Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has rattled the public debate, calling on Australia to embrace a “big and bold” population agenda to ensure the nation “can stand on our own two feet” in a period of increasing great power competition and to guarantee Australia’s independence.
The concept of a 'big Australia' is one that is bandied around periodically, often drawing varying degrees of feedback, ranging from adamant agreement to violent disagreement and concern about the continent's capacity to handle a larger population.
With various public figures arrayed on both sides of the argument, former prime minister Kevin Rudd recently entered the foray in launching an essay by journalist Peter Hartcher, titled 'Red Flag: Waking up to China's Challenge'.
As Australia navigates the often turbulent waters of growing economic, political and strategic competition between the nation's traditional security benefactor, the US, and its largest trading partner, China, many have sought to raise growing concerns about the latter's existential threat to the post-Second World War order Australia is dependent upon.
No stranger to controversy, Rudd has called for an open and frank conversation about what Australia needs in order to preserve its sovereignty in the 21st century, with a specific focus on a "big Australia" with a population of 50 million or above.
"Only a country, in my judgment, of a population of 50 million later this century will begin to have the capacity to fund independently the defence and intelligence assets necessary to defend our territorial integrity and maintain our political sovereignty for the long term," Rudd articulated.
A key point of both Rudd and Hartcher's thesis is best summarised by Hartcher and reinforces the former's reference to Australia's 'necessary' population growth:
"Australia and China have got rich together. For Australia, that is quite enough. But China’s government wants more. As much power and influence over Australia as it can possibly get, using fair means or foul. But ... what Beijing can get is limited not only by China’s abilities, but also by Australia’s will. In each case where Chinese officials or agents attempted to intrude, they met Australian resistance. And failed. For all its power, China is neither all-powerful nor irresistible. Australia can shape its engagement with Beijing," Hartcher explained.
Calls for a more 'mature approach' to the Australia-China relationship
Part of Rudd's calls for a larger Australian population is driven by what the former prime minister believes is Australia's need for a more mature conversation about the bilateral relationship and Australia's capacity to influence the direction in Australia's favour.
"Australia needs a more mature approach to managing the complexity of the relationship than having politicians out-competing one another on who can sound the most hairy-chested on China," Rudd explained.
Rudd's focus on this 'mature conversation' includes growing Australia's population to serve as both an increase in the economic potential of the nation and as a strategic deterrent to potential future aggression by an increasingly assertive and often recalcitrant Chinese regime with it's own economic, political and strategic ambitions for the Indo-Pacific.
This is best summarised by what Rudd describes as "a big and sustainable Australia of the type I advocated while I was in office.
"Only a country with a population of 50 million later this century would begin to have the capacity to fund the military, security and intelligence assets necessary to defend our territorial integrity and political sovereignty long term. This is not politically correct. But it’s yet another uncomfortable truth," he added.
While the population point is an important component of Rudd's thesis, his focus on a mature debate also calls for the nation to shake it's economic dependence on China, looking more broadly to other potential partners in the region, Europe and Africa as a means of limiting the potential for foreign influence.
"We have become too China-dependent. We need to diversify further to Japan, India, Indonesia, Europe and Africa – the next continent with a rising middle class with more than a billion consumers. We must equally diversify our economy itself," Rudd explained.
Maintaining the US alliance, but developing strategic independence
While Rudd believes that the Australia-US alliance is critical to the enduring success of the region and Australia's place in it, his growing rhetoric around developing Australian strategic independence is one that has gained growing traction in recent months.
Opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles usied the election to commit the ALP to conducting a new Defence Force Posture Review – the first such review since 2012.
Further supporting the growing need for strategic independence is Air Marshal (Ret'd) Leo Davies and Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown both joining the public debate recently, with Davies telling journalist Catherine McGregor, "Our existing naval and air assets may not be able to defend the country’s sea lines of communication — the primary maritime routes used by military and trade vessels — or fight a hostile foreign power."
Additionally, Dr Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has called for Australia's policy makers to recognise the limitations of the US in an increasingly contested, multi-polar world, echoing the sentiments of Kevin Rudd.
Dr Davies articulated this in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Rudd encapsulates and distills the premise of each of these experts, saying, "Australia must also look to mid-century when we may increasingly have to stand to our own two feet, with or without the support of a major external ally.
Australia's position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation's ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation's virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.