Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 05:45 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 05:45 | SYDNEY

FP debate: Substance, at last


Rory Medcalf


12 August 2010 15:33

'Significant' and 'considerable' would have to be the blandest words in the bloodless lexicon of foreign policy. Thankfully, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith's use of them to describe Australia's standing in the world was just about the only truly dull moment in today's foreign policy election debate in Canberra.

Neither Smith nor Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop can claim to have comprehensively won the debate. If there was a winner, it was the Australian electorate, which – finally — got at least a hint of some of the big international issues at stake in this election.

Bishop's strongest line of attack was the argument that Australia's key bilateral relationships in Asia – China, India, Japan and Indonesia – had gone backwards in the past three years. Smith's straight-faced insistence that these relationships had instead attained new heights was not convincing

I must differ with Sam about the 'laundry list' style of Bishop's introductory remarks versus the virtues of Smith's 'historical and theoretical context'. It was meant to be an election debate, not an academic seminar. In my view, Smith's strongest opening suit was his reference to the (Rudd) Government's role in Australia's shaping and joining the G20 summit.

As for the Square Kilometre Array, what is so wrong with combining science and diplomacy' An idea whose time has well and truly come, I would have thought.

It was odd, and disappointing, that Smith said not a word about one of the major – and more worthwhile — external policy initiatives of the Rudd Government: the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Surely there is not some mysterious Labor focus group suggesting that Australians no longer care about nuclear threats' That would be news to Gareth Evans, and to the respondents to Lowy Institute polling, who consistently rate nuclear dangers as major concerns.

Disappointing, too, that Bishop had next-to-nothing to say about non-proliferation or nuclear security; these are surely bipartisan concerns. The Coalition should not let ideological distaste for the D-word (disarmament) overrule basic security concerns.

Smith's references to Australia's efforts to support regional diplomatic institutions (or 'architecture') in Asia were couched in vague terms – he could not even bring himself to mention Rudd's now-forlorn Asia-Pacific Community campaign by name.

On Rudd's third showpiece, the campaign for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, there was a feisty, if in places silly, exchange. Bishop accused the Government of distorting foreign policy and aid priorities for 'vote buying'. Smith's rejoinder was that the Opposition would rather put the interests of Finland (a rival for the seat) ahead of Australia. (Which begs the question, who in Canberra is sticking up for plucky little Luxembourg') 

For a moment, I wondered if Smith and Bishop were going to drop the partisanship and jointly champion the growing importance of the Indian Ocean region, since Western Australia is after all their shared home state. Instead, Bishop's one attempt to pretend to cross the floor and praise Smith's 'hard work' soon revealed itself as an accusation that Rudd had hamstrung Smith's efforts, and that in any case Rudd, not Smith, would likely be foreign minister under a returned Gillard Government.

Both speakers played up the need to engage with India, though only Bishop raised the prospect of uranium sales. Her 'in principle' caveat was wise – there would still need to be a safeguards agreement negotiated.

Not before time, some big questions about China were raised. Some odd answers though. Smith's remark that he had personally aired concerns to the PLA about China's behaviour in the South China Sea was welcome. His suggestion that these issues should be resolved bilaterally – for instance, between China and Vietnam – was not. Surely Canberra, and Labor, cannot be comfortable with the notion that weaker players should negotiate on security issues one-on-one with an increasingly powerful China, and without recourse to multilateral frameworks'

Interesting that the Coalition, or at least Bishop, is still trying to outflank Labor on the left when it comes to defence policy and China, rejecting the Rudd Defence White Paper's subtext that Australia might one day face the risk of war with China.

Was it just my impression or did Bishop nearly entangle herself on the question of whether Australia should step up to take the (formerly Dutch) command role in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province' First, she said that in her view we were quite capable of doing so. Then she implied that the matter was thankfully academic since the Americans had filled the gap now. Then she suggested that a Coalition Government would consider any future US request for Australia to do more.

So what exactly is the policy' Opposition leader Tony Abbott seems to have done his own slide backwards on this issue, after initially talking big in his Lowy Institute speech.

Finally, an intriguing thought from the floor. ABC radio journalist Catherine McGrath raised the question of whether Australia's regional engagement was flagging, and noted Abbott's earlier praise of the 'Anglosphere' as well as Prime Minister Gillard's recent lauding of the political values of her birthplace, the UK. Does this mean, whatever the outcome, that we are in for a prime minister who does not 'get' Asia' That would be, to borrow Smith's words, considerably significant. In plain English, it would be bad news.