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Future Challenges In Australian Foreign Policy: Is Bipartisanship Possible?

October 2, 2002

This is the text of a speech given by the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, in Melbourne.

Kevin Rudd, ALP Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

In this address, I would like to deal with three fundamental questions on the future direction of Australian foreign policy.

First, has foreign policy become central to the Australian national interest? Or will its relevance remain marginal or at best episodic?

Second, can Australia have a genuinely bipartisan foreign policy – or has that possibility now escaped us altogether?

And third, is bipartisanship possible on Iraq?

Foreign Policy and the National Interest

For the better part of three hundred and fifty years, foreign policy was regarded as occupying its own discrete domain.

In what international relations theorists like to describe as the Westphalian system of states, foreign policy was the medium through which states dealt with one another.

It was a self-contained world populated by diplomats, spooks and boffins.

It was not accessible to the layperson – nor, by and large, was its impact felt by the layperson. Unless of course if professional practitioners failed their fundamental task and states (and the citizens that made up those states) found themselves at war.

For much of this period, the new linkages between states were often thin, even brittle.

Transportation was slow. Communications were slow. People to people contact was not great. Trade tended to be in commodities – rather than embracing the total economy as it does today. And international financial transactions, while significant for a number of developing economies, were but a pale shadow of their current reality.

Foreign policy, therefore, was high policy. It was concerned with the great questions of state, with war and peace, and the political relationships which gave rise to these conditions.

And while war certainly had a capacity to affect the total economy and the total society, by and large, war on this scale did not occur all that often.

So in between times, foreign policy, legitimately, retreated to the margins of the national policy debate where the principal decisions of the day lay with the domestic policy actors.

It's difficult, of course, to identify when this self-contained world of foreign policy (and the elites that ran it) came to a close. Some point the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Some point to economic globalisation. Still others point the globalisation of security policy that occurred in the aftermath of September 11.

There is truth in all of these propositions. The end of the cold war marked the collapse of a security policy order that had governed the planet for the better part of half a century.

Economic globalisation, a phenomenon which waxed and waned during the life of the twentieth century, in the last decade of that century acquired a momentum whereby the magnitude of non-state economic transactions, matched by the might of non-state economic actors, caused many to conclude that the state indeed was beginning to wither away.

And with it, the continuing relevance of state-based conflict.

September 11 injected a further element into the complex melting pot of the emerging international order. On the one hand, it demonstrated the failure of the classical forms of defence, diplomacy and intelligence in dealing with non-state actors. On the other hand, it demonstrated that non-state actors such as terrorists could not readily operate in the absence of state-based systems of support.

While none of these phenomena can strictly be described as "new", the truth of the matter is that the quantum of their cumulative impact on the totality of "international reality" has meant that the impact of foreign policy has moved from policy elites to the general population, from embassy row to main street America – and, for that matter, to main street Australia.

For Australians, the convergence of the foreign with the domestic, the international with the national, the external with the internal, has been going on for some decades. What has happened in the last decade, both in economic policy and in security policy, is that it has simply gained pace.

There is now a legitimate unease across this country – based on the equally legitimate concern that terrorism can happen here, just as it has happened elsewhere. And now, perhaps more sharply than ever before, there is a consciousness that what we say and do here about the rest of the world is no longer simply a game of abstract politics – but as something which potentially shapes our practical security and day-to-day economic livelihood.

Equally, Australians now know that political instability in one part of the world can result in large scale, international people movements affecting other parts of the world - irrespective of whether those people movements are deemed to be "legal" or "illegal". It is trite but true – what happens in Kandahar effects what happens in St Kilda, whether we like it or not.

And the same goes for the economy. As an economy we are long familiar with the impact of the volatility of international commodity markets. That has been part of the Australian condition for a hundred and fifty years.

But there are new international volatilities in the equation which can have profound and immediate consequences. The impact of oil price volatility on the macro-economy constitutes an obvious and recent example. The impact of terrorism on international visitor numbers and the current state of the Australian tourism industry is another.

And if we turn to the broad society, international communicable diseases, quarantine and other concerns for public health form part of an increasingly complex foreign policy terrain.

