When thinking about the worldview of the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, it is tempting to use US analogies, partly because the US electoral race is so much more intriguing than our own. Shorten is far more like Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton; embedded in a domestic agenda stressing fairness and redress for economic and social inequality. Like Sanders, Shorten makes no apologies for this domestic focus. While this may seem like a failing in a potential ‘leader of the free world’, it is a lesser vice in a potential leader of Australia.
Shorten follows Julia Gillard and Bob Hawke in this domestic focus. Kevin Rudd was more the anomaly than the rule for Labor leaders with his international interests and diplomatic background. For the upcoming election Labor is campaigning on ’100 positive policies’, but none are squarely in the realm of traditional foreign policy. Conventional wisdom has it that Australians don’t tend to vote with an eye to foreign policy issues anyway (despite the 2006 Lowy Poll finding that 82% of respondents thought 'it will be best for the future of Australia's if we take an active part in world affairs').
Shorten is certainly interested in transnational issues and the process of globalisation as it affects Australia. One of his 100 positive policies is to crack down on tax avoidance by multinational corporations, an issue that would require international cooperation through initiatives like the OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project.
Shorten chose to spoke at the Lowy Institute last year on the topic of international action on climate change. He is clearly influenced by transnational labour movements in relation to labour provisions in trade agreements like the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (CHAFTA). Under Shorten, Labor has also promised to resolve the disputed Australia-East Timor maritime boundary ‘through talks, or through arbitration or adjudication’, which contributes to Shorten’s brand of fairness. Shorten has said one of his first acts as prime minister would be to reengage with the UNHCR to identify resettlement locations for detainees on Nauru and Manus Island, but this is really an immigration issue aiming for domestic impact rather than a foreign policy approach to forced displacement in the region. He spends a whole chapter in his election manifesto outlining his support for anti-terrorism reforms and the military, but with barely a mention of foreign policy.
One explanation for why Australian political leaders do not tend to cultivate much foreign policy expertise is that there is just not that much difference in foreign policy between the two parties. In my view this is a good thing, and a bipartisan approach should be encouraged. Issues on which the parties do differ have been set out very ably by Dan Flitton and Georgina Downer.
What differences there are in foreign policy stem from a difference in foundations, as Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek phrased it in her address to the Lowy Institute. Labor has emphasised Australia as a ‘good international citizen’ with a multinational approach, while the Coalition has emphasised bilateral relationships and priority on trade agendas. However, in the eyes of voters reading scant reportage and discussion of foreign policy issues, this difference in emphasis and the consequent differences in policy may not always be apparent.
Another circumstantial factor is that both Shorten and Turnbull have able deputies who have carved out this traditional leadership space for their own. In Shorten’s case, Plibersek was previously minister for health, for human services and for housing. She had considerable success in these roles, and had her choice of portfolio in 2013. She chose foreign affairs, and on foreign policy Shorten tends to defer to her (as Gillard did to Stephen Smith and Rudd, and Keating did to Gareth Evans).
In many ways, Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek are a dream match-up for the foreign affairs portfolio. Both are deputy leaders of their party, both have considerable popular appeal and an ability to communicate, and both are extremely smart and hard-working. As Labor has decided to focus on a domestic social justice agenda and as Bishop has not committed significant errors, foreign policy has largely escaped the agenda.
This strong female leadership in Australian foreign policy is certainly welcome. Plibersek's and Bishop’s competence has also allowed Bill Shorten to stay in the comfortable space of globalised homebody, and the Australian polity is none the poorer for it.
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