Foreign Policy Attacks in Fantasy Land

September 18, 2010

I was on paternity leave for most of the post-election hiatus. I spent much of the break reading children’s stories to my two older sons, including all of Dr Seuss’s classics. I also saw some of the media commentary on the Gillard government’s international prospects. It turns out the two genres have a good deal in common. Neither is based in reality. Both require an appreciation for the ridiculous.

A casual observer would get the impression that the Labor government’s first-term foreign policy consisted of nothing but setbacks and humiliations. This is completely inaccurate. In fact, its performance was creditable compared with historical precedents.

First-term governments usually have a scratchy start in this area, but the Rudd government achieved a good deal. Australia’s alliance with the US was strengthened in the public’s esteem because it was redefined around ideas and interests rather than misty-eyed enthusiasm. The Group of 20, of which we are a member, was designated as the leading international forum for economic co-operation. Australia was a purposeful and effective player in international talks on the global financial crisis and climate change. Sense was restored after a decade of pointless UN-baiting and Canberra re-engaged with the multilateral institutions in which it does business.

Some bilateral ties, such as that with Indonesia, fared well. Others, such as Japan, could have been handled better. The China relationship had its ups and downs – as have all of Beijing’s international relationships in the last couple of years.

The laziness that characterised Australian foreign policy in the late Howard era was replaced by a new energy and a search for fresh answers to problems. Perhaps it was all too much, too soon: more might have been achieved had the focus been narrower. Nevertheless, there is a good platform for this parliamentary term.

What about the Gillard government’s international team? Starting at the top, Julia Gillard is a tough, decisive politician with a strategic brain and substantial personal charm. She comes to the job without a lengthy foreign policy curriculum vitae. So did most of the previous occupants of The Lodge, including John Howard and Robert Menzies.

Gillard’s announcement of the Timor solution was not ideal. On the other hand, her stewardship of the post-election period, in which she comprehensively outmanoeuvred her opponents, shows her potential as an international negotiator.

In Kevin Rudd, Gillard has a Foreign Minister with experience and wide international networks. People are always moaning that Australia doesn’t use its former prime ministers properly – well, here’s our chance.

There may well be friction between Gillard and Rudd but they are both professionals. In any case, this is not entirely unprecedented. Bob Hawke and Bill Hayden differed on arms control; Robert Menzies and Percy Spender had furious disagreements over the Korean war and ANZUS. Both Hayden and Spender had their prime ministerial ambitions denied yet worked well under their leaders.

Gillard’s and Rudd’s interests are aligned: both want the government’s international policies to succeed. This will require them to find a working rhythm and to give each other some space. Gillard will be at the centre of foreign policymaking, as are all heads of government these days. But she will give her Foreign Minister more elbow room than her immediate predecessor did.

Rudd will have carriage of most day-to-day foreign policy issues; Gillard will intervene when issues rise to a certain level or touch on themes she chooses to keep for herself.

There is an obvious precedent for such a relationship. After Barack Obama won the job Hillary Clinton wanted, he appointed her Secretary of State. She knuckled down to work, and Obama treated her respectfully.

Australia’s Defence portfolio has been filled by one of the government’s most reliable performers. Stephen Smith has a big job ahead of him directing affairs in Afghanistan, implementing the defence white paper, purchasing major pieces of kit and driving substantial savings.

The experienced and economically savvy Craig Emerson takes on the Trade portfolio.

The Gillard government is fortunate in its opponents, too. Tony Abbott ran an impressive campaign race, but he is as thin on foreign policy as he is on economics. That would be all right if he had a strong team behind him but he hasn’t.

Julie Bishop is the least convincing shadow foreign minister in memory.

In the mid-90s Alexander Downer took skin off the Keating government’s shins over French nuclear testing in the Pacific; a decade later, Rudd was lethal over the AWB oil-for-wheat scandal. Bishop is best known for flouting a long-established national security convention and criticising the granting of a visa to a Chinese dissident. Abbott’s decision to keep her in foreign affairs rather than replacing her with Malcolm Turnbull or Greg Hunt – and indeed to give her responsibility for trade, as well – is mystifying.

The Coalition’s defence spokesman is senator David Johnston, who is rarely mentioned in dispatches.

There are certainly factors that could derail the Gillard government’s approach, including internal strife. But a fair-minded observer would see foreign policy as a strength for the government and a weakness for the opposition.

On the other hand, you don’t read Dr Seuss for fair-minded observations.