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Points on foreign policy, but miles to go on trade

8 October 2011 902 views No Comment

JULIA Gillard’s recent announcement of a white paper to guide national responses to the rapid changes occurring in Asia is a small but noteworthy attempt to garner some credibility on foreign policy.

It’s also an attempt to make her own way, distinct from that of her predecessor, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

Policymakers in Australia in recent years generally have been slow to grasp the significance of the social and economic revolution under way to our north.

There are far-reaching consequences for the course of Asian history and for Australia’s future.

The need for long-term planning is paramount and Gillard’s white paper could underpin such planning.

One apparent disconnect in Australia is that foreign policy and, to a lesser extent, trade policy are often not seen as fundamental to the nation’s economic and social wellbeing.

Under Labor, trade policy has been largely in stasis as it has attempted to pursue reform through global multilateral forums. Labor correctly judged that successful multilateral deals delivered the greatest benefit to Australia.

But it misjudged the fact the Doha round of trade negotiations had become bogged down, with negotiators increasingly pessimistic about a successful conclusion.

This eggs-in-one-basket approach has left Australia exposed as competitor nations have concluded bilateral free trade deals. One case in point is that New Zealand and Australia both began free trade agreement negotiations with China in 2005. NZ concluded its agreement in 2008, while there has been little appreciable progress in the Australia-China negotiations.

Australia is also involved in FTA negotiations with the Gulf Co-operation Council, India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and two groups in the Pacific (PACER Plus and the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

Labor has shown little enthusiasm for bilateral FTAs and Trade Minister Craig Emerson has dismissed the Howard government’s achievements by complaining of the “low quality” of previous trade deals.

In the absence of a multilateral breakthrough it is foolhardy to ignore the potential benefits of FTAs with individual nations or groupings of nations.

The opportunities lost through Labor’s go-slow approach in trade policy pale into insignificance compared with its highly contentious record in foreign policy.

Gillard made an ignominious start in foreign policy by declaring, in the midst of international meetings, that it was not her passion and that she would rather be in a Melbourne classroom than talking to world leaders.

She famously announced that East Timor would host a regional processing centre for asylum-seekers but failed to consult the East Timor government.

That error was compounded by her stubborn refusal over nearly 12 months to accept the repeated diplomatic rejections by East Timor.

The decision to unilaterally ban live-cattle exports on the basis of footage collected by animal-rights activists, without bothering to first contact Indonesia, has undermined relations with our important neighbour.

Now seems an opportune time to assess the direction a Tony Abbott-led government would take in these key areas of trade and foreign policy.

The opposition spokeswoman for both portfolios is opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop. As a West Australian MP she has emphasised the importance of the Indian Ocean rim as well the Asia-Pacific to Australia’s future security and prosperity. Since taking on the role in 2009, Bishop has been building a substantial body of work through speeches, media releases and weekly blogs that give an insight into what we can expect from the Coalition, if and when it takes government.

It is clear Bishop is committed to more open trade and pursuing bilateral comprehensive FTAs, having taken a realistic approach to the fading likelihood of success on the multilateral front.

Given her style, Bishop is likely to take a lower-key approach to foreign policy than Rudd.

Bishop often speaks of building trust and mutual respect in foreign relations.

She is likely to work quietly behind the scenes to build enduring relationships, avoiding the megaphone diplomacy that has marred Rudd and Gillard’s dealings with countries in our region, particularly over sensitive issues such as asylum-seekers.

A review of her speeches reveals an impressive number of policy initiatives including a greater emphasis on student exchange with more Australians venturing overseas to study, mandatory second-language studies, more bilateral formal dialogues including on human rights, and a regional women’s leadership forum.

In speeches on Papua New Guinea and on Indonesia, Bishop has spoken of the value of bilateral twinning initiatives with other ministers and officials, at national, state and local government levels.

The independent review of Australia’s foreign aid program, announced by Rudd late last year, was first proposed by Bishop before the 2010 election, in the Coalition’s formal election policy document. Rudd has studiously ignored the single most important recommendation of that review, which was that funding should be withheld unless AusAID met performance targets.

AusAID could expect strict benchmarks to be imposed by Bishop as minister. This is entirely appropriate given the proposed size of the aid budget and the serious concerns about waste and mismanagement, let alone targeted priorities.

The often underestimated Bishop offers a real alternative, but only time will tell if she gets the chance to prove that she can live up to her potential.

The Weekend Australian, October 8 -9, 2011

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