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Introducing Australia's new government: People and policies

Introducing Australia's new government: People and policies
Published 7 Sep 2013 

 The centre-right Coalition parties have won the Australian election. Below, we introduce our readers to some of the key figures and policies of the incoming government, based on The Interpreter's 2013 election coverage.

The people

Early in the campaign Sam Roggeveen profiled Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott in three separate posts. Part one gave us five reasons why Tony Abbott would be a 'steady-as-she goes' Prime Minister:

1. Because he hasn't shown a great deal of policy radicalism in other spheres.

2. Because he is a conservative.

3. Because he's inexperienced.

4. Because foreign policy won't be a high priority. [And]

5. Because Abbott is a creature of the Liberal Party.

Sam then offerred some possible counterpoints, asking whether Mr Abbott's support for the Iraq war in particular indicates a radical bent to his conservatism:

Abbott's language in defence of the war is not of the British-style conservative I referred to in my earlier post. From a realist-conservative perspective, Australia's involvement in the Iraq war could have been justified by citing the importance of maintaining ties with America. But Abbott did not make such a limited case. Instead, he used the lofty language of neo-conservatism, and a naive version of it, at that:

"It was to liberate other people, to advance everyone’s interest and to uphold universal values that ‘the coalition of the willing’ went to war in Iraq. If it's possible to engage in an altruistic war, this was it."

That kind of language suggests an almost limitless appetite for military interventionism, and one wonders whether he would apply similar standards to future conflicts. In fairness, it's worth noting that Battlelines also describes the outcome of the Iraq war in highly equivocal terms.

Lastly, we looked at Tony Abbott's stance on the US alliance, asking whether support for ANZUS had become and ideology, rather than a policy position, in Australian politics:[fold]

It has ceased to be just a practical arrangement for the mutual benefit of two sovereign states, or a signal of the close cultural and historical ties between Australia and the US. It has become an idée fixe, with neither side of politics capable of articulating a vision for Australian foreign policy that does not presume an ever-closer relationship. In Australia, the alliance seems to have become divorced from circumstance and history. But in that guise, it becomes an article of faith, impossible to reform and impervious to the tide of history. It is more likely to crack than bend.

Next up, soon-to-be Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Andrew Pickford provided a two-part biography; the first of which focused on Ms Bishop's background as a corporate lawyer:

Bishop's time in the legal profession has given her an ability to forensically study a brief and an excellent memory for essential facts. This will probably translate into a stable and linear approach to foreign policy. Among those who have spoken about Bishop's skill-set, it was commonly claimed that she is capable of getting a brief, but will be unlikely initiate radical change. In other words, Bishop will be best arguing a position as opposed to crafting or developing new policies.

And part two looked at her Western Australian perspective on world affairs:

Bishop also has close ties to former Howard Government Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, now on the local board of the Chinese global telecommunications giant, Huawei. A number of commentators have criticised Bishop for receiving airfares, accommodation and hospitality paid for by Huawei.

Since China-Australia relations are generally seen more through a business lense in Perth, Bishop's familiarity with boards, investment decisions and the complex nature of attracting foreign capital are likely to play an important if little noticed role.

Lastly, the Lowy Institute's Military Fellow James Brown described Senator David Johnston, the Coalition's presumptive defence minister. James argued that Johnston has a deep understanding of personnel and materiel issues:

Johnston cares deeply for the men and women of the ADF. After reports soldiers had lacked combat support during an incident in Derapet, Afghanistan, Johnston designed a tactical force to better protect them. Even today he speaks most proudly of the part he played in bringing a counter-rocket system to the ADF's base in Tarin Kowt.

But Brown saw less evidence that Johnston has thought systematically about Australia's military strategy: invitation to discuss the security consequences of the rise of China engenders a perfunctory dismissal of Australia's need to choose between China and the US. For Johnston, interdependence will prevail: 'China desperately needs the US market' and Australia must develop a military-to-military relationship with China.

 The policies

Julie Bishop herself submitted an article to The Interpreter, arguing that the Coalition parties were the best electoral choice based on foreign, aid and trade policy:

The Coalition's foreign policy is designed to protect and project our reputation as a strong and prosperous nation and our values as an open liberal democracy.

