Last week marked Julie Bishop's first six months as foreign minister.
When she was sworn in as Australia's 38th minister for foreign affairs on 18 September 2013, she could have not been better prepared for the job. As shadow minister from 2009 to 2013 she had developed both her knowledge and her networks around the world. And Kevin Rudd gave her a great start. Thanks to former Prime Minister Rudd she spent her first week in the role in New York chairing the UN Security Council and delivering a speech to the General Assembly, although she had not supported Australia's campaign for election in opposition.
Despite it being her 'dream job', the first six months of Bishop's tenure have presented difficult challenges ranging from dealing with Indonesia on revelations of phone tapping and breaches of territorial waters to a dressing down by China over criticism of its air defence identification zone.
But a better way to form a view of Julie Bishop's tenure so far is to analyse her published speeches – 43 to date – to get a sense of her priorities and key messages beyond reacting to events. It's immediately clear that this is a foreign minister who travels: more than half of her speeches have been delivered overseas.
The most noticeable theme in the speeches is placing 'economic diplomacy' at the heart of Australia's foreign statecraft. Putting economic diplomacy first means using international assets to promote Australia's economic prosperity, focusing on economic reform and trade liberalisation, supporting open trade, pursuing an ambitious free trade agenda, supporting a vibrant business sector at home and abroad, and working for closer ties to Asia. In her words: 'Just as traditional diplomacy aims for peace, so economic diplomacy aims for prosperity' – not just as an end in itself but also as a vital support for peace in the region and for global peace and security.
The focus on economic diplomacy comes through when the Minister spoke in Seoul spruiking the Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement; in Japan commending Japan's moves towards economic reform; in India discussing negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement; and in the US promoting investment in Australia during its unparalleled 23rd year of uninterrupted economic growth. It also comes through in the regular focus on the G20 as the institution at the heart of global economic reform. She refers often to Prime Minister Abbott's announcement that Australia is under new management and open for business and mentions the carbon tax repeal, mining tax repeal and repeal days in parliament as part of the long-term priority of improving Australia's economy.
This focus is not new – trade has always been at the heart of Australian foreign policy – but the level of emphasis is distinctive. Through this prism, Australia's relationships in Asia could be seen primarily in terms of trade. Certainly, when telling the story of Australia's relationships in the region – with Japan, China or Korea – trade comes first.
Sometimes in the speeches one gets a sense that Australia's three foreign policy priorities are sequenced: first trade, then security cooperation, then working for a rules-based international order. The exception is the US, where the security relationship comes first followed by a reference to ties of history and values which Australia also shares with Britain, New Zealand and Canada.
One result of the focus on economic diplomacy is that the speeches show just as much of a commitment to building relationships in Asia as the previous government. So while the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper may be gone, its argument that Australia's prosperity is tied to Asia is still very much alive. The Minister's focus on Australia's region has been so complete that her speeches of condolence for Nelson Mandela and Ariel Sharon stand out. (And for those who have been watching to see if the Minister describes Australia's region as the 'Indo-Pacific' rather than her preferred phrase in opposition of the 'Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific', the count is inconclusive, with similar usage of each and, in one speech, of both. The clearest adoption was in her speech in India where she said: 'I see and describe our region as the Indo Pacific.').
Another and somewhat surprising continuity with the previous government is the use of the term 'middle power', which came with the announcement of the Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Australia (MIKTA) grouping of foreign ministers which will meet regularly at multilateral forums. I expect we will see the term less, given the Minister's recent references to Australia as a top 20 nation and top 20 country.
The East Asia Summit continues to get mentioned as the best forum to nurture habits of cooperation and the grouping with the potential to emerge as the region's premier leaders' forum.
The biggest departure from the previous government has been the integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Minister's speeches give a clear ideological view on this change to her portfolio and, consistent with Bishop's public image, the speeches give a sense of toughness.
Clearly, she's not afraid to take on hard audiences: her speeches to the Australian Council for International Development and the Australasian Aid and International Development Policy Workshop must have been hard listening for these audiences. Without a hint of apology, she details Australia's aid failures and gives the Government's view that economic growth is the best remedy for poverty. She delivered the same message to development types at the UN, stressing the vital role of sound economic policies as the driver for poverty reduction. The integration of aid, diplomacy and trade is presented as a way of better managing Australia's 'portfolio of investments'.
A strong commitment to personal freedom seems to underlie the Minister's comments. Whether in giving support for the open internet or praise for democracy, there is a sense of the importance of individual liberty – our shared desire for security, opportunity and individual happiness and the opportunity to make choices for the lives we want to lead – as the end point of foreign policy.
The biggest initiative mentioned in the Minister's speeches is the New Colombo Plan, which was formally launched as a pilot program in December with Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong. She wants it to become a rite of passage for Australians to study at universities in the region and wants to see ' a generation of young Australians emerge who are Asia-literate' and who return with 'networks and friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.' This seems to reflect a deep personal belief by the former Minister for Education in the power of education and people-to-people connections. She often refers to her own transformational experience studying abroad.
As might be hoped, the first female Australian foreign minister has referred to gender issues. There are speeches on preventing sexual violence in conflict (continuing a priority of the previous government on the Security Council), women's economic empowerment to achieve the millennium development goals and, for International Women's Day, the announcement of a new ambassador for women and girls. In her words, 'As Australia's first female Foreign Minister I believe that we are able to put the challenges facing women and the issues facing women at the heart of our foreign policy.' She quotes Hillary Clinton twice in her speeches along with the more predictable Menzies, Casey and Spender.
If life was fair, Minister Bishop would have had an easier first six months. But as Harold Macmillan probably never said, foreign affairs is a matter of 'events, dear boy, events'. In Julie Bishop's words, 'There are always challenges in the foreign policy arena. It's not a question of the challenges, it's how you cope with them, how you manage them, and there have been a number for me to manage in the first six months.' Her speeches show her vision for the rest of her term.
Photo by Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office.