So whether it is the security of their country, the stability of their jobs or the health of their communities, Australians now know that in most of the things that affect our everyday life, we are directly affected by events elsewhere in the world.

Of the two hundred years of our settled history, we have been both terrified by, and comforted by, the fact that we are an island.

The unsettling truth for us all is that as we enter our third century, we are an island no longer.

Speaking of islands, we should remind ourselves we are not Robinson Crusoe. Other countries have gone through and are going through exactly the same. The collapse of what international theorists describe as "the great divide" between the "national" and "international" is affecting all countries. Ask aids sufferers in Western China whether they can be screened from the rest of the world and their answer will be quick and to the point.

For Australia, however, the jolt has been a little harder than for others as the cushion of our geography proves to be increasingly threadbare.

For Australians, therefore, it is not simply a cocktail of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Tampa that has made foreign policy relevant to this country's day-to-day domestic concerns.

If it were so, it would simply fit neatly into the episodic pattern of the last half century whereby Korea, Vietnam, "Confrontasi" with Indonesia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and more recently the Gulf War were all important - but only important for a season.

But with all these crises, there was also a sense of removal from the mainstream Australian community at home.

That is no longer the case. Nor is it likely to be the case for the foreseeable future because of the fundamental, structural changes that have been underway in the nature of international relations over the last decade.

For Australians, what was once safely "foreign" has every capacity to become disconcertingly "domestic".

Foreign policy, therefore, has moved from the periphery to the centre of the national policy debate – and, as a consequence, from the periphery to the centre of the national political debate as well.

Is bi-partisanship possible?

If we accept the proposition that foreign policy is now central, not marginal, to the Australian political debate, the question arises as to whether bi-partisanship in foreign policy remains both desirable and possible.

Our view is very simple: a country of barely 20 million people in a region of 3.5 billion; a coastline 37,000 kms long and an economy slightly smaller than that of the Netherlands means that we can ill-afford, in our circumstances, to chop and change our fundamental policy orientation for dealing with the rest of the world every few years.

Our view is that a country of limited critical mass can ill-afford to do so.

Equally, however, our view is that while foreign policy bipartisanship is desirable, it will not be bipartisanship at any price.

This question obviously has its greatest current resonance in relation to Iraq. But our current debate over Iraq occurs within a broader context – and that context is the Howard Government's deliberate departure from the post-Whitlam foreign policy consensus which had, by and large, been struck across the Australian political divide over the preceding quarter century.

Essentially there were three elements to what I've described as the "Whitlam Consensus": The centrality of Australia's continued alliance with the United States; an increasingly independent foreign policy posture in Asia; in addition to an activist role for Australia within the UN framework as an expression of what Gareth Evans latter encapsulated as Australia's commitment to "good international citizenship."

This "Whitlam Consensus" formed the basis of the subsequent foreign policies of Prime Minister's Fraser, Hawke and Keating as well as Opposition leaders Hayden, Peacock, Hewson and Beazley.

Missing from this list is John Winston Howard – both in his period as Opposition Leader and subsequently as Prime Minister.

As Opposition Leader, Howard broke the consensus by his public remarks in the late 80s calling for a reduction in the level of Asian immigration to Australia.

This, however, was merely the entrιe to the main course which was still to come.

Because as Prime Minister, John Howard by conscious, deliberate political decision has gone the full foreign policy "monty" in constructing a clear policy chasm between his approach to the region and the world - and the approach of those who preceeded him.

  • Under Howard, Hansomism could be partially embraced.
  • Under Howard, Tampa could be prosecuted.
  • Under Howard, the Howard Doctrine could be proclaimed whereby Australian engagement with Asia was to be conceptualised as an extension of US engagement in Asia; Australia the Deputy Sheriff, the United States as Wyatt Earp and Asia the OK Corral.
  • Under Howard, it could be explicitly articulated that our international relations should be "re-balanced" away from Asia and towards the cultural heartland of Western Europe and North America.
  • Under Howard, APEC could be allowed to whither on the vine.
  • Under Howard, funding for a national program to teach Asian Languages and Studies in Australian schools could be axed.
  • Under Howard, Radio Australia could be emasculated and its Cox Peninsula transmitters sold.
  • And under Howard, Australian Television International could be allowed to collapse – before an acute sense of foreign ministerial embarrassment resulted in its recent and partial rebirth.

