Australia’s Start to 2024 Sets the Stage for a Challenging Year

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Australia’s Start to 2024 Sets the Stage for a Challenging Year

At 2023 came to a close, Australia found itself facing a bevy of difficult issues both at home and abroad.

Australia’s Start to 2024 Sets the Stage for a Challenging Year
Credit: Unsplash

Despite hot temperatures and numerous, contained bushfires, the regular summer rituals of beach holidays and international cricket matches have marked the start of 2024 in Australia.

On January 6, Australia defeated the touring Pakistan cricket side in Sydney to win the best-of-five series (Australia won the previous two matches as well). Cricket and the teams who contest Australia every summer — Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, New Zealand, the West Indies, and England — are constant reminders of British imperial vestiges in the present.

In another imperial reminder, on Christmas Day 2023, the world learned that an Australian-born woman would soon be crowned Queen of Denmark. This has sparked much excitement in Australia and the humorous observation that Denmark will get an Australian head of state before Australia does when the former Mary Donaldson is crowned in Copenhagen.

This turn of events will provide food for thought when Australia’s new head of state, King Charles and Queen Camilla, venture to their antipodean dominion later in the year. With about half of Australians supporting the British monarchy, according to polls, this royal visit will no doubt spark debate on the likelihood of an Australian Republic. Since their marriage, the king and queen have been infrequent visitors to Australia. On the few occasions they have made the journey, Camilla’s struggles with jetlag have shadowed proceedings.

Royal jetlag complaints only serve the cause of an Australian Republic, but the prospects of such a change were seriously damaged by domestic politics in 2023. King Charles and the institution he now heads were, albeit indirectly, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the defeated referendum held on October 14, 2023, on whether Australia should constitutionally recognize an Indigenous Voice in its national parliament. The referendum was so resoundingly defeated, by a 60-40 percent margin, that the current government, or ones in the foreseeable future, will be reluctant to take another referendum to the Australian people. So King Charles’ role as the Australian head of state seems secure, for now.

Back at the Sydney Cricket test, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was a prominent spectator. Not only was Albanese raised close to the Sydney Cricket Ground, but his electorate is also close by, so the very local and the global mingled at this New Year cultural fixture. One of the stars of Australia’s side is Usman Khawaja, who was born in Islamabad and migrated to Sydney when he was four. Khawaja led tributes for his childhood friend and fellow cricketing star, David Warner, who retired from test cricket with the Sydney match.

The friendship between an Australian man from central casting (Warner) and an embodiment of the new nation (Khawaja), tells a positive story about Australia today, but also global turbulence barely kept at bay. Recently Khawaja attracted attention for his stance opposing Israel’s war in Gaza. He made prominent and emotional statements highlighting the death toll, particularly of children, in Gaza and wore a black armband for the first cricket test in Perth and then peace slogans written on his shoes that were both banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC). After the Sydney test match, the ICC announced it would uphold its ban after Khawaja had challenged it.

Khawaja’s stance shines a light on the divisions in Australia over the Gaza war. Initially, the Australian government stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel following the Hamas attacks on October 7 and maintained Israel’s right to defend itself. Then on December 13, Australia “angered” Israel by voting in favor of a ceasefire along with 152 other nations. 

The deteriorating situation in Gaza coincided with a High Court of Australia decision on November 8, that indefinite immigration detention is unlawful. This meant the mandatory and immediate release of at least 148 detainees, some of whom had committed serious offenses. With the High Court’s decision the opposition applied pressure by raising the specter of an elevated risk to Australia’s Jewish population with the detainees’ release; there has been a spike in antisemitic incidents since the latest outbreak of Israel-Palestine hostilities. The Albanese government scrambled to enact legislation passed on the last parliamentary sitting day for 2023 that would allow for detainees to be rearrested. So far, seven have been.

In a unwelcome turn of events, an “inert” explosive device was left outside the Sydney home of a Palestine supporter on January 8. The Gaza crisis and its implications for Australia will undoubtedly continue to impact Australia and its populace in 2024.

Albanese is unlikely to call an early election in 2024 given the hit to his government from the referendum loss and other stalling agendas, unless circumstances change significantly to favor the government. Australians are deeply troubled by the cost of living and the housing crisis, and the opposition, led by Peter Dutton, has capitalized on its successful prosecution of the “No” referendum campaign to inflict additional political pain on the government. Yet, according to one December 2023 poll, Dutton ranks as one of the least-liked and most distrusted politicians. Albanese’s stakes have dipped from being liked and trusted to now appearing on the negative side of the ranking. The most popular and trusted politician is Albanese’s foreign minister, Penny Wong.

