02 April 2012

Another Drum piece

Come for the amateur foreign policy analysis, stay for the comments.

Here is the full text which I sent to The Drum for you to appreciate their editing:

Australian foreign policy is not connected to our political system, and it is utterly unrelated to the way Australians interact with other countries. We lack the political leadership to better engage with other countries, let alone exploit any opportunities that may come our way. The coming of Bob Carr to Canberra has not resolved the lack of foreign policy leadership, and nor will replacing this government with the opposition.

When Kevin Rudd recontested the Labor leadership – was it only a month ago? – his backers made two claims for him. They claimed he had changed his bad administrative and interpersonal habits, and that he was a vote-puller. The reason why I didn’t believe them is because of what Rudd didn’t say and do during his time as Foreign Minister.

Studying Chinese at uni and having built his public profile as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd clearly has a passion for foreign affairs and Australia’s place in the world. Rudd could have transformed our understanding of foreign policy in the way that Paul Keating transformed our understanding of economics. In the 1980s Keating wanted to transform the economy and become Prime Minister, but he knew that he could not do either until he learned to put his policies in pithy, cut-through phrasing. He used that phrasing over and over and over until journalists and caucus members talked about nothing else but what Keating wanted to talk about. He even led the country into a recession and told us we had to cop it, an extraordinary act of persuasion.

This country urgently needs a clear understanding of how we are to engage with the Asia-Pacific. Our history has been one of longing looks to far-off Europe and America, oblivious to and fearful of Asia as a whole. Asian countries seemed to be full of people who were either incredibly docile and friendly, or incredibly violent and threatening. Over the past twenty years policy-makers have exhorted us in general terms to become part of Asia, and at the same time assured that we are already part of Asia. When he was appointed Foreign Minister, Rudd could have told us – and showed us – what we can do in our daily lives to engage more fully with Asian countries, Asian cultures and Asian economies.

Australians are not only travelling to Asian countries in record numbers but spending more and more time there – in places like Bali and Thailand, thousands of Australians are even buying homes. There has been political turmoil in Thailand over recent years, a country visited by thousands of Australians each year and now one of our largest trading partners. In terms of telling Australians what’s going on there, the ABC’s Zoe Daniel has more than earned her pay and Kevin Rudd very much hasn’t. It’s time for policy to catch up with where we are at as a people, and to get specific about where we need to be.

Over recent weeks there have been a lot of earnest and wide-ranging screeds about Australian foreign policy published in our newspapers, designed as primers for incoming Foreign Minister and Senator Bob Carr. There was lots of stuff about the US vs China, and the growing power of Asian countries generally, and the challenge to encourage growing powers away from the temptation to become more powerful through war. Most of those articles could have been written for pretty much anyone who replaced Kevin Rudd, whether this was Stephen Smith, Simon Crean or – if Labor really imploded badly – Julie Bishop (about whom more later).

There has been a lot written about Carr too, and before he was appointed to his current role we should have seen more articles examining his performance as NSW Premier and fewer about what a great communicator journalists find him to be. Carr is one for the Big Themes, like US-China. Even second-order foreign policy challenges like Burma can be framed in terms of Tyranny vs Freedom, with of course the iconic figure of Aung San Suu Kyi. Where Big Themes are hard to find in an area of foreign policy, it will be hard to hold Carr’s interest.

This was demonstrated early and well with his ham-fisted response to the political upheaval in Papua New Guinea. Political upheaval is frequent, if not normal, in Papua New Guinea while it is much less so here. Except for our military campaign there in the early 1940s (and that was targeted against the Japanese than for the people of PNG themselves), Australia’s relationship with PNG has tended to be exploitative and patronising. It isn’t part of Australia, so we don’t control it; but it has strong strategic importance to Australia so our leaders and policy-makers can’t ignore what goes on there.

