When President Obama touched down in Australia’s Northern Territory to announce a rotating deployment of US Marines it might have sounded like a strategic stimulus package for one of Washington’s dearest Pacific allies. For sure it was a shot in the arm for both the US-Australia alliance and the region’s hospitality business (think of all those defence contractors who travel on handsome expense accounts – see our Darwin feature on page 39) but it also slightly over-shadowed the spending spree the Australian Department of Defence has been on over the past few years.
Having boosted its heavy airlift capacity with c-17 Globemaster IIIs to shuttle troops and supplies to Afghanistan, Australia’s forces are also getting everything from new helicopters to uavs to more heavily armed land vehicles. The most high profile acquisitions however, come in the form of two Spanish designed and built (and Aussie modified) Landing Helicopter Dock ships. Technically HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide are classified as amphibious assault ships, which is a more PR-friendly term for aircraft carriers. While there is much that make these vessels less toothsome than vessels found in the US Navy’s fleet, their flat decks, versatile onboard vessels (loaded through a dock at the stern) and hangar facilities make them aircraft carriers in all but name. As the biggest vessels to ever fly the Royal Australian Navy’s ensign, the pair will suddenly vault Australia to the top of the Asia-Pacific league tables in terms of reach and capability. If Canberra goes ahead with a plan to purchase 12 submarines to accompany a host of other surface vessels, the biggest challenge isn’t going to be paying for these new systems but staffing them.
Australians like to talk breezily about how well they weathered the gfc (that’s global financial crisis) and credit a resource-hungry China for the nation’s booming mining sector. With a high school drop-out able to earn upwards of au$120,000 as a fly-in-fly-out truck operator or maintenance technician at a remote mine in the Northern Territory, the Australian defence forces are going to have to come up with some pretty slick and persuasive advertising to get young men and women to sign up for au$40,000 posts manning submarines and uav control stations.
So important is the resource story to Australia (and China) that the country now stages the most elaborate exercise in extreme commuting on the planet – with daily frequency. Never mind all the tens of thousands who work in the country’s mines, there’s a growing work force of pilots, flight attendants, dispatchers, cargo handlers and engineers all charged with getting miners, management and clients in and out of the back of beyond swiftly and safely. As our Hong Kong-based editor Liv Lewitshnick found when she travelled to the Pilbara region, Australia is not only riding a wave that shows no sign of flattening out any time soon but is also starting to do things on its own terms.
The dining tables at any given mine are a good example of this. Where the fare and coffee at an equivalent site in Alberta or eastern Russia might leave much to be desired, the starters and flat whites being served in places like Karratha could easily rival the daily offerings in smart cafés in Sydney’s Potts Point or Melbourne’s St Kilda.
As Australia’s chefs, baristas and vineyard owners have helped shift the image of Australian food and drink from a round of tinnies enjoyed after a post-work surf session. It’s now one that mixes the freshest produce and ethnic influences to create a culinary scene that’s unique to this particular mass of land stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Australia has managed to define a lifestyle that’s become increasingly attractive around the world – no small feat for a nation that’s still relatively young.
At home, Australia’s multicultural broadcaster sbs has played a vital role in not only fostering a different type of news agenda with its rolling international bulletins (see page 133) but also merging and amplifying the voices of Australia’s diverse cultures. In our most recent Soft Power Survey (see Monocle issue 49), Australia managed to rank fifth globally, thanks in part to the positive role played by its restaurateurs, singers, actors, sportsmen and tv exports. This or the next government would be wise however, to throw a little bit more money at arts and culture – and broadcasting in particular. In an era when China is expanding the reach of cctv with its cast of English teachers turned anchors and Al Jazeera continues to launch new language services, there’s still a glaring gap among satellite footprints for an English language broadcaster (with the addition of other languages over time) to become a voice for the Asia-Pacific region.
Monocle has argued for Australia and others to take up this role in the past but as the issue reveals, the timing couldn’t be better for a bold rethink of the current Network Australia service that bounces down to dishes across Asia. As the government dithers over what direction it should take and who should run it, they should do a bit of simple arithmetic and weigh up the hard power cost of one new fighter jet versus the soft-power benefit of having a respected news and culture channel that broadcasts an Australian take on the world around the clock. Canberra should keep investing in correspondents, bureaux and satellite time in order build its influence and take a more modern approach to international public diplomacy.