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Foreign policy debate: Don't lose

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COMMENTS

12 August 2010 14:11

For professionals, the aim of any election debate is not to lose. So both sides will be happy enough with Australia's foreign policy debate.

The Foreign Minister showed, as always, that he has a safe pair of hands. The shadow Foreign Minister did more than not lose. She fought to a more than honourable draw, and scored some hits.

Credit Julie Bishop with the best debating thrust. The Labor Government is running for re-election but cannot tell the voters who will fill the top spots of Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and Trade Minister. As with the rest of the campaign, the spectre of Kevin Rudd hovered. Or as Bishop said: 'Stephen Smith is not here as the next Foreign Minister.'

Bishop also had the one big announcement: the creation of a new Minister for International Development to head a department situated within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

A feature of the debate was what might be called the new golden consensus on aid. Both sides are committed to shovelling lots more gold into aid, doubling the annual amount to $8-9 billion. This is a huge, permanent promise by both sides of Australian politics that seems to have achieved consensus status without causing a ripple in voter-land. Is this the same electorate that is so worried about the outside world that it is fixated on border protection and turning back the boats' I'll come back to discuss this golden aid consensus anon.

Part of the interest in such a formal debate is to glimpse the world-view that gives structure or unity to the diverse elements of foreign policy. As Julie Bishop won the toss and spoke first, let's consider her take on Australia and the world.

The election message is about the need to repair the damage to key bilateral relationships after three untidy Labor years. The philosophy on offer, boiled down, is an Animal Farm chant: bilateralism good, multilateralism bad. This is not the most comfortable chant for Liberals at the damper end of the scale. But it is an accurate reflection of Howardism as channelled by Tony Abbott, with just a slight spice of the US neo-con world-view stirred in. (Bishop at one point felt the need to state that the Liberals were not actually arguing that Australia should withdraw from the UN.)

The strongest multilateral element in the Liberal world-view is the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, and even that will be driven by Australia's bilateral aid program.

Bishop, in her opening statement, offered an implicit hierarchy of bilateral relationships. The US came first and Japan was mentioned second. China came third. The promise on China was to do a better job of handling differences and to restore consistency and trust. Indonesia was listed fourth, with references to regional security, terrorism, people smuggling and freer trade. Fifth spot went to India, with a restated Liberal promise to sell uranium.

For the Government, Stephen Smith reached for a world-view grounded solidly in the universe of Kevin Rudd. In his first year as Foreign Minister, Smith chanted the three pillars mantra, and he returned to the pillars structure in his opening statement. The point about the three pillars is that they may be founded in Labor history, but the term was dreamed up, defined and inserted into Labor's official policy by Rudd. And importantly, Rudd ordered the pillars: the US alliance is first, the UN and multilateral institutions constitute the second pillar, and engagement with the Asia Pacific comes third.

It was the second pillar that gave Smith his strongest opening lines. Only multilateral responses could deal with the global financial crisis, terrorism, climate change and transnational crime. And Smith claimed the elevation of the G20 as Australia's most significant achievement since the creation of APEC.

In questions, both Smith and Bishop tip-toed around China. Radio Australia's Linda Mottram posed the 'rise of China' question, calling in support from Rory's post on China's core interests claim in the South China Sea. Smith said it was the first China question he'd got all campaign. The Foreign Minister said Australia had raised its interactions with China to the strategic dialogue level and Australia did worry about the potential for clashes in the South China Sea.

The two combatants both come from Western Australia. So perhaps it was natural that Bishop's China answer quickly shifted to a discussion of Labor's mining tax and its impact on Chinese perceptions of Oz. In the West, particularly, China is now a domestic issue (jobs, investment) as well as a traditional foreign policy concern. Bishop ended with the claim that Labor's Defence White Paper was built on the fear that 'the greatest military threat is conventional war with China.' Smith denied this interpretation but did not debate it.

The best South Pacific exchange was on Fiji. Smith said Labor had essentially continued the Howard Government's approach to Fiji’s military regime. And in a low-key expression of the common Pacific refrain about the difficulty of getting any sort of agreement with Frank Bainimarama, Smith commented dryly: 'It's difficult to have a conversation with a person who wants to have a one-way dialogue.'

The one idea Bishop could offer to break the deadlock with Fiji was that Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Forum would be prepared to help Fiji's Supremo carry out electoral reform

Photo by Flickr user Jargon, used under a Creative Commons license.

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