Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:09 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:09 | SYDNEY

Australia election: The foreign policy debate


Sam Roggeveen


15 November 2007 14:30

As with the trade debate hosted by the Lowy Institute recently, this afternoon's foreign policy debate, hosted by the National Press Club in Canberra, was marked by differences in emphasis rather than principle. These differences were along traditional lines: Labor emphasises multilateral institutions, and the Liberal Party emphasises bilateral relationships. McClelland, echoing Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd in yesterday's election launch, said Australia sould have a 'strong, independent voice', whereas Downer talked about the improved relationship with the US, and its fruits in the form of the free trade agreement.

The subjects being debated, however, were not as predictable or traditional. It would have been hard to imagine when the Howard Government took office that unconventional security threats like terrorism, state failure and climate change would so dominate the foreign policy agenda.

The strongest difference between Downer and McClelland was about the past, specifically the Iraq War. Indeed, Downer criticised McClelland for focusing almost his entire opening address on Iraq and the Australian Wheat Board scandal. Iraq might also be what the press coverage will focus on tonight and tomorrow, with the pressure group Get Up! staging a post-debate press conference outside the Press Club with two Australian women, one the wife of a US soldier killed in Iraq and the other injured in the London bombings.

The media wanted to go even further back than the Iraq invasion, asking a question on the Vietnam war, which prompted an exasperated Downer to mutter, 'What's next, the Battle of the Somme?' He was right, and it was frustrating to see the opportunity to put penetrating questions lost. China, for instance, was barely mentioned. But the debaters also played along: when Downer was asked to match Kevin Rudd's famous use of Mandarin at APEC, he first demurred, then tried out his French. McClelland said he didn't know Mandarin but had eaten plenty. Cute, but not that elevating.

Quite a deal of time was spent on the South Pacific, notably with Downer saying he hoped democracy could be restored to Fiji by March 2009. Nuclear non-proliferation also got a run, though as with many of the subjects covered, both sides repeated well established positions and little new light was shed.

All in all, a bit of a fizzer, really, though that's comforting in its own way. Australian foreign policy, though dogged by the odd scandal and miscalculation, has been pretty sensible over the years. Paul Kelly has argued that Australian political leadership has been very good by world standards. And indeed we've been quite well served by the broadly centrist positions struck by successive foreign ministers. The debate showed that's unlikely to change.