The Foreign Policy of the Next Labor Government
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The Foreign Policy of the Next Labor Government

On 29 October the Honourable Bill Shorten MP outlined the foreign policy of the next Labor government.

The foreign policy of the next Labor Government will be different from those of the past – because the world is different.

Power is shifting. The international order in which Australia has operated since the Second World War is being disrupted.

  • The ‘America First’ policies of the Trump Administration
  • The ‘China Dream’ aspirations of Xi Jinping
  • Britain’s decision to leave the EU
  • Doubts and tensions over the Paris Agreement
  • Stressed international institutions more broadly and threats to the health of liberal democracies – are all signs of that shift.

We can’t know where the present uncertainty will lead, but we can be sure of one thing: the world of the past is not going to return.

We can’t trust to old assumptions, we need to think differently about foreign policy, understanding that Australia will be more responsible than ever for setting our own future course.

Under a Labor Government I lead, Australian foreign policy will be independent, confident and ambitious.

If I am elected Prime Minister, foreign policy will speak with a clear Australian accent.

Because I believe foreign policy is more than an academic survey of the world around us, more than a catalogue of things happening to us.

Our foreign policy should speak for who we are, for the confidence we have in ourselves, for the values we believe in, for the region and world in which we want to live.

Because we should go to our region as a reconciled Republic, with the confidence to declare we are running the place ourselves.

At the beginning of this year, I promised my team would spend 2018 outlining our vision for the nation, a plan to hand on a better deal to the next generation.  

Meeting that fundamental test, delivering a better deal for those who come after us, depends on a more secure, more prosperous region.

Foreign policy and national security policy are therefore directly linked to Labor’s reforming social purpose – and they are essential to its success.

John Curtin and Ben Chifley knew this, they understood the connection between the lives of working Australians and the corridors of international diplomacy.

They argued the case – as we will – that international arrangements must serve the interests of rising living standards and a stronger safety net. 

They called it ‘the positive approach’, it influenced the way Australian leaders worked to shape the United Nations and new international trade, economic and labour organisations formed at the end of the Second World War.

Those principles haven’t changed – improving the everyday lives of Australians will be our purpose too.

My Shadow Ministers have already outlined some of the objectives that will guide Australia’s international policy under Labor.

Today, I want to set down my priorities and some of my intentions for foreign policy in the first months of a new Labor Government.

There are – of course – plenty of other issues that could be covered: Africa, the Middle East, Europe, cyber security but today can’t be a manifesto.

I want to keep things direct and focused.

Beginning with the two countries that will shape Australia’s future most directly – the United States and China, our closest ally and our principal trading partner.

Both nations are changing and Australia’s policy needs to respond from forethought rather than reaction.

Australia and the United States share history, culture, a language and a genuine friendship.

We are bound by shared democratic values and respect for the rule of law.

Labor’s commitment to the US alliance is a pillar of our foreign policy.

We know Australia’s interests are always best served when the United States is engaged in our region – and the ANZUS alliance helps anchor that engagement.

This was the understanding behind the Gillard Government establishing a rotation of US marine forces in Darwin.

And the next Labor government will continue to ensure that our alliance is shaped for our times.

Because America’s position in the world, and its approach towards it, are changing.  

Reflecting the attitudes of American voters, President Trump has made it clear that the United States is not prepared to prop up the global order alone.

He’s declared he wants to put American interests first – and he says he wants US allies to contribute more.  

This is a reality we have to understand, recognising that even beyond the current Administration, future US Governments will demand more reciprocity in international transactions.

Australia’s interests will obviously be different from those of the United States in some areas; our national focus is different, our relationships with our close neighbours are different, our economies have different structures.

And indeed our differences in perspective and opinion are one of the many valuable qualities we bring to our alliance with the United States.

We tell truth to power, recognising we will not always see eye-to-eye on international issues.

The Labor Party opposed the second Iraq war – and in view of the consequences, we were more responsible allies for doing so.

We regret the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

We can – and will – express any differences within the enduring framework of our close relationship.  

This is how friends and allies engage – that’s what a confident and independent approach to Foreign Policy means.

Like the United States, China is also changing.

It is becoming more significant globally as well as regionally, helped greatly in its rise by the rules and institutions of the post-war system. 

It is pressing its claims for greater global influence.

By some measures China is already the largest economy in the world. 

China’s growth has brought unprecedented prosperity to the Chinese people and benefitted the broader region and Australia.

China accounts for one quarter of our total trade, according to the Governor of the Reserve Bank, it will be our largest export market for the foreseeable future.

And ours is not just a trade relationship.

