ALISON BROINOWSKI. A Foreign Affairs White Paper. What is there to inquire about?

Aug 29, 2016


We have just had a Federal election, so now the inquiry season has begun. The government already has a Royal Commission inquiring into the detention of children in the Northern Territory, it wants a plebiscite on gay marriage, the inquiry into institutional child abuse is still running, and the Opposition wants one on the banks.

Now we are promised a White Paper to provide a ‘philosophical framework’ for foreign affairs that will ‘to guide Australia’s engagement’. It won’t appear for a year, but at least foreign affairs are being thought about. After all, in 2003 when Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile brought out Australia’s first Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper, they said it articulated the key challenges Australia would face over the next 15 years, so the government can take its time working with what it has until 2018.

Inquiry season gives the voters the impression that election promises are not forgotten and may be implemented. But action can’t be put off too long. When Malcolm Turnbull took over from Tony Abbott he promised to be consultative, but by collecting too many conflicting opinions he got trapped between them. The positive anticipation that had made him popular soon seeped into the political sand. Long before him, Kevin Rudd had done the same, setting up an ‘Ideas Summit’ which raised the hopes of many and then dashed them, particularly on climate change, and a Defence White Paper that took too long. Julia Gillard commissioned Ken Henry to write a White Paper on ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, but its implementation was eroded by her failure to find sufficient funds. Tony Abbott, on the other hand, didn’t pause to inquire how to keep his three-word promises to stop the boats or fix the budget. He couldn’t wait to get Australian troops back into Iraq, then into Syria, and he even tried for Libya. Only his Labor predecessor, Gough Whitlam, had such a clear foreign policy agenda, and implemented it so fast, without resort to any inquiry.

The philosophical bedrock of Australian foreign policy was laid by a Liberal, Percy Spender, in 1951 and has not been dislodged. Dependence on the US to defend us – which the treaty does not guarantee – has since been hyped to become a bipartisan article of faith. Robert Menzies was bold enough in 1960 to decline America’s request for Australia to defend Quemoy and Matsu, and the US refused to involve its troops in West Irian, Konfrontasi, or East Timor. But when Whitlam challenged the United States in 1975 over its intelligence bases in Australia, President Nixon threatened to abrogate the alliance (as James Curran records in Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, 2015). What happened to Whitlam made no Australian prime minister willing to risk that again. Rudd declared that his foreign policy stood firmly on three pillars, Asia, the UN, and ANZUS, and while Julie Bishop’s new ‘philosophical framework’ may put different labels on the structure, perhaps adding a genuflection to the Commonwealth, the alliance will remain its core.

So what philosophical guidance can Julie Bishop’s White Paper give Australia that we don’t already have? A Conservative government always seeks to increase trade and to cooperate politically with like-minded countries, but dislikes multilateralism and is wary of fundamental change to its security arrangements. Promising to emphasise ‘economic diplomacy’, Bishop will offer more ‘free’ trade agreements, in the face of economic data showing negative benefits for Australia (Australian ‘Free Trade Mythology’, 24 August 2016:11). She can be expected to step adroitly around the policy quagmires of immigration and refugees, climate change, and the open-ended deployment of Australian forces in the Middle East, leaving those to her Cabinet colleagues. But the hard-edged options in foreign policy have moved away from DFAT (ref. Menadue, Woolcott). Since 2001, Foreign Affairs has rapidly been reduced to a process portfolio, while policy has been coopted by the Prime Minister’s Department and the security agencies. While she accepts cuts to Australia’s ODA, Bishop will emphasise the ‘New Colombo Plan’ for young Australians to study in Asian countries, and her agenda for women and girls.

What the White Paper can be predicted not to discuss is the key question: the future of ANZUS. Both the Coalition and Labor piously assert that the US is and will continue to be a great power. They look the other way when anyone mentions uncertainty about America’s political leaders, the capacity of the US to project American will, and its staying power when challenged. There will be no reference to Malcolm Fraser’s claim that the greatest threat to Australia comes from its American ally, and his call to Australians to reclaim their ‘strategic independence’ (Dangerous Allies, 2014). Nor will reference be made to Australia in the Asian Century, which Bishop has reportedly expunged from the DFAT website, presumably because it proposes that all Australians should become ‘Asia-capable’ and that positive relations with five key Asian countries should be deepened and intensified. This is, of course, contrary to John Howard’s dictum that Australia doesn’t have to change to be acceptable in Asia, and it the premises of successive Defence White Papers, which are that China, Australia’s largest trading partner, is our main target.

In this inquiry season, public consultation in advance of the Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper has not been mentioned. If Australians are asked to submit their views, the government may have to explain how we choose our enemies and at what cost. The Foreign Minister may be asked about why, with so many other inquiries ongoing, Australia has nothing to match the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, in which her colleagues were and remain complicit.

Dr Alison Broinowski, 
Vice-President, Honest History, 
Vice-President, Australians for War Powers Reform

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