The Future of Democracy in Australia
Like many ageing democracies, the liberal values and attitudes essential for a healthy body politic have come under significant strain in Australia. Many fear political and social unrest is creating a more illiberal country.
The mood of voters has been one of frustration and alienation from traditional political parties - including the centrist Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party. Compulsory voting has tended to mask this trend, though a small decline in voter turnout has nonetheless occurred. This disaffection reflects a growing public sentiment that parliamentary leadership is self-serving, short-term, and incapable of crafting a hopeful vision of the future.
The marked failure to address climate change is a stand-out example for pessimists. Meanwhile the widening of fault lines in democratic governance is reflected in a corresponding decline of trust in institutions such as the church, trade unions, political parties, universities, the media, and banks - all of which have historically been looked to as emblematic of an open, stable culture.
Only about 8% of the population attends church weekly amid findings of institutional corruption and pedophilia, and trade unions and banks are widely perceived as vulnerable to corruption and the abuse of power. All have been the subject of Royal Commission inquiries in recent years.
The mainstream media, which must increasingly compete for attention with social media, is widely regarded as self-interested. Meanwhile universities are often deemed out of touch and preoccupied by revenue demands.
Like other countries, Australia has a long history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, which have been addressed by anti-discrimination legislation. In 2017, a plebiscite on legalizing same sex marriage saw about two-thirds vote in favor. There has also been widespread condemnation of Australia’s offshore detention of asylum seekers. While many Australians may share a perception that their country is often poorly governed, this does not necessarily indicate they are alienated from democracy - though it does call for more imaginative policies.
Overall, there is a perception that contemporary Australia is more fragmented, and thus vulnerable to the xenophobic, racist views of extremist political parties such as One Nation. Progressive Australians tend to see conservative nostalgia for a secure past that never was as nonsense; they see democracy as a dynamic process of backsliding and advances.
After all, Australians have proven more or less capable of successfully navigating the sort of economic and political upheaval that has racked other parts of the world in the past quarter century.
Australia's Multicultural Identity
Australia is a nation of immigrants. Though waves of immigration have been essential for progress, newcomers are being limited in number. Indigenous Peoples migrated to the country about 65,000 years ago from Maritime Southeast Asia and New Guinea. In 1778 European settlement began, with the establishment of British penal colonies. Until the mid-twentieth century, the country continued to be a British outpost; the end of World War II saw a second wave of European migrants, this time from southern and eastern Europe (as well as from Britain). With the abolition in 1973 of the infamous “White Australia Policy,” which had effectively barred people of non-European descent from the country, there has been a steady increase in immigrants from Asian, Africa, and the Middle East.
By 2017, nearly half the country’s population was either born overseas or had at least one parent born abroad. While English is the national language, an estimated 300 others (including Indigenous languages) are spoken in Australian homes; the most common include Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Italian, and Greek. Increasing numbers of schools are now providing instruction for children in at least some of these languages; the Australian National University now offers courses in more than 25 languages, including Mongolian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Tibetan.
The government officially has an open-door policy allowing people from any country to migrate to Australia regardless of ethnicity, culture, or religion. In practice, more than two thirds of the available places are for skilled migrants. In addition, with the exception of around 500 slots per year, sponsorship by relatives already living in Australia is required. Surveys of Australian attitudes towards multiculturalism have consistently registered overwhelming approval, and a belief that it makes the country stronger. This has not always translated into tolerant behavior.
Populist politicians have from time-to-time sought to stoke anxiety about certain ethnic groups, and have succeeded in ways that threaten to undermine Australia’s sense of itself as tolerant and generous. In 2016, a survey showed that one in five respondents had experienced discrimination on the basis of skin color, ethnic origin, or religion during the previous decade. The survey also found an increasing concentration of overseas-born ethnic groups in suburban areas, especially in Sydney and Melbourne - which could evolve into closed communities that run counter to notions of an inclusive and multicultural national identity, and may reflect a need to better promote the integration of new Australians.
Australia is a stable, democratic, multicultural, and multiracial nation. Its economy has endured throughout international crises, though nearly three decades of growth came to a halt in 2020 amid COVID-19. The pandemic has been relatively well managed, through a combination of good luck and decisive policy-making - and unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary support.
