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Election foreign policy debate ignores big questions

By Ordan Andreevski - posted Friday, 16 August 2013

The recent  Australian Foreign Policy Debate at the Lowy Institute in Sydney was a rare  opportunity for citizens and multicultural communities across Australia to hear the views of Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr and the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs,  Julie Bishop MP on important foreign policy issues facing our nation before and after the federal election.

The one hour event was broadcast on ABC News 24 and Sky News. But unlike the ABC TV program Q&A,  the Lowy Institute organisers did not permit viewers to post questions online or send questions via video or allow attendees to ask questions.  The questions that were permitted came from respected journalists Jane Hutcheon from the ABC and Paul Kelly from The Australian and Rory Medcalf from the Lowy Institute.

There is no doubt the debate would have been enriched if a wider section of Australian diverse society was permitted to ask questions and receive feedback beyond using Twitter.


In his opening statement, Lowy Institute Director Dr. Fullilove noted that Australia needs new ideas, new capabilities and more active engagement in foreign affairs based on Australia’s leadership role in the UN Security Council and the G20.

We learned that the Coalition’s top three foreign priorities include strengthening Australia’s reputation as a strong economy and liberal democracy, focusing on Asia and the Pacific and soft diplomacy through a New Colombo Plan.  Similarly, Labor’s top three foreign policy priorities include building on our relations with the Asia and the Pacific, building on our multilateralism and engagement in meaningful consultations both globally and in our region.

The debaters did not share Jane Hutcheon’s concern that Australia needs to prepare for less rosy scenarios than those depicted in the Asian Century White Paper.  Julie Bishop was of the view that the US-China ties and Russia-US relations are so interdependent that they can withstand periodic crisis. Senator Carr believes Australia can help settle disputes between neighbours through resource sharing agreements and diplomacy.

Senator Carr did not accept the concerns expressed by Kelly over the detrimental impact on Pacific nations caused by Australia’s new asylum seeker settlement arrangements. Julie Bishop on the other hand labelled this Labor’s greatest policy failing and accused it of failing to think through the impact of this policy.

Rory Metcalf concerns about the lack of understanding in Australia of Indonesia and vice versa and the lack of a sustainable relationship was accepted by Ms. Bishop. She noted that Indonesia is one of the Coalition’s foreign policy priorities and acknowledged that a gap exists in people-to-people and business-to business level ties.  Indonesians will be first beneficiaries of the New Colombo Plan. 

Senator Carr on the other hand stated that the levels of cooperation in defence, policy and counter-terrorism has never been higher with meetings between Australia and Indonesia taking place once every three weeks on average. Australian students are beneficiaries of the existing ‘Asia Bound’ program which provides 4000 grants per year at a cost of $47m.


Senator Carr rejected the argument by Hutcheon that more effort needs to be invested in improving Australia’s image as a foreign policy leader with capabilities and strategies to solve global problems. Senator Carr did not think that Australia’s image on the world stage has been tarnished by the current asylum seeker policies. He noted that Australia is perceived a creative middle power by all the countries that supported its successful UN Security Council temporary seat bid.  Julie Bishop stated that Australia’s image overseas is positive and the country is seen as a creative middle power.  How Australia lives up to its values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law will impact on its international image.

Kelly’s concern about Australia’s lack of sophistication in its foreign policy to manage future ties with  China and the USA was not shared by the debaters.  The Coalition believes that Australia should manage risks by engaging with India and Russia which are growing in economic strength and regional influence. Labor believes that we need to work with ASEAN and others on securing peace and using diplomacy.

The lack of readiness by both debaters to adequately resource Australian diplomacy to meet future challenges was a big disappointment to many Australians especially given the huge gaps that were uncovered in recent times.

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About the Author

Ordan Andreevski is Director of Australian Outreach, United Macedonian Diaspora.

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