So much for Asian engagement.

What of our role within the UN? Here the picture is just as clear-cut.

John Howard has made it clear to all and sundry that in the main he regards the UN as a waste of time and money.

As Prime Minister, he refuses to represent Australia at its major conferences. He refused to attend Monterrey. He refused to attend Jo'burg. Despite the fact that both Bush and Blair had a different view.

Under John Howard, the UN has become fair game for routine political attack both by himself, and by his Ministers – principally Downer and Ruddock.

His Government has attacked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

His Government has also attacked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

And recently his Government has also refused to accept the international jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in the resolution of disputed maritime boundaries.

More broadly, within the UN family, Australia has increasingly come to be seen not as a contributor state – but as a problem state.

Beyond the attacks themselves, our activism across the range of UN fora has declined.

Whether it's in New York or Geneva, the refrain is often heard around the conference table: "Where is Australia these days?"

I mention this extensive list not to be gratuitous. I mention it in order to make a point. And the point is this: We are not simply dealing with the occasional, one off, incident.

We are in fact dealing with a deep pathology on the part of a Prime Minister who has sought over six years now to put as much light and space between himself and his predecessors – both on the question on comprehensive engagement with Asia as well as Australia's role within the UN.

In other words, John Howard, by active policy design, has sought to undermine, and then redefine, two of the three essential elements of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that this country had enjoyed for a quarter of a century.

Why has John Howard done this? What is the policy objective to be served by such radical departures from the past?

When it comes to policy objectives, the answer is none.

But when it comes to political objectives, a different set of considerations present themselves for analysis.

If there is a central organising principle to John Howard's foreign policy it is this: foreign policy under the Howard government has become the continuation of domestic electoral politics by other means. This being John Howard's personal contribution to Clausewitzean strategic theory – Von Clausewitz having famously observed that war was simply the continuation of diplomacy by other means.

Putting more distance between Asia and Australia has all been about Howard's prosecution of domestic political advantage.

And a systematic campaign of UN bashing is seen as an effective tool for enhancing Howard's proclaimed status as the champion of Australian sovereignty.

And whereas much of this would occur to John Howard intuitively, he has been reinforced in his craft by his two principle foreign policy advisers: Mark Texta – the Liberal Party pollster; and Max Moore-Wilton – general bureaucratic bovver boy and point-man extraordinaire for the Howard regime.

Some may find this analysis sharp, impolite and lacking in civility. I make no apology for this. The truth can often be a confronting experience. Just asked those who were charged with throwing their children overboard.

Bipartisanship on Iraq

So when it comes to Iraq, please forgive us if we approach this Government with a degree of caution and scepticism – including our response to the Government's recently stated enthusiasm for "bipartisanship" on the crisis unfolding before us.

John Howard's sudden interest in foreign policy bipartisanship appears to many to be little more than a tactical political ploy.

This is the same John Howard who, two months ago, allowed his Foreign Minister, without reprimand or rebuke, to accuse the Labor Party of "appeasement".

This is the same John Howard who one month ago allowed the same Foreign Minister, again without reprimand or rebuke, to equate the Leader of the Labor Party with Saddam Hussein.

And this is the same John Howard who last week allowed another Minister in his Government to accuse the Labor Party of "treason".

Some will say John Howard has not used these words himself.

But the truth of the matter is that he has allowed these words to stand and if he does not repudiate them and rebuke those responsible for them, as Prime Minister, by definition, he owns them.

"Appeasement" and "treason" are not mere words. They are not simply part of the rough and tumble of Australian political life. These are words which go to the heart of a person's character – as well as the essential character of a political party.

They embody accusations of the gravest kind.

Imagine for a moment if in this speech tonight in Melbourne, because of the differences which exist between us and the Government in our policies on Iraq, I accused John Howard of "treason". And make no mistake, that was exactly Joe Hockey's accusation against Simon Crean and Labor in the House of Representatives last Thursday.

