A new focus on nation-building in Australia and Canada

Just as the world was heading towards a post-Covid-19 phase, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided another major disruption of international relations.

While the West was quick to impose economic sanctions, their long-term implications and whether they’ll curb Russia’s aggression remain uncertain. China’s support for Russia raises further questions about Beijing’s intentions regarding Taiwan.

In addition to great-power competition, Covid-19 and climate change, nations are living with the flaws of half a century of economic globalisation. Moving from one global crisis to another, states are increasingly looking inwards as they attempt to navigate a new world that places the post–Cold War geopolitical order in jeopardy.

Despite the vast geographic distance between Canada and Australia, they face similar issues in the heightened geostrategic significance of their northern regions, which are central to both nations’ resilience as first lines of economic, social and security defence.

The north of each country is sparsely populated, rich in natural resources, subject to wild weather variations and geostrategically significant, and both have indigenous communities challenged by economic, social and health issues. Economic responses are often outdated and ineffective.

During the Cold War, Canada’s north was key strategic terrain, while northern Australia was considered a strategic backwater. Their significance has aligned in recent years and a reinvigorated focus on nation-building is required for both to cement themselves as influential and prosperous multi-partner social, economic and national security hubs.

Australia hasn’t pursued ambitious nation-building since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme (begun in 1949 and completed in 1974), the Ord River Irrigation Scheme (1959–1963) and the Burdekin Falls Dam (1984–1987). These projects were conceptualised to deliver enduring economic and social benefits beyond the construction phase.

The big thinking of the past has given way to a narrower view of nation-building focused on the road and rail infrastructure connecting urban centres—and arguably an ill-founded belief in the market’s ability to deliver nation-building by default.

Of greater concern is that Australia is yet to appreciate the significance of nation-building as a geostrategic strength, particularly when we consider northern Australia’s strategic location and the potential for greater forward basing by Australian and allied forces, and for enhanced economic and trade relations with partners, including Canada.

But Australia’s north faces many challenges. We continue to accept disruption there as the norm, as when the highway and rail line connecting Darwin with Australia’s southern states was flooded for weeks. Remote and Indigenous communities were cut off and ran short of food. Road trains carrying perishable items had to take a 3,000-kilometre detour to deliver supplies.

We need to build and upgrade highways to withstand expected weather conditions. Not doing so is akin to treating the north like a developing nation—providing just enough focus and investment to achieve subsistence but not enough to drive economic prosperity, resilience and security.

A contemporary approach to nation-building rejects outdated thinking and invests in infrastructure that meets the challenges of harsh climates, creates social infrastructure and builds social capital to improve the economy, resilience and security.

But reconceptualising nation-building requires focused cross-government and cross-sector collaboration and investment. Such an approach would better position Australia to deliver on its AUKUS and Quad commitments, further enhancing relationships and positioning Australia as an equal partner rather than simply a convenient regional location.

This represents a big change from where we are today. The federal election is imminent, but we’re yet to see any shift in thinking from a ‘road and rail’ nation-building focus. This is perhaps not surprising; today, governments are no longer in the nation-building driver’s seat to the same extent as those in the past. Increasingly, industry and entrepreneurs capture our imagination with a vision of a future that’s more prosperous, cohesive and secure.

The Canadian experience is similar, but recent events give it a sharper edge. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Canadians have again become uncomfortably aware of their large and sparsely-populated northern territories straddling the Arctic Ocean and seemingly detached from their buzzing urban centres in the south. A lack of north–south infrastructure underlines the disconnection between the population in the south and the numerous, largely indigenous, communities in the north.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tasked Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna with creating a ‘National Infrastructure Fund to seek out and support major nation-building projects that will benefit people across various regions’. An example provided is the Newfoundland and Labrador Fixed Transportation Link.

Canada’s nation-building fund follows a similar theme to Australia’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which was established in 2016 to provide development finance for infrastructure projects.

Traditionally, Canadians tended to see large-scale and pan-Canadian projects such as the Trans-Canada highway, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St Lawrence Seaway as nation-building infrastructure projects of the past. However, in 2021, McKenna stated that the concept has gained a new meaning: ‘It’s not just about railway, bridges and ports. It’s public transit, cycling paths and electric vehicles that help us get around in [a] faster, cleaner and affordable way.’ That may be a broader focus, but it’s still an urban one.

As one of us pointed out recently, ‘Nation-building doesn’t sit well within political agendas because of short-term thinking often driven by election cycles.’ The West’s nation-building efforts in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan may have helped position nation-building unfavourably. Thus, the renewed political gaze towards the concept of nation-building reflects the public taste for large-scale infrastructure projects that have been lacking due to funding and time constraints.

This renewed political focus on infrastructure is very important to the Canadian north and Arctic given the Russian invasion of Ukraine and reinforces the significance of the Canadian Northern Corridor research program to investigate the ‘feasibility and desirability of establishing permissible corridors in Canada’. Being acutely aware of the difficulties of placing a potentially 7,000-kilometre-long northern corridor ‘on top of the Trans-Canada highway’, the research is focused on the challenges and desires of northern and indigenous communities across Canada’s provinces and territories. Taking a local perspective on large-scale infrastructure development corresponds directly with the current federal vision of nation-building infrastructure.

Nation-building in Canada faces serious scrutiny from scholars who raise awareness of the troubled relationship between the Crown and indigenous peoples, including the Inuit. The Canadian government has formally defined its relationship with Canada’s indigenous peoples in a set of principles. The document states: ‘The Government is committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit–Crown relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership as the foundation for transformative change.’

Northern infrastructure development is closely related to defence and sovereignty, and northern indigenous peoples offer strong local knowledge. In 2019, the Senate of Canada noted that infrastructure was a key asset for strong Arctic communities, which in turn are ‘vital to enhance Canada’s ability to project its Arctic foreign policy, including sovereignty in the region’.

In January 2022, the federal government offered a C$592 million contract to an Inuit-owned company, Nasittuq, to maintain the Northwest Warning System, a remnant of the Cold War that remains an important defence mechanism. The contract places the indigenous peoples of Inuit Nunangat in a key role in the defence and security of Canada’s northern and Arctic territories.

The challenges in Australia’s and Canada’s northern regions present synergies from which both countries can learn and potential avenues for bolstering their economic, social and geostrategic strengths. There are great opportunities for those Australians and Canadians seeking to nation-build, not just to jointly admire the problems, but to share lessons and innovation and to draw inspiration.