Why has Labor lost its once-strong voice on foreign policy? (AFR August 25, 2020)

Aug 27, 2020

The opposition has failed to ask what the government has received in return for its lavish support of Trump’s regional strategies.

It is understandable for the opposition to seek to make itself a small target this far out from an election. It is even more understandable that it would want to avoid being wedged by the government over national security, especially as Labor consistently rates below the Coalition in voters’ perceptions of competence in this area.

But voters do want to know where the Opposition stands on key issues beyond bland shibboleths of greater multilateralism, closer regional cooperation, and foreign policy independence, without ever saying what exactly they mean.

When it was announced last month that the Foreign and Defence ministers were travelling to Washington at a time when Australia was locked down, the Opposition Leader rushed to endorse the visit so there could be no suggestion that he did not support this extravagant show of fidelity to the Alliance.

Instead, the virus emergency could have been used to question the government on why a  physical attendance was so important: what would be the agenda and what position would Australia be taking on matters such as freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, the US troop presence in Darwin, intermediate ballistic missiles and proposals for arms control, and whether Australia would associate itself with the top US officials calling explicitly for the containment of China?

In short, what price would we be asking in return for giving the White House so much face before the election?

One announcement from the recent AUSMIN talks was that Australia and the US had agreed on a ‘‘secret’’ 10-point military cooperation arrangement. In 1995, when Paul Keating entered into a ‘‘secret’’ treaty with Indonesia’s president Suharto, the Coalition opened a sustained attack on ‘‘secret covenants, derived secretly’’, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 attack on disastrous pre-war secret diplomacy. Are we to assume that in government, Labor would be in favour of ‘‘secret’’ treaties?

The trip to Washington may have been worth the airfare if the ministers made it clear to our ally that Australia would pursue an independent foreign policy. Strangely, the Opposition has not sought an explanation from the government on what this means in practice – apart from apparently not participating in FONOPs – which the ADF has long refused to support in any case.

Does Australia’s newly minted independent foreign policy mean we no longer see China as a strategic competitor or that we will not join the US in policies to contain China?

Where does that leave our enthusiasm for the Quad (comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia) or our eagerness to participate in the Indian-led Malabar naval exercises, thereby militarising the Quad? All this, according to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, is intended to not only contain China but push it back. Surely this is something an Opposition would want to know.

AUSMIN was preceded by a joint US, Australia and Japan sail-through in the South China Sea – not a FONOP. The Opposition has not wanted to know why Australia contributed five ships, a significant proportion of the country’s fleet, while Japan contributed just one vessel out of a considerably bigger fleet. It appears Labor also agrees that Australia should make a proportionately greater contribution to regional peace and security than Japan.

The Opposition seems to have drunk the government’s Kool-Aid on the Indo-Pacific idea, effectively Trump’s foreign policy doctrine that replaces Obama’s pivot. It is, of course, an attempt to enlist India in helping to balance China on our behalf. It is a concept rather than a reality. India has no security engagement in East Asia and relatively little trade or investment interest there.

Nevertheless, if the Indo-Pacific region matters to Australian security or, rather, Canberra believes India can be manoeuvred into balancing China on our behalf, wouldn’t the Opposition expect the Prime Minister to send one of Australia’s most experienced diplomats to represent the country as its High Commissioner?

After all, India’s foreign policy calculus is much more complicated and dangerous than Australia’s, with nuclear-armed antagonists such as Pakistan and China on its borders. Whatever Barry O’Farrell’s undoubted achievements might have been as NSW premier, he is unlikely to carry much weight in Delhi’s foreign and strategic policy salons. Apparently, Labor, too, doesn’t think it matters much who is sent to these highly sensitive posts. If in government, it can be expected to do the same.

Labor also seems to have bought the government’s assertion that Australia will not trade away its values for the sale of another tonne of barley or kilo of beef. It has not sought to find out from the government which values are under threat, and why.

Nor does it point out that fundamental to national security is economic security; and although we don’t like it much, the reality is we get that security from our trade with China.

In the process of aligning Australia ever more closely with America’s increasingly bellicose stance towards China, the government has set out to de-legitimise business interests in the relationship. Presumably, the Opposition agrees.

Foreign policy was once an important point of differentiation between Labor and the Coalition, helping to establish its fitness for government.

Labor once had the courage to have a voice and a vision that energised voters around a view of the world that differed from the government of the day and with which many Australians could identify. Such Australians today feel disenfranchised by the Opposition.

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