Our focus will be on economic diplomacy, with the various operations within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade better aligned in support of that policy across government. This will mean that DFAT will have a clear focus on promoting the economic interests of the Australian people and Australian businesses in its international engagement.

Stephen Grenville took a quick look at Coalition trade policy, considering Julie Bishop's focus on 'economic diplomacy' and the desirability of bilateral free trade agreements:

Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's outline of the Coalition's international policies emphasised the importance of trade in general and free trade agreements (FTAs) in particular. She singled out for special mention those countries which have gained advantage by signing bilateral treaties ahead of us: the US with South Korea and New Zealand with China. The Labor Government has also been ready to use FTAs.

In a world where so many countries (including Australia) have signed up to FTAs and are trying to do more of them, this priority is understandable: if everyone is doing it, we also have to.

FTAs are, however, very much second-best. These so-called FTAs are actually preferential trade agreements (PTAs) which favour the bilateral partner at the expense of other countries excluded from the agreement. If we sign them, we miss out on better trade opportunities elsewhere.

In the third week of the campaign a spat emerged between the two major parties over their respective positions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Given Julie Bishop's statement that 'only the Coalition would restore and strengthen Australia's relationship with Israel', I highlighted some of areas of Middle East policy a Coalition Government might change:

The most noticeable change in policy towards the Middle East conflict will be rhetorical. Labor and the Coalition clearly use different language when talking about Israel-Palestine.

A good example of this is the difference in rhetoric concerning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Labor Government has censured Israeli settlement activity on a number of occasions. The strongest language used by the Labor Government in this regard was in 2013. Firstly, the joint Australia-UK AUKMIN 2013 Communique from January 2013 stated that 'we call on Israel to stop settlement activity. All settlements are illegal under international law and settlement activity undermines the prospects for peace.' Secondly, at Lakemba mosque on 8 August, Senator Carr said that 'we say, unequivocally, all settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law and should cease. That is the position, of Kevin Rudd, the position of the Federal Labor Government, and we don't make apologies for it.'

On 2 September the Coalition released its Policy for Stronger Defence. James Brown cites the most important line in the document as 'our military forces should always be at least as capable as they were when the Howard government left office' in 2007. James notes however that the world is a different place compared to the end of Prime Minister Howard's term:

The major difference from the Howard era is Australia's defence and strategic environment. During the Howard era, Australia assumed a defence edge over other militaries in the region by virtue of access to advanced defence technology and the 13th largest global defence budget. But growing access to disruptive defence technology, and growing economic power in Asia, is causing relative decline in Australia's military capability. As a 2008 Treasury note made clear, 'If both we and other countries were to maintain military spending as a constant share of GDP, other countries' higher growth rates would lead their military capability to grow more rapidly than our own'. For things to say the same, Australia must increase the amount of money government outlays on the Australian Defence Force.

In the days before the election, the Coalition announced that it would cut growth in foreign aid spending by $4.5 billion. Director of the Lowy Institute's Melansia Program, Jenny Hawyard-Jones, said this should not have come as a surprise. However:

The Coalition's new direction separates Australian aid policy from its conservative counterparts in the UK, where Prime Minister Cameron has continued to increase Britain's aid budget despite adverse domestic economic circumstances. This does not help Australia's interest in being recognised as one of the world's leading aid donors. And as Annmaree O'Keeffe suggested last year, weakening our aid commitment means weakening one of the most significant soft power tools Australia has to address threats to regional stability.

On a positive note, if the Coalition is elected to government on Saturday this policy would at least introduce more predictability in the forward estimates for the aid program than we have seen over the last few years, which is useful for our aid partners.

Finally, two days out from the election, the Coalition released its foreign policy document (note, the Labor Party did not officially release one at all). Sam Roggeveen gave us some quick analysis, noting a rather gaping omission that goes a long way to summing up the foreign and defence policy discussion during this campaign:

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.

A similar point was made by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove in a recent New York Times op-ed:

Australia faces difficult economic and security choices — but this campaign has done little to clarify those choices or articulate the country’s place in the world. It may be left to events, not elections, to awaken us from our slumber.

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