Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:16 | SYDNEY

Australia election: More on the foreign policy debate


Hugh White

15 November 2007 15:22

By a strange quirk of chance, both the Foreign Minister and his Labor shadow are the sons of former Australian High Commissioners to the Court of St James in London.  Neither of them, then, is a stranger to the customs of diplomacy: disagreements are handled in a more or less civilised way.  Hence it was a genteel affair when they met for the election debate on foreign affairs over lunch today at the National Press Club.

I’d score the match as a draw.  Downer ran on his record.  His pitch centred on a strangely spiritless catalogue of the government’s successes in foreign policy over the past eleven and a half years.  He listed people smuggling, trade, climate change, poverty alleviation and counter-terrorism.  It was a strange list, and he supported it with some strange claims.  At one point for example he seemed to be saying that economic growth throughout Asia over the past decade was largely the result of Australia’s aid program.  I doubt they see it that way in Beijing and Delhi.

McClelland also focused on the government’s record, and mounted a slightly more spirited critique of that record, homing in especially on Iraq and AWB.  But neither in their introductory remarks nor in the Q&A did either really lay a glove on his opponent.  Neither really looked like they wanted to.   

In the contest of the wider campaign, of course, a draw on foreign affairs is a win for Labor.  The politics of foreign affairs is almost entirely tied up with the politics of national security, and the government’s domination of the politics of national security has been central to its political ascendency for the past two elections.  Labor this year has not sought to win the foreign affairs and security debate, but only to neutralise it as an asset for the government, and this they have succeeded in doing.  Moreover, Robert McClelland’s quiet, folksy style came over quite well, providing some reassurance that he is quite capable of being an effective foreign minister in his own way if that should be the way the cards fall.

But the debate, like the wider election campaign, leaves unaddressed the big questions about
Australia’s future foreign policy – especially the titanic issues about Australia’s approach to the rise of China and its implications for the future of Asia.  This is the question which will do more than any other to shape Australia’s future international environment.  I suspect that there are larger differences between Rudd and Howard about how they approach that question than election campaign or today’s debate would suggest.  But perhaps wisely neither side wants to tiptoe through this minefield on the way to the polls.

Sam Roggeveen's debate analysis is here.