Could Joe Biden be Australia’s wake up call?

What the new US President-elect means for Australia

Australia got really lucky over the past four years. For most of the past decade we’d been international outliers on a couple of key political issues: climate change and refugees. But lately, we’ve gotten away with it thanks to one guy being even worse than us.

We were one of the few countries that dismantled a carbon tax after going to extraordinarily painful lengths to set one up (thanks, Tony Abbott). And our asylum seeker policies had repeatedly been condemned by human rights advocates and the UN (thanks again, Tony Abbott).

The world watched on as a country that loves to project itself as laid-back, carefree and progressive became a role model for far-right governments on immigration and kept digging up and burning coal as the Great Barrier Reef eroded and bushfires choked our cities.

Then Donald Trump came along. Yay, we were no longer a global pariah!

Since 2016, it’s been much easier to mask our own retrograde approach to some of the most important issues of our time. We’re locking up refugees on Pacific Islands? Who cares, Trump is building a wall! We’re sending children born in Australia to Christmas Island because their parents are refugees? Who cares, Trump is putting children in cages! We’re not transitioning away from fossil fuels? Who cares, Trump is digging for oil and gas all over national parks!

Australians could feel more comfortable about our government’s inadequacies because we could look across the Pacific and be thankful Trump wasn’t in charge.

The fact that some of Trump’s most outrageous policies were directly inspired by Australia didn’t seem to have much of an impact. He was so boorish and impolite that even when our politicians were doing the same thing it just felt worse when he did it.

The other consequence of having a right-wing demagogue in the White House was that our government didn’t feel much international pressure to get its act together. Sure, we would occasionally be condemned by an international human rights body, or called out by more progressive nations on our climate change policy. But as long as the US, one of our staunchest allies and key trading partners, was staying quiet, we were all OK.

It worked out great for the federal government over the past four years. But now, with the projected victory of Joe Biden, things are set to change.

It’s too early to tell exactly what the President-elect’s policies will be. But in a couple of areas, we know he’s going to be taking a very, very different approach to his predecessor. And they both happen to areas of great interest to Australia.

Yep, you got it: climate change and immigration.

Biden is expected to roll back most of Trump’s immigration policies, including the infamous wall. Now I doubt that will automatically lead to some kind of revolution when it comes to our treatment of refugees or our approach to immigration more broadly. However, at the least, it will remind people that we have a uniquely hard-line and brutal approach to the issue. Instead of getting worked up about what’s happening overseas, we might look at our backyard.

Climate strike rally Sydney 2019
Protesters during a climate strike rally in September 2019. Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Climate change, on the other hand, is where things really get interesting.

There was a brief period where Australia, to put it bluntly, didn’t suck. Our government believed in climate change. It introduced policies to do something about it. Those policies worked. They were emulated overseas.

Then we got rid of them. And since then, we’ve been burying our heads in the sand, ignoring the growing signs of irreversible global warming and shovelling as much coal offshore as possible to make coin as fast as we can.

Most of the developed world leapfrogged us on the issue. But with the US, a close ally and one of the world’s biggest emitters, similarly in denial, we could get away with it.

Enter Biden.

There’s a lot to quibble with when it comes to whether or not his policies will do enough to seriously curb runaway climate change, but he’s miles ahead of Australia. He wants the US to emit net-zero emissions by 2050. We don’t even have a target.

Most significantly, his campaign advisors have warned that a Biden administration could actually use its economic leverage to impose new trade taxes on countries that emit a lot of carbon dioxide. That includes countries like Australia.

So it’s possible that we could go from a situation where we’re able to point to the US as a country that’s even worse than us to one where they’re economically pushing us into taking more action.

It’s a pretty significant realignment, and it further highlights just how out of step the Morrison government is with the global consensus.

It’s possible our government just refuses to acknowledge what’s happening in the US. After all, they were elected by Australian voters, not swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. While that’s possible, I think there’s a strong likelihood we see some shift, especially on climate policy.

If there’s one thing that unites all Australian governments, it’s their deference to the US. It’s deeply embarrassing this is what drags us into the 21st century, but if that’s what it takes… so be it.

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