Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 15:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 15:58 | SYDNEY

Letting the urgent overwhelm the important



16 January 2015 15:03

Although it's a few weeks old now, it is definitely worth drawing your attention to this John Garnaut column, especially since it appeared in the media dead-zone between Christmas and New Year. The piece features quotes from former Lowy Institute Executive Director Allan Gyngell, who reviews the Abbott Government's foreign policy performance in 2014, a year punctuated by two Malaysian Airlines downings and the advance of ISIS in Iraq, this way:

"In all of our lives it's easier to process the stuff in the in-tray than think about longer-term strategic aims," says Allan Gyngell, who was Australia's top intelligence analyst until last year, when he stepped down as director-general of the Office of National Assessments. "I think there's been a bit of that...There's been an awful lot of meetings, it's been essentially reactive, and it means that the government's most precious commodity - the Prime Minister's time - has been spent in lengthy meetings reviewing responses to events to which the policy dimensions are not especially complex."

I'm sure those who worked on the diplomacy surrounding the MH17 disaster would quibble with the claim that the policy dimensions were 'not especially complex', but I think Gyngell is basically right. The MH17 shootdown was a humanitarian tragedy and a consular crisis, but it did not pose fundamental foreign policy questions for Australia or impose long-term costs to our national interests.

As Garnaut goes on to argue, this focus on the 'in-tray' has pushed aside larger strategic questions such as the rise of China, instability in the Pacific and Australia's place in Asia, all of which are being 'dangerously neglected'.

Perhaps all of this is to be expected, given the Prime Minister's inexperience with foreign affairs and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's strengths. During the 2013 election, we ran a profile of the then Shadow Foreign Minister by the Perth-based security analyst Andrew Pickford, who made this judgment:

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.

It's also worth noting one aside in Garnaut's piece: 'What does the Australian government think about Chinese government control or influence over Chinese-language-community media in Australia?' This is an issue we highlighted on The Interpreter last year and which got some subsequent media attention. But as far as I am aware, the Government has not uttered a word on this topic.

Photo by Flickr user Richard Blakemore.

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