17 April 2019
Last year, Bill Shorten promised that if he were elected, Australian foreign policy will “speak with a clear Australian accent”. He insisted he would assert Australian values, and would be confident, independent and ambitious. So, it will be interesting to see how – when it is inevitably raised during this election campaign – he handles his plain-speaking description of Donald Trump in 2016 as “barking mad”, and as an “extremist” who takes the “low road” and is “entirely unsuitable” to be president. Of course, some diplomatic moderation is understandable when transitioning to leadership. But recent Australian leaders have tended to go further, and to suppress their moral compass – their “accents” – when they step onto the global stage.
As an election looms, a comparison of the two major parties’ approaches reveals a rare and welcome bipartisanship, but also an urgent need for Australia to more emphatically find its voice in foreign affairs. When it comes to foreign policy, the ALP and the Coalition largely overlap. Both agree that US power in the region is under threat, that Australia should encourage trade with China without sacrificing its interests and values, and must urgently boost ties with its island neighbours. There are some differences in rhetoric and nuance. Labor, for instance, is likely to spend more than the Coalition on foreign aid, and the Coalition is likely to be more sceptical of multilateral organisations such as the United Nations. But it’s improbable that any of these will play a significant part in the forthcoming election campaign.
This bipartisan foreign policy consensus is partly due to the nation’s current global position and outlook. Recent international shifts have not been in Australia’s interests: the US is turning protectionist and its status in the Asia-Pacific is under challenge; China is growing more assertive and more repressive; illiberalism is on the rise, including in South-East Asia. Australia’s best hope, as both parties insist, is for a strong global system of rules that can prevent any of these emerging forces undermining regional peace, stability and trade.
Another reason for the consensus is that neither Scott Morrison nor Shorten are particularly experienced or proactive in foreign affairs. Neither has a personal vision or belief or background that might encourage them to take risks or to challenge the agenda set by Canberra.
But a further reason is that both sides of politics share the same weaknesses and are inclined to make similar mistakes. Both, for instance, tend to put narrow domestic political interests – such as stopping asylum seekers – above foreign affairs, often to the detriment of relations with immediate neighbours. Both have also struggled to develop clarity in their approach to China, which would involve assessing the extent of Beijing’s ambitions, establishing when and how Australia should be willing to push back, and calculating the costs of such resistance.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition has shown the sort of leadership that could best promote a strong rules-based global order. An exception was the response to Trump’s trade policies, when the Coalition joined countries such as Japan and Canada to champion international free trade and to try to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While that indicated Canberra’s potential to shape international affairs, it now needs to display strong and unambiguous commitment to addressing issues ranging from climate change to strengthening the World Trade Organization. Australian leaders should also position themselves as firm opponents of the world’s growing club of illiberal authoritarians. This involves speaking candidly about the nation’s values, even when they are at odds with those of allies such as the US or of trade partners such as China.
Whoever wins the election should recall that Trump praised New Zealand even after Jacinda Ardern told him to send sympathy and love to all Muslim communities. They should also recall that Christopher Pyne warned that a Trump presidency would be “terrifying” and that the US alliance did not come unstuck when Pyne later became defence minister. This election, as with most Australian elections, will not turn on foreign policy – partly because the major parties agree on so much. But it is also because, on the global stage, Australian leaders have been struggling to find their voice.