2021-09-24 07:06:36 The Future Is Knocking on Australia’s Door
The Future Is Knocking on Australia’s Door
The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter published by our Australia bureau. Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief, wrote this week’s issue.
I knew there would be scenes and insightful conversations that would never make it into my essay about Australia’s bifurcated approach to containing the Delta variant when I sat down to write it. I’d interviewed dozens of Australians across the country, looking for a mix of nuance and contemplation, and there are always moments you wish you could include. But one conversation stuck with me this morning because it seemed to cover a wide range of issues that Australia is now facing on the global stage.
I was at a winery in Margaret River at the time, having lunch with the CinefestOZ film festival, when I ran into Miranda Otto, the actress who is currently starring in “The Unusual Suspects.”
She told me she was one of many Australians who returned from the United States last year, and she was now on her way back. Her daughter wished to return to that school. It was time to depart from Australia. And, she added, it was time for Australia to look ahead, toward the challenges that must be met and cannot be avoided.
“This is the past; it can’t last forever,” she said as we sipped white wine on a sunny patio in a state where Covid cases were not available. “It’s lovely, it’s stunning. However, it will have to change.”
On a number of fronts, Australia appears to be coming to the same conclusion.
The first is, of course, Covid. Both New South Wales and Victoria, led by very different leaders from opposing parties who have spent far too much time sniping at each other, have effectively landed on the same road map for transitioning away from lockdowns as vaccination rates rise. For the first time since March 2020, many of us have begun to reconsider traveling to see family in other countries or inviting visitors to “fortress Australia.” And there are already shards of light cutting through the darkness in both Sydney and Melbourne, as some restrictions ease while vaccination rates continue to rise.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and South Sudanese community leader in Western Sydney, told me.
Second, in terms of geopolitics, Australia appears to be moving away from a nostalgic and simpler past. For years, Australian leaders insisted that the country did not have to choose between its largest trading partner (China) and its most important security partner (the United States) (the United States).
However, with the announcement of a new security arrangement involving nuclear-powered submarines designed by the US, Australia has made a decision — security first.
As my colleague Chris Buckley and I wrote this week, Australia has essentially bet the farm on the continuation of American power in the region with what Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to as a “forever partnership.”
Long term, it may be viewed as a watershed moment for American alliances around the world, as well as Australia’s own future role. At the very least, it heralds the start of a new era in regional strategy, as well as a recognition that the past (not just for zero Covid, but also for great-power dynamics) cannot last forever.
Finally, there is the colossal issue of climate change. The Australian government continues to officially oppose the growing call for a net-zero emissions target, and the country remains a global laggard. However, there were a few indications this week that resistance is no longer viable.
On Friday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg officially endorsed the case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, warning that if Australia does not commit to such a goal, it will be left behind in the global transition to a carbon-free economy.
His unexpectedly ambitious and upbeat vote came on the heels of an investor revolt at Australia’s largest coal-fired power producer, in which a majority of shareholders demanded short- and medium-term emissions targets. There was also an announcement that the Northern Territory’s plan to build the world’s largest solar farm would be scaled back by up to 40%.
The shift that the entire world is making, however slowly, would still necessitate a significant amount of catching up from Australia, which continues to subsidize fossil fuels. However, there are signs of progress in the run-up to the climate change summit, Cop26, in November.
In this case, I’m reminded not of my conversation with Ms. Otto, but of an iron ore miner I met last month in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.
When I asked him about climate change, he said, “We all know we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done.” “Our government has slackened.”