ESOC: Student Insight Part 2

By Akanksha Baadkar

Through the lens of an international student, attending this conference has been enlightening and rewarding in equal measures. The perspectives I grew privy to, greatly expanded my knowledge and also opened my eyes to the degree of discourse the Australian government and academia are willing to undertake and how this could be an example for other nations to follow.

This conference has also been a priceless networking opportunity. Working alongside fellow students, members of the University’s media department and interacting with various other attendees has been an absolute delight. As a business student attending this conference, I can definitely say I have grown richer from this experience.

The atmosphere in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt was charged on the morning of 20th July, 2017 as the Economic and Social Outlook Conference (ESOC), was about to commence. New Directions in an Uncertain World, was a fitting theme for the wide array of issues that the conference promised to address, with the spotlight on the post-Trump US–Australian relations among other pertinent internal matters. Many discussions across various forums, have tried to capture the broiling mass of change that’s engulfing global politics as of today, thus, this conference could not have come at a more opportune moment in time.

Thanks to my role at the media desk, I witnessed a steady influx of distinguished speakers, guests and media representatives to the conference venue. A curious observation, was the intimidating security detail at the conference. The venue was swarming with police officers and the AFP and all with good cause, owing to the extremely high profile nature of the speakers in attendance, like the Prime Minister himself, Hon. Malcolm Turnbull,  Minister for Foreign Affairs- Julie Bishop, Leader of the Opposition- Bill Shorten, to name a few.

In addition to representatives from the political sphere, the conference also drew expert opinions from academics and media stalwarts, promising a multi-perspective, lively discourse on each matter. Akanksha Baadkar

Monique Lau and Akanksha Baadkar at ESOC 2017
Monique Lau and Akanksha Baadkar at ESOC 2017

Carbon & Energy

The first session I attended, addressed the slow pace of Australia’s switch from coal to renewables and the current energy crisis. The panel consisted of The Hon. Josh Frydenberg, MP-Minister for the Environment and Energy; The Hon. Mark Butler, MP-Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy and Dr. David Byrne, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne.

Opening remarks covered an introduction to the ‘Energy Trilemma’ by Dr. Byrne, describing the three main aims of the government regarding the energy crisis i.e.

  1. The need to adhere to policies in accordance with Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.
  2. The need to provide stable supply of energy to households.
  3. The need to limit the hiking of energy prices.

Dr. Byrne also shed light on the energy market’s need to adapt to changes such as ageing coal fired plants and the implications of using Big Data.

Further discussion between the two MPs took on hues of playful repartee, as they expounded their views on the current energy crisis. MP Josh Frydenberg went first, identifying increasing gas prices as a major concern and citing a lack of transparency in retail margins for gas prices as the cause. He also addressed the main point of disparity between the current coalition and opposition regarding the various moratoriums that state governments have on gas supply, stressing that his party advocates the lifting of such moratoriums to ensure increased supply of gas to households.

Another pertinent factor in this discussion was the in-statement of Clean Energy Targets (CETs). Illuminated by Dr. Byrne earlier in the session, CETs are a technology-blind mechanism and will reward credit points even to coal companies if they adequately fulfill target requirements. Such a blind spot may ultimately expose the inefficiency of this mechanism. However, MP Mark Butler was in full support of establishing nationwide CETs, proclaiming this as the perfect opportunity to achieve a bipartisan agreement to a solution for the energy crisis.

Both ministers, however, did agree that it is time for Australia to cultivate a truly national approach to deal with the uncertainty of the energy and fuel market. Mark Butler reiterated that although there may be no silver bullet, a nuanced investment framework maybe the only long term way to ensure that both state and federal targets are satisfied.

Trump and Asia

The second and perhaps most awaited session at this forum, was one discussing Trump and Asia, with an illustrious panel consisting of The Hon. Julie Bishop MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Professor Ross Garnaut AC, Professorial Research Fellow in Economics, University Of Melbourne and Professor Michael Wesley, Professor of International Relations and Dean, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

In the past, the US has threatened unilateralism as a negotiation tool and similar situations seem to be taking shape today. Liberal multilateralism was identified as the need of the hour in the opening remarks.

MP Julie Bishop commenced her speech with an ode to US leadership in the post-Cold War era for its unwavering reliability and commitment to traditional western values of Free People, Free Markets. She also pointed out that Australia has been a beneficiary during the shift of economic power from the West to East due to such leadership from America. She acknowledged the two instances, where however, Australia disagrees with the US i.e.

  1. US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.
  2. President Trump’s stance on climate change and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, given that the US is one of the largest carbon emitters.

As for the role of the US in the Asian economic region, she explained that the trade relationship between US and Australasia remains deep, complex and multifaceted. Professor Ross Garnaut provided vital insights into the budding growth of populism, giving the audience a flashback into the days of the cold war.  He described the threat to the current liberal geo-political order as an evolving contest between democracy and authoritarianism revived by free market economy. His views indicated that Australian prosperity relies on maintaining open markets.

Michael Wesley expressed deeper concern regarding the prospect of Chinese Primacy in the future. His speech shed light on the likely scenario that China will achieve strategic ascendance and other countries in their economic region will either accept or resign from such Chinese primacy. It may be in Australia and its other regional partners’ best interests, to remind China of the benefits of stability and to placate US and avoid its bid for coercive primacy.

Julie Bishop ended the session by urging her fellow panelists to reconsider indices such as innovation, investment and currency, where US still reigns supreme, before prophesying Chinese primacy. She cites China’s authoritarian regime as its greatest hurdle to attaining strategic dominance among democratic partners.

Both these sessions were followed by engaging and thought provoking Q&A rounds that the panelists used, to give further insight into patterns of the past as well as possibilities for the future.