There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.
Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.
The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.
While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):
The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China
One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.
The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.
Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.