Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:27 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 09:27 | SYDNEY

What Abbott will do: Foreign policy, aid


Graeme Dobell

18 July 2012 09:55

My previous column took the Coalition's leaked speaking notes for MPs as a de facto policy platform and looked at what an Abbott Government would do about defence. Using the same document, let's look at the Coalition's stance on international affairs.

As to be expected from any Opposition, the Coalition refrain is the need to repair and refocus relations with just about everybody: the US and Japan are the first two on the list, followed by China, India and Indonesia. Even relations with New Zealand, apparently, need to be fixed. All the pledges are a straight lift from the Coalition's 2010 promises with a couple of acid bits added to the mix.

Unlike Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade doesn't get more money. Instead, an Abbott Government would rearrange the chairs:

The Coalition will conduct a comprehensive review of Australia's diplomatic resources, including overseas representation, to determine whether the appropriate weighting is afforded to those issues, countries and organisations which are important to our strategic and economic interests.

This is the same review promised during the 2010 election; not much, it seems, has changed in Coalition thinking about Foreign. Now, as then, Julie Bishop is shadow minister, on track to be Australia's first female Foreign Minister. Either the thinking of the Liberal Party's deputy leader hasn't evolved much or, given the state of Oz politics and polls, she sees no need to reveal any more cards.

Part of Bishop's caution is due to the fact that the Coalition still has a major problem – bee in the bonnet, strange voices in the ether – with the UN and international efforts in areas from non-proliferation to climate change. It was sad and telling during the last election campaign that Bishop had to make the point that the Coalition was not actually proposing that Australia should withdraw from the UN. It was a feeble jest that spoke of a febrile area in the Coalition psyche. The multilateral rant this time recycles the previous platform language, with this version of the chant about bilateral good, multilateral bad:

The Coalition supports multilateral institutions which serve a clear national purpose. We support the G20 (which has emerged as a more representative global organisation than the G8), the established regional Asia Pacific bodies, the Commonwealth of Nations and various organisations of the United Nations including the World Trade Organisation. Similarly, the Coalition will abandon Labor's bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. The massive and expensive diplomatic effort this demands has diverted attention away from our core foreign policy interests to more peripheral areas in order to secure votes and all for nothing more than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status.

The UN Security Council bid is a 'nebulous' aim but the Commonwealth serves a 'clear national purpose'? This is a strange way to portray the world if you are trying to dress in the garb of hard-headed realist. When it comes to the UN, the voice Abbott hears sounds a lot like John Howard. Howard rejectionism on the UN is now a strand of Liberal thinking that goes beyond Menzies' scepticism.

At the last election, this column identified a new Golden Aid Consensus between Labor and the Coalition to lift aid spending. The consensus and the commitment have broken down and although Bishop may be fighting a rearguard action, the weasel words are lodging deep. The aid promise is a strange mixture of pledge-plus-threat:

Support increased rigorously-administered foreign aid: The Coalition supports the recommendation of the Independent Review into the Foreign Aid program that future funding increases be dependent on AusAID meeting strict performance benchmarks. The Coalition will adopt this recommendation and establish these benchmarks in government, after Labor's failure to establish performance benchmarks, before the foreign aid budget is increased to 0.5 per cent of our Gross National Income by 2016-17. The Coalition will also consolidate our aid efforts on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and focus on the quality and rigorous administration of that effort.

Compare that section with the short and sweet Coalition promise on aid in its 2010 policy document:

Support increased rigorously administered foreign aid: The Coalition will increase foreign aid spending to 0.5 % of our Gross National Income by 2015-16. It will also consolidate our aid efforts on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and focus on the quality and rigorous administration of that effort.

Granted, Labor has also walked away from the 2015-16 target, so the tacit consensus endures even as it evolves. The Coalition, though, sets different hurdles for Defence and AusAID. Unlike Defence, AusAID is going to have meet 'performance benchmarks' before any extra cash flows. With all its performance problems, Defence is promised a return to 3% real growth 'as soon as we can afford it'. This will be an interesting challenge for the Abbott Government's newly created Minister for International Development, an important promise from the previous election platform which is also recycled. 

The Aid Minister will be working to a Foreign Minister who says the aid lobby thinks too much about inputs, not outputs, concentrating on the size of the aid budget rather than how and where it is spent. As Bishop put it in her notable development policy speech last month:

We commit to the target of 0.5 % of GNI but we cannot now commit to the target date. We will review the nation's finances after the Labor's budget [in May, 2013] and commit to what we can as a nation realistically afford and what we can deliver. I do point to our record in terms of our commitment to do that. There must be an increased focus on accountability, transparency and a reassessment of priorities within the aid program.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy Canberra