Foreign Policy Falls Flat in Campaign

August 12, 2010

Today’s debate between the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, and the opposition spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, will mark almost the first discussion of foreign policy during the campaign.

In the leaders’ debate, journalists asked only one foreign policy question, at the end of the night, when time was running out.

Compare that with the US presidential election in 2008, when Barack Obama and John McCain had a whole debate on international affairs.

So what is the foreign policy choice in this election? Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has served in an international portfolio, in government or opposition. However, we can discern their basic world views. The Prime Minister would probably continue the three themes of Labor’s foreign policy over the past term: a strong emphasis on the US alliance; a focus on Asia; and continuing engagement with the UN.

The Opposition Leader would probably take John Howard as his model, with an emphasis on alliances and bilateral diplomacy. Abbott has a particular twist on the Howard approach with his interest in “the Anglosphere” (the community of English-speaking nations). It is not clear how he would operate this concept in government. If the Asia Pacific community has been hard to launch, how much harder would it be to organise a community of states in different corners of the earth, with interests that diverge at least as much as they converge?

If Gillard is re-elected, she would need to overcome the perception that she is not engaged on national security questions.

Abbott’s challenge would be to show the same discipline in his conduct of foreign affairs as he has in the campaign.

Much has been written about whether Gillard would appoint Kevin Rudd as foreign minister. Her choice would come down to the role she wishes to play in international affairs and the nature of her relationship with Rudd at the campaign’s end. But Abbott, too, would face a dilemma: should he keep Bishop in the foreign affairs role, despite her poor performance, or appoint someone such as Malcolm Turnbull, who could shine in the job?

Both sides deserve kudos on Afghanistan. Gillard has recommitted her government to a difficult war (and important alliance commitment) despite its unpopularity with Labor’s base.

Abbott has declined to play politics on Afghanistan, despite recent Australian fatalities. Bipartisan agreement on such a difficult issue is welcome precisely because it was not inevitable.

Both Gillard and Abbott have signalled the importance of the US alliance. However, either would have to work hard as prime minister to establish a close relationship with US President Barack Obama, known for being distant with foreign heads of government. Abbott might find this more challenging than Gillard, as the ideological gulf between his government and the Obama administration would be wide.

The other major bilateral relationships are a mixed bag. The Coalition’s approach to China while in opposition — criticising the government, for example, for providing a visa to prominent activist Rebiya Kadeer — has been mystifying. On the other hand, the government has not handled Japan well, allowing the awful practice of whaling to dominate a significant relationship.

Both countries are determined to do more with India, but the Coalition is less equivocal about the sale of uranium to New Delhi, a matter of high importance to the Indians. No side has a decisive advantage on Indonesia.

Climate change, which will increasingly intrude on foreign policy, is similar. The two parties come at this issue from different directions, but at this election they have each arrived in a similar place. Labor has been more consistent on the big climate picture and the integrity of the climate science. It accepts there will need to be a carbon price but does not propose to set it immediately. The Coalition displays bipolar tendencies when it comes to the climate science, and appears to be against a carbon price in principle. Both sides propose a mix of regulation and subsidies this time around.

One of the surprising differences has been the Coalition’s vow to discontinue Australia’s campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. Such a move would raise eyebrows in capitals such as Berlin and Ottawa, where conservative governments promote their nations’ candidacies. It is hard to think of other countries where there would be partisan disagreement about the advantages of belonging to the world’s premier security forum.

Foreign policy has been marginal to this campaign but it is not marginal to our national interests.