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Little to Choose: Comparing Foreign Policies of the Major Parties

16 May 2019
By Richard Broinowski AO
Analysis of the Coalition and the Labor Party’s positions on key foreign policy issues shows there is little difference.

As the federal election draws near, where the major parties and their candidates stand on foreign policy has been fundamentally absent from the public debate. A comparative analysis of the Coalition and the Labor Party’s positions on key foreign policy issues shows there is little to choose from.

Historically, at no stage in the lead-up to a federal election has either major political party felt the need to inform the Australian electorate about their foreign and defence policies. The current campaign is no different. It’s as if Australians live in an insulated cocoon in which only domestic issues matter. It might be useful therefore to fill the gap by summarising where the two parties stand on some recent external developments. Do they have policies? And if so, do they offer voters assurance that they are realistic and well thought out?

The US alliance

Both parties subscribe to the illusion that the Australia, New Zealand and United States treaty guarantees US protection of Australia from an external attack. In actual fact, all the agreement insures in the event of an attack is that parties agree to consult one another. When asked, the Liberal-National Party (LNP) Coalition and Labor have claimed that the benefits Australia gets from the alliance include sophisticated intelligence and discounted state-of-the-art military equipment. The Coalition has tended to rhapsodise more about the relationship than Labor, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne recently claiming that the US-Australia relationship was “forged on the battlefields of the Western Front in World War One,” and the Coalition confecting “100 years of mateship” celebrations in Washington in 2018. Meanwhile, neither party has publicly attempted to address the implications for Australia of President Donald Trump’s open scorn for the architecture of international treaties.

Relations with China

It is hard to detect any difference in policies on China as both parties having maintained elements of contradiction. Both say they want to maintain the bilateral trade relationship, which is crucially important to Australia’s economic prosperity. But both also support the US Pine Gap surveillance base, the presence of an expanding US Marine Rotation Force in Darwin instigated by Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a visit by former President Barack Obama in 2011, and a sustained level of United States military engagement in the Indo-Pacific, including Australian participation in military exercises focused on the containment of China. Labor’s policy is slightly more nuanced. Senator Penny Wong, the shadow foreign minister, asserts that Labor doesn’t pre-emptively frame China only as a threat, but as a country critical to the shape and character of the region. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne have said much the same, but less clearly. The Coalition seems to be influenced by an increasingly hostile interpretation of Chinese motives formulated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a nominally independent security think-tank in Canberra led by Peter Jennings, a prominent China-hawk. As well as by a growing number of defence and foreign policy bureaucrats who share similar views. At least there is a disinclination on the part of both political parties for the Royal Australian Navy to join US “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea.

North Korea

Both Labor and the Coalition have condemned Kim Jong-un’s development of nuclear weapons, neither having conceded that US threats against Kim and his regime are reasons for him to have done so. But only the Coalition under former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared that in the event of hostilities, Australia and the United States are “joined at the hip,” making Australian joint participation in military action against North Korea inevitable and automatic. Labor has not publicly commented on this inevitability or if it would participate in military action against Pyongyang.

Pacific engagement

Both parties have recently expressed a new interest in engaging in the Pacific, but the Labor Party have been more specific about how they will do this. Senator Wong recently outlined that it will be through better-directed medical assistance, improved infrastructure such as renewable energy, social programs to reduce gender-based violence and improve the lot of women, and protection of ocean resources from pollution and illegal fishing.

The rest of Asia

It is difficult to discern differences in the major parties’ Asia policies. Both support deep engagement through Australia’s participation in regional forums and the maintenance of a strong diplomatic presence. Neither have said anything about the popularity, or otherwise, of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Senator Wong, however, has criticised Coalition cuts to development assistance to Southeast Asian countries, and has outlined Labor’s concept of “FutureAsia.” This includes initiatives to better leverage Australia’s diaspora communities, to encourage more Southeast Asia language and study capabilities, and to strengthen high-level economic engagement with Indonesia and India, including through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and the G20.

The Middle East

The Coalition has not at any time during its election campaign sought to justify the continuing presence of Australian military forces in the Middle East. It has neither adequately described the activities in which they are engaged, nor forecast when their mission will be accomplished and they will be allowed to return to Australia. Neither party has commented on US and Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen, or on the morality of Australian military exports being deployed there. Voters learn more about the course of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria from the American media than they do from the Australian press or government statements from Canberra.

If they do follow such developments, Australian electors will be aware that President Trump and his advisers Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, are ramping up threats of military action against Iran in response to unspecified Iranian provocations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. What voters are not hearing from either party is if they support such threats, and how in government they would respond to the initiation of hostilities. What justification will they find in the “international rules-based order” for invading Iran? Would either party refuse to send Australian forces to join such hostilities? An indication that they might is the refusal of both parties to support Trump’s pull-out from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which comprehensively stopped Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, in a statement on 9 May 2019, Payne expressed concern about “Iran’s destabilising activities” and urged Iran to exercise restraint in order to comply with JCPOA commitments – a most unfair call considering that Iran is in full compliance with the agreement and the United States has unilaterally withdrawn from it.

Climate change

Polls show that voters are more concerned about climate change than any other issue. Labor’s policies promise greater commitment to meeting Australia’s international obligations than the Coalition’s do. If this translates into support for Labor in the elections, other advances in foreign and defence policies may follow.

Because debate on foreign and defence policies has been avoided for so long, there is little to understand, let alone differentiate between the two major parties’ positions. But Labor is likely to be more inventive and flexible in its approach to the world’s problems than the present Morrison government. The Newscorp press has shown a clear preference for Coalition policies and has pounced on any Labor utterances that can be interpreted as failing to support border protection, national “security” (whatever that means) or Australia’s coal industry. But the Labor Leader Bill Shorten has called Rupert Murdoch out on the relentless bias of his press and refused to meet with him, as previous Labor leaders have done in the lead up to federal elections.

Richard Broinowski is a former senior Australian diplomat and immediate past president of AIIA NSW. His views are his own and do not represent those views of the AIIA.

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