A lengthy list: Australia’s future foreign policy challenges
15 Aug 2013|

dfat-countries-signpostBut for the attention certain to be given to the issue of asylum seekers, it is unlikely that foreign policy will play much of a role in the forthcoming election campaign. That’s regrettable, as there are several international issues and relationships that could well be handled differently depending on who wins the approaching poll. The full extent of the differences is difficult to articulate as neither Labor nor the Coalition has yet released its policy platform, but already there’s been enough in various statements by the leaders, ministers and shadow ministers to indicate that there’s certain to be a measure of product differentiation.

While policy change is likely, there’s often strong continuity in the conduct of Australian foreign policy. Incoming governments inherit a policy legacy and are also successors to an Australian foreign policy tradition—a national style of acting in international relations. The legacy and the style can change over time, but initially they can act as constraints on policy innovation and reform. The style is by definition more enduring, so we can expect the incoming government to act in some wholly familiar ways. For example, it will remain committed to Australia’s strong tradition of alignment in international affairs; sustain a wide network of relationships across the globe and in multilateral organisations; emphasise the importance of engagement with the countries of the Asia–Pacific; and seek to address global and regional problems practically as a contribution to problem solving. It will also demonstrate, in JDB Miller’s rich morsel of a phrase, a certain ‘dogged low‑gear idealism’—in more recent parlance, good international citizenship in the conduct of our foreign relations.

My chapter in ASPI’s new Strategy paper Agenda for change, however, is less about trying to predict the things an incoming government might do than seeking to explore the issues that arguably should receive priority on the foreign policy agenda. Central among them are:

  • restoring the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to organisational and budgetary health
  • consolidating key relationships in Asia
  • responding to change in the Pacific
  • advancing the stalled trade agenda
  • reconsidering priorities in AusAID.

I expand on each of these points in the new report. Here I’ll confine myself to the first of those points—the organisational and budgetary distress in which DFAT currently finds itself. Central to these problems has been a refusal on the part of successive governments to decide, other than by way of budgetary austerity, whether DFAT should continue its traditional role as the key policy agency in the conduct of Australia’s foreign policy. Holding back resources suggests a significant shift in sentiment, one that accepts DFAT playing a less influential, more marginal role in policymaking and largely assuming the status of a service delivery agency. Yet there’s been no formal decision to that effect, nor, it seems, any reduction in expectations that it will continue to provide all of the advice and service that it’s traditionally delivered.

This is unsustainable, certainly poor public policy, and a reform challenge the incoming government should confront. The government might consider producing a new foreign policy white paper—there have only ever been two, the last in 2003. This larger, more ambitious enterprise could look closely at DFAT’s resourcing and managerial challenges. It would also offer an opportunity to review the implications of over a decade of sustained change in international affairs and its impact on the conduct of our foreign relations. In particular, it would enable the incoming government to examine comprehensively all of Australia’s foreign policy interests, not merely those focused on the Asia–Pacific.  This is long overdue.

The foreign policy agenda set out above for the incoming government is lengthy and could easily be expanded further. For example, as Anthony Bergin and others have pointed out recently, our engagement in Antarctica, which has a rich heritage in Australian foreign policy, is being slowly degraded through declining investment and policy inattention. Our status at the forefront of efforts to build greater rigour into the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including through strengthening controls on the supply of materials, is certainly worthy of inclusion on the list. And the 2010 proposal for a treaty‑level bilateral Framework Agreement between Australia and the European Union to place the relationship on a new 21st century foundation, remains to be concluded and deserves to be pursued. Finally, the burgeoning expansion of Australia’s relations with the countries of South America shouldn’t be neglected.

Nevertheless, the agenda items listed above are the most important and most urgent.

If this looks like a challenging agenda before an election, it probably won’t become any easier afterwards. All these issues will need to be managed in the almost certain knowledge that however expertly the incoming government plans and approaches the challenges it faces, it will also need to prepare for the unexpected. Another global financial crisis may be unlikely, but unwelcome and unforeseen events and crises have a habit of confounding and subverting the best laid plans for the sound and orderly conduct of Australia’s foreign relations.

Professor Russell Trood is Adjunct Professor, Defence and Security Program, United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a former ASPI Council member. Image courtesy of DFAT.

This article is excerpted from chapter 4 of ASPI’s new Strategy report Agenda for change: strategic choices for the next government.