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Australia as a good international citizen

By Keith Suter - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001


John Howard should make all Australians feel proud to be Australian. This means returning to making Australia a "good international citizen".

In a broader sense, the challenge is to help Australians understand the new global order in which we live. We cannot return to some form of "fortress Australia". For better or worse, we are destined to live on this small planet with about 200 other countries – and so we need a new set of planetary ethics to cope with the new era.

Australians themselves need a sense of ownership of our country being a good international citizen. It should not be imposed upon them.

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Foreign policy begins at home. Instead of there being a competition among elite opinion makers to change foreign policy, it is important to create a broad groundswell in support of a more just foreign policy. If there is no broad support for such a policy, then the policy becomes a victim of temporary and panicky political fashions.

This happened in the November 11 federal election. John Howard particularly targeted the "aspirational" – lower middle class – voters in the marginal seats. They evidently did not agree with, among other things, the importance of accepting refugees, providing foreign aid (which all the main political parties ignored), supporting the United Nations and protecting human rights overseas.

The election was a blow to those of us in non-governmental organizations that had campaigned on these issues over the years. We had not managed to sink deep roots among those people. As the "Tampa" sailed in, so the tide washed away our years of effort. What little was left standing was blown over on September 11.

It is not just the ALP that ought to be reviewing its policies – non-governmental organizations ought also to be reviewing their practices of how they reach the general public.

It is not enough simply to bewail the "racism" evident in the last election, or to complain about the lack of vision and generosity of the "aspirational voters", or to criticize the politicians seeking to get votes by less than noble means. That’s life. That’s how elections get fought.

Instead of looking at the "supply" of policies – it is first necessary to look at the "demand" from the consumers (voters).

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I have written elsewhere about the need for Australia to be a good international citizen and to come to terms with the challenge of globalization so as to make the most of it. The purpose of this article is to look at some of the practicalities for creating more support among the general public for such a policy – to change the nature of the "demand" from the consumers.

First, there needs to be a decision by the Government that Australia should be a good international citizen – and that this needs to be conveyed to all citizens. We live in an interdependent world and so Australians need to think through how to make the most of the new global era.

Second, there is the lesson from Scandinavia about development education and the level of foreign aid: these countries provide the world’s highest level of foreign aid (on a per GNP basis) and have had over three decades of providing education in schools on Third World matters. There is far less controversy in those countries as to why foreign aid is provided. It is just something that gets done. There is an air of community expectation that the aid will be provided.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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