Wednesday 24 Jul 2019 | 06:45 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 24 Jul 2019 | 06:45 | SYDNEY

The link between Liberalism and bilateralism

8 August 2008 13:49

Guest blogger: Andrew Robb MP (pictured) is the Member for Goldstein and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with some of Sam's analysis of my speech. The case I make for why bilateralism is a better fit for my side of politics than multilateralism (and vice versa for the Labor Party) is based on the evidence and the approach by the two main parties.

Firstly, it is based on the evidence of what the former Howard Government and the current Rudd Government have pursued when it comes to trade. Certainly, the Rudd Government, as well as Labor in Opposition, made a big song and dance about global free trade and that the former Government was wasting its time on FTAs.

Indeed when he was in Opposition, Mr Rudd criticised the Howard Government for being interested in 'a proliferation of bilateral FTAs rather than directing 100 per cent of energies towards the successful conclusion of the Doha Round'. Now those Doha talks have collapsed there is a mad scramble to get the FTA negotiations with China and Japan back on track!

Secondly, it is based on the immediate interest of the Rudd Government in placing major emphasis on the UN – a seat on the Security Council, today’s announcement that the Government is looking at ratifying the convention on torture (despite nobody, not even Amnesty, ever accusing Australia of conducting torture), etc. 

So to respond to Sam's central point – how do these fit in with a Liberal, free market, small government, individualist philosophy?  It is because we don’t see there being a one-size fits all, 'State knows best', collective, centralised, international rules-based system as being the priority direction in a policy sense. It may evolve but it is not the starting point for foreign affairs.

We do see that individual situations often require unique responses and not a heavy set of rules that must apply regardless of circumstance in international affairs. As I said yesterday, surely it was better to have China and India working in the much smaller AP6 group to reduce greenhouse emissions than waiting until we (possibly) get everyone signing up to a 192-nation, post-Kyoto deal, that may or may not have some obligations for China and India.

That is also what concerns me about Mr Rudd’s approach to trade and even his hasty proposal of an EU for Asia, which I note has been the source of much discussion on The Interpreter. (PS. I know the Government now says that their Asia-Pacific Community isn’t going to be anything like an EU but again in Opposition Mr Rudd supported '…East Asia having the regional equivalent of the European Union over time'.)

If it went the way of an EU, what would be the basic human rights standards that applied to all countries? What about standard employment rights and conditions? Or even entitlements to jobs throughout the region?

Labor, on the other hand, instinctively believes that the all-powerful state knows best. It is obvious with Mr Rudd’s domestic agenda (health insurance, etc) but it is obvious as well by his actions internationally – even Labor’s toing and froing on supplying India with uranium is because they can’t see a reason for India to be treated any differently regardless of the circumstances.

Finally there is former Minister Gareth Evans quote:

Australia…should always have been committed to effective multilateral institutions – especially the United Nations…and smaller (nations) as well, by definition may need to find comfort in collective responses and rule-based international systems – in a way that may not be so necessary for countries with the clout of major powers, great powers, or super powers.

The Liberal view is that Australia’s foreign policy should be about Australia’s interest first; and that in most cases achieving that Australian interest starts with engaging bilaterally, or as coalitions of interest, rather than from some over-arching regional or global rules-based structures.

A successful, prosperous and forward looking Australia should not and would not have to be dependent on multilateral institutions. The blind faith in the multilateral and the collective that Mr Rudd and his team follow will be an interesting case study as we head towards Copenhagen and any global emissions agreement.

Philosophy does matter, including in foreign affairs.  It is at the heart of the long standing 'Great Debate' between realists and idealists.