For Saturday's Canberra Times I had to attempt to write an analysis of the foreign policy differences between the two parties. I almost gave up! This is the result . . .
THE FOREIGN POLICY ELECTION
It’s becoming quite clear that neither party wants to draw any attention to the disaster that has engulfed Australia’s foreign policy over the past three years. Just one month ago Julia Gillard had no intention of offering Kevin Rudd the Foreign Ministry. She was certainly not going to push Stephen Smith out of the way so that the former PM could get some kind of ‘consolation prize’.
Remember that period? It wasn’t so long ago that the government had “lost its way” and needed to be put “back on track”, and that’s why Gillard took over. At the time everything was about assuring us that the problems were centred around one person – Rudd. Ideally, Gillard would have allowed the electorate time to become used to the concept of her as the prime minister. She would have actually followed some of her policy initiatives through.
Unfortunately two things became rapidly apparent to both her and the backers who urged her to seize power. The first was many of the problems the government was facing were intractable. They were going to take much longer than a few months to sort out. Supposedly bright ideas – like phoning East Timor’s President Ramos Horta and expecting him to solve the asylum-seeker problem – turned to mush as soon as they were attempted. Establishing a refugee processing centre on the island was never a real possibility but, as Gillard groped around for a ‘cut-through solution’ someone blurted it out and within days it had become policy. Then it wasn’t. Now it might be. The only thing the affair served to demonstrate was the inexperience of some in the new administration, and that Gillard’s office still operated in the same dysfunctional manner as Rudd’s. Even before the date for the election was nominated, Labor was busy throwing away the benefits of incumbency.
But the real reason for the rush to the ballot box came from elsewhere. The coup plotters were very aware of what happened to Gordon Brown when he took over the leadership of the British Labour party from Tony Blair. His honeymoon in the polls only lasted a short time before he too became more unpopular than his predecessor. Labor felt this had to be avoided at all costs. Some urged Gillard to race to the polls as soon as she could, pushing her to bring the contest forward, even at the cost of slashing the ability of unenrolled electors to register for the ballot.
These people know who they are, although they’ve recently stopped boasting of their political prowess in replacing Rudd. In some cases they sit at the apex of Labor’s administrative positions, others hail from the outer circles of the cabinet. Their Labor colleagues know who they are, too, and they will not forget. Particularly if, as appears increasingly likely, the party looses office. If this election turns into a debacle there will not merely be a night of the long-knives and water-boarding. The consequent purge will make Stalin’s widespread pogroms look positively mild. These people – and there were only a few who deliberately plotted Rudd’s downfall, most of the party remained content to allow him to remain in power until after the election – will be blamed for throwing away power. It might be worth them preparing exit plans that avoid movement through the shadows wherever possible. Otherwise they may never re-emerge.
For ages the PM couldn’t manage to pick up the phone to speak to the person she claims is her “good friend”. This was dysfunctional. But now, compelled to beg forgiveness, Rudd is demanding his price. This will be a free hand in foreign affairs and the ability to campaign for the UN’s Security Council to allow Rudd to leave Labor well and truly behind as he seeks to expand his own horizons on a world stage where he’s better appreciated than back at home. Which returns us to the ostensible subject-matter of this column, Australia’s role in the world, but unfortunately that seems to be increasingly irrelevant to both our politicians and the electorate.
It would be difficult to nominate a single significant international policy difference between either party that is not intimately connected to the possibility of winning domestic votes. The coalition’s rhetoric on Afghanistan is tougher, but that’s because they’ve all been too busy to catch up with the latest US Senate hearings on the war. The Americans have now decided on a new strategy. All the work our forces have done in Oruzgan is appreciated, but it’s now irrelevant. The idea of holding individual provinces has been dispatched to the history-books as a good idea that unfortunately lacked the resources to work. Neither party wants to talk about this failure because it raises too many questions, none of which can be answered in a simple sound-bite.
The second area where there has been some peripheral connection with the election campaign has been in our relationships with the islands that surround us. Because Australia’s the regional giant, none of them are bothering to point out our myopia or mention the fact that we don’t have a clue about anything that’s happening in our own neck of the woods. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith did attend a meeting of the South Pacific Forum this week, and he deserves credit for doing so in the middle of an election campaign (although it’s worth noting Alexander Downer did the same). Depressingly, the meeting was effectively boycotted by half the countries that could have attended because of either domestic crises’ or to demonstrate solidarity with Fiji. We had insisted these islands were black-balled by the Forum and now we have no positive way of engaging with the pacific island nation, even though the military junta in charge is not going to relinquish power. If Canberra wants to maintain its influence in this region, we had better hope that whichever side comes to power after the election manages to find a new and more positive way of interacting on the international stage.
Despite his experience as a diplomat, Rudd failed to develop a new path for Australia’s intercourse with the world. Whichever party wins the election will find there is a lot of work to be done restoring our international reputation and carving out our path forward, especially with our relationships in the region.