Assessing Australia’s alternative foreign policy

By Hayley Channer

Earlier this week, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong fleshed out the Australian Labor party’s foreign policy via a keynote address for the ANU’s National Security College.

In comparison to Australia’s current foreign policy settings, three main points of difference stood out:

  1. Projecting “modern” Australia to the world;
  2. A stronger focus on climate change in our foreign relations; and
  3. More delicate statecraft and diplomatic language, including around China.

On point one, the Shadow Foreign Minister emphasises presenting Australia as a multicultural society. This includes recognising the significant number of foreign born Australians (almost one third of the entire population) and the increasing challenges faced by Chinese-Australians in the face of rising Beijing-Canberra tensions.

How to operationalise this ambition has not been made explicit, however it might reasonably include things like appointing more Australia’s of Asian and other heritage to diplomatic missions or senior roles within the bureaucracy and highlighting our multicultural society in public and private interactions. Recalibrating our diplomatic workforce to more closely reflect the Australian community has great potential value to our foreign policy ambitions and society. Abroad, it could increase Australia’s credibility and versatility while domestically, more fully utilise our national assets and increase cohesion.

A major challenge to this, though, has been extended delays and difficulty in gaining security clearances for foreign born and well-travelled Australians to fill rolls as foreign and defence policy practitioners.

If our domestic agencies are to attract and retain the best talent, the complications around security clearances need an urgent solution, either through accepting a higher level of risk or increasing ongoing checks and balances across the workforce. In Australia’s democratic society, security and vetting agencies already have to make allowances for elected politicians to receive highly-classified briefings without the same level of scrutiny as public servants – if we must accept a level of risk in this regard, other adjustments must also be made.

The Shadow Foreign Minister also highlighted greater action on climate change as a mechanism to strengthen relations with Pacific Island countries, which are disproportionally effected by rising seawater and extreme weather.

Expediting Australia’s transition from a fossil fuel-led economy and renewables would be welcomed by the Pacific and broader international community. Certainly, the US under President Biden has put a premium on climate change action and would view Australia even more favourably if it contributed more in this regard. But any domestic action by Australia on climate change would be ancillary to the main effort of conducting foreign affairs, with bilateral or multilateral activities of much greater consequence.

One of the biggest differences between extant policy and the Opposition alternative appears to be on communication styles, especially in relation to China. Labor asserts Australia’s foreign policy interests are best served by less antagonistic, more measured public language on China, in contrast to the government’s increasingly outspoken, frank approach.

In late 2019, the Shadow Foreign Minister argued the Prime Minister hurt the bilateral relationship by describing China as a “newly developed economy” – a position China strongly refutes. In the Opposition view, this damaged relations with China and without furthering Australia’s interests in global economic reform. She further criticised the Foreign Minister in late 2020 for announcing the government’s intent for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 on television program, Insiders. The alternative would have been to first socialise the initiative with international partners to garner support and pre-warn China to soften the reaction.  

More recently, the current government has confronted China directly by naming it in relation to cyber attacks, dismissing Chinese officials’ criticism of AUKUS as “comical” and “so silly it’s funny”, and choosing to answer media questions over a potential military conflict over Taiwan including indicating support for a US position. Australian government engagement of China may have bled more into the public realm partly as a result of Chinese officials refusing to participate in dialogue with Australia for more than a year and China presenting its foreign policy demands, not to officials, but to the Australian media.  

Undoubtedly, inability to communicate privately makes implementing foreign policy virtually impossible. Presumably under a Labor government there would be increased requests for private dialogue and an absence of public commentary on China – although, it’s unclear if this course would illicit a different Chinese response.

Considering the dynamic and interconnected nature of international relations, it’s impossible to predict the most effective policy approach to promoting Australia’s national interests. With a Federal Election looming, both political parties are bound to underscore their differences, however, foreign and defence policy has traditionally been a bipartisan pursuit. With Australia facing its most challenging strategic circumstances in decades, the sooner that core foreign policy strategies and styles are agreed upon across the spectrum, the more Australia’s national interests will be served.

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