Australian Outlook

In this section

Australia Needs a Principles-Based Approach to Foreign Policy

13 May 2022
By Senator Janet Rice
Melbourne Refugee and asylum seeker rights rally Saturday 27 July 2013. Source: Takver

In our discussions of foreign policy, it’s easy to forget the impact that Australia’s foreign policy has on people’s lives. Amid the White Papers and multilateral meetings, and the careful parsing of statements, we must not lose sight of why it matters. 

I recently met with members of the Myanmar diaspora community here in Australia. They were distraught about the coup and its impact on their friends, family and loved ones back home. Beyond that, they were devastated by the inaction from Australia’s government. I know from personal contact with people seeking safety in Australia that Australia’s support for the invasion of Afghanistan and the flawed withdrawal has had a devastating impact on so many. I’ve heard powerful accounts from people from West Papua, relaying their experience of the suffering and trauma they’ve experienced. It’s because of our concern for people that I believe it’s so important to adopt a clear, principles-based approach to foreign policy, rather than one of geopolitical convenience. 

As a founder of the Victorian Greens, the four pillars of ecological sustainability, grassroots participatory democracy, social justice, and peace and non-violence have always informed my approach to foreign policy. In particular, I’ve worked to adopt an approach that centres human rights in addressing the foreign policy questions facing Australia. 

It’s because of that principled, human rights-centred approach that we’ve welcomed the urgency of the Australian government’s response to the invasion of Ukraine. Within a few short months, and in some cases within days of the invasion, the Australian government has imposed targeted sanctions on key figures, the Future Fund has divested from a range of investments in Russia, and the Australian government has banned the imports of some Russian fossil fuels, a move we had consistently called for. Those steps show that where there is the political will, the Australian government can move rapidly, and take urgent, immediate action. 

Sadly, the urgency of that response has created a stark contrast with the Australian government’s foreign policy decisions and positions in other areas. For years, successive Australian governments of both hues have taken an approach of geopolitical convenience to Australia’s relationship with world powers, particularly China and the United States. It may feel like a distant memory now, but for years, while other parties were desperate to sign so-called “free trade agreements,” in a bid to dig up and sell off as much of Australia as they could, it was only the Australian Greens who consistently raised human rights. 

We have been consistent in highlighting how the actions of the Chinese government have impacted on the human rights of Tibetans, of Uyghers, of Hong Kongers, and of citizens across China. In line with that approach, we have consistently advocated that the Australian government do more, including imposing targeted sanctions against those officials who have committed serious human rights violations, and to consider the imposition of trade sanctions. 

In more recent years, as political winds have shifted and their assessment of geopolitical convenience has changed, many of those that touted free trade agreements and the benefits of an extractive economy while turning a blind eye to human rights have shifted to criticising the Chinese government.

There are important criticisms to be made which should be made. But in doing so, many have shifted to jingoism and xenophobia. In its worst instances, that can approach a form of the McCarthyism that witnesses experienced before a Senate committee, when they were asked by the Committee deputy chair to “unequivocally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party, despite being Australian citizens. Similarly, the Australian government’s ill-thought-through approach to calling for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic reeked of domestic politics rather than a principled approach to foreign policy. 

The national discussion of international relations and foreign policy approaches deserve better than these ham-fisted approaches that lurch clumsily from short-term goal to short-term goal. Instead, Australia should have a foreign policy approach that centres human rights at home and abroad, and recognises that lasting solutions to conflicts, either between or within nations, depend on delivering social, environmental, and economic justice to the peoples involved, and on ensuring they can exercise their civil and political rights.

A credible foreign policy approach also means renegotiating the US alliance. Unthinking support for the US relationship, particularly during the Trump administration, has reduced Australia’s credibility in the region, and undermined its reputation as an honest broker. You cannot be critical of powers like China and Russia without acknowledging the massive undermining of human rights and sovereignty that the US has also been responsible for, including for example the invasion of Iraq, the war crimes committed there, and the persecution of Julian Assange for daring to reveal these crimes.

Without a consistently principles-based foreign policy, the Australian government’s approach remains open to criticisms of hypocrisy and, in some instances, racism. That applies to both the inconsistency between domestic policies and foreign policy, and to the inconsistencies within Australian foreign policy. 

Australia must address human rights violations occurring here in Australia if it is to have any credibility on the world stage. That must start with action to work towards justice for First Nations peoples, and it must include action to end the appalling detention of asylum seekers that has involved innumerable human rights breaches and immeasurable suffering. 

But importantly, without a consistently principles-based foreign policy, the hypocrisy in Australia’s stances is glaringly evident. Nowhere has that been more evident than the Australian Government’s inaction in relation to Myanmar, an inaction that I continue to find bewildering. At the time of writing, more than a year after the coup, the Australian government has still not imposed targeted sanctions against the key leaders. The US, UK, Canada, and the EU have all imposed targeted sanctions on key generals involved in the junta, but Australia has failed to do so. Advocates have campaigned for action on the investments and funding that are providing a financial lifeline to the military junta; but the Australian Government continues to attend meetings with coup leaders, and refuses to impose sanctions. It is in this light that Australia’s current foreign policy can seem at best bewilderingly inconsistent, let alone hypocritical. 

The Australian Greens have a different vision. A vision for a foreign policy that adopts a principled approach, with consistent human rights advocacy, at home and abroad. 

Senator Janet Rice is the Greens senator for Victoria, a former councillor and mayor of Maribyrnong, environmentalist, facilitator, and one of the founding members of the Victorian Greens.

This article is part of a series on different parties’ approaches to Australian foreign policy ahead of the 2022 federal election. All major parties and several minor parties and independent candidates were invited to contribute to this series.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.