Wong’s popularity and effectiveness extend beyond Australia, with her impact on improving regional relationships being marked since taking over the job as Australia’s leading diplomat with gusto in May 2022. This is particularly the case with Australia’s Pacific relationships. In November, Australia signed the Falepili Union Agreement with Tuvalu that allows for every citizen of that nation to migrate to Australia over time in exchange for consultation with Australia over defense agreements with other nations. Tuvaluans will go to the polls in January and the Falepili Union Agreement is high on the agenda. The Tuvaluan opposition objected to the secrecy of the deal, made only with Prime Minister Kausea Nanto, and argued that the deal would result in an immediate drain on professionals like nurses, who will readily migrate to Australia where pay far exceeds island wage rates. 

In December, Australia signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with Papua New Guinea that was downgraded from a treaty following pushback against the Papua New Guinea-U.S. security agreement signed in June. The latest initiative will have far-reaching reverberations in the Pacific if it is enacted, as it opens a pathway for foreign nationals to join the Australian Defense Force (ADF).

Despite the substantial upscaling of Australia’s defense investment over recent years, epitomized by the AUKUS agreement, the ADF is in the midst of “a recruitment and retention crisis.” Having trained personnel to manage the AUKUS acquisitions, especially nuclear-powered submarines, is also a concern spurring this radical departure from the status quo. The Pacific is a leading source for the proposal though there are only three existing defense forces in the region: Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga. However, the proposal will potentially offer defense careers to citizens of other Pacific Islands Forum member nations and territories, and beyond.

The bolstering of Australia’s forces in terms of personnel and materiel is driven by growing concerns about China. While Australia begins 2024 in better standing with China, with relations having thawed by a few degrees in 2023, the dangerous brinksmanship of China’s forces in the South China Sea promises ongoing focus and resources being poured into defensive measures.

Australia has felt itself on a sure footing with the United States under President Joe Biden, despite congressional Republicans balking at the AUKUS agreement’s measure for submarines to be sold to Australia and the sharing of nuclear secrets. At the end of 2023, Congress passed the necessary legislation to enact pillar one (relating to the nuclear submarines) of AUKUS. However, the prospect of a second Trump presidency is causing jitters in Australia, with one leading masthead publishing an editorial on January 7 contemplating the threat to AUKUS such a scenario would present. Despite these concerns, the Albanese government will insist that Australia will work well with whoever occupies the White House come January 2025.

The 2024 U.S. presidential election outcome will be watched anxiously from Australia, as it will be in every corner of the planet, but the work for the Albanese government will be to bolster its own prospects for it will go to the polls sometime before a 2025 deadline. The Albanese government needs to reverse its faltering support and deplete the political momentum the opposition gained with its referendum defeat. 

On New Year’s Day, a matter came to light that may be a useful vehicle to achieve this end, which touches on a variety of issues from the U.S. alliance to the mess in the Middle East, to the detainee issue in Australia and the country’s prejudice toward its Muslim communities that the Warner and Khawaja friendship diffuses. The matter revolves around 78 Cabinet documents dating from 2003 that were not handed over to the National Archives of Australia in 2020 as legally mandated for the annual 20-year release of documents every New Year’s Day.

The documents relate to the reasoning behind the Howard government’s decision to join the U.S. in its war on Iraq in 2003, a controversial decision that Albanese and many Australians opposed at the time, and one that has profoundly shaped the world order since. On top of this crucial insight into the Howard government’s 2003 thinking, is the question of why the Scott Morrison government in 2020 withheld these documents from the pro forma handover to the archives. Albanese announced a high-level inquiry, which is due to report at the end of January, and he said that Australia needs to know if there was an attempted government “cover-up” in 2020.

Former Prime Minister Morrison remains in Parliament, but it is the role of now-opposition leader, Peter Dutton, who was minister for home affairs and in a key decision-making position in 2020, that is potentially the most damaging revelation of the inquiry. The failure to hand over the documents may be due to COVID-era issues. However, Albanese’s news conference shows he is invested and no doubt hopes for political mileage from this highly irregular occurrence.

However the documents issue plays out, the new year lull will be short-lived as the government and Australians grapple with whatever 2024 brings.