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Don’t Play Politics with Australia’s Security

30 Dec 2020
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA
Darwin Harbour. Source: Geoff Whalan

This is an article published earlier this year and selected by our committee of commissioning editors as one of the best of 2020.

Should we be worried about politicisation of Australia’s foreign policy and security? It’s never been a politics-free zone, but there is a dangerous populism entering the debate.

Kevin Rudd recently called out what he sees as the politicisation of Australia’s foreign policy and security debate. Launching the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ Northern Territory activities, he replied to a question about “hairy-chested” rhetoric in Canberra:

“Part of the agenda which I see often alive in the current Australian Government’s handling of the Australia-China relationship is an underlying political agenda which is to define themselves as hard line on China and the Australian Labor Party as soft line…. to turn it into not just a binary of “are you for China or for the United States,” but a binary in Australian politics that the Liberal Party has your best interests at stake on China and the Labor Party are a pack of lefty, appeasing peaceniks.”

So, is politics coming to Australian foreign and security policy? Or is this just a politician saying what you’d expect him to say?

I worry that there is a dangerous populism entering into Australia’s foreign policy debate. I think John Howard was responding to this when he recently suggested that Australia take a “pragmatic approach” towards China and “continue to toil away at keeping the bilateral relationship together.”

It would be naive to think foreign affairs has ever been a politics-free zone. But at the day-to-day level, international affairs have been managed by technocrats. Sure, there’s a bit more emphasis on multilateralism under the ALP and a bit more on bilateral relationships under the Coalition. But for those who work in foreign affairs and security, it is mostly business as usual. You deal with consular crises, negotiate trade deals, and use international forums to promote Australia’s national interests. Government after government, defence funding goes on. Almost none of it makes the front page. It is not controversial in the sense that it will not become a major-party political issue.

This has relied on two factors: restraint by politicians and voters’ lack of interest in foreign affairs. The problem we have is that we live in a time when both of these may be breaking down.

There is no reason to assume that Australia is immune from the strong-man thinking that has taken hold in many countries, and which appears strangely resistant to evidence. There is a persistent delusion that if we talk tough, the world will magically become what we want it to be, whether that is a return of manufacturing jobs or that China will behave like Sweden.

What we need instead is to acknowledge some hard truths about the international system:

  • The world is not remotely fair
  • Most other countries don’t share our viewpoint and don’t care about our interests
  • Australia is only one moderate-sized power among many, meaning there are significant limits on how much it can get of what it wants
  • Aggression and escalation are seductively easy but unlikely to be productive
  • International cooperation is a hard slog that doesn’t show much each political cycle
  • There is no planet B if we get this one wrong

These realities are not attractive to voters, so the tendency is to offer simple solutions instead.

What we need to navigate the world we live in is a mindset based on negotiation, not the absolutism of simple solutions. We need a contest of ideas for fresh approaches and new thinking. What we don’t need is for difficult multi-faceted problems to become party-political – or worse, totemic of political identity.

Kevin Rudd concluded his remarks at the AIIA NT event with a plea:

“My appeal to the Australian Government would be, for God’s sake, the Australian Labor Party has led Australia during the First World War and the Second World War and the First Gulf War… we’ve been in the business of building up the nation’s military … so let’s have a fair dinkum debate about the best way to prosecute our national interests given the real challenge that China represents and given therefore the sophisticated set of national security, foreign policy and international development assistance policy responses which that requires in the field.”

In the words of Robert Menzies, “A foreign policy should be sensible; useful, not noisy; calculated to increase our security, not to lose friends.”

Melissa Conley Tyler is Research Fellow in the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne after transferring from her role as Director of Diplomacy at Asialink. She served as National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) for 13 years and was honoured as a Fellow of the AIIA in 2019.

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