Australia continues its year-on-year slide down the index, having been overtaken by Sweden and the Netherlands. The Lucky Country’s performance was mixed: improvements were made in the Engagement, Government, and Digital sub-indices, but declines were seen in Education, Culture, Enterprise and in the international polling. This year, both sides of government faced an uphill battle with the dual-nationality crisis – at least 15 MPs and Senators were removed from office for violating a rule that prohibits them from being dual nationals. This caused mayhem with the balance of power, and the Turnbull government faced losing its majority when former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was implicated. Despite these distractions, Australia cracked the top-10 in the Government sub-index, with impressive scores in human development and freedom. And there are encouraging signs that this trend will continue, with the government investing more into its soft power. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper dedicated a chapter to Soft Power and Partnerships, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) now boasts a ‘Soft Power, Communications & Scholarships’ division. And having long advocated for a more strategic approach to digital diplomacy – especially as geographic and demographic restraints can often hinder Australia’s ability to engage internationally – we were also pleased to see a rise in the Digital sub-index. These are welcome steps to ensuring that Australia avoids falling out of the top-10 in 2019.
Despite a small fall, Australia’s strongest performance is once again in the Education sub-index. The country proudly hosts more international students than anywhere outside of the US and UK, and the numbers keep rising. With the economic impact of international students estimated at A$28 billion in 2016-2017, the Australian government should work to ensure the boom is sustainable. It is critical that the rise in student numbers isn’t undermined by bad experiences and lack of capacity.
Australia fell down a significant seven places in the Enterprise sub-index, and out of the top-10. In 2015, the Turnbull government announced a $1 billion investment in promoting business-based research, development, and innovation. However, the “ideas boom” appears to have stagnated and if Australia hopes to reclaim its Enterprise ranking, the government may need to revaluate how and where this money is being spent.
For the third year in a row, Australia has fallen in our international polling. While still in the top-10 and still very much well-regarded around the world, it is important not to let this slide too much further. Australia’s reputation as an open, laid-back, friendly, and multicultural society is one of the jewels in its soft power crown. If Australia hopes to continue to benefit from international tourists and students, all efforts should be made to maintain positive perceptions abroad.