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Strange and stressful days for Oz foreign policy

Posted By on October 19, 2018 @ 12:58

Seeing Australia’s foreign minister and their opposition counterpart arguing international affairs on the same stage is a rare thing.

The federal parliament is the nation’s great clearinghouse for all arguments, but big set-piece foreign policy debates don’t come along too often in the House of Representatives or the Senate.

The absence of international debates distresses the policy tragics, yet it has a sunny dimension: happy the House—and lucky the nation—when the political arguments are overwhelmingly domestic.

But when foreign affairs tiptoes into the parliamentary battle of taunts, thrusts and thought balloons, Foreign Minister Marise Payne owns Senate question time, while Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong has the run of Senate estimates hearings.

The parliament offers multiple stages and lots of different games. Eyeball-to-eyeball stuff, though, is rarer than you’d expect.

So it was, potentially, a moment to savour to have Senator Payne and Senator Wong both discussing ‘Australian foreign policy’ in the first session of the annual conference of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The two frontbenchers were in the same session, yet they weren’t on stage at the same time. The political dance is always part of the way such moments are played, and eyeball moments tend to be danced around.

Payne spoke first and as she exited, heading back to parliament, Wong strolled into the hall.

The personal moment happened in the foyer outside, during the crossover. Away from the stage, the foreign minister and shadow foreign minister paused for a quick greeting. Canberra can still conduct the contest with some class and civility.

While enjoying the mechanics of the microphone crossover, I reflected that Australia continues to draw benefit from its new tradition of having three women atop its foreign policy (foreign minister, shadow minister, and secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

Taking over from Julie Bishop, Marise Payne became Australia’s second female foreign minister. On the Labor side, Penny Wong followed Tanya Plibersek in the shadow foreign role. And Frances Adamson became the first woman to head DFAT in August 2016.

As experienced players, Payne and Wong know how to structure the purpose and avoid the pitfalls when they speak in places like the AIIA. Pitfalls are covered by the no-stuff-up rules: no own-goals, no nasty surprises and no hostages to political fortune. The purpose is to peg out your ground, describe the terms of the debate and shift the argument a few steps. Both delivered.

In her previous post as Australia’s first-ever female defence minister, Payne was on top of the potential pitfalls, but didn’t always look as though she was revelling in the purpose. For her, moving to foreign affairs is a return to the arena that’s been her natural home during her 21 years in parliament.

She gave a big-picture speech that was fully alert and plenty alarmed about an ‘uncertain, competitive and contested world’, reflecting on structural shifts in the global balance of power.

The foreign minister offered this starting point: ‘These are important times in international affairs. We face an uncertain global environment—from Australia’s perspective, more so than any time since the end of the Second World War. We are in the midst of a major strategic realignment in the Indo-Pacific.’

Payne described geopolitical flux and major strategic competition: ‘The challenges to the status quo are of a different order of magnitude to any in the post-war period.’

In the restrained language of foreign minister speeches, this signals serious concern that the international system is heading back to the jungle.

All governments cry wolf to dramatise the dangers and importance of what they confront. Still, this era looms as decidedly lupine.

The third panellist in the session, Allan Gyngell (Canberra wise owl and AIIA president) noted that every Oz government since 1945 has declared that the international situation ‘has never been more fluid and uncertain’. But this time, Gyngell says, it’s not a wolf cry: the region is changing ‘in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history’ (a phrase from the 2017 foreign policy white paper).

Wong is also alarmed about the international system, focusing on the challenge of nuclear disarmament in a time of disruption. The Strategist offers you a sharpened version of that speech here, outlining what a Shorten Labor government would do on nuclear disarmament.

As always for Labor, the tension in the discussion—and the balance sought—is between being strong on disarmament and continuing to strongly embrace the US alliance.

During questions, Wong said that in government she’d look to again appoint an ambassador for disarmament, but pushed back at the suggestion of a minister for disarmament: ‘I would have thought, though, it’s something you want your minister for foreign affairs kind of engaged in, so I’m not sure I’m particularly keen for you to reduce my job description just at the moment.’

Another major international issue the shadow foreign minister tackled during questions was climate change, firing this zinger: ‘It is an existential challenge. I think it is—I’m trying to find an adjective that is not too undiplomatic—but I think it is both deeply distressing and irresponsible and frankly unworthy of a party of government the way in which the Liberal Party has allowed internal division to frustrate any progress on climate action in Australia for a decade.’

The applause that line got was loud proof of a political tenet—never offer your opponents an easy target or a simple shot on a hot topic. And the no-punching-bag rule dictates that the minister and shadow minister must be careful about standing on the same stage at the same time.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/strange-and-stressful-days-for-oz-foreign-policy/

[1] Australian Institute of International Affairs: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/news-item/national-conference/

[2] Frances Adamson: https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/our-people/executive/Pages/biography-of-frances-adamson.aspx

[3] ‘uncertain, competitive and contested world’: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/resource/senator-the-hon-marise-payne-minister-for-foreign-affairs-address-at-aiia-national-conference-2018/

[4] back to the jungle: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/welcome-to-the-jungle/2018/10/09/0f8ffb58-cbc5-11e8-a3e6-44daa3d35ede_story.html

[5] foreign policy white paper: https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/foreign-policy-white-paper

[6] nuclear disarmament in a time of disruption: https://www.pennywong.com.au/speeches/the-disarmament-challenge-in-a-time-of-disruption-australian-institute-of-international-affairs-national-conference-canberra/

[7] here: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-disarmament-challenge-in-a-time-of-disruption/

[8] questions: https://www.pennywong.com.au/transcripts/qa-aiia-conference-canberra/