Chinese investment in Australia is significant and its role in the overall stability of the global financial system is critical.

The political, strategic and people-to-people dimensions of Australia’s relationship with China are equally important – more than one million Australians now claim some Chinese identity.

In fact, it’s hard to think of an important issue for Australia’s future – from climate change to the future of Antarctica – where China will not be an influential player.

When Gough Whitlam made the decision to establish diplomatic relations with the underdeveloped, agrarian China of Chairman Mao, these realities would have seemed unthinkable.

But for all this, China’s party-state system remains very different to our liberal democracy – and differences between our systems and values will inevitably affect the nature of our interactions.

The next Labor government will not deal with China purely through the prism of worst-case assumptions about its long-term ambitions.

Pre-emptively framing China as a strategic threat isn’t a sufficient response to its role and increasing influence in our region.

Those kinds of false binaries take us nowhere.

We will deal with China on the basis of the actions it takes – and in our own national interests.

In other words, our approach will be sophisticated enough to recognise where our interests align – and where they diverge.

We will deal with China, respectfully and directly at all times, and frankly when necessary.

We will speak out when its actions are contrary to our own interests, as we would expect China to do the same. 

As our Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong puts it, “consistency and clarity” will shape our response.

China is an important part of our region – but not the only part.

It was Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who reframed Australia’s region as the ‘Indo-Pacific’.

My vision for the Indo-Pacific is a region where all voices are heard, where rules and institutions guide collective action – and where those rules are set through negotiation, not imposition.

A regional framework, of respect and co-operation.

Australian Labor is good at building foreign policy frameworks, we own a proud tradition of elevating and empowering multilateral institutions.

Our belief in the value of collective action, the power of institutions to drive change is a founding principle of the labour movement – and it is a conviction that applies to international affairs as much as domestic.

Think of:

  • Doc Evatt at the UN.
  • Hawke, Keating and Evans transforming APEC and ASEAN.
  • Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan’s work with the G20
  • And Kevin and Julia’s success in earning a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council.

A new Labor Government will bring new energy and new purpose to this approach, because we live in a time when the authority of rule-making organisations – from the UN to the World Trade Organisation – is fraying.

This matters to Australia, because a ‘might is right’ world, a world where power alone is the determinant of rule-setting, marginalises Australia’s interests.

Other countries will find an Australian Labor Government working to establish active partnerships, exploring new ways of managing a divided world and reforming the institutions to which we belong.

We will seek to deepen our defence and economic ties with New Delhi, as India’s interest and influence in our region grows. 

We want to broaden our old friendships with South Korea and Japan.

Our contemporary trading relationship with Japan began with the 1957 Commerce Treaty, when memories of war were still so fresh.

But the foundation of our political relationship was the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation, driven by Whitlam and signed by Fraser.

Penny and I visited Japan and South Korea last year, and there is more we can do working with these nations to enhance the security of our region.

And we will put a clear focus on the nations and institutions of South-East Asia.

As the point where the Indian and Pacific Oceans intersect, and through which so much of Asia’s trade and energy supplies flow, Southeast Asia is central to Australia’s foreign policy. 

The largest Southeast Asian state Indonesia, has been at the heart of Labor’s view of this region ever since Chifley’s decision to support the Indonesian independence fighters against the returning Dutch colonial administration after the Second World War.

Paul Keating once said his vision for our relationship with Indonesia was ‘strategic trust’.

There is still a lot of work to do to reach that point – but that ambition will be a central objective of the government I lead.

And if I become Prime Minister, I will make an early visit to Jakarta.

All Australians are rightly proud of the role our country played in helping Timor-Leste establish itself as a nation – and Prime Minister Howard’s strong leadership was a key part of this.

Yet neither Prime Ministers Abbott nor Turnbull visited the country.

I will rectify this neglect by paying an early visit in order to re-energise this friendship.

Building a stronger regional framework also means paying close attention to old friends like Singapore and Malaysia and newer partners like Vietnam – as well as supporting the institutions that are centred there like ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.

These countries are vital in helping to address issues like transnational crime, including people-trafficking.  

They are vital in keeping our region safe from terrorism, particularly the growing threat of battle-hardened foreign fighters returning from the Middle East.

And for Australia to offer leadership in South-East Asia – and indeed in the world – we cannot turn away from the erosion of democratic freedoms in Cambodia, from human rights concerns in the Philippines and Vietnam.

We will draw attention to human rights abuses and use our influence to hold those responsible to account.

We are deeply concerned about the treatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar – and we will support moves to bring justice upon those who have committed crimes.

And to ensure the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are defended and expanded, we will appoint a Global Human Rights Ambassador.

