Australia’s International Awareness: What Do You Know?



Foreign policy is typically thought of as the domain of the elite. While domestic policy changes are fiercely debated within the Australian community, foreign policy attracts less attention. Perhaps this is because foreign policy is seen as having less direct impact upon the everyday lives of the Australian population. The ease with which the aid budget has been cut in the past two years is testament to this fact. I argue that this should not be the case. An informed, worldly citizenry would be better able to hold government to account for its foreign policy and ensure that actions taken are in the best interests of the population. Foreign policy does have major implications for Australians, and so should not be a problem for the policy elite alone. The remedy here is education. Let us look at how well Australians are educated about international issues and our immediate region, and the domestic efforts that are being made towards creating an internationally aware Australian public. The United States is often the target of jokes about perceived geographical ignorance. I’m sure many of us will remember the Chaser’s satirical report highlighting this stereotype. The 2006 Survey of Geographic Literacy in the US found that half of young Americans could not find New York on a map. Would Australians do any better? Each year The Lowy Poll surveys the attitudes, opinions and knowledge of Australians regarding international affairs. Its stated aims are to change the view that foreign policy is the “sole preserve of elites and experts”, and to provide decision-makers with information on Australian public opinion regarding key international issues. The 2015 edition has just been released. The polls generally indicate a good level of engagement with international issues, but there are some major gaps in collective knowledge. In 2014, 46% of Australians did not know or had no view on United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. 64% did not know Chinese President Xi Jinping, and half did not know Aung San Suu Kyi. This year’s poll shows that 42% did not know who Joko Widodo was, 59% had never heard of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and 66% were unfamiliar with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2013, only 33% of Australians believed Indonesia to be a democracy. In 2015, that figure has barely changed, rising minutely to 34%. Then there is the widely quoted Newspoll report that 30% of Australians (in 2013) did not think that Bali was part of Indonesia. These responses indicate a level of ignorance within Australian society of Australia’s international environment, and key figures and current issues in international affairs. It demands a closer inspection of Australian efforts to educate its population on Australia’s place in the world and international affairs more broadly. Australia does have an active civil society focused on foreign affairs, but its audience remains small. There exist a variety of community groups, NGOs and think tanks that seek to engage Australians on international issues and provide a forum for those interested in particular topics or countries. NGOs and think tanks such as Lowy, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Australian Institute of International Affairs and of course Young Australians in International Affairs seek to produce quality research, provide forums for discussion and encourage debate in the wider community. Many Australian universities have excellent international relations programs. The major challenge is to reach out to those who may not typically be interested in international affairs. I would argue that youth are the most important demographic to target. To produce a worldly, internationally literate citizenry in the decades ahead, knowledge and interest in foreign affairs must be encouraged from an early age. Young people must be made aware of the opportunities available to the internationally minded, and the topic area must be made fun, interesting and engaging. School visits from think tanks and NGOs are a great way to increase interest. Similarly, overseas study tours during school years expose young people to the different cultures, societies and opportunities available beyond Australia’s borders. International, grass roots sporting exchange is another largely untapped avenue for creating internationally aware and engaged citizens. The study of languages other than English is also immensely important in ensuring that young Australians are aware of foreign cultures. The study of a second language allows students to see the world from another perspective and to closely engage with another society and culture. Compared to the rest of the world, Australia is lagging behind in this area. In 1968, 44% of Australian students studied a second language in Year 12. By 2006, that figure had decreased to 10.3% according to a recent Australian Education Review. While the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools is increasing, the review finds that the quality of and time spent on instruction remain low. Importantly, the newly developed Australian National Curriculum includes mandatory second language study for all students from the start of primary school to year ten countrywide. The national curriculum is currently in the process of being rolled out, but is not yet in full swing. Victoria remains the only state with a target of 100% compulsory second language education from Prep to Year 10 by 2025. The National Curriculum includes 11 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Indonesian, French and German. The rationale provided for the study of languages in the National Curriculum perfectly communicates why this activity is so important. It cites the development of “intercultural capability” as a key outcome. It states that language learning “develops understanding of and respect for diversity and difference”, qualities that are vital in a multicultural society such as Australia. It also stresses the benefit of language learning in regards to strengthening of social, economic and international development capabilities. It is fantastic that the National Curriculum recognises the immense benefits of language learning in creating more culturally sensitive and worldlier citizens, but it remains to be seen how these noble aims will play out in practice. Geography is a similarly important subject that has rightly been included in the new curriculum. This subject aims to instill in students “a sense of wonder, curiosity and respect about places, people, cultures and environments throughout the world”. It of course teaches geographical knowledge, the kind that would prevent Australians from thinking that Bali is a country in its own right. Finally, it is meant to create an informed, active and responsible citizenry capable of contributing positively to our shared future. Second language teaching and the study of geography aren’t going to motivate every young Australian to take an active interest in international affairs, but this is a good place to start. The government has a role to play in educating Australians through public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is usually targeted at foreign populations; it is a tool for the Australian government to create a positive image of itself overseas, and to build an understanding of Australian values and interests within other countries. The government’s public diplomacy activities do also have a domestic element. DFAT’s 2014-2016 Public Diplomacy Strategy lists as two of its goals improving domestic understanding of DFAT’s role and fostering people-to-people and institutional links within government and society more broadly. The department conducts “public diplomacy at home” by engaging with diaspora communities in Australia and driving youth engagement through exchange programs overseen by Foundation Councils and Institutes. I propose that this domestic focus could be greatly expanded, especially regarding youth engagement. Although non-traditional in the Australian context, public diplomacy could be expanded to set up youth education and engagement programs generating greater interest in international affairs, overseas travel and cultural exchange. This would ensure that foreign policy is better understood and more accessible across all areas of Australian society. This kind of impact is prevented due to a range of funding issues and the absence of prioritisation of public diplomacy as a policy instrument. Alex Oliver of the Lowy Institute reports that public diplomacy in Australia is considered – even by insiders – to have been “relegated to a level of importance equivalent to that of Embassy gardens”. Bond University’s Caitlin Byrne similarly critiques the program, albeit a little less sarcastically. She argues that there is no link between public diplomacy and DFAT’s broader strategic policy aims. The entire public diplomacy program was assigned only around $29 million for 2014-15, representative of the scant consideration it is given. Domestically, Australians are oblivious to the benefits of public diplomacy. A 2007 Senate Committee investigation into the topic found that public diplomacy is underutilised in Australia, and concluded that most Australians do not even know what it is. There is clearly room for improvement. Public diplomacy could be used as a tool to create a more internationally minded community and to fill leadership positions with people who possess an international mindset and who understand how interconnected our world now is. It is an investment in Australia’s future. It will place Australia in a much better position to tackle the international and global problems that we will face in coming decades. It will help to broaden the narrow view that many currently hold and instill a perspective that looks out, as well as in. Australia’s future is unavoidably tied to its regional and global partners, and we have to be prepared for this challenge. To improve we need a multi-sector, society-wide effort, encompassing education, government-driven awareness raising and engagement, and beyond. Lets equip our people with the skills and knowledge they need to pursue international engagement on their own initiative; a small investment will bring big foreign policy results in the long term. Sebastian McLellan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image Credit: Paul D'Ambra (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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