Joe Hockey's defence was that he was not accusing former SAS Commander Brigadier Wallace of treason over the latter's comments on the current status of Australia's military preparedness. Rather he was levelling that accusation at the Labor Party – because the Leader of the Labor Party was himself raising questions in the Parliament about the same matters that Brigadier Wallace had touched upon. In Hockey's worldview, and presumably Howard's, accusing Labor of "treason" is fair game.

Can you imagine John Howard's outrage if this accusation was levelled at him – and allowed to stand on the Parliamentary record where it still stands against us nearly a week later.

And imagine the reaction of the newspaper editors of this country if they were accused of treason.

It has now, it seems, become "de rigueur" for this Government to label anyone who asks questions of its policy on Iraq as appeasers or traitors.

"Treason" is not a trifling matter. Nor is "appeasement". But John Howard's weakness as a political leader is that he has allowed these charges to stand without rebuke, without correction and without apology.

Yet this is the same John Howard who now says that he is interested in bipartisanship with Labor on Iraq.

Well, we may ask, what has caused the Prime Minister to change his tune on this score?

Two months ago, the Prime Minister told us in stentorian, Churchillian terms that war with Iraq was "probable". Two months later we are told that war with Iraq is now only "hypothetical".

Two months ago, the Prime Minister told us that Australia could deploy an armoured brigade to a war in Iraq in support of the United States. Two months later, armoured brigades seem to have slipped from the prime ministerial vocabulary.

Two months ago, the role of the UN Security Council rarely ranked a mention in the Prime Minister's public rhetoric on Iraq. Two months later, the Prime Minister can't get enough of the UN Security Council. In fact, he wants bucket loads of it.

Two months ago, he seemed only prepared to talk about war. Two months later, he only seems prepared to talk about diplomacy.

Two months ago, he said parliamentary debate on Iraq was "premature". Two months later the Prime Minister is all for parliamentary debate – so long as he doesn't have to participate in it himself.

So what has happened on this Prime Minister's Damascus Road as far as Iraq policy over the last couple of months is concerned.

To answer this, we must return to the one mainstay underpinning the foreign policy of the Howard Government: Mark Texta and opinion poll research.

Suddenly, about a month ago, the Prime Minister discovered that both he and his Ministers were so far out of touch with Australian public sentiment on Iraq that he faced a real political problem.

And what we know of John Howard is when the domestic political antennae begin to twitch, policy consistency, and any principles associated with it, are the first to go out the window.

So when Mark Texta's private polling for the Liberal Party began to match the public polling publishing by both the Fairfax and News Ltd outlets, the Government's policy U-turn on Iraq was put into overdrive.

In one of the greatest ironies of Australian politics over the last 12 months it seems that neither John Howard nor his Foreign Minister want there to be more than a cigarette paper's difference between their utterances on Iraq – and those of the Labor Party's. Which is why Joe Hockey's "treason" charge has been such an embarrassment.

But the manner in which John Howard executes a policy U-turn deserves examination and analysis in itself. There has never been an announcement of policy change. It has simply been inferred.

And the way in which it is inferred is by inserting John Howard into the debate, removing Alexander Downer from it, so that the Prime Minister can have a free hand at linguistically massaging the Government's message.

On Iraq, as on many other questions, John Howard is not a policy leader. He is a political masseur. What he does is massage the tonality of the Government's public formulations on Iraq, without fundamentally changing its form.

John Howard became desperately concerned that the Australian community had concluded that his Government was about to rush headlong into a war. What he is now seeking to do is to cause the Australia community to conclude that his Government is cautious, measured, even reluctant, about the prospect of war – so that if and when the decision is made to commit Australian troops to such a war, the community will have concluded that no other choice was possible.

In the foreign policy deliberations of this Government, it has become very difficult to separate the politics from the policy; to separate the spin from the substance.

And let us be absolutely clear. These problems began in June/July when John Howard authorised Alexander Downer to embark upon a political strategy against the Labor Opposition which opinion leaders in this country have correctly described as Tampa 2: ie just as the Government last year sought to use Tampa to demonstrate that Labor was "soft on border security", so too would the Government now use Iraq to demonstrate that Labor was "soft on national security" – including our alliance with the United States.

