics is local' is considered self-evident.

But some things are missed in our helter-skelter three-year electoral cycle. The biggest gap in our national conversation is the place of Australia in the world. Foreign policy takes a back seat during an election and, if it presents at all, it is as caricature—foreign wars, the nameless families who flee from them or massive defence procurements to meet undefined future threats. The rest of the planet is meant to form a sort of one-dimensional backdrop to our domestic drama.


Whether we like it or not, this is all going to change. Australia remains an island in geographical name only. In terms of culture, economics, security and, yes, even the weather patterns that threaten our homes or ruin our crops, our lives are bound up now with people all over the world who are also trying to build safe and prosperous lives for themselves and for their families.

The Greens understand that UN Security Council reform, or torture in West Papua or the bitter, endless siege of Gaza, are subjects unlikely to make it onto talkback radio or into the election coverage over the next few fevered weeks. Tragedies like the Syrian civil war may seem incomprehensible from this distance. They probably seemed incomprehensible to people watching from Calais or Lesbos as well, until suddenly there were tent cities and families piled up against barbed wire fences, and children washed up on beaches. Here in Australia the razor wire contains those fleeing the disintegration of Afghanistan or the unspeakable aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war—but nonetheless, the stories must be the same.

How we respond to those seeking safe harbour from collapse will ultimately bear directly on our own survival. As hard as it seems, we must leave behind the comfortable illusion that we are somehow separate; that we can remain insulated from the tides of nationalism and extremism rising around the world, or from the shock waves from wars our own government helped to start or from the collaborations of quiet convenience with authoritarian regimes who serve some temporary commercial end dressed up as the national interest.

Right now, the world is engaged in multiple arms races; from the military build-up in the South China Sea to the modernisation of nuclear weapons arsenals still deployed by a handful of countries in defiance of the overwhelming majority of the world's peoples. On a troubled, overcrowded and rapidly-overheating planet, these are arms races that our human family can no longer afford—money and expertise squandered on another generation of weapons whose use cannot even be contemplated. The real reason that we have to bring foreign policy into the heart of our political conversation is because the present generation of leaders are carrying us, seemingly helplessly, into a world in which there will no longer be anywhere for refugees to run.

In 2011, researcher Christian Parenti published a work titled Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence in which he visited failed and failing post-colonial states and war zones around the world's equatorial regions from Mexico to East Africa to the Golden Crescent. Underlying these widely dispersed conflicts and regional traumas and fragilities, he discovers the unmistakeable signature of climate change. It expresses not as a primary cause but as a forcing agent—a blowtorch of drought or flood or crop failure—held to fragile regimes and bureaucracies, edging them towards collapse.

In a dynamic that will be familiar to anyone who has come across The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Canadian author Naomi Klein, he also found the militaries of the world's most powerful advanced nations exploiting this instability for wider political and economic ends. It is no coincidence that the United States—which accounts for one-third of the whole world's military spending and has an unmatched, unparalleled overseas basing footprint—also has the most advanced and carefully considered scenario planning for when the 'Tropic of Chaos' spills across the border. Parenti terms this near-future scenario 'the armed lifeboat'. In the armed lifeboat world, the pinch points and edge places of global inequality are places of intense misery and perpetual conflict. Whether in occupied Palestine, in occupied Tibet, on the Mexican border with the United States or in our own benighted prison islands, nobody is really spared in this scenario. As the front-line diffuses and washes back into those places of privilege from where these armed lifeboats are piloted, mass surveillance of domestic populations morphs into soft authoritarianism, erosion of the rule of law and the kind of cultivated paranoia and division that accompanies the militarisation of civil society.

That is the world into which we are being led by those same leaders who violated the founding principles of the United Nations in their rush to unleash the invasion of Iraq, those same leaders who brought regime change to Libya but did not stick around to prevent its collapse into a failed state, the same leaders who assure us that all we need for our own national security is a massive investment in new military hardware and a tightening net of driftnet surveillance to distinguish ordinary Australians from enemy combatants who suddenly arise in our midst. We cannot seriously believe that the struggling fragile states around the 'Tropic of Chaos', and elsewhere in the global south, will collapse politely without consequence to the rest of us. Jared Diamond describes it in the closing chapters of his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The way he phrases it is that 'the rich world simply buys itself the privilege of being the last to starve'. We are all in this together and, in our interconnected age, we stand or fall together as a global community.

The tropical cyclone that hammered Fiji this February was the most powerful to ever make landfall in that part of the world. Australia, as a regional first responder, sent an Australian Medical Assistance Team, including 21 doctors, nurses and medics, who provided emergency medical care for more than 1,700 people. HMAS Canberra landed 60 tonnes of emergency relief and humanitarian supplies, helicopters and approximately 760 personnel, including engineers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. These are our neighbours and, when we were needed, we were there. In the aftermath of the great Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdowns, emergency services personnel from across Australia were among the first on the ground to join their Japanese counterparts in combing the wreckage for survivors. When we were needed, we were there.

Our overseas development aid budget, the softest target of all for lazy treasurers, is responsible for reducing infant mortality in our near region, for helping to conduct an election in Myanmar and for providing primary health care in Tibet. This is what global citizenship looks like. Prime Minister Bob Hawke's response to the Tiananmen Square massacre enabled 42,000 Chinese students to remain in Australia advocating strongly against the 'systematic repression of legitimate democratic aspirations' in China. His immediate predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, wrote the template for bipartisan consensus on raising the humanitarian intake to give safe harbour to those fleeing the war in Indochina. These isolated examples, rare but powerful, speak to the possibility of a new kind of international accord in which we agree, collectively, not to arm the lifeboats. Close to home, we all have local examples of solidarity and heroism in the face of disaster, whether in the midst of the Brisbane floods or the Victorian fires, when communities showed their true strength in defence of the collective.

Anthony Banbury was a UN assistant secretary general—a fierce defender of the organisation who also spares it no honest criticism. In a recent piece he wrote for The New York Times titled 'I love the UN but it is failing', he describes the organisation as 'a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world'. He then runs through a forbidding list of failures and breakdowns that hint at an institution that may no longer be fit for purpose. He said:

… these criticisms come from people who think the United Nations is doomed to fail. I come at it from a different angle: I believe that for the world’s sake we must make the United Nations succeed.

And so, in the teeth of an election campaign in which these issues are almost certain to be subsumed beneath more immediate concerns, we will be trying to provoke a discussion about UN Security Council reform. It is time we loosened the 1945-era stranglehold of the nuclear armed powers, whose lock on that institution now threatens their own collective survival. We will be making the case that human rights should stand front and centre in our foreign policy instead of being trampled under the imperative to remove the remaining democratic constraints on global commerce. We will be making the case that mass surveillance and global militarism are two sides of the same coin and that no-one survives if the lifeboats are armed.

Tonight, we are mourning the death of a young man who sought safe harbour from the tragedies that are overwhelming less fortunate parts of the world. We met him with despair and, as a nation, we failed him. Tonight, we are breathing in hope for the survival of a young woman who sought safe harbour in this country and met only despair—as a nation, we failed her. Imagine if we recognised these young people as family—not as metaphor but in truth. They are part of the global family in an age where there is no place anymore for foreign policy because we can no longer afford the delusion that anyone is so foreign to us that we would let them die when all they sought was safety. In the age of the 'Tropic of Chaos', as we decide whether or not to step irreversibly into the armed lifeboat, we must recall that we are all in this together; and it is time that we grew up as a species and started behaving like it.

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