Carr backed down from his threat to cut off aid, and no doubt he will go there soon covered in ashes and sackcloth to some extent. It would be a mistake to assume Carr will reinvent Australia’s relationship with our near neighbours in Melanesia and Polynesia. The Big Themes simply don’t fit there, and nor is there much scope for spin and hype in this foreign policy issue: the “24 hour news cycle” can and does go for weeks and months without even mentioning PNG, the Solomons, Fiji, Samoa or Tuvalu.
As Premier of NSW, Carr disdained the quotidian. He could release a high-level statement about the economy with high-minded stuff about jobs and growth, but the details of taxes, privatisations and budgeting left him cold. So long as schools taught history he didn’t seem to care much what else went on within them, including Asian languages. Jeremy Sammut has given a good summary of his health policy. Carr was only interested in sport during the Sydney Olympics, but then failed to capitalise on the opportunities it presented. The housing shortage in Sydney, and don’t get me started on transport … I could go on, as many others have, but all seemed to fall strangely silent during Carr’s ascent to the Foreign Ministry.

It is easy to say that Carr will engage with the Big Themes and leave the quotidian to others, but it isn’t that simple. Watch him in the Great Hall Of The People as he soaks in the awe and majesty of China, and watch his eyes glaze over as his hosts talk about the particular types of dirt from Western Australia in which they are keenly interested. Watch him rhapsodise about Indonesia while attempting to dodge questions about boat-borne refugees (which he could do as a state premier). Watch excited Papua New Guineans ask him about rugby league, and although he has lived his life in Rabbitohs country he will have little to say. Carr is a fast study, but there’s a line about old dogs and new tricks that applies here.

All this means the Opposition’s foreign policy is worth a look. In a long speech to the National Press Club on 1 February, Tony Abbott devoted just one sentence to foreign policy:
We will concentrate on the areas that are most important to Australia and where Australia can make the most difference, so our foreign policy will have a Jakarta focus rather than a Geneva one.
What about an Australia focus? The last Coalition government was often accused of having a Washington-focused foreign policy, is that gone now? In addressing the rising power of India, do we have to first consider what Jakarta thinks? What could “Jakarta focus” mean?

On 10 March 2010 Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed Federal Parliament. His speech was warm and generous, focusing on Australia-Indonesian relations as the solving of problems and the pursuit of opportunities. The Prime Minister responded in kind. The Leader of the Opposition did not, telling the President that his country was a source of people-smugglers and other problems. To focus on problems between countries rather than solutions and friendship is an act of hostility, and as was said at the time an act of rudeness by Abbott towards Yudhoyono.

Since then, Tony Abbott and his immigration spokesman has called for asylum-seeker boats to be turned around and sent back to Indonesia. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has reportedly assured the Indonesians that this is for domestic consumption only, and that Liberal foreign policy (such as it is) is actually well disposed toward their country. The fact is, domestic politics trumps foreign policy every time: there is no better example of this than Kevin Rudd, whose foreign policy platform fell out from under him because he mishandled his domestic politics.

The proposal to station US drones on the Cocos/Keeling Islands was initially reported for its impact on the Big Themes of US and China. It took a concerted effort by Indonesia policy-wonks to get media attention on the impact such an announcement might have on Indonesia: the Cocos/Keeling Islands are far closer to Jakarta than they are to Canberra, or Beijing for that matter. By then, however, Tony “Jakarta focus” Abbott had endorsed the proposal.

Liberal foreign policy promises honeyed words toward Indonesia while our armed forces patrol the seas and skies expecting threats and incursions. This is poor foreign policy, there should be more to our interests than that. The recent visit by Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa to Canberra was an implicit rebuff to Abbott; so much for the Coalition’s Jakarta-focused foreign policy.

At this point the political professionals might pipe up and declare that foreign policy isn’t a vote-winner: yes, but bad foreign policy is a vote loser. In 2004 Abbott’s predecessor Mark Latham made disparaging remarks about US President George W. Bush. This is not to say that Bush was a beloved figure in this country, but it’s a fact that the Prime Minister of Australia must have a good relationship with the President of the United States. They don’t have to be chummy – John Howard’s relationship with Bill Clinton was awkward, but the two men worked together for the sake of both countries. Latham wasn’t prepared to get over himself to do that, part of the reason why he didn’t become Prime Minister but his more accommodating Shadow Foreign Minister did.

Australians have never really had an input into foreign policy, but the way Australians trade and travel and otherwise interact with other countries could not be any more disconnected from the way our officials do so. We lack the political leadership to bridge the gap between Canberra and the rest of the country, a gap that makes room for mischief and misunderstanding to impede our relationship with our world.

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