International issues have been all but invisible in the federal election campaign. The world did not intrude, for example, on this week’s leaders debate.
This is too bad. There are meaningful differences between the foreign policies of the two sides, and the rapid changes to Australia’s external circumstances deserve serious discussion. It is useful to look at the parties, the personalities and the policies.
Historically, Coalition governments tend to be more focused on bilateral relationships; Labor governments tend to be more multilateral in disposition. Coalition governments often look at the world through the prism of the US alliance; Labor governments often have more reservations about American leadership – reservations that are unlikely to diminish in the Trump era.
The Coalition has a stronger record on defence spending; Labor has a stronger record on aid spending.
Australia has suffered a remarkable turnover of foreign policymakers in recent times, including five prime ministers in six years. If Bill Shorten takes the Lodge, it will be six prime ministers in six years.
But the churn is not limited to the top job. In the dozen years before 2007, for instance, we had one foreign minister. In the dozen years since 2007, we have had five foreign ministers.
Australian foreign policy has lost its shape over this period, and the turnover of policymakers is partly responsible. Constant churn sabotages our leaders’ ability to form relationships with their counterparts and pursue our interests with an eye to the long run.
Scott Morrison has served as Prime Minister for nine months, carrying out his international duties with confidence. Foreign Minister Marise Payne is conscientious and attentive to the issues, albeit very cautious. Christopher Pyne has been a breath of fresh air in Defence. He is energetic and decisive. He is also leaving.
Bill Shorten's focus is domestic, although he gave a strong foreign policy speech to the Lowy Institute last year. He has indicated that his early overseas travel as prime minister would take in near neighbours such as New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Indonesia.
Penny Wong has the potential to be a formidable foreign minister. A sceptic by nature, she would question official advice more closely than some of her predecessors. Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles is strong on the US alliance and keenly interested in the Pacific.
Both parties claim authorship of the alliance. Morrison gets on well with the incumbent president. Shorten gave Trump a frank character assessment during the last US presidential campaign, describing him as "barking mad", so his first meeting with the President would be watched intently.
It is hard to predict the parties' settling points in relation to China. Morrison inherited the hawkish policy settings of the late Turnbull era, but neither he nor Payne are China hawks. Neither has shown any interest in confronting Beijing.
Engagement with China is strongly encoded in Labor’s DNA and some senior figures would want a Labor government to take a much more positive approach to China. Sharply diverging interests between Canberra and Beijing would complicate any such rapprochement.
Both parties promise to step up Australian efforts in the Pacific – a consensus that has formed largely due to concerns about Chinese encroachment on our front yard. But the parties differ strongly on climate change, which is an existential issue for some Pacific island states. And they present very different faces on development assistance. The Coalition has cut the aid budget deeply over the past five years, to its lowest level ever as a share of our gross national income. Labor has promised it would lift aid spending each year it is in office, without telling us by how much
The government has increased spending on defence to 1.93 per cent of GDP, en route to 2 per cent by 2020/2021. Labor has committed to the 2 per cent target, which Shorten characterised at the Lowy Institute as "fundamental". But the last time Labor was in office, it prioritised spending on health and education over defence. A big challenge for Shorten and Marles would be to strike the right balance for Australia.
This campaign has been relentlessly domestic. Future campaigns will be less so. Serious questions will be asked of the next government. Its willingness to bear costs in pursuit of long-term international goals, and its ability to absorb international pressure, will be tested.
Trotskyites used to say to unbelievers: "You may not be interested in the Marxist dialectic, but the Marxist dialectic is interested in you."
Australians may not be interested in the world – at least during this election campaign – but increasingly the world is interested in Australia.