Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:51 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:51 | SYDNEY

Rudd, votes and the foreign policy $

10 December 2008 15:44

Alex Duchen (pictured) is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.  

Today, our Executive Director, Allan Gyngell, spoke of the ambition of the Rudd Government’s emerging foreign policy, after an election campaign in which the words ‘foreign policy’ were barely mentioned (his Lowy Analysis can be downloaded here).

So when one attendee asked whether foreign policy was a vote-winner, it was logical for Allan to reply that he didn't think so. That Australians wanted a government competent in its engagement with the world, but that the finer elements of its foreign policy were relatively inconsequential at election time.

Yet there were some foreign policy decisions made by the previous government which may well have been vote-changers, or at the very least, might have contributed to a slow corrosion of voter confidence in the government’s judgement and in the way it positioned Australia on the world stage.

Tampa August 2001: an Australian travelling overseas then might have been acutely embarrassed to endure the polite disdain expressed by foreigners over the government’s handling of the incident. Then the Pacific Solution, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, children overboard, military involvement in Iraq and questions over WMD evidence, and the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol after years of drought and a rising concern in Australia about climate change. Were these foreign policy issues important to Australians? Did they influence votes? 

Just before the 2007 election, 86% of Australians ranked climate change as the biggest threat to us from the outside world, according to the annual Lowy Institute Poll, ranking ahead of nuclear weapons, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Just before the 2007 election, only 37% of Australians thought we should continue to be involved militarily in Iraq (9 percentage points less than in 2005).

And concern about the Howard Government’s close ties with the Bush Administration might also have been a vote-changer: 39% of Australians had an unfavourable view of the US in 2007, with 69% of those citing President Bush as their reason. The election result was a fact that spoke loudly — in a prosperous time, Australians changed government.

Perhaps the GFC will change all this. Perhaps voters only care about such things as the morality of war and climate change policy when they and their nation prosper. Certainly there are indications that some of these external concerns are mattering less this year than last. However, these and other so-called ‘wicked problems’ of international policy this century, such as failing states, extremism and nuclear proliferation, require not only an ambitious foreign policy agenda but one that is well-thought-out, with properly resourced machinery to implement it. The shrinking resources of DFAT (the traditional source of solid policy research and advice on foreign affairs) are now almost notorious, and the GFC won’t help. But if the 2007 election is an indication of anything, there might be a vote or two in it.