A quarter century of failure in foreign policy mars Australian credibility

Jan 12, 2022
Marise Payne
Strident warning to Russia: Foreign Minister Marise Payne. (Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, pool)

Antagonistic towards China and Asia-Pacific neighbours and in thrall to America, Australian governments have presided over the demise of Australian diplomacy. It has been sidelined by exaggerated defence and security concerns.

It gives me no pleasure to write this article.

There was a time when Australian diplomacy was respected internationally. That period was from 1972 to 1996. It was a time in which Australia displayed diplomatic creativity and originality.

After the debacle and military failure of Vietnam, prime minister Gough Whitlam put the American Alliance into perspective. In 1972 he forged an independent and close relationship with China, ahead of the United States, and built a diplomatic bridge to near neighbours in South-East Asia. He shrank the relationship with England moving away from the forelock tugging of Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies and his three successors.

He put into effect Australian opposition to the racial outrage of apartheid, established new diplomatic missions in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and at international forums required the Department of Foreign Affairs to present an open and engaging presence with concern for human rights. Australia became active and contributed constructively to matters relating to the Antarctic, Law of the Sea, Nuclear Proliferation and the rights of newly emerging states.

However, Whitlam failed to protect the rights of the East Timorese in 1975 when they sought independence and the Department of Foreign Affairs did not present a case in support.  It was a failure that bedevilled the bilateral relationship with Indonesia for 24 years.

Nonetheless throughout the period of the prime ministerships of Fraser, Hawke and Keating, Australia conducted an independent foreign policy, particularly towards China, Japan, our near neighbours, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and limiting the spread of chemical weapons and land mines, to the irritation of the US.

Whitlam’s attempt to contain Washington’s capacity to constrain the parameters of Australian foreign policy through the operation of its secret spy base, Pine Gap, in the Northern Territory, resulted in his dismissal in 1975. The Governor-General was influenced, through the Crown, by the CIA and MI6. This had the effect of constraining, through caution and self-censorship, the development of bold foreign policy initiatives, which might have allowed Australia to carve out a place for itself as a non-aligned, independent middle power.

Despite the ever-present threat of the American elephant entering the room, the Department of Foreign Affairs strengthened the staffing of overseas missions, and conducted an extensive program of language training and other skills enhancement including technical and management training. It improved the content and speed of information into the department from posts and other sources and analysis, so important to the efficient functioning of the department and decision making of government.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the diplomatic corps and diplomats in the field are only as good as the leadership provided by politicians and the political process. Australian diplomacy started to decline under the prime ministership of John Howard, who ditched any semblance of original policymaking particularly with respect to international relations and defence.

From the time of his election in 1996 Howard moved resolutely back to the foreign policy settings of Menzies. He asserted the primacy of the US alliance as the most important aspect of Australian foreign policy. Howard was quick to volunteer Australian troops to fight in the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Menzies had been with respect to the American war in Vietnam. Howard ditched much of what had been learnt and achieved by Australia in terms of foreign relations. He reactivated the white Australia policy with cruel and unconscionable policies towards refugees and the Islamic community, much to the consternation of our neighbours.

He redefined foreign policy in terms of trade, war and defence. Money and jingoistic notions of security drove foreign policy. Human rights were sneered at and friends in the Pacific were treated as losers and a burden.

Howard politicised the public service, directly intervening or applying pressure with respect to senior appointments. Political loyalty trumped ability and experience. The change soon affected the middle ranks of the public service. Fearless and honest advice became a thing of the past, as the nation witnessed with the Tampa affair, children overboard, refugees detained in concentration camps. It was an evil policy and an indicator of worse to come.

To an extent what also made this possible was a collective failure of moral courage and this continues to the present day.

Attempting to work within Howard’s flawed political framework DFAT struggled. There may have been some who opposed Australian participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but career choices were narrowed to acceptance and stay or opposition and departure. It must have been difficult for diplomats at the Australian high commission in Colombo not to report the genocide carried out against Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka in order to provide the Australian government with deniability and thereby cover for not granting Tamil’s refugee status. It meant the government could ‘legally’ turn back boats and send home Tamils who were in Australia.

