Three governments are currently consulting their constituents. Two are offering them a significant choice about future foreign policy: one is not. The US asks delegates to decide between a President Donald Trump who would expel Hispanics, bar entry to Muslims, and flatten parts of the Middle East, and a President Hillary Clinton who would take a tougher line against states which challenge the US. The UK has asked citizens to decide if Britain should separate from the European Union and, presumably, tie itself more tightly to the US. Australian leaders are asking voters almost nothing about what foreign policy initiatives would differentiate Prime Minister Turnbull from a Prime Minister Shorten.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek offers to fix the vexed question of East Timor’s access to offshore oil, whose origins implicate both major parties, by holding ‘good faith’ talks (Tanya Plibersek, Lowy Institute). But apart from that, she debates nothing specific or markedly different, wrapping herself in a cloak of bipartisanship, as she did at the National Press Club on 21 June. Unsurprisingly, both she and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said they wanted a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes, and both claimed Australia didn’t take sides on it.
Bishop is hardly challenged by Labor. Failing to anticipate the Brexit result (as most of us did) she discerns no vexed questions that need debate, sheltering instead under the umbrella of perpetual US hegemony. Failing to notice how leaky it is, she does not question the fundamental assumption behind our Defence White Paper, that ANZUS guarantees Australia’s defence. She mutely supports our extravagant submarine purchase, and our troop deployments in Iraq and Syria. John Menadue lists as evidence of her lack of substance Bishop’s unnecessary belligerence towards China, her slashing of aid, her evasion of a global ban on nuclear weapons, and says she prefers public heroics about the reverse Colombo plan and successful consular cases (Julie Bishop – Foreign Minister or Senior Consular Officer, 14/06/2016).
But there is more. Bishop (like all our foreign ministers) talks tough about the ‘rule of law’, implying that China doesn’t adhere to it. But does Australia, in respect of corruption, refugees, illegal invasions, threat and use of force? And does the US, which has not signed up to the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, and rejects the Convention on Biodiversity, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Protocol on Torture, and Convention on the Law of the Sea? Since 1948, Taiwan has claimed all the territories China does in the South China Sea (as Vietnam does too), yet we and the US choose to lecture only the PRC about the rule of law. Bishop tried to marginalise China when it announced the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, but was overruled lest we be marginalised ourselves, and Australia belatedly got in.
In spite of the disaster Australia and our allies illegally created in Iraq, Bishop has shown no interest in discussing how we did it and why. The Coalition rejects calls for an Australian investigation to match Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, which is due to report in early July. In spite of numerous requests, Bishop has offered no clarity about the terms on which Australian troops are currently deployed in Iraq and Syria, at whose explicit invitation, under what Status of Forces Agreement, or with what class of passports, let alone why or for how long.
Many Australians welcomed Turnbull’s accession as Prime Minister, which Bishop supported, as a promise of change. But neither of them rose to the challenge in foreign affairs. Nothing changed, apart from somewhat less bombing of Syria. Voters know nothing about how Australia proposes to vote in the UN on the Palestinian state question, nor on the perennial Cuban resolution, nor on our contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Jogging round Beijing is to Bishop’s credit, but a more agile foreign minister might even think of Australia offering to be an honest broker in the South and East China Sea disputes. Similarly, she might urge our American ally to talk quietly to North Korea one on one, as they have done with Iran, about a peace treaty with the South. Appointing the first woman Secretary of DFAT is a landmark, but a more influential foreign minister might ensure that the foreign service is properly funded, instead of being repeatedly raided to reduce the Government’s deficit. Her advocacy for women and girls is creditable, but it seems not to extend to those Australia holds in refugee detention.
It is left to the Greens’ Richard Di Natale (Lowy Institute, 17 May 2016) to offer Australians an alternative foreign policy. He takes up Malcolm Fraser’s argument for Australian strategic independence. Di Natale says Australia is threatened, not directly, but by the US alliance itself. Since 1901 Australia, he points out, is the only country to have joined the US in every major war, and we therefore share responsibility for the consequences. Bases in Australia, he points out, support drone assassinations by the US, which kill and injure civilians as well as suspected terrorists, and make Australia a target. The Greens support neither the war on Syria nor the enormously costly submarine purchase. In Di Natale’s assessment, the multiple threats posed by global warming put Australia’s security at greater risk than international terrorism.
Richard Woolcott, a former head of the Department, has deplored the priority of process over policy in DFAT in recent times. This consequence is only to be expected in a country whose efforts to shape its relations with others have rarely failed to give in to the will of its major allies, and which starves its foreign ministry of resources and power. Australia has little experience in identifying its own interests, let alone inclination to pursue them innovatively, or ability to explain its decisions to the public. Fewer voters than ever now expect to hear debates about foreign policy. They know our leaders won’t talk about the war, won’t mention Special Intelligence Operations, and won’t answer questions about Operational Matters. We don’t have to choose between the US and China, they repeat robotically, knowing that Australia has chosen already, but both sides of politics refuse to discuss it.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Honest History and Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform