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Asylum, Aid and Climate Under Abbott: Foreign Policy as Domestic Politics?

31 Dec 2015
Associate Professor Matt McDonald
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the crowd at Multi-National Base Tarin Kot on Oct. 28, 2013 in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Photo Source: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan (Flickr). Creative Commons.

The central mantra of the Abbott Coalition was that it would be “more Jakarta, less Geneva”. In a range of issue areas, however, the Abbott government demonstrated a tendency to view foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics and to define international issues in terms of domestic political considerations. This was particularly applicable to the issues of asylum, climate change and aid.

Asylum and the Abbott government

On the issue of asylum, Tony Abbott made clear his intention to follow in the footsteps of his political mentor, John Howard, in politicising the management of asylum-seekers arriving by boat and pursuing a hard-line approach to so-called “unauthorised arrivals”. This was among the most prominent foreign policy issues in the elections of 2010 and 2013, with Abbott emphasising that Labor had lost control of Australia’s borders, having previously pressured the Rudd government to suspend the processing of asylum-seekers arriving from Sri Lanka in mid 2009.

Having pledged to “stop the boats”, it is perhaps no surprise that the Abbott government combined a deterrence-based policy of offshore mandatory detention with a military-based response in order to physically prevent asylum-seekers arriving in Australia. Operation Sovereign Borders involved the deployment of Australian military personnel to intercept asylum-seekers and return them to the relevant mainland—most commonly Indonesia.

While boat arrivals were certainly significantly reduced, the politics associated with the claim of stopping the boats also encouraged the government to curtail regular updates on boat arrivals to the media. It was a policy that was defined as an emergency response to a crisis situation, though, of course, the numbers of arrivals to Australia had remained low by international standards throughout the previous government’s tenure.

It was a policy approach that came at a significant cost both literally and in terms of Australia’s foreign policy interests. In total, operations associated with preventing and processing asylum-seekers would cost Australian taxpayers over AU$4 billion in 2013–14. Significantly, this was in the context of a “budget emergency” that would be used to justify reductions in government spending on programs in health, education, environment, welfare and aid.

The costs of this policy for Australia were diplomatic as well as financial. While promising to rebuild and strengthen relations with Indonesia, the practice of boat turnarounds was constantly criticised by Jakarta, with Indonesian officials also claiming that Australian personnel had violated Indonesian sovereignty by entering Indonesian waters. And the November 2014 announcement that Australia would not accept refugees from Indonesia also hurt relations with Jakarta.

It also, predictably, drew the ire of human rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which were concerned about breaches of the Refugee Convention, the practice of intercepting and towing back boats, the continued practice of detaining asylum-seekers, and reports of widespread mental health problems and unsanitary conditions in the detention centres themselves.

Crucially, however, it was a policy that was overwhelmingly supported by the broader public. The 2014 Lowy Poll illustrated that more than 70 percent of Australians supported Operation Sovereign Borders. In early 2014, almost 60 percent of Australians (erroneously) believed that most asylum-seekers attempting to arrive by boat were not genuine refugees, while over 60 percent supported even harsher measures.

Climate change

Another international issue which saw internationalism give way to domestic political considerations was that of climate change. Again, this was not surprising. Abbott had taken the leadership of the Coalition promising to end the Conservatives’ support for carbon pricing, and had described the 2013 election as a “referendum on the carbon tax” introduced under the Gillard government. Under his leadership, Australia subsequently became the first country in the world to repeal a carbon pricing mechanism in mid 2014, with the government emphasising the implications of the tax for industry and general electricity prices.

The government’s own Direct Action policy was criticised as providing no guarantee of reaching the emissions reduction targets to which the government remained rhetorically committed. Other policy commitments , complicated by the configuration of the Senate after July 2014, included axing the Climate Commission—a body designed to communicate climate science to the broader public—and pursuing a review of the (20 percent) Renewable Energy Target, which featured a prominent climate denialist—Maurice Newman—as chair.

The following year, and as the deadline for Australia to outline its greenhouse-gas emissions reduction commitments for international climate negotiations in Paris in 2015 loomed, Newman suggested that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the United Nations to end democracy and impose authoritarian rule.

Australia, under the Abbott government, has approached the issue of climate change almost exclusively through the prism of the cost of mitigation action for Australian consumers and industry. Concerns over electricity prices and industry competitiveness were frequently articulated, while recognition of Australia’s international obligations or the global dimension of the issue itself barely featured.

In Australia, support for climate action has waxed and waned significantly, but action on climate change has certainly been constrained by the willingness to politicise and mobilise concern about the immediate costs associated with climate action. This was the case from 2009–13, with Abbott’s emphasis on the prohibitive costs of climate action serving to drive support for action from nearly two-thirds of the Australian population to less than 40 percent. While support for climate change action has begun to turn in recent polling, the government’s approach to this issue has clearly suggested a tendency to conceive and frame it as a domestic, rather than global, concern.

Significant reductions in aid

While asylum and, to a lesser extent, climate policy were significantly influenced by public concern, general public scepticism (built on misconceptions) about Australia’s Official Development Assistance program has enabled the government to scale back Australia’s aid commitments significantly. In 2007, arguably with an eye on winning a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council, Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would double its aid spending to reach 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015–16. In subsequent budgets under the Labor government, the time frame for the achievement of this goal was delayed, but, in its first budget, the Abbott government announced that the budget for Australian aid would be cut by AU$7.6 billion over five years.

It also announced that the agency responsible for delivering Australian aid—the Australian Agency for International Development—would be disbanded and subsumed within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in order to allow aid and diplomatic aims to be “more closely aligned”. And reflecting a commitment to focus on Australian domestic political interests through its aid program, it was announced that aid to Papua New Guinea would increase as part of a deal to house asylum-seekers in the Manus Island detention centre, while aid to the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa would be reduced. Indeed, in releasing the 2015–16 Federal Budget, the government announced that aid to Africa would be cut by 70 percent.

Yet again, the government was enabled in this decision by public attitudes to aid. Numerous polls have indicated widespread misconceptions about the size and utility of Australian aid, with a 2011 Lowy survey indicating that Australians thought aid constituted an average of 16 percent of current government spending, as opposed to the actual level of 1.3 percent.

As Christopher Hill has argued: ‘foreign policy can never be abstracted from the domestic context out of which it springs’. Yet increasing movements away from bipartisanship on foreign policy and a tendency to sacrifice a foreign policy vision for short-term political gain do suggest important political shifts in Australia.

Matt McDonald is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. This article is an edited extract from ‘Australian Foreign Policy under the Abbott Government: Foreign Policy as Domestic Politics?‘ published in full in the Australian Journal of International Affairs Volume 69, Issue 6, 2015.