We have a vision for Australia’s role in our region – and we have a suite of policies to support it.

Labor’s FutureAsia plan is a whole-of-nation effort, elevating our approach to the Indo-Pacific beyond transactional questions, broadening our engagement beyond one narrow frame of reference or another.

As Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen, Jason Clare and Penny have all spoken about, a key part of this work begins in Australia.  

  • Boosting Asian languages and cultural understanding, from schools to board rooms.
  • Drawing on the knowledge of our great, growing and diverse Asian–Australian community.
  • And making better use of the hundreds of thousands of members of our unofficial diplomatic corps, the wide-ranging Aussie diaspora in Asia.

In a time of global disruption, much of the structure and content of Australian foreign policy must be new.

But the principles that guide us will be those that have always shaped Labor’s view of the world.

  1. We seek a peaceful world
  2. We seek a world in which power is tempered by justice
  3. We seek a fair world, where prosperity is shared
  4. We seek a sustainable world, where the environment is protected for future generations.

For me these aren’t just lofty ideals, I believe Australia has a real practical interest in co-operating with others to build a better world.

This is what Gareth Evans called ‘good international citizenship’ and Penny Wong calls ‘constructive internationalism’.

And to help achieve these aims, Labor will rebuild the skills and expertise necessary to enable us to deliver an international development assistance program of high quality and measurable effectiveness.

The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments have reduced Australia’s aid budget to a historic low – Labor will lift Australia’s contribution.

This isn’t just our humanitarian responsibility – it’s an investment in our regional and national security.

And nowhere are the opportunities and responsibilities of good international citizenship more clear than the island states of the Pacific.

 A Labor Government I lead will seek to engage with the Pacific through partnership, not paternalism.

Ours will be a listening leadership, based on respect and a genuine understanding of each other.

We’re talking about a collection of partner nations in an ocean larger than all of earth’s landmass combined – call it ‘the Blue Continent’.

Our Pacific policy will respect the important geopolitical implications of that terminology.

We will not define our Pacific neighbours by their smallness in size and population but by the greatness of the ocean they are custodians of – and that we share with them.

The Pacific region is known for its diverse languages, culture, legal systems and stages of development.

We need to put more effort into recognising and understanding this diversity – and appreciating the challenges of travel, service delivery and infrastructure in these remote areas.

Otherwise, within a decade, the ten million people living across the Pacific islands will be living in some of the least developed nations on the planet.

It’s not for us to lecture these nations about what they should want – or insult and patronise our neighbours if they ask for assistance – but rather work alongside them to achieve the progress they need.

We will listen, knowing that for our Pacific neighbours, sustainable development and poverty reduction are more than economic concerns.

And we must strive to understand the socio-cultural dimensions which impact these issues.

A Labor Government will put the Pacific front and centre in our regional foreign policy.

We’re not going to forfeit the Pacific because we didn’t turn up.

Labor will reconstitute the role of Minister for Pacific Affairs and International Development that the new Prime Minister has recently relegated to Assistant Minister status. 

The Minister will serve within the Foreign Affairs portfolio and will coordinate our Pacific strategy and programs across government, proof of how seriously we take the Pacific and the people who call it home. 

We will engage with the Pacific not through the intricacies of geopolitics – but in its own right.

Our goal will not be the strategic denial of others but rather the economic betterment of the ten million people of the Pacific islands themselves.

The new Prime Minister’s decision to miss the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru sent the worst possible message at exactly the wrong time.

It is part of a pattern of neglect of the Forum by Coalition Prime Ministers.

Obviously, development assistance is critical – and Labor will grow our Aid commitment to the Pacific.

But our agenda for engagement will be bigger and broader than this.

We will encourage others, including private firms, to invest in projects that drive development in the region: from roads and ports to water supply, communications technology and energy infrastructure.

New Zealand are already doing this, the United States and Japan are exploring their options.  

Australia should be too.

My vision is for Australia to actively facilitate concessional loans and financing for investment in these vital, nation-building projects through a government-backed infrastructure investment bank.

Our neighbours in the Pacific are looking for partners to help them build infrastructure – and as Prime Minister, I intend to make sure they look to Australia first.

I see this financing facility as a way Australia can elevate our status as a ‘partner-of-choice’ for Pacific development and enhance security and prosperity in the region.

We’ll also look at opportunities in government services, where Australia and the region can both benefit – through us utilising our economies of scale and comparative advantages in technology and expertise.

Take the provision of Pacific patrol boats and the advisors which accompany them, enabling Pacific countries to engage in better surveillance of their exclusive economic zones and defend themselves against threats from smuggling, illegal fishing, various forms of exploitation and other types of transnational crime.

