Agenda for Change 2016: the strategic agenda
7 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Eiigenberg Fotografie

This piece is drawn from Agenda for Change 2016: strategic choices for the next government.

In the August 2013 version of Agenda for Change, I suggested four big reforms for the incoming government:

  • Develop a global rather than Asia-centric foreign policy focus, set it out in a new Foreign Policy White Paper and increase Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) funding by $100 million a year by reducing AusAID funding.
  • Return order and consistency to defence planning by reconciling ambitious equipment plans with budget realities.
  • Rethink approaches to cybersecurity by committing to a Cyber Security White Paper within 12 months of taking office, and boost cyber policy and decision‐making capabilities.
  • Take a more disciplined approach to using the cabinet for decision-making. Rethink the roles of junior ministers and strengthen the use of parliament to help produce better quality policy.

As we approach the 2016 election, how did my recommendations fair over a tumultuous first term for the Coalition government? I’ll claim one ‘half done’ reform, two substantially implemented and one that didn’t even make it out of the gate.

The foreign policy recommendation stands as ‘half done’ in my view. The government has clearly adopted a more global as opposed to an Asia-focused foreign policy. While the tone has changed, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull both championed closer Australian engagement with Europe, partly because of the need for closer counterterrorism cooperation, partly to diversify economic interests as Chinese growth slowed. It wasn’t coincidental that Germany was an early visit destination for Malcolm Turnbull, given his commitment to innovation and new ideas driving economic growth. There’s been a remarkable increase in cooperation with European countries on intelligence, defence and counterterrorism matters, and the decision to buy a French-designed submarine will transform that bilateral relationship as we learn to deal with a French ‘parent navy’.

Government continues to put priority on military operations in the Middle East and on the US alliance, and has shown refreshing interest in emerging relationships in Africa (minus an effective aid program, though) and Latin America. It turns out that Australia can take a more global approach and still keep the closest engagement with Asia. This isn’t an ‘either/or’ choice, even though many foreign policy ‘Asia only’ advocates insist that it is.

Implementing a grown-up, globalised foreign policy is a signal achievement for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has managed to increase Australia’s foreign representation overseas—the first such growth of overseas missions in more than 20 years. Bishop has also affectively linked Australian aid priorities towards broader foreign policy goals by bringing AusAID into DFAT. She has also made effective use of multilateral institutions and promoted quality people-to-people linkages through her New Colombo Plan training scheme.

With those successes, it’s puzzling that government hasn’t committed to a new Foreign Policy White Paper. Julia Gillard’s Asian Century White Paper was rightly committed to the electronic archives, but nothing credibly and crisply sets out the government’s foreign policy priorities has replaced it. It should be an easy task for a returned Coalition government to develop such a policy statement. Diplomacy without the underpinnings of an articulated strategy is a bit like improvised theatre: creative, but soon forgotten. If Julie Bishop stays as Foreign Minister, she should tell us in a White Paper what the government’s foreign policy stands for. A Labor government should want to do the same. Tanya Plibersek as foreign minister will need to set out her own thinking on foreign policy priorities, establish lines of continuity to past Labor approaches and work out what policy settings from the past three years to keep and what to change.

Of my other suggestions, the cyber policy statement was released in April 2016. Better late than never, although delaying such a paper for years hardly suggests that the bureaucracy ‘gets’ the need for speed in dealing with the fast-changing cyberworld. The policy is solid, and unexpectedly revealed that Australia maintains a capacity to mount ‘offensive’ cyber operations. In a difficult fiscal environment, money has been found to support closer engagement between government and the business community on cyber matters. Expectations of further policy development in that area are high, particularly given Turnbull’s deep understanding of telecommunications. The need for a strong cyber policy and better whole-of-government implementation is greater now than three years ago, so rapidly is the area developing.

The 2016 Defence White Paper fully delivers on the recommendation to align Defence equipment plans with budget realities. Both the government and the opposition remain committed to lifting defence spending to 2% of GDP. The White Paper is better costed than all its predecessors. Via a circuitous path, the government has finally landed on a long-term commitment to continuous shipbuilding in Australia, so we can finally pack away the wet dreams of dry zealots about shipping defence industry offshore. Of course, the believability of the 2016 DWP is tied to the government’s spending commitment in what we all know is a worsening budgetary situation. But what policy isn’t tied to future spending decisions? At least the White Paper will show us when future governments change course.

As for my final recommendation about government taking a more disciplined approach to using cabinet for decision-making … well, what could I have been thinking! Readers wanting to see how far I was off the mark should consult Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay, ‘Political amnesia’, Niki Savva’s book, The Road to Ruin and a slew of memoirs from Labor’s shell-shocked casualties of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era to see how disastrously cabinet government has run off the rails. Blame the 24/7 media cycle. Blame battalions of staffers relentlessly texting each-other. Blame tweeting internet trolls, twerking populists and ranting radio shock jocks. Blame a ‘responsive’ rather than a thoughtful Australian Public Service. Just don’t expect a return to the calm nostrum that good process makes good policy.

At worst, the future of public policy looks more like Donald Trump than John Howard. That should profoundly worry anyone who cares about the idea of government producing considered policy. It remains true the best way forward for government is the intelligent use of cabinet processes, the orderly working of parliament and its committees and a public service with spine and a commitment to policy excellence rather than just ‘issue management’. An explicit and believable commitment to return to methodical policy development should be the most fundamental policy goal for any future Australian Government.

Beyond completing, or indeed starting, on the policy objectives outlined above, I suggest four big national security goals for the Australian Government after the 2016 election:

  •        Step up efforts to defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
  •        Modernise how we manage our alliance with the US.
  •        Prepare the ground for submarine nuclear propulsion.
  •        Promote a defence export base for industry.

None of those tasks is necessarily easy, and all are potentially controversial. Hence the need for careful policy preparation, a focus on explaining a public case for each initiative and a commitment to making each initiative as bipartisan as possible.