Debt levels have soared, but the prospects for recovery appear solid. Now, a diversification away from relying on natural resources - and towards sustainable energy technologies - is called for. Long-term planning for the environment, education, health, and housing has been hindered by political maneuvering, while challenges related to migration, the plight of Indigenous peoples, and gender equality are testing traditional values of tolerance and egalitarianism.
Australia is committed to the 2030 Agenda, including the SDGs and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development. Australia is committed to the SDGs as a universal, global undertaking to end extreme poverty and ensure the peace and well-being of people across the world.
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Australia's Digital Future
Australia has prioritized digital technologies, and aims to boost prosperity by maximizing private and public cyber capabilities. The country is trying to tighten its embrace of emerging digital technologies.
In 2016, the government launched an AUD 230 million Cyber Security Strategy to subsidize partnerships among the government, the corporate sector, and university research centers - both within Australia and overseas. Another aim is to develop resilience to malicious cyber activity.
In 2017, the national Smart Cities and Suburbs programme allocated AUD 28.5 million to schemes including the development of eco-conscious community spaces, more resilient energy and water systems, automated traffic management, and the reduction of urban impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.
In 2020 the centre issued a cyber threat report noting that while the cyber damage done in Australia to date had been relatively minimal, the constant upgrading of hackers’ techniques and tools, the proliferation of malware, and the failure of many Australians to employ even basic security measures could create bigger targets for cyber theft. The report described the growing incidence of ransomware attacks as one of the most significant security threats faced by the nation, given the potential impacts on the operations of government and businesses.
It cited the rollout of 5G networks and the proliferation of internet-connected devices (the Internet of Things) as adding to the vulnerability of the economy, which industry experts say already weathers related costs that are as high as AUD 29 billion annually. In order to help reap the potential economic benefits of digital technologies, the Australian government is funding tech-related projects to improve the liveability, productivity, and the sustainability of urban areas.
The Australian National University has collaborated with the Department of Defense’s Australian Signals Directorate to expand the qualified cyber security workforce, and the government has centralized cyber security resources formerly scattered across multiple departments; the resulting Australian Cyber Security Centre acts as a hub for intelligence gathering and sharing, publishes cyber security guidelines and a website with a free Threat Alert app, and provides free cyber security health checks for the country’s largest corporations and organizations.
The government says its goal is for Australia to be “a leading digital economy by 2030.” However, it remains unclear whether this warming embrace of emerging technologies will help the public sector achieve all of its related goals.
The Cost of Climate Change in Australia
The environmental impacts of climate change are already clearly evident in Australia, in the form of increased temperatures, a greater vulnerability of coastal areas, and the intense wildfires that claimed lives and displaced tens of thousands of people in 2019 and 2020. Climate change has exacerbated flooding and violent storms, and wrought more intense tropical cyclones. The country has already suffered from devastating related impacts.
These changes have exceeded natural variability, and their effects on agricultural production, cattle and sheep farming, water and energy supplies, and housing and infrastructure have been severe. Drought has dramatically intensified the severity of wildfires, and South Eastern Australia’s inland river system has yet to fully recover from being reduced to a series of sandy, shallow ponds.
Profound hardship has been linked to increased drought-related suicides and mental illness, especially in rural areas. In 2016, Australia ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, after submitting a self-designated target for the reduction of emissions by 2030. But climate policy has been subject to intense political squabbling - due not least to the high cost of restructuring faced by particularly fossil fuel-dependent constituencies and industries.
The Australian government has yet to commit to the net zero by 2050 goal. This could change, however, amid international efforts to increase climate ambition driven in part by the US under the Biden administration.
Australia’s government aims to phase out greenhouse gas emissions, plant a significant number of trees, mandate more efficient cars, and increase the use of sustainable energy. However, climate change researchers have almost unanimously condemned the government’s plans as falling short of necessary emission reduction targets. An independent group of climate change researchers and policy experts found Australia’s proposed emissions cut of 26% to 28% compared with 2005 levels is wholly inadequate to help keep global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels below 2°C. The group found that the target should be at least 50% by 2030, and 67% by 2035 - progressing to net zero emissions by 2045.
