The Future Is Knocking on Australia’s Door

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief.

When I sat down to write my essay about Australia’s bifurcated approach to containing the Delta variant, I knew there would be scenes and insightful conversations that never made it into the article. I’d spoken to dozens of Australians across the country, seeking a mix of nuance and contemplation, and there are always moments you wish could be included. But one discussion came back to me this morning because it seemed to cover a range of the issues that Australia now finds itself confronting on the world stage.

I was at a winery in Margaret River at the time, enjoying a lunch with the CinefestOZ film festival, when I found myself talking to Miranda Otto, the actress currently starring in “The Unusual Suspects.”

She told me she was one of the many Australians who moved home from the United States last year, and now she was heading back. Her daughter wanted to return to school there. It was time to leave Australia. And, she said, it was time for Australia to look outward, toward the future, toward the challenges that must be managed and cannot be avoided.

“This is the past; this can’t last forever,” she said as we sipped white wine on a sunny patio in a state without any Covid cases. “It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous. But it will have to change.”

Australia seems to be reaching that same conclusion on a number of fronts.

First, of course, there’s Covid. Both New South Wales and Victoria — led by very different leaders from different parties who have spent far too much time sniping at each other — have effectively landed on the same road map for moving away from lockdowns as vaccination rates increase. For the first time since March 2020, many of us have begun to think again about traveling to see family overseas or having people visit “fortress Australia.” And, already, in both Sydney and Melbourne, there are shards of light cutting through the darkness, as some restrictions ease while vaccination rates continue to climb.

As Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and South Sudanese community leader in Western Sydney, told me: “Things are heading in the right direction.”

Second, Australia seems to be moving away from a nostalgic and simpler past with geopolitics. For years, Australian leaders insisted that the country did not have to choose between its largest trading partner (China) and its most important security partner (the United States).

But with the announcement of a new security arrangement involving nuclear-powered submarines designed by the United States, Australia has made a choice — security first.

As my colleague Chris Buckley and I wrote this week, Australia has essentially bet the house on continued American power in the region with what Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a “forever partnership.”

Long-term, it may come to be seen as a major inflection point for American alliances around the world, and for Australia’s own future role. At the very least, it marks the beginning of a new phase in regional strategy and a recognition that the past (not just for zero Covid, but also for great-power dynamics) can’t last forever.

Third and finally, there’s the big kahuna of climate change. The Australian government continues to officially resist the increasingly strong push for some kind of net-zero emissions target, and the country is still a global laggard. But this week, there were a few signs of recognition that resistance can no longer hold.

On Friday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg officially came out in favor of the case to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, warning that Australia would be left behind in the global shift to a carbon-free economy if it failed to commit to such a goal.

His suddenly ambitious and optimistic vote of support came on the heels of an investor revolt at Australia’s largest coal-fired power producer, in which a majority of shareholders demanded short- and medium-term emissions targets. And there was also the announcement that the plan for the largest solar farm in the world, in the Northern Territory, would be scaling up its plans by as much as 40 percent.

The shift that the entire world is in the process of making, however slowly, would still require a lot of catching up from Australia — which continues to subsidize fossil fuels. But there are signs change is afoot in the run-up to the climate change summit Cop26 in November.

In this case, I’m reminded not of my chat with Ms. Otto but rather an iron ore miner I met last month in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

“We all know we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done,” he said when I asked him about climate change. “Our government has fallen behind.”

Now here are the stories of the week.

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