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Should Foreign Policy Play a Part in the Election Campaign?

12 May 2016
AIIA Fellows responding to the question of the week



Question: Should foreign policy play a part in the election campaign?

Kim_BeazleyThe Hon Kim Beazley AC FAIIAWhen I entered parliament in 1980 I was on the tail of an era when national security policy was the salient debate for voters. At least the US alliance components of foreign policy were critical with the late Malcolm Fraser wielding it as a club on Labor. Irony there. It is important here not as a vote changer but assurance. Both sides will need to be convincing in the national security question. The ability to present a plausible picture of our international relationships will be part of that. Apart from on border protection neither side is attempting product differentiation here. Foreign policy won’t count overtly but that is not a product of irrelevance but mutual neutralisation.
RawdonDalrympleRawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIAThe environment in which the remainder of the election campaign will be fought out will be influenced by two major external factors: the United States presidential election campaign and the negative direction of the Chinese economy. The major parties in our election should take these major developments into account and factor them into policy presentations. A victory by Donald Trump in the US election is, as things now stand, an outside possibility. But even so, his campaign will cast a shadow over US policy even if Hillary Clinton wins solidly, and our foreign and defence policies will need to take that into account. A new Australian government might well have to give serious consideration to increasing defence expenditure or redirecting it. The new government here will also have to face a continuing decline in our exports to China and the parties should be asked how they will meet that if they are returned.
GraemeDobellGraeme Dobell FAIIAThe all-politics-is-local cliché becomes holy writ in an election. To turn the question around, consider what the lack of much foreign policy contest in the campaign tells us about areas of international consensus in our politics. What is the foreign policy bedrock that doesn’t need to be debated? It’s easy to draw up a quick list of agreed positions between the Coalition and Labor; that, in turn, says much about the policy givens or the base assumptions of a majority of the voters.My list includes the US alliance and an ever closer economic and diplomatic relationship with China – and neither side of our politics is interested in prodding potential tensions in those positions.Australia expects to be an important player in Southeast Asia, the superpower in the South Pacific and a player of note in what is now the construct du jour, the Indo-Pacific. For the voters, this is quick-tick stuff with a long history.The two sides have agreed on the Defence White Paper; the voters seem happy enough with huge buckets of money for subs and ships as industry policy as much as defence policy. So goodbye car industry, hello ship industry.The decimation of Australia’s international aid budget by the Coalition is another interesting example of quiet consensus. It’ll be fascinating to see what promises Labor makes on aid. If cutting aid doesn’t cost the Coalition votes, will lifting it win Labor any votes?
RichardWoolcottACRichard Woolcott AC FAIIAYes, it should, especially security policy in relation to the need for a more appropriate balance in our relations with the US and China, including on the South China Sea. But I expect the focus will be on domestic issues and personalities.
JamesCottonJames Cotton FAIIAFrom the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, by way of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to a host of free trade and finance agreements, Australia’s security, prosperity and reputation are crucially dependent upon international engagements. Government performance and opposition aspirations in these areas make a difference, and while these issues require constant explanation from ministers, it is only at election time that voters have the opportunity to assess the claims of governments and would-be governments. Amongst other global objectives, Australian governments have signed up to international agreements on climate change, the treatment of refugees, and the protection of the natural environment; as a consequence billions of tax dollars are expended in these and other policy areas. In addition, the current government has just announced the largest ever defence acquisition program, while simultaneously reducing the foreign aid budget to an historic low. Australians need to have the opportunity to decide whether this pattern of funding is appropriate or sufficient. Unfortunately, especially at election time, foreign policy debate is usually narrowly focussed – on the American alliance, the present and future state of engagement with China, and perhaps on relations with Indonesia. In these areas there are precious few differences between the major parties. There needs to be a much broader debate that addresses the longer term challenges which will only grow while today’s expensive submarines become tomorrow’s World War 2 battleships.
Robert O’NeillRobert O’Neill AO FAIIAIt is a pity that foreign policy has played only small part in the election campaign thus far. Given the powerful challenges Australia will face in the coming years, all parties with aspirations to govern should be debating issues such as: how do we deal with an increasingly powerful China; how can we stop nuclear weapons proliferation; how can we reduce global warming and other adverse climate changes; how can we remove the need for people to flood out of Africa and the Middle East; and what are our options for co-existing with a United States under very different leadership from that of Obama? Let us get going, please!
ErikaFellerErika Feller FAIIA

The answer can only be of course it should, even if, regrettably, it is unlikely to achieve much prominence.  More and more events of major impact on sovereign nation states play out in global spaces – cyber space for one, or the high seas being but two.  More and more developments happen which render boundaries or borders if not irrelevant, then at least very permeable.  Look at mass movements of people into and across Europe, for example.  According to renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum: ” we live in a world in which the destinies of nations are closely intertwined with respect to goods and survival itself…. Any intelligent deliberation about ecology – as also food supply and population – requires global planning, global knowledge and recognition of a shared future”.  The fate of countries and their populations is today so intertwined that governments have in my view no choice except to plan with this reality to the fore.  I would hope very much that policies to be rolled out for public reflection and dissection over the coming weeks take this seriously into account.