Experts say new initiatives are needed that maximize renewable energy technologies, and that can navigate political and financial obstacles - in order to offer a path forward that is built on more than just slogans.
Australia's Asian Century
There is a false notion that Australia must choose between closer ties with the US and functional relations with China. While its relationship with the US will remain the bedrock of its strategic policy for the foreseeable future, the US treatment of allies under Donald Trump created challenges; Australia’s hope is that a choice will never need to be made between a continued special relationship with the US and greater engagement with Asia. The country has much to gain from deeper ties to its Asian neighbors.
The backdrop for this is the notion of the coming “Asian Century,” when the region is expected to emerge as the world’s foremost economic powerhouse centered on not just China but also India. Over the past 20 years or so, these two countries have increased their economic size almost six-fold and tripled their share of the global economy. However, increased super-power rivalry threatens to impact Australia’s bilateral relations. Its economy is closely integrated with China’s even as its cultural, political, and strategic ties with the US remain strong. Navigating these connections presents challenges.
If this momentum is maintained, by 2050 Asia will be home to most of the world’s middle-class consumers and could account for half of all global economic output. As a relatively wealthy, stable country on Asia’s doorstep, Australia has the potential to make a greater regional contribution. Until recently, it was the only major developed economy with preferential access to all major North Asian markets.
Prior to COVID-19 Australia generally received more tourists from China than the United Kingdom and the US, and as of 2017 roughly 2.4 million Australians were of Asian descent, and most international students in Australian schools and universities were from Asian countries (the number of students learning an Asian language remains small, however). While the pandemic has dramatically disrupted these dynamics, they may resume once the crisis recedes.
Australian exporters have recently encountered new barriers to Chinese markets amid bilateral tensions. China’s massive Belt and Road initiative, which aims to link Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania via investment in infrastructure, presents tremendous economic opportunities. Still, Australia has elected not to sign on amid growing fears of increased Chinese influence on both domestic politics and strategically sensitive businesses. In the roughly 40 years since Gough Whitlam became the first Australian prime minister to visit China, the country’s relations with Asian countries have generally become more open.
Australia's Ageing Population
The Baby Boomer generation presents a fiscal challenge. The country is getting older, and its public health spending is on the rise.
Over the past thirty years, related costs have soared to the equivalent of 4.6% of GDP. Compulsory, employer-funded superannuation (saving certain a percentage of income) underpins the country’s retirement system, and the number of Australians 85 or older is expected to top one million in the next 20 years. Australia has the third-highest life expectancy rate among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, and its federal government is the primary funder of retiree services including pensions. Meanwhile a levelling-off of net immigration and a continued decline in birth rate will likely lead to a smaller, potentially less productive workforce.
The government’s budget policy-making is generally based on the census statistics in a report commissioned every four years; the 2015 edition suggested that Australians urgently need to be more productive, have more children, retire later, and maintain optimal health. It found that 7.5 million Australians were migrants, and that 29.7% of the population had been born overseas. While net overseas migration has been the major driver of population growth, the current rate of 1.7% is set to fall as low as 0.9% by 2066.
Critics of the 2015 report have argued that it incorporated a politicized misunderstanding, as there is not necessarily a relationship between population growth and higher productivity.
Other questioned assumptions in the report included the notion that there will only be a marginal net increase in migrants in the coming decades.
Nearly two thirds of all adults in the country are deemed overweight or obese, and associated ill health in the form of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer is increasing. However, some reports have provided a more optimistic portrait of the very elderly than what is assumed by the government - an estimated two-thirds of these people consider themselves to be in good or very good health, only 39% are overweight, and nearly half exercise regularly and eat adequate daily servings of fruit and vegetables.
One certainty is that the general health of Australians is poised to make greater demands on the national budget; prolonged medical treatments, increased demand for new surgeries, and the proliferation of costly pharmaceuticals are increasing expenditures. One question now is whether these attributes and healthy habits can be spread more widely among the rest of the population.