Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia

19 August 2016

Impoverished foreign policy in which fear is the defining feature and chronic cuts to the diplomatic service are damaging Australia’s standing on the international stage, Alison Broinowski writes.

In July’s Australian Federal election, three policy areas were almost completely neglected. Immigration inspired some rivalry about which of the major parties was tougher on refugees, and defence evoked triumphal statements about building French submarines in South Australia. But the major parties were silent on foreign policy. Shadow foreign affairs spokesperson Tanya Plibersek was interested in talking up human rights (without mentioning the refugees) but otherwise, she declared Labor’s foreign policy was bipartisan and left it largely at that.

In few other countries at election time would three portfolios so important to international relations be treated as irrelevant. Yet in July 2016, when Britain was convulsed by the Chilcot report on Iraq, it was as if Australia was not still fighting a war in the same country, so meagre was the foreign policy discussion.  Australia invaded Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international law, and currently has armed forces deployed in Iraq and Syria without either the formal invitation, imminent threat to Australia, or UN Security Council resolution that would legitimise them. No inquiry to match Chilcot was demanded from the Opposition about why, for how long, or for what end result, Australia’s military are there.

Nor were leaders challenged, even though the long election campaign provided plenty of time, about why Australia does not support international moves to eliminate nuclear weapons. As for the submarines and their prospective role in the South China Sea, silence reigned over whether Australia aims to contain China, if so how, and with what consequences for our trading relationship.

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The 2016 Defence White Paper, like its predecessors, failed to resolve this fundamental conundrum. Even if its authors had read Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies (2014), it would be career suicide for any of them to take up his argument that the greatest threat to Australia emanates not from China but from Australia’s lack of ‘strategic independence’ from the United States. Australia was called a ‘frightened country’ in 1975 by Alan Renouf, a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT), and it still is. The impoverishment of foreign policy in Australia still stems from fear: of invasion and abandonment by allies, certainly, but also fear of facing and articulating the facts.

Foreign Affairs has never been a high-powered portfolio. Not only have Australia’s main policy options always been predetermined either in the UK or the US, there are no votes and few opportunities for ministerial patronage in international relations, and the DFAT budget can readily be raided in times of stringency. Such power as DFAT used to have in the bureaucracy has been eroded by Australia’s increasingly presidential executive structure, in which the Prime Minister’s Department is now a mini-government, with an elite cadre of hand-picked specialist advisers, while DFAT is largely left with the mundane tasks of passports, consular problems, and maintaining diplomatic missions abroad in a state of readiness for Ministerial visits and trade negotiation teams.

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Another former head of DFAT, Richard Woolcott, recalls better days when reports from posts could be a unique source of information, and when conversations between Ambassadors and heads of government could change the course of events. Now, he says, DFAT is about process, not policy. Communications technology has outpaced traditional diplomatic techniques. To divert the flood of information, DFAT has for some years reduced the reporting responsibilities of less important posts abroad. Able people may become disillusioned with their diplomatic careers and turn to other options. This undermines Australia’s reputation for international expertise, resulting in what the Lowy Institute in 2009 called ‘Australia’s diplomatic deficit’.

None of Australia’s recent Foreign Ministers – Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr, or Julie Bishop – has lacked intelligence, commitment, or influence. It is significant, however, that Bishop lost the recent internal arguments over whether Australia should join China’s Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, or support Kevin Rudd’s candidacy for the role of UN Secretary-General, and that she has been unable to reverse the decline in DFAT’s resources. Bishop has been forced to accept the largest successive cuts to Australia’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), by $1 billion in 2015-16 and a further $224 million in 2016-17, reducing ODA to 0.23 per cent of GDP.

She herself cut funding to Australia Television International, and after winning office Julia Gillard’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, which Bishop had described as “a brazen attempt at self-congratulation”, promptly disappeared – “jettisoned” and “consigned to history” as one paper put it. Her media appearances, John Menadue notes, are more about helping Australians involved in accidents, terrorism, or natural disasters than explaining Australia’s response to more complex matters.

The foreign service continues to attract bright and talented people, and has for some years recruited more women than men. The first woman to head the Department, Frances Adamson, a Mandarin speaker recently returned from Beijing, recommended two new diplomatic appointments which Bishop announced in early August as ‘part of the single largest diplomatic network expansion in 40 years’ (although Rudd’s record of post-openings during the UN Security Council campaign still stands). Bishop also gave further humanitarian aid to Myanmar, bringing the total since 2012 to $65 million.

If better times are ahead for DFAT, they cannot come too soon.

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Broinowski, Alison. 2016. "Foreign Policy Farce - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.