Not all DFAT officers were reluctant participants in this process. I am aware of some who actively participated and in so doing secured preferment, promotion and postings.

As a former diplomat Downer was a disaster as foreign minister. He thought, wrongly, that he knew more about international relations than anyone in his department. He and Howard were reluctant to intervene in East Timor, listening to Greg Sheridan of The Australian. They were scared of Indonesia. They only did so because of the strength of public opinion. But it left them angry. So much so, that they authorised the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet office to gain advantage in negotiations over the sea bed boundary which would determine access to oil and gas reserves.

It is not yet known who in DFAT knew of this plan, but it was carried out by the Australian spy agency, ASIS, so it is fair to assume some senior officers were aware. It was another low point in Australian diplomacy, bravely called out by Witness K and Bernard Collaery who the Coalition government is trying to crucify on behalf of those caught out.

Increasingly Australia has followed US voting at the United Nations and in the process undoing carefully constructed and balanced foreign policy particularly with respect to the Middle East and Israel.

Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd, as foreign ministers, did not distinguish themselves on the question of Tamil refugees. Rudd did not prove as adroit in managing international relations as his background as a diplomat might have foreshadowed, particularly with respect to China and Indonesia. Bob Carr had a grasp of the Middle East and China but failed with Tamil refugees. He worked well with his department. Julie Bishop was a foreign policy lightweight and her successor, Marise Payne, more so.

Without consistent leadership the department has drifted. Perversely senior officers have been praised for overseeing Australia’s biggest foreign policy disaster since WWII — the collapse of the relationship with China. In July 2021, Kathryn Campbell was appointed to replace Frances Adamson. Campbell is a major-general in the army reserve. She has no experience in foreign policy. Under the Morrison government foreign policy has become increasingly militarised. Perhaps Campbell was seen as a useful asset in this new framework.

The Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI), funded by US arms manufacturers, US government and Australian government, has moved under Scott Morrison to occupy a position of primary adviser to government on foreign policy and defence matters. It has adopted a hardline approach towards China and advocates military support for Taiwan. It is opening an office in Washington which will poach much of the work undertaken by the embassy. It has marginalised DFAT and has a strong policy input with Defence. It has the ear of Morrison and Dutton; Payne has been marginalised.

It no doubt had influence in the cancellation of the French submarine contract and adoption of the unbalanced AUKUS agreement. Australian sovereignty and strategic interests will be undermined.

Since the Cold War, US military and diplomatic interests have been interwoven. The US operates on the basis that its military strength provides diplomatic leverage and reinforces negotiations. As a result of lobbying by the State Department and ASPI, Morrison is going down the same path. He appears to have accepted that Australian foreign policy will be shaped and driven by defence priorities.

AUKUS is a case in point. When fully implemented it will see the militarisation of northern Australian with US assets directed against China. Pine Gap is being expanded to take account of the enhanced surveillance requirements this posture will require.

Morrison has not bothered to negotiate with China to reverse their trade sanctions. He appears to believe with the US at his back and with enhanced Australian defence assets he can bully to bring about change in the relationship. Never mind that the US has stepped in and helped itself to some of Australia’s lost market. Morrison has sought a strengthened Five Eyes and militarise the Quad. In recent months he has strengthened military ties with South Korea and Japan and his conversations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been about strategic concerns.

On other major diplomatic issues such as climate change, Morrison has shown no interest and in fact made a fool of himself at Glasgow. He has also shown little interest or understanding in trade. Through the influence of ASPI and his own inclinations Morrison has ceded formulation of Australian international and defence relations to Washington, aided by the absence of moral courage, pride and vision in government and politicisation of the public service.

Morrison has sold out; Australia has forfeited sovereignty. Our ability to forge independent policy and relationships has been considerably constrained.

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