Changes in Australian Foreign Policy 11 September 2013

Changes in Australian Foreign Policy                           11 September 2013

Australia had national elections last Saturday. As a result, there is a new government, a new prime minister and a new foreign minister. These are the Liberal-National Coalition (LNC), Mr Tony Abbott and Ms Julie Bishop. Mr Abbott will announce his new Ministry next week, with him possibly creating a new Trade and Investment portfolio. Traditionally, the Nationals, who tend to be more protectionist, have provided the Trade Minister. It remains to be seen whether a National will be given this new ministry.

Under the LNC, Australia’s foreign policy is likely to move further to the right. While the LNC and the Labor Party (that formed the previous government) both agree that Australia’s relationship with the United States is of paramount importance, the Coalition is more unequivocal. Under the previous Liberal prime minister, Mr John Howard, Australia readily and rapidly joined the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ formed to fight terrorists in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Traditionally, LNCs have taken Australia into wars, with the most recent being Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. Apart from Vietnam, these wars had general bipartisan support, although, arguably, the Labor Party has been less ‘gung ho’ in wanting to deploy Australian forces. Australia’s overseas engagements have been justified for strategic reasons. Chiefly, this has been to shore up the Australia-United States relationship.

Under the new government, trade opportunities will be pursued before human rights or other foreign policy concerns. This partly reflects the new incumbent’s constituency: it received strong support from Australian businesses, business people and primary producers, for whom trade is important. The new government probably will be more interested in a range of bilateral relations, whereas Labor governments tend to engage more multilaterally. It intends to pursue, first and foremost, ‘economic diplomacy’ and negotiate bilateral free trade agreements with an array of nations, including China and Japan, with which Australia already has strong trade relationships. Indeed, Australia’s top five two-way trading partners are (in order of size) China, Japan, United States, Republic of Korea, and Singapore.

Foreign affairs is not a strong suite for the new prime minister. All of his former government ministries had strong internal focuses. That said, Mr Abbott has stated that his first overseas visit will be to Jakarta. This reflects his stance that Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta, not a Geneva, focus. This also reflects a peculiar phobia whereby many Australians (falsely) believe that Indonesia is a military threat to Australia. (See The Lowy Institute Poll 2013:, pp. 12-13.) For too many years, I have met Australians who fear that Indonesia wants to invade Australia, despite Australia being an island-continent that is difficult to reach, let alone successfully invade. These Australians believe that Australia, which has a small population compared with Indonesia’s, has land and resources that others desire. However, the only nation currently with the capability—but not the intent—to mount and sustain a military lodgment in Australia is its greatest ally, the United States.

Hopefully, the methodical Mr Abbott can allay these Australians’ fears, magnified and politicised by the dramatic increased arrival of some 25,000 ‘asylum seekers’—in Australia, they are often called ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal immigrants’—in the last financial year. (In 2011-2012, there were 8,000 arrivals; in 2010-2011, there were 5,000.) Many of the often-dilapidated boats transporting these human beings have left from Indonesian ports. Mr Abbott and his prospective Immigration Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, have promised to ‘stop the boats’ in the Indian Ocean. For them, and many Australians, this is seen, rather emotively, as a crucial national problem. It certainly is important, as some asylum seekers have drowned at sea. However, compared with Pakistan, which third world nation is still housing some 1.5 million Afghan refugees, first world Australia’s problem of dealing with some 60,000 illegal immigrants, the bulk of whom actually have overstayed properly-issued visas, is relatively small. Furthermore, some Australians see a strong need to address the problem much further away, such as in nations from which many of Australia’s ‘boat people’ come: Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. This will be difficult, given that Australia looks set to cut its aid budget (see below).

Foreign affairs also is not a strong suite for the new foreign minister. To date, all of Ms Bishop’s government ministries have had internal focuses. Unlike many of her predecessors, this very formal, almost coldish, lawyer does not display an instinctive passion for foreign affairs. She obtained this portfolio by default after doing poorly as shadow treasurer in 2008-2009. Since then, she has not become a high profile foreign policy advocate in Australia, or overseas. Rather, her high profile has arisen because she has been deputy leader of the Liberal Party and deputy Opposition Leader in the House of Representatives since 2007. In relation to South Asia, little is likely to change. Ms Bishop will pursue stronger trade, including allowing uranium sales, and the furtherance of a somewhat mythical strategic relationship for Australia with India; Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain important while Australia has military forces in Afghanistan, after which both will likely become peripheral; the other South Asian nations will probably be of minimal importance.

Ms Bishop has got off to a difficult start. The new government intends to slash Australia’s aid budget by $4.5 billion to help fund ‘essential infrastructure’ and to help the economy become stronger, after which, for Australia’s new leaders, Australia could be more generous in future. However, compared with those nations to which it gives aid, Australia already has a strong economy. Unfortunately, Ms Bishop has also strongly and consistently linked trade with aid, with makes Australia sound mercenary, rather than humanitarian. Hopefully, Ms Bishop, with the help of the capable Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will grow into the role. It remains to be seen.

Christopher Snedden
11 September 2013


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