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Freaky Friday foreign policy reboot

By Susan Harris Rimmer - posted Tuesday, 12 November 2013


'Australia is open for business' Tony Abbott has boomed on several occasions, both to a domestic audience on election night, and in international forums, most recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Bali APEC Summit.

Everything is certainly new in Australian foreign policy as of November 2013 – we have a new Foreign Minister in Julie Bishop, the first female foreign Minister. We have a new Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development in Tanya Plibersek, also the first female foreign policy spokesperson for the ALP, and the first to add International Development to her title. Two Deputy Leaders, two potential Prime Ministers, both women with formidable intelligence and work ethic. For those of us who care about both foreign policy and women in leadership, it is Christmas come early.


In the junior portfolios are Senator Brett Mason (who was shadow universities spokesperson) and as shadow, Senator Matt Thistlethwaite (formerly parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs after Richard Marles was caught up in the Gillard-Rudd leadership spill). They should be both bursting to show their talent. In the Trade portfolio, a battle of epic proportions should be played out by tacticians Minister Andrew Robb and Shadow Penny Wong.

We have a new structure for the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade as of 1 November, incorporating the budget and staff of the agency formerly known as AusAID, along with serious cuts to the aid budget which may affect our ability to project soft power.

We have a new geographic focus on the 'Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific' region, wider than the Asia-Pacific under the previous government. This includes the Indian Ocean Rim states bordering the Indian Ocean, an arc extending from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.

Our philosophy is new - we now focus on 'more on Jakarta, less on Geneva' which is shorthand for a preference to focus on bilateral relationships in the region shaped around trade and business ties rather than multilateralism and norm entrepreneurship at the global level (for example, Gareth Evans shaping the Responsibility to Protect doctrine at the UN, Rudd and the Asia-Pacific Community idea).

Our standing is new – Australia is used to working as middle or pivotal power, and trying to 'punch above our weight'. Now the Abbott Government finds itself on the United Nations Security Council until next December and the host of the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane in November 2014. Australia is the 12th largest economy in the world, out of 193. That is not the middle. Not even close. These are forums where real power is wielded, and new global orders are shaped. The ALP has thrust greatness upon the Coalition in foreign policy terms.

Our diplomatic style has remained fairly pragmatic but perhaps out of touch with this new power standing. When we don't send a minister to climate negotiations, or our minister does not attend his final press briefing at the G20 Summit, these days we look arrogant rather than amateur. Messages meant for our domestic election campaigns affect our neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia in a manner that is taken far more seriously since the Asian Century white paper and the US pivot to Asia-Pacific. DFAT has a particularly strong Secretary in Peter Varghese at present, but the pollies representing us overseas need to lift their game across the board, because the region is watching closely. Our public diplomacy strategies are nowhere near as sophisticated or resourced as they need to be for a country with our role and comparative economic outlook.


So much is new, but why does it still feel like Freaky Friday in the foreign policy portfolio? Perhaps because we are used to the ALP taking foreign policy very seriously as part of its policy vision and the Coalition taking a while to warm up to the portfolio when in power. But the new Minister, Julie Bishop, is coming out guns blazing after serious preparation and commitment over the last three years. Which is lucky, because she has had serious issues to deal with immediately thanks to NSA revelations in Indonesia. But she pulled off the UN General Assembly Leaders Week and the Security Council presidency straight after the election. All kudos to her, the UN mission and the department for that feat.

And with former Minister Bob Carr, we may have seen the worst ever ALP foreign policy minister. The idea of Carr was so promising, a great communicator, gravitas, with considerable experience of the world when premier of our largest state. Carr looked the part of statesman, in a way that previous Australian foreign ministers may not always have accomplished. But ultimately Peter Hartcher's excoriating portrait of Carr as more tourist than diplomat resonates with many of us who followed his short term with increasing despondency. He showed a humanitarian heart with his efforts on Syria and the arms trade treaty, but no wider vision or effort went into protecting the aid program or DFAT within Cabinet. He was always more interested in the ALP's fortunes than the portfolio.

The Gillard-Rudd tensions definitely affected foreign affairs (seen as Rudd's 'baby') a great deal in terms of shifting directions and priorities, which was exceptionally bad timing for Australia given their success in gaining the Security Council seat and the G20 Summit hosting gig. The ALP did not release a foreign policy platform before the last election and Tanya Plibersek has little track record in this area, although she chose it herself and is a talented politician. But talent, as Carr has shown, does not necessarily cut it in foreign affairs so much as good policy, breadth of knowledge, a bit of humility, and lots and lots of experience. Plibersek needs great advisors and to go on one hell of a learning curve, and with Rudd still in Parliament, this could continue to be an unstable time. Richard Marles and Melissa Parke are now in unrelated portfolios, and Janelle Saffin is gone having lost her seat, so the traditional ALP foreign affairs heft across Parliament is diminished.

Tony Abbott also needs to learn some lessons from all this, as Michael Wesley suggests– pick some Prime Ministerial priorities in the international sphere – the G20 Summit being the most urgent - and leave the rest to the Ministers in charge so that coherence around our public diplomacy messages and action on our stated priorities can begin to build up. Give those famously ambitious next-gen folk in the Coalition ranks like Briggs, Birmingham, Nash, O'Dwyer and Frydenberg, some ability to take on foreign policy interests and missions and build the base for future portfolio expertise. If there is one thing the Coalition is going to learn quickly from the foreign policy agenda they have inherited, the world is changing rapidly and Australia needs to pay attention.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Harris Rimmer is an academic at the Australian National University and is President of national voluntary NGO Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

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