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Ambassador discusses U.S. relations

Robert Singer | Thursday, April 23, 2009

With new administrations installed on each side of the Pacific, Australia and the United States will continue to cooperate on key economic issues while ramping up mutual efforts to combat climate change, said Dennis Richardson, Australian ambassador to the United States, Wednesday in the Mendoza College of Business.

Richardson began his lecture on “U.S.-Australia Relations and Highlights of the Country’s Green Initiatives” by describing how the transitions of political power in the two countries have influenced policy on climate change.

“Our election in 2007 was the first election we’d had in Australia – in fact, the first one in the world – where climate change was a central part of the policy debate,” he said. “Over the last several years we’ve had a series of rolling droughts. People normally think of droughts as affecting farmers. It’s one thing when farmers are complaining about the lack of waters. It’s another thing when city folk can’t wash their cars.”

The sting of Australia’s droughts served as a wake-up call to begin more aggressive action to slow down climate change, Richardson said.

“The drought was seen by Australia as Hurricane Katrina was seen by Americans – as symptomatic of something that was much greater,” he said.

Since President Barack Obama began his term in January, Richardson said he has noticed an increased effort on the part of the United States government to cooperate with Australia to lower carbon emissions.

“I went to see Lisa Jackson, who’s the head of the EPA, and I mentioned to Lisa, ‘I’ve been in my job almost 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve been inside the EPA,'” Richardson said. “It’s only been since the 20th of January that’s there’s been a government in Washington and a government in Australia that have a common philosophical starting point on these issues.”

Part of this shared focus, said Richardson, is the belief that climate change efforts cannot be postponed, even as much of the world’s economy slips further into a downturn.

“With the economic downturn, there’s a big public debate,” he said. “Essentially our government is taking the same line as Obama – you can’t allow the financial crisis to get in the way of solving a fundamental problem. So we must start making the economy less carbon based.”

Australia’s economy hasn’t suffered for the same reasons as the United States, but its export industries have nonetheless been hit by decreased foreign demand and the country will soon be in a recession, Richardson said.

“Our banks are in pretty good shape. Our finance system is in pretty good shape,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of our housing loans were subprime, compared to 15 percent of yours. Our banks are reasonably well capitalized. But because we are an open economy, we trade 20 to 25 percent of our GDP. So we are very much affected by the world crisis.”

Richardson also described his country’s interests from the perspective of the global economy, focusing on the fact that Japan or China are regularly Australia’s largest trading partners, while the United States is its eighth-largest source of foreign investment.

“There is an issue is strategy in the transpacific relations between the United States, China, Japan and India,” he said. “Those relationships are fundamentally important to Australia, because the nature of those relations determine the political-strategic environment in which we live.”