It is not so long ago that the idea of a left-wing Labor woman as the Foreign Minister of Australia would have caused deep consternation, if not panic, in the foreign policy establishment and in the halls of power of key allies.
But if, against the odds, the Labor Party wins the 2 July Federal election, the prospect of Tanya Plibersek becoming Australia’s next foreign minister has not ruffled a feather inside or beyond Australia.
This is despite a political upbringing that was far to the left of the today’s centrist foreign policy position.
Plibersek is a child of the socialist-left Labor movement of the past. She remains proudly of the modern Labor left and a banner carrier for working and disadvantaged people.
When Plibersek stood for pre-selection for the left-controlled New South Wales seat of Sydney (which takes in all the old working class suburbs of the city as well as the most-exclusive), among those who worked to win it for her were a procession of some of the veteran opponents of the US alliance and campaigners for the removal of US bases from Australian soil, most notable among them the then elder statesman of left politics, Tom Uren.
But while Plibersek was backed by the isolationist left, her entry into politics came after the great convergence of Labor and the coalition parties on foreign and defence policy. This was the big shift by Labor in the 1980s to a more pragmatic, conventional, US alliance-centred foreign policy, engineered by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Foreign Minister Bill Hayden.
Plibersek has since risen through the ranks of the Parliamentary Labor Party as a sensible centrist. Her colleagues regard her as one of the most calm and reasonable voices in the party room and in the executive.
Plibersek would be a 21st century, conventional foreign minister, with little to distinguish her diplomatic priorities from those of the incumbent, Julie Bishop.
If Labor suffers a bigger than expected defeat and Bill Shorten consequently loses the party leadership, there is a reasonable chance that Plibersek would be his successor. But as Labor leader, with the power to shift the Labor Party’s global perspectives and reorient its foreign policy, there would be little that Plibersek would change from current policy.
In a sense, Plibersek’s political journey is also the story of the Labor’s Party’s journey on foreign, strategic and defence policy.
When, on 11 November1998 (the 23rd anniversary of the sacking of the Whitlam government) Plibersek took her place in the House of Representatives and delivered her maiden speech, there was not a single echo of the passionate past battles in the Labor Party over the American alliance and the US bases. In fact, foreign policy did not get a mention.
From the content of her speech, despite the fact that Plibersek made it clear that she was proud of her political upbringing among those who had been leaders of the struggle of the left, it was obvious that she also saw herself as a member of new Labor, coming to her job as a Labor MP with an open mind and with a willingness to be persuaded that others — including the then Howard government — had good ideas for the betterment of the nation.
A former Labor Minister who sat at the Cabinet table with Plibersek in the Gillard government says that he grew to admire her for her strength of character because she never bent to a populist idea for the sake of scoring cheap political gains.
This, he said, was especially impressive given that her seat has a strong Green movement presence with Green policies with appeal to her core supporters and that she faces the risk (small but real) of defeat by a Greens candidate
'I think she is quite brave. If Tanya does become Labor leader, there is no chance she will 'Corbynise' the party, 'he said, a reference to UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has shifted his party back to the pacifist left.
The destination that Plibersek has reached after her journey from being a child of the pacifist left to today having custody of Labor foreign policy was clearly set out in her in her recent speech to the Lowy Institute.
The US Alliance, our regional, global engagement: Most mainstream thinking in this country accepts these as the main tenets of Australia foreign policy.
In words that could have been lifted from a Julie Bishop, Plibersek said that there was broad agreement on the component parts of Australian foreign policy and their central importance.
'Perhaps this is why foreign policy often plays a marginal role in Australian election campaigns,' she noted, without even the slightest nod to the fact that this is a modern political reality compared to Labor before the Hawke/Hayden transformation.
A reading of Plibersek’s output during the federal election campaign confirms that foreign policy has hardly been mentioned, despite daily media appearances and speeches.
Early on in the campaign, Labor promised to freeze the coalition’s planned further cuts but made no commitment to return to the 0.5% of GDP target set in the Labor platform. Last week Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen announced a Labor government would axe DFAT's Innovation Xchange hub and trim back the Coalition's new Colombo plan, part of a slew of savings measures.
On problematic issues such as border protection and tensions in the South China Sea, there is broad bipartisanship. Plibersek opposed Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war in 2003 but she has publicly backed the coalition’s commitment of Australian forces in the Middle East against ISIS.
So given there is so little disagreement between the major parties on foreign, strategic and defence policy issues, and that Plibersek appears to have had little interest in foreign policy during her time in Parliament, why did she take on the role of Labor spokesman on foreign affairs?
Plibersek told The Australian Financial Review in an interview that she took on the job as an 'intellectual challenge'.
It’s very easy to get down and morose after a defeat. Having a new challenge to dive right into is a good antidote.
A cynical critic might argue that it has been a shallow dive: Plibersek has not had much new or creative to say on foreign policy issues and some in the Labor Party say she has been too soft on Julie Bishop.
This is the most serious criticism heard from Plibersek's colleagues; that she lacks the toughness to be a future leader of the Labor Party. 'You have to have a bit of mongrel in you to be a party leader. I don’t see that in Tanya. She is too nice,' a Labor MP said.
Another colleague said he read 'ambition' into Plibersek’s decision to take on foreign affairs, rather than real interest in the portfolio. 'If you have leadership ambitions you need a good understanding of foreign and strategic policy. I think the fact that she took on the job says a lot about her ambition.'
There are even suggestions that Plibersek might not take up the foreign affairs portfolio if Labor wins, both for family reasons (she has a young family and would be in a job requiring long periods of international travel) and because her skills might be better suited in government to a high profile domestic ministry.
Labor insiders deny there has been any discussion of such a switch.
Where Plibersek’s ambition might take her will depend on a lot of things, foremost among them the outcome of next month's Federal election. But whatever that result, at just 46, and with already nearly two decades of political experience, she seems destined to be a significant Labor figure of the future.
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