It's heartening our year in lockdown has not fed a more nativist streak among Australians

Peter Lewis
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP</span>
Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP

In a strange twist in the year of the pandemic, the notion of border protection has been transformed from a crude political dog whistle into an effective public health measure.

Australia’s willingness to shut down our borders hard and early delivered relative safety for our island nation as well as a significant political dividend for a Coalition government who long ago mastered the art of pitting its citizens against faceless others.

This politics of border protection has long been fraught, from the moment in 2001 John Howard turned back the Tampa on the grounds we decide who comes into this country, thus drawing attention away from the rising tide of economic globalisation.

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Impotent in defending Australian industry and jobs as the tariff walls fell while actively courting skilled immigrants, the scapegoating and demonising of asylum seekers as “illegals” became a fig leaf that flipped class politics into the culture wars.

Twenty years on, the projection of strength on our borders remains salient, as can be attested by the 200 remaining souls stuck in purgatory on Manus Island along with our global human rights reputation.

But in a year when restriction of movement was the only viable strategy to quell the coronavirus, Australia’s submission to border controls as a collective protective measure has transcended partisan lines.

Now, as Australia surfaces from its year of lockdown, edging towards virus-free while most of the world remains stricken, we face a choice: to seek refuge and safety behind our blue wall or recognise that the pandemic has shown we are more interconnected than ever.

Thinking now about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the world, which of the following statements is closest to your views?

When forced to make that choice, a bare majority of Australians want to see a reassertion of our nation state, but this is clearly not as clearcut as one might predict. For every person who prioritises the national, there is another who would privilege the global – across age and gender and partisan leaning the split is reasonably consistent. The only notable difference is the globally minded Greens and the more nativist independents.

This feels a fair reflection of the in-out conundrum. We appreciate the value of strong local institutions and want to see a more independent local economy at the same time as recognising that what happens elsewhere does affect us.

I think it is heartening that our year in lockdown has not fed a more nativist streak among Australians, that the default of a significant majority is not to see our success in vindicating isolationism.

This gives a Coalition government keen to get the economy moving by reopening the tertiary and tourism sectors and restarting a growth by immigration strategy, something to work with.

But this shift outwards won’t happen in a vacuum. It is here that other responses in this week’s Guardian Essential report lay down a gauntlet, with a significant shift in attitudes to action on climate change.

To what extent would you support or oppose the following policy proposals if they were adopted by the Federal Government?

Support for zero-carbon targets are up 10 points from January, when much of Australia was ablaze, with even larger shifts in support for measures to reduce the power of mining companies. These shifts take issues of majority support into the “overwhelming” category and lay bare the tin-eared internal manoeuvrings of what passes for an energy debate in Canberra.

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With a Joe Biden presidency ready to re-embrace climate action, the Morrison government risks being isolated in a minority of one as the rest of the world moves forward. Deploying a “fortress Australia” approach to energy policy will set Australia outside the global mainstream. Although unlike the virus, not in a good way.

And just to reinforce the “open Australia” proposition, we have tracked support for our currently parsimonious spending on foreign aid in the net positive for the first time since we began polling the issue in 2011. The movements may only be incremental, but the balance has shifted.

Do you think Australia spends too much or too little on foreign aid?

Politically, foreign aid has been the boulevard of broken dreams for as long as progressives have campaigned for Australia to share its wealth with our neighbours. For poll-driven politicians, it has always been the pain-free thing to cut when budgets are tight.

But having committed to spending $1.1bn on distributing vaccines to the region – and supporting regional recovery – just a few weeks ago, a commitment that delighted and surprised advocates, we may be seeing the developing of a more engaged regional strategy.

Sometimes with polling it’s hard to distinguish the signal from the noise, but lining these figures up it seems to me that Australians are ready to re-engage with the world, secure that our borders will keep us safe but realistic enough to accept that we can never be just an island.

Maybe as we come out of lockdown we are ready to raise our gaze a little further than the slogans and strike the balance between national sovereignty and global responsibility.

  • Peter Lewis will discuss the findings of the latest Guardian Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm today. Free registration here.