Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:11 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:11 | SYDNEY

Foreign policy priorities for Australia


Sam Roggeveen


13 October 2010 11:50

With the Gillard Government settling in and a new foreign minister in place, now is a good time to ask: what should Australia's foreign policy priorities be for this (let's say three-year) term of government'

Below is my list of four. It is not entirely original, since this topic came up in a conversation with colleagues recently, and I pinched some of their ideas. The list could be much longer, but three years is not a long time, and these are all big-picture themes. If the Government makes progress on even two of them, it will have done well.

1. Indonesia: As Fergus Hanson has argued, it is time for a step change in our relationship with Indonesia. The democratisation and modernisation of Indonesia has been the single most beneficial thing to have happened to Australia's security environment this decade, but we have gone nowhere near to exploiting it.

Building a much more substantive relationship with Indonesia is a ten- or twenty-year project, but on the assumption that Indonesia's next president is unlikely to be as well disposed to Australia as SBY is, the foundations for a new relationship must be laid in this term of government. And there's another reason to move early: given Indonesia's growth trajectory, Australia will eventually become the junior partner in the relationship.

2. China: The foreign minister should take the lead in educating and engaging with the Australian public about the rise of China. Opinion on what to do about this phenomenon is clearly mixed, but there is no debate on the scale of the challenge, and that we're going to be confronted with some difficult choices. Documents like the 2009 Defence White Paper showed that the Government recogised the challenge, yet it made little attempt to take Australians with them.

3. Demote the terrorist threat: Shifting terrorism down the list of security and foreign policy priorities would not only be right on its merits, but would have important practical benefits:

  • It allows for the shift of defence, intelligence and foreign policy resources to other priorities.
  • It could lead to a reduction in 'security theatre', which would reduce costs and improve efficiency at our ports and airports.
  • It lays the rhetorical groundwork for our inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan, by demonstrating that it is not irresponsible to leave.
  • It makes room for other foreign policy debates (see point 2).

As with point (2), the Rudd Government has gone some way to recalibrating the terrorist threat, but it hasn't made much attempt to take the public along with it.

4. Modernise and expand DFAT: Points (1) and (2) above should be reason enough to justify this one. After a stagnant decade, DFAT needs to expand to deal with the challenges of the future. And point (3) provides the means to make the argument.

Granted, it will be difficult for Mr Rudd to make a case to Cabinet to reduce spending on terrorism, but he needs to convince his colleagues to make a brave call for which they will probably get no credit — we need to invest now to build a diplomatic service for the challenges that will define Australia for the next two or three decades.

Photo by Flickr user Luke Redmond, used under a Creative Commons license.