Insulating foreign policy from domestic politics: The legacy of Marise Payne

Sep 12, 2023
Marise Payne

Marise Payne’s tenure as Australia’s Foreign Minister was rightly marked with criticism. Australia’s international and strategic interests went backwards during her time. But was she really Australia’s worst Foreign Minister as some commentators assert? It’s important to consider the root cause of the damage done to Australia’s national interests: the belligerent interference and harm done by Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

Australia’s standing in the international arena and our strategic foreign policy interests clearly degraded while Payne was Foreign Minister from 2018 to 2022. From deteriorating relations with China to strained ties with key allies and the Pacific things went backwards. But to label her as Australia’s worst Foreign Minister based solely on these outcomes would be an oversimplification. It would assume she was in control and had agency on foreign policy. This was clearly not the case.

Marise Payne allowed herself to be bullied as Minister into outsourcing foreign policy to then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. On key national interest issues, Marise Payne was silent and seemed almost embarrassed while decisions were made elsewhere. This damaged Australia’s capacity to project coherent and effective foreign policy. Payne’s subservience to Morrison and Dutton contributed to the overshadowing of her role. It allowed Morrison and Dutton to run the show.

Good Foreign Ministers are those who engage in nuanced, diplomatic negotiations, free from the interference of domestic political agendas. Unfortunately, Payne’s tenure was consistently marked by instances where for personal or Party-political reasons, she was overshadowed by the ambitions of others. This weakened Australia’s diplomatic relations and sent troubling messages to the international community about our commitment to principled foreign policy.

A lesson for the current Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, is to make sure that she doesn’t fall victim to the same dynamic. Foreign policy should be driven by a clear vision that aligns with long-term national interests. It’s essential for Foreign Ministers to articulate and advocate for this vision, even in the face of personal or internal political pressures. While compromise and collaboration are integral parts of governance, Foreign Ministers must display the courage to assert their authority when it comes to matters of national significance. Marise Payne didn’t do this. And there are signs that Penny Wong isn’t either – particularly on critical issues like climate change and AUKUS.

As a major fossil fuel exporter and nation highly vulnerable to climate change, Australia’s foreign policy must align with international efforts and the science on combating the climate crisis. Wong must demonstrate stronger leadership on ending fossil fuel dependency. She must ensure and advocate clearly that Australia’s stance aligns with our national interests in rapid decarbonisation and an end to fossil fuel exports and subsidies, irrespective of domestic political considerations.

The AUKUS alliance was clearly rushed into by Scott Morrison. But is also appears to have been blindly followed by Labor for domestic political reasons. While promising enhanced security, it actually carries significant risks and costs. Ensuring that Australia’s foreign policy interests are grounded in a strategic vision that safeguards our long-term security doesn’t mean blindly continuing with AUKUS. Resonating arguments against AUKUS are that it not only represents a massive waste of money but also creates a significant security risk to Australia by provoking China and straining relations with our Southeast Asian neighbours with whom we have shared interests concerning China. But Penny Wong seems to be still toeing the Labor line and allowing the Defence and Prime Minister to run the show. This is a high price to pay – for the budget and our national interests.

Good Foreign Ministers have vision, assertiveness, and the courage to act in the best interests of the nation, rather than in response to personal and Party-political pressures. Marise Payne’s legacy is a reminder of these essential qualities. Her tenure should not be dismissed as solely the result of her inadequacy. Indeed, it serves as a reminder of the importance of insulating foreign policy from domestic politics. Only when Foreign Ministers are brave and empowered enough to have the autonomy and authority to lead can Australia truly advance its interests and standing on the global stage. Marise Payne’s experience should be food for thought for Penny Wong.

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