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Bill Shorten takes on the world

It’s not Australia going it alone, but the Labor leader wants to chart a more independent course in foreign policy.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten at the Lowy Institute, 29 October 2018 (Photo: Peter Morris/Sydney Heads)
Opposition leader Bill Shorten at the Lowy Institute, 29 October 2018 (Photo: Peter Morris/Sydney Heads)
Published 30 Oct 2018   Follow @KelseyMunro

On the polls, Australia’s long-time Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten will be prime minister by the middle of next year. So a major speech on a future Labor government’s foreign policy, delivered on Monday at the Lowy Institute, was an important set of signals on Australia’s direction in a changing world.

There will be more Pacific, less Middle East, and sensible caution where Australia’s interests diverge from the US and China.

So how was it? As a set of guiding ideas, pretty sensible, actually. Speeches like this can be a bit of a wish-list, brainstormed before the hard budget choices really have to be made in government. But it was an indication that Labor has really been doing some thinking in a time of great global uncertainty.

Building on principles that Senator Penny Wong, the presumptive Labor foreign minister, laid out in a substantive February speech in Singapore, there will be more Pacific, less Middle East, and sensible caution where Australia’s interests diverge from the US and China.

US alliance

The soundbite is that “Labor’s foreign policy will speak with an Australian accent”. It’s a cute signal to Australian voters deeply worried by US President Donald Trump that Labor will reserve its right to act independently of the US, while neatly avoiding specifics. Would a Shorten government really decline to join if the US invoked the alliance and deployed forces against China in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea? Who knows?

He pointed out that Labor has stood up to Washington before – it opposed the Iraq War. But they were not the party of government then, and the imperatives of national security often take on a different complexion inside the Cabinet room. 

The Pacific 

Adopting the poetic neologism “the Blue Continent”, Shorten spent some time laying out a thoughtful Pacific policy of renewed engagement and attention. Accusing the Coalition of flyover neglect, he said under Labor there’d be a bigger aid budget (no numbers), a Minister for Pacific Affairs and an Australia-led investment body to bankroll infrastructure in the region.

But all this is not, you terrible cynics, about “strategic denial of others” – read here: China – but merely for “the economic betterment of people of the Pacific Islands themselves.” Successfully implemented, it would of course do both. Labor has the advantage over the Coalition government of a commitment to action on climate change, an issue of existential importance to Pacific leaders.   


Shorten laid out some rational guidelines for Labor’s approach to China that went deeper than the shop-worn line that we don’t have to choose between our great ally and our great trading partner. Labor would “deal with China on the basis of the actions it takes”, not “pre-emptively define China as a strategic threat”. Note this is not the same thing as saying it is not a threat. It would acknowledge the differences in our systems and values; not assume the worst of China’s long-term ambitions; deal respectfully and consistently with Beijing. All sensible intentions.

Shorten deserves credit for being the first Australian leader to comment on China’s mass internment of Muslims in Xinjiang, and he pledged to continue to speak up on human rights in office. “I won’t necessarily do it through a megaphone, but I would like to see us resuscitate a greater human rights dialogue with China,” he said.

A case in favour of closed-door dialogues is Germany’s quiet role in securing the freedom of Liu Xia, the poet and widow of the late Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo earlier this year; but there is no shortage of examples for the opposite case. And as The Australian’s Greg Sheridan has pointed out, Australia has not managed to get the Chinese to hold the Australia-China human rights dialogue since 2014 anyway. So good luck with that.

But there is a deeper signal to Beijing in Shorten’s re-commitment to the regional notion of the Indo-Pacific. It’s not popular with the Chinese, because they see it as a revival of containment, linked to the unloved Quad, a democracy club of Australia, the US, India and Japan. (Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, in a delightful flourish, said the Indo-Pacific was an idea that would “dissipate like sea foam”.) But Shorten rightly noted a rules-based regional order is in Australia’s interests.

On the thorny issue of Chinese interference, in some part illuminated by the case of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari, Labor supported the Coalition’s foreign interference laws and would be the beneficiary of them in office. Shorten pointed out that the Coalition government still has not banned foreign donations to political parties, as Labor did at party level. Why is that? 

Elsewhere in Asia 

Shorten made all the right noises on the rest of Asia: his government would seek to deepen ties with New Delhi, broaden old friendships with Japan and South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. He promised an early-term visit to Jakarta and Dili, and noted the important role of Indonesia and other ASEAN countries in counter-terrorism and transnational crime.

He had a whack at the erosion of human rights in Cambodia and the Philippines, and the appalling treatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. He plans to appoint a Global Human Rights Ambassador. 


Distinguishing Labor foreign policy from five years of Coalition government largely in positive terms, Shorten did take a swift and well-aimed kick at Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his byelection thought bubble about moving the embassy to Jerusalem. “If I’m elected Prime Minister,” Shorten said, “foreign policy won’t be shaped by internal polling and electoral timetables, but always by Australia’s national interests.” Zing!

But there will be no daylight between the two parties on defence spending (2% of GDP); nor on offshore processing of asylum seekers and boat turn-backs. Offshore detention is a policy that troubles refugee advocates, several UN agenciesmany in the Australian medical community and some Labor and government MPs, as well as a proportion of the public; but which has nonetheless become one of few points of vigorous bipartisanship in Canberra in recent years.

Counter to this hardline policy, Labor would also boost aid and increase the humanitarian intake. It would appoint an Ambassador for Refugees, which could lead to some very awkward meetings about Nauru and Manus.

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