All this, in turn, helps build the sovereignty of the Pacific states.

Our TAFEs and vocational training institutions could do more to help Pacific nations expand their skills.

The Seasonal Workers Program, is a Labor initiative which has enormous mutually beneficial potential. And where there is a genuine shortage of seasonal workers, the Pacific should be prioritised.

We believe in giving people in the Pacific the opportunity to find work here – not as a substitute for local workers, nor as a way of undercutting overall wages and conditions – but with a guarantee that no-one working in Australia is exploited.

That’s particularly relevant in light of reports today that widespread wage theft for overseas workers, means 1 in 3 are earning less than half the minimum wage.

We must also address the particular inequalities affecting women in the Pacific, from education to jobs to family violence. Just as the Gillard Government did with the ongoing Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative.

Equality for women is an economic and social priority for Labor here at home and gender equity and social inclusion will be at the heart of our foreign policy in the region and the wider world.

The Australian Defence Force already enjoys close relationships with the militaries of the region but we can do more.

We will seek to actively work with the PNG Defence Force, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, and the Tonga Defence Services to identify how the ADF can help these nations bridge specific capability gaps.

 We want to mend the relationship with the RFMF, to ensure the ADF is best-placed to develop the Fiji military’s professional capabilities to ensure Fiji’s security needs.

In doing so, we will be mindful of the lessons of the past: co-operation must focus on instilling professionalism in military forces and respect for the rules of armed conflict, international humanitarian law and the principle of civilian authority over the military.

No community of nations are more concerned about climate change – with better reason – than our Pacific neighbours.

Rising sea levels are an existential threat for these nations.

Under a Labor Government, Australia will be much better placed to help our neighbours respond and to press their case internationally because we accept the science of climate change – and we accept the need for real action.

Papua New Guinea is the largest Pacific state and the one with whom we share the longest history, it lies just five kilometres from the closest Australian islands in the Torres Strait.

We need to start thinking of it as a ‘big’ country. Already a population of 8.4 million – and by the middle of the century it could reach Australia’s current size.

Several Prime Ministers of Papua New Guinea have raised various concerns about Australia’s visa policies – the costs and restrictions on their citizens – which have impacted relationships at the personal level.

Under a government I lead, we will institute a thorough analysis of the details and causes of the discontent – seeing how we can improve the system without undermining border security.

Building a deeper form of engagement will require more than Kokoda tourism.

It requires us to recognise Papua New Guinea’s leadership role in the Pacific, according the government and people of Papua New Guinea the respect of equals, as well as friends.

No country is a closer friend to Australia than New Zealand, no nation understands us better. 

Our Closer Economic Relationship is one of the great global success stories of international engagement.

But we should always be asking ourselves how we can work more effectively on our common global and regional objectives.

And improved treatment of the hundreds of thousands of long-term New Zealand permanent residents – and taxpayers – in Australia would be on my agenda.


In recent decades, the issue of people smuggling and asylum seekers has complicated – and sometimes distorted – our relationships with a number of countries of importance to us in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The problems of refugees and displaced people are tragic in their impact and global in scale, but they have a particular regional dimension. 

I want to be very clear about this: Labor will maintain regional processing.

We will continue to stop boat arrivals and turn boats back when safe to do so, and we will defeat any efforts by criminal syndicates to resume their lethal trade. 

Operation Sovereign Borders will be fully resourced.

We will revisit areas where the Government has made cuts, like those to the number of AFP officers working in neighbouring countries with our partners to prevent and disrupt smuggling ventures.

At the same time, I recognise there are more displaced persons in the world today than at any point since the Second World War and Australia must play its part in helping resolve this humanitarian crisis.

We have already announced that Labor will increase our aid program, our support for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and our humanitarian visa program.

All of this represents the biggest offering to the global plight of refugees that any Australian Government has ever made.

It signals a return by Australia to the group of nations which are seeking to resolve this global tragedy.

Greater Australian action on the global stage will place us in a much better position to secure third country resettlement arrangements for the people remaining on Manus and Nauru.

The New Zealand Government have put forward an important offer – it’s time the new Prime Minister put aside the point-scoring and worked with us to take it up.

Stopping the boats has never meant leaving people to languish in detention indefinitely.

We understand the importance of region-wide solutions to the problem, including the need to develop regional processing facilities that meet our international obligations and into which we have a clear line of sight. 

To help co-ordinate Australian activities in this area we will appoint an Ambassador for Refugees and Displaced People. We will work with the UNHCR on ways to manage and process asylum seeker flows.

