With new leadership and a fresh mandate, a Labor government could take significant steps in foreign policy in its first hundred days in office under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
Though more substantive differences (namely on the Pacific) have emerged in recent days during the election campaign, the similarity on foreign policy between the major parties means that an Albanese government would be likely to focus more on changes in practice than policy.
Nonetheless, tone and tenor matter in diplomacy, as does the symbolism of how Australia presents to the world. There’s no shortage of good places to start.
An integrated national security strategy
Wong’s first act as foreign minister should be to commission the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to develop a whole-of-government national security strategy to be delivered this year. A new guiding document must fully coordinate all dimensions of power – diplomacy, defence, intelligence, development – along the lines of the Integrated Review produced by the United Kingdom. Most importantly, a new strategy must not duck difficult questions around resourcing, especially for diplomacy.
A big statement in the Pacific
While Albanese has said he would visit Solomons Islands if elected, that will be about defending Australian security interests. However, a positive vision for the regional is just as vital.
On China, a new government should actually do very little. While reiterating openness to dialogue, this must be without preconditions.
Climate change must be the centrepiece. Albanese should give a keynote address in the Pacific in his first month in office making clear that his government recognises “climate change is here now” as a “lived reality” for the region, alongside a firm commitment that Australia will reduce its own carbon pollution in line with the Paris Accord.
Albanese and Wong should quickly set about implementing Labor’s promise for a climate infrastructure partnership and recently announced plans to boost development assistance and labour mobility. Albanese should also confirm Australia’s intention to co-host a future global climate summit with Pacific counterparts. This should lay the groundwork for an ongoing dialogue with Pacific leaders and civil society on deeper integration to meet development challenges while addressing Australia’s security concerns.
Policy evolution – diplomatic renewal
Albanese’s first diplomatic engagement could be a Quad leaders meeting in Japan on 24 May. This would be a chance to demonstrate continuity in key tenets of Australian security – especially the US alliance. Such a high-profile event would also allow Albanese to signal that Australia’s policies on key issues of international security such as Ukraine have not changed.
On China, a new government should actually do very little. While reiterating openness to dialogue, this must be without preconditions. Labor must avoid the temptation for a “reset” given the implication that Beijing’s coercive tactics can be forgotten with a change of leadership. While Albanese and Wong should be less belligerent than the current government in how they talk about China, remaining consistent on national security and principled positions on human rights, for example, will demonstrate to Beijing that fundamental points of sovereignty and national identity are not up for negotiation.
Through this diplomatic surge, a new narrative for Australia in Southeast Asia should be built.
While a new vision for the Pacific is vital, it’s the Indo-Pacific’s core, Southeast Asia, that should be the main launchpad for renewing Australian diplomacy. As the Lowy Institute’s Susannah Patton suggested, this should start with a “stocktake” of ministerial engagement. In the first hundred days, the prime minister or a senior minister should visit every ASEAN capital. Albanese visiting Jakarta on the way home from the Quad to announce a $200 million climate and infrastructure partnership would be a strong start. As would the swift appointment of a senior statesperson such as Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull as ASEAN special envoy.
Through this diplomatic surge, a new narrative for Australia in Southeast Asia should be built around two elements. First, emphasising Australia’s unique identity as the product of “three stories”, in Noel Pearson’s words: “the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is Australia’s foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration.” And second, it should seek to coalesce the region around a constructive vision for its future that de-emphasises simply opposing China.
Ultimately, though, a more compelling narrative must be matched by a greater investment in “regional countries’ own capabilities and strength, whether in terms of economic development or defence capacity”.
A detailed trade agenda
In opposition, Labor has avoided an expansive trade policy, making rhetorical commitments to free trade while critiquing specific parts of the government’s approach. Meanwhile, Labor’s national platform narrowly focuses on greater labour protections and opposing investor-state dispute settlement provisions.
An early test for a new government, though, would be the Twelfth World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference (MC12), held three weeks after the election. This will be first meeting of the WTO’s highest decision-making body since 2017. Not only will this be the biggest multilateral trade meeting in half a decade, but it’ll be the first time Labor’s new trade minister – presumably Madeleine King – meets many of her most important counterparts bilaterally.
There’s at least four big questions Labor would need to start answering before MC12:
- What is its trade negotiation agenda to hasten diversification? Which new markets would Labor target? How would it continue negotiations with the EU and India? Would it seek to alter existing trade agreements?
- What parts of supply chains should be “onshored” to Australia (and how does this fit with Albanese’s pledge to “make things here”)? This needs to reflect the lessons of Covid-19 and security risks, “without setting a precedent for protectionism”. There’s been talk about striking this balance for two years now, but concrete proposals remain elusive.
- What are Labor’s realistic objectives for WTO reform? And how would Labor pursue collective responses to economic coercion, such as a “plurilateral agreement under WTO auspices”?
- How will Labor encourage the US to make a greater economic contribution in the Indo-Pacific?