There is no other rational explanation for Downer's parliamentary performance on Iraq in June/July. Nor is there any other rational explanation for his decision on 11 July to launch the bogus debate on Labor's "appeasement" of Iraq. The problem, both for Downer and for Howard, is that this neat little political strategy blew up in their faces.

The question which now presents itself, however, is what are the prospects for bipartisanship on Iraq for the period ahead?

Part of the answer to that lies in delineating what precisely the differences in policy are between the Government and the Opposition at this stage of the debate.

Broadly, there are four differences.

First, Labor on 13 September clearly articulated its approach as to how the UN Security Council process should now be prosecuted. Labor has argued a two-resolution approach: one resolution recommitting the weapon's inspectors with a timetable for compliance; and a second resolution committing the UN to action in the event that compliance is not forthcoming.

By contrast, John Howard has said that he is "agnostic" on how this matter should be prosecuted through the Security Council.

Second, if Iraqi compliance does not occur and if the UN Security Council does not take appropriate action to enforce its resolutions, Labor has argued consistently that any case for separate action by the United States would have to be argued under the relevant provisions of the UN Charter – including Article 51. These arguments would have to be very powerful indeed. They would go to Labor's long-standing criteria of an evidentiary link between Iraq and the events of September 11; or else evidence of a significant expansion in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability and threat – as would present a real and present danger to security. To this end, Labor continues to review the evidence being put into the public domain, including that advanced most recently in the "Blair-dossier".

By contrast, John Howard refuses to articulate the criteria under which he would decide to commit Australian troops to support a unilateral action by the United States. John Howard's approach consistently has been one of "trust me – when the time comes, I will decide the national interest". And repeatedly, John Howard has refused to define what he means by this most ambiguous of terms in international relations theory and or international law – namely "the national interest".

Labor fears that John Howard's definition of the national interest is so vague that it is designed purely to afford him maximum political and tactical flexibility to respond to any future scenario on Iraq as he pleases.

Third, Labor's policy objective on Iraq is Iraq's comprehensive disarmament consistent with UN Security Council resolutions. The Government's stated position on Iraq is regime change. In this respect, the Howard Government has an identical policy to the Bush Administration. Interestingly, the Blair Government does not own the policy objective of regime change.

Fourth, the Howard Government has explicitly canvassed the possibility of deploying an armoured brigade to Iraq and to levy a war tax to finance Australia military deployments.

Labor, by contrast, has argued that Australia is already overcommitted militarily and that no case has yet been made for any war tax.

If there is a fifth divide between Labor and the Government on Iraq, it boils down to a question of trust. This Government has demonstrated itself to be being comprehensively ruthless in dealing with sensitive international policy matters in the past – as demonstrated by its management of the "Children Overboard Affair" through the Hansard record of the Senate Inquiry. Just as the Government began to exhibit a similar political ruthlessness on Iraq – before it blew up on them.

So I say this to John Howard quite openly and directly: the Prime Minister has much to do when it comes to rebuilding trust, confidence and professional respect with the Federal Opposition when it comes to sensitive foreign policy matters in the future - if he is to have any real expectation of bipartisanship.

Conclusion

Australia therefore finds itself on the cusp of one of the most difficult set of foreign policy decisions we have faced since Vietnam.

Labor is committed to the objective of bipartisanship on Iraq. In saying that, Labor is acutely conscious of the interests of our men and women in uniform and the searing, scarring experience of the Vietnam War.

But Labor will not be offering this Government bipartisanship at any price.

If the Government, beyond its rhetoric, really wants bipartisanship, then it's going to have to work for it – and work for it in the specific areas of difference that Labor has already nominated.

Beyond Iraq, I would also challenge the Government to take stock of what they have done to the overall bipartisan fabric of Australian foreign policy during these last several years.

For if there is one area, and one area alone, in which we need to purge the rancour of our partisan divide, it is our security and our standing in the region and the world of which we are now so integrally a part.

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