I’ve deliberately focused on our vision today, rather than talk too much about the other side.  

But I do have to say, the more we learn about their decision to abandon 70 years of bipartisanship on the Middle East, the worse it looks.

Labor supports a two-state solution.

We recognise Israel’s rights to live behind secure borders.

We acknowledge the people of Palestine’s legitimate aspiration for a state of their own.

And we understand that in an area rife with tension, every move is weighted with meaning.

So relocating the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is no mere logistical exercise, it’s hugely controversial and consequential.

And the idea that such a decision would be taken simply to help with the desperate pursuit of a handful of votes in a by-election…

  • Without consulting our foreign service, or defence force
  • Without communicating with our neighbours and partners
  • Without any structure or process or advice behind the decision at all

That’s not just cynical politics, it’s damaging to Australia’s reputation and to our relationships with other nations.

If I’m elected Prime Minister, foreign policy won’t be shaped by internal polling and electoral timetables – but always by Australia’s national interests: first, second and third.

I’ve spoken today about disruption caused by changes in the policies and attitudes of other nations.

But the international community is also being confronted by a new and urgent set of challenges as a result of developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

These technologies are redefining the way we work, the way communities engage with each other, and the ability of governments and private businesses to impose social control.

And these technologies are being weaponised too.

This is a new frontier, urgently requiring new ways of thinking and more effective and up-to-date international agreements.

Labor will ensure that Australia is able to contribute actively and creatively to international actions in these areas.

Whilst I haven’t focused this speech on defence policy, today I reiterate our firm commitment to a strong, self-reliant, defence force.

One of the great privileges of being a member of parliament is the opportunity to witness the professionalism, skill and dedication of the ADF up close.

Labor is committed to our serving men and women and our veterans – and we are committed to maintaining defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP.

We will also develop a capable national defence industry because, as Richard Marles has said, this industry – uniquely – has the ability to project Australian power, to have Australia be taken seriously in a way which complements the work of the ADF.

A homegrown defence industry is part of Labor’s DNA.

We will support security policies and agencies that keep Australians safe. We will maintain and develop the wide network of security ties and intelligence arrangements which help us deal with challenges to our society and our world.

Our traditional Five Eyes partnerships, pooling resources, effort and knowledge, are critical to that.

To change the international environment, like changing things at home, you’ve got to know what you want to do – and expend the effort and resources and work with other people.

Not all of them will share your aims – but like all fields of leadership, you’ve got to persuade.

And the job of influencing and persuading and shaping requires resources appropriate to the task.

That’s why it is just as important to invest in our diplomacy and the infrastructure of our international engagement, as it is to sustain our defence force and intelligence and security resources.

And if Australia is to think differently about the world, we also have to think differently about ourselves.

I’ve already announced that – in our first term, Labor will prioritise a Voice to Parliament for the First Australians and hold a people’s vote on an Australian Republic, with an Australian head of state.

We are taking these actions not because of what they say to others but because of what we want to say to ourselves.

Nevertheless, they will send a signal to the wider world about Australia’s confidence in ourselves and the changing nature of our society.

Next month will mark the centenary of the Armistice, when the guns of the First World War fell silent.

Over the past four years, our nation has commemorated and honoured tens of thousands of young Australians who risked – and lost – their lives in that conflict.

Next year will mark the centenary of the Paris Peace Conference, when the victors of that terrible war came together to try and build a lasting peace.

Australia was at that conference, we were part of those efforts – and those efforts failed.

Over the following twenty years:

  • growing protectionism
  • increased isolationism
  • the collapse of multilateral organisations like the League of Nations
  • and the election of ultra-nationalist governments that undermined liberal democracy

All led to another, even more damaging conflict.

We can hear echoes of that world now. We should heed the warnings.

Australia can’t do it alone.

But by adding our voice to others, by demonstrating Australian leadership, by building new coalitions, standing up for what we believe, contributing to the growth of security and prosperity, we can make a difference.

We can recognise changing global realities as Curtin did in his turn to America, as Chifley did in supporting the Indonesian independence movement, as Gough Whitlam did in visiting China.

We can shape international institutions as Evatt did with the United Nations, Keating with the APEC Leaders’ Meetings and Rudd with the G20.

We can contribute to the development of new rules as Gareth Evans did with the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine and the Cambodian Peace Process.

It would be wrong to underestimate the challenges ahead, but it would be equally wrong to underestimate Australia’s capacity to respond.

Conviction, confidence and ambition will underpin our approach.

The foreign policy of the next Labor Government will speak with a clear Australian accent.