Yesterday afternoon, less than two days before Australia goes to the polls, the Liberal-National Coalition released its official foreign policy statement (the Labor Party is yet to release one). A few small observations about the document, followed by one big point:
- The statement has the clear mark of Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, with its references to 'Asia-Pacific Indian Ocean', a phrase she used during her debate with Bob Carr and a slightly awkward unpacking of 'Indo-Pacific'. It's fair to say that the Coalition has now definitively adopted the concept: 'Australia's neighbourhood will be defined as the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region', the statement says emphatically.
- The economic focus of the paper (it comes second in the eight-point plan) also reflect Bishop's interests, as do the sections on Fiji and women leaders.
- Fears of a demotion for India in the Coalition's priorities are misplaced. It's listed after the US, Japan, Indonesia and China among the five relationships that need 'renewed focus'.
- Afer the eight-point plan comes a long section on Labor's failings. More than one-fifth of the statement is devoted to criticising the Government.
- The section on growing Australia's diplomatic footprint is weak but it at least lays down a marker which the Coalition can be judged against if it wins.
And the big point? There's no hint of strategy here. No description of Australia's place in the world, how the region is changing and how we should react. No hint that the once-in-a-century shift of economic power to our region might have strategic implications for us and our major ally. It's a management document that focuses on the small stuff because it assumes the big picture is pretty much looking after itself. This is reinforced by the seven glowing references to the Howard Government, which imply that the Coalition can return to those broad settings because little has changed.
I know it can be difficult to tackle sensitive diplomatic topics in public documents, but don't voters deserve some discussion about the ways in which their world is changing, and how old certainties (such as America's predominance in the region, or Southeast Asian states as economic and